Composer Joe Hisaishi should be gearing up for a series of concerts in Sweden right about now. But, as we’re all aware, we now live in “aratana nichijō” — a new normal.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the only travel the 69-year-old Hisaishi has been doing is within his neighborhood. During his daily walks, he wears a face mask for protection against a mysterious, deadly disease — not unlike the titular protagonist of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” the 1984 animated classic that paired Hisaishi with director Hayao Miyazaki for the first time.
Hisaishi, who was born Mamoru Fujisawa but adopted his professional name some 40 years ago, went on to write the music for every subsequent film by the famed anime director. His long creative partnership with Miyazaki (and another, in parallel, with live-action director Takeshi Kitano) served to launch Hisaishi and his music to fame. Even for those who have never seen the films to which the soundtracks belong, Hisaishi’s music can evoke a sense of nostalgia. Or, as a YouTube comment on a Hisaishi song put it: “This brings back memories I didn’t experience.”
Over the past few years, when such things were still possible, Hisaishi brought those memories to fans abroad with a series of concerts called “Joe Hisaishi Symphonic Concert: Music from the Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki.”
“I’ve largely focused on Japan my whole career, so I was interested to see how my music would be received by people of different backgrounds, religions and cultures,” says Hisaishi from his home in Tokyo via Skype. “They accepted it warmly, so I was very happy.”
The experience also gave the prolific conductor the chance to work with orchestras abroad, which in turn gave him new perspectives on the ones he usually works with.
“Japanese orchestras are generally playing at quite a high level on the first day of rehearsal, but they don’t improve very much from there,” he says. “The ones I played with abroad were a bit chaotic in the early days of rehearsal, but improved to the point that they were playing on a vast, epic scale.”
In contrast, not being able to perform with such orchestras this year as a result of the pandemic feels “a bit lonely.” Still, Hisaishi seems sanguine about being locked down. After all, he can still compose.
“Writing songs is a solo activity, so, if I put my mind to it, I can do it,” he says. “There are compositions I thought might be impossible to finish this year, but now I have time to focus on them.”
Chief among those compositions is a symphony, Hisaishi’s second. His first, “The East Land Symphony,” was inspired by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and the people affected by the disaster. He says the current pandemic has also had an impact on his in-progress symphony.
“It has made an influence — in reverse,” Hisaishi says. “I don’t want to incorporate motifs that directly touch on how tough things are. If anything, I want it to have almost nothing to do with that. I need to devote myself to sound’s motility, to its structure. If I don’t do that, it’ll end up reflecting the current painful mood. I don’t think that would be a good thing at all.”
While fans outside Japan will likely have to wait until next year to see Hisaishi live, they now have easier access to his recorded music thanks to a new distribution deal that made 30 of his albums available worldwide for the first time this year. That deal also saw the release of “Dream Songs: The Essential Joe Hisaishi,” a new double-CD set of Hisaishi favorites. Released in February, its arrival alongside COVID-19 was coincidental but fortunate.
“‘Heartwarming’ might be an odd word for it, but I think it’s good that it was released at this time,” says Hisaishi. “It would be great if it could provide some spiritual healing.”
The album features songs from films directed by some of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, like Miyazaki, Kitano, Nobuhiko Obayashi and Yojiro Takita, whose 2008 film “Departures,” scored by Hisaishi, won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
The best directors, says Hisaishi, are the ones who “really stimulate your imagination.”
“It’s fine if they’re moody,” he says with a laugh. “Even if they seem like a pain, I’m happy to work with them if they inspire me to write music I wouldn’t have been able to come up with on my own.”
That inspiration, Hisaishi says, flows from deferring to the director’s ideas and translating them into music.
“Even if I’ve written something I think is great musically, it might not fit the mood of the film,” he says. “I spend anywhere from three months to two years on a movie, but the director spends at least three years. It stands to reason that he or she knows the most about it.”
Part of Hisaishi’s new worldwide distribution deal means that many of his albums are now available to stream online, something the composer had long resisted: “I said I would never allow it, but people around me finally wore me down,” he says, chuckling.
While he’s happy that streaming allows more people access to his music, it’s clear he’s not a fan of the influence the technology is having on the industry.
“Let’s say there’s a musician who wants to use his music to say something about society, or play with the form, or show the way he sees the world through a collection of songs,” says Hisaishi. “With streaming, everything is focused on singles. That means an artist’s depth doesn’t have the chance to shine through. To ‘compose’ means to add structure, not just to a song, but to a collection of songs. We composers and musicians have to really think about our approach in response to this.”
For Hisaishi, the ideal listening environment is the concert hall, with nothing between the music and the audience. At the same time, he’s thankful that technology is giving people access to music — and movies — during the pandemic.
“At times like this, people focus first and foremost on the essentials: having a place to sleep, food to eat,” he says, “but there’s no doubt that emotionally, things like music and the arts are also essential for us as human beings.”
I ask Hisaishi which of his songs he feels are best suited to the strange times in which we find ourselves. He chooses two, both from Miyazaki films: “One Summer’s Day” from “Spirited Away,” and the piano version of “Ashitaka and San” from “Princess Mononoke,” a film noted for its environmental themes.
“We played an open-air concert in Melbourne in February, and I performed ‘Ashitaka and San’ as the encore,” says Hisaishi. “This was before COVID-19 had really hit Australia, but when it was experiencing those horrible wildfires.”
While Hisaishi played, a message appeared on-screen that read, in part, “Nature is always alive and I hope that soon the greenery will be restored. I pray for everyone’s health and happiness.”
“Everyone appreciated it,” he says. “At times like this, we don’t need music that makes you wave your arms and cheer, ‘Let’s go for it!’ We need music that soothes our hearts.”
For more information, visit http://joehisaishi.com/index.php.