Central New Jersey and rural Japan are essentially polar opposites, geographically, topographically, and culturally. Michelle Nagai, a composer and graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, couldn’t help but feel the culture shock when she returned to this part of the country after living and creating in a rural Japanese village for a year.
She had received a five-month fellowship from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission to live and work in Japan for five months, but because her husband Kenta Nagai is originally from that area, they decided to stretch out their stay. While there, from September, 2011, to July, 2012, Nagai fell under the region’s bucolic spell and loved its slower paced and quieter essence, much different from what she experienced in central New Jersey.
“Living and observing rural life, I became interested in a particular music style from that region,” she says, speaking from her home in upstate New York, where the couple now lives. “It was a real immersion for us. My husband hadn’t been there for 18 years; my son went to school there, and we got a lot of inspiration.”
“Being there (in Japan) really influenced everything about my life, including how I make art, so it was a very important experience,” Nagai says. “I would ride around and see farmers, asking them questions — and they would ask me questions. I noticed the cycles of people getting up and going to work, the grandmothers and other elders doing the certain jobs that they do, the young people and the things that they do.”
Those observations and unhurried lifestyle inspired Nagai to create a pair of works collectively titled “Songs on the Theme of Knowing,” which will be performed Wednesday, October 16, in the Taplin Gallery at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in Princeton. The performance is presented by the Princeton Department of Music and sponsored by Princeton Sound Kitchen.
The compositions explore the rhythms and ethos of Japanese rural farm life, touching on the mysteries of enlightenment, agricultural routine, seasonal change, and the wisdom of elders. In addition “Songs on the Theme of Knowing” offers a glimpse of an alternative sense of sounding, listening, and knowing. Though the official performance starts at 7 p.m., a performative work-in-process titled “Work/Rest,” set in the Taplin Gallery, is open to public observation and participation from 1:30 to 4 p.m.
In “Work/Rest,” New York-based percussionists Michael Evans and Andrew Drury will collect and categorize sound objects throughout the day. The piece culminates with a live performance by the duo, accompanied by a series of comical mistranslations that describe and comment on photographic images of mid-20th-century rural Japan.
“After Preface,” the thematic companion to “Work/Rest,” is a setting of the poem “Preface to Spring and Ashura” by the Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa. Scored for an unusual combination of traditional instruments and more familiar sounds, “After Preface” features vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, James Moore on acoustic guitar, Kenta Nagai playing the futozao shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, and Elizabeth Brown on the shakuhachi flute. The piece is presented here in its U.S. premiere. Nagai describes “After/Preface” as an ensemble setting of a poem, with a formal quality to it, whereas “Work/Rest” is more free-form.
Nagai gave Evans and Drury suggestions and a list of materials to collect and play related to the region in Japan where she had lived — things like tea kettles, wood, bamboo slats and whatnot. However, the musicians also tapped into their own personal inventory, their own ideas about what work is to them. One percussionist found a variety of old tools and construction equipment, which reflected his family’s history of work, bringing a new dimension to the piece.
“They’ve both added their own layers, so the piece is ongoing, continually changing,” she says. “Part of the score (notes) that, during the day, the performers are gathering instruments and bringing things ‘home,’ and then they assemble them. Then, they categorize them for sounds and textures. That’s the ‘work’ part of the piece, putting their minds to work and working on something. We decided to open it up to the public, so from 1 to 4:30 p.m. they’ll collect and build the pieces for their evening performance. Anyone can come into the gallery and observe or participate or help them. Then in the evening, the audience can come and see the instruments and objects that have been collected throughout the day.”
“So, you can watch the process throughout the afternoon or you can come to the concert, or do both,” she continues. “The gallery is small, so it will be an intimate concert. There is also an exhibition up at the same time, so hopefully the art and the concert will mesh well. It’s fun to work with found objects and/or places. On a micro scale we hope to do just that with the Taplin Gallery, build something that resonates with the room, the feeling of that site, the intellectual and emotional idea of what the site is.”
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1974, Nagai lived there for about five years until her family came to New Hampshire in the late 1970s, “in the middle of a blizzard,” she says. Once settled in New Hampshire, her parents ran a small commercial printing company next to their home. Nagai hesitates to say that she came from an artistic family, though she and her siblings were given a certain amount of creative freedom.
“We’re all kind of self-employed; we’re all figuring out our own way of being,” she says. “My grandfather (the late William J. Dorvillier) was a journalist, and he was a big influence on me. Although he wasn’t a musician, he was always listening to music, and I spent a lot of time with him reading or writing, listening to Mozart with him, just being around.”
Dorvillier was founder, editor, and publisher of the San Juan Star. Founded in 1959 and discontinued in 2008, it was the first English-language daily newspaper in Puerto Rico. In 1961 Dorvillier won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished editorial writing for editorials that criticized the Roman Catholic bishops of Puerto Rico for interfering in the 1960 election for governor.
“My grandfather was right next door my whole childhood,” Nagai says. “I even made a little studio in his attic. So often when I was there he would be writing, so I was witnessing a creative project. That’s what I was trying to say, that my family wasn’t musical, but everyone had a different creative practice, so I had permission to explore things with creative potential. I think that everything is possible material for the creative experience, and anything has the possibility to be art work.”
Nagai doesn’t embrace the title “composer” because composers usually formally play the piano or another classical instrument, which she does not do. “I have other theories about what I can do,” she says.
Her website (michellenagai.com) describes Nagai as a creator of site-specific performances, installations, radio broadcasts, dances, and other interactions that address the human relationship to its setting. Her work has been presented throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe with the support of the American Composers Forum, the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance, the Jerome and McKnight foundations, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is a founding member of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology and has a teaching certificate from the Deep Listening Institute in Kingston, New York.
One of her most intriguing projects in the last couple of years has been the development of the MARtLET, a new digital sound controller and performance interface (see photo). The MARtLET (which stands for Material Artifact Responding to Light Emitting Tones) is also a very large piece of tree bark culled from a downed tree on Prospect Avenue in Princeton.
“I have fitted the MARtLET with a number of tiny light sensors,” Nagai says. “Each sensor communicates with my sound processing software by way of a program called the Wekinator, developed by Rebecca Feibrink at Princeton University. Tracing inflections of light and shadow as I move my hands and arms across the surface of the MARtLET, the Wekinator invokes machine learning models to make sense of my improvised gestural control, injecting unpredictable variations and digressions into the composed sounds that underlie each performance.”
Nagai holds an undergraduate degree with a concentration in music composition and multi-media performance from Bennington College in Vermont (1997). After a long academic break she entered Princeton University’s PhD program in 2008, receiving an MFA in 2010. She lives about an hour-and-a-half north of Albany with her husband and seven-year-old son, Uta. Though she enjoyed living in central New Jersey, Nagai’s experience in Japan contributed to her choice to leave the Princeton area.
“It really was the opposite of living in Princeton,” Nagai says. “There were also numerous unrelated factors that led us to be in this area in New York, which is a perfect follow-up to our life in Japan. It just made sense for us, to continue on this path, in a rural setting.”
Songs on the Theme of Knowing, Taplin Gallery, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Wednesday, October 16. “Work/Rest,” gallery installation, work-in-progress, open to the public, 1:30 to 4 p.m. “After Preface,” concert, 7 p.m. Free. 609-924-9777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.