It’s just a week away from my upcoming Hebridean trip and collaboration with author and poet Louise Palfreyman and cellist/composer Atzi Muramatsu. I’ll be travelling with Louise, then post-Hebrides we’ll be collaborating with Atzi (hopefully all of us returning to the Hebrides early next year if funds/time allow).
I’ve known Atzi for about 10 years, having met him on various occasions at a variety of venues, concerts and arts events where he performed as a composer and cellist in a variety of genres, from contemporary classical, to performances as part of string quartet Lipsync for a Lullaby and on film scores including The Violinist and The Making of Longbird. I’ve been lucky to work with him on several projects since 2013.
As mentioned a few weeks ago I’m featuring an interview with both of these talented, lovely people in my blog, which started with Louise Palfreyman (interview Here) and Atzi Muramatsu today…
Rose: Hi Atzi and thanks for doing this interview. I’ve known you for quite a few years and was always intrigued by your approach as a musician. Your work crosses genres from classical to contemporary but also you work a lot in collaboration with various artists and artforms from dance to film, theatre and art.
Can you tell me a bit about your background, where you were born and grew up, why you decided to study music and move to the UK?
Atzi: I was born in Japan and grew up there mostly. I tagged along with my father who was transferred to London for his work in 2000. I was simply bored of living in conservative Japan where I felt openness and individuality were not appreciated. I spent a couple of years in London before I came to Scotland to study something unrelated to music. I have always played music, mainly fronting bands. But it was not until a later stage that I picked up a cello and started writing music in broader terms. I was lucky that the music professors and post graduate students at Edinburgh University’s music department saw potential and recommended me to study composition.
R: I’ve observed that a strong classical music training can sometimes produce musicians who work only within that tradition; it can be restrictive perhaps to creativity, or appreciation of other genres. Can you talk a bit about the different music forms you work with, and what inspired you to do stray across the usual musical boundaries?
A: I’m not a classically trained musician. As most things I do in life I taught myself to play, read and write music. It was a very natural progression as a musician playing in bands getting more interested in contemporary classical music. What many classical musicians suffer is the fear of making the simplest mistake and therefore failing an audition. It’s really a Pavlovian classical conditioning of fear. But I also know a lot of classically trained professional players who are most wonderful improvisers and creative geniuses.
R: Recently you won the Best Composer Award at the BAFTA Scotland New Talent Awards for your work on a short film ‘The Violinist’. I was delighted for you and think it’s very much deserved, because as well as your being talented I know how hard you work. How did it feel to receive the award? Was there a sense of your efforts being recognised at last?!
A: Yes most certainly. It’s the accumulation of work you do that leads to things like this. Not just writing for films, but all the playing and collaboration with many artists as that lead to things like an award. Every little thing you’ve done in the past builds your confidence and projection. Having said that, a nomination and a win was a bit of a surprise. I thank the people involved in making the film and putting the £30 entry fee on my behalf. I didn’t even think of submitting the film for the award until prompted.
R: How would you describe the collaborative process? What do you enjoy about it or find inspiring?
A: It’s that sheer euphoric moment when something sparkles in your brain and all of a sudden everything gets very exciting, new, and challenging. It’s hard to get the same stimulus when you’re working on your own.
R: One of your pieces that I first became interested in was ‘Five seconds left’, it spoke to me about the feeling of journeys, though that was my subjective response of course. You generously let me attach it to a video I’d made of slow-motion waves from a ferry (link below). Can you talk about that, the inspiration and why you chose that title?
A: The music was an experiment I did long time ago when I was teaching myself some theory. I wrote this piece in 5/8 timing, and the key is constantly shifting so that it makes a full round of circle of fifths. The music is nostalgic, and it seems it goes on repeating forever. But that’s the illusion, thus the title. It does come to an end.
R: In 2013 we began to loosely collaborate when you improvised on cello in response to my paintings as part of an exhibition launch. I’m a strong believer in improvisatory and experimental approaches, it keeps the creative process fresh, but it takes someone experienced to make it work as a successful performance or artwork; a final work in itself. I’ve watched you improvise on many occasions and you always appear very comfortable with improvised performance for the public. Can you tell me more about your approach to that? For example, talk me through your improvised response to one of my paintings – ‘Moonlight on Eigg’ (which I recorded on a small camera at the time, link below). I find it an absolutely beautiful piece and was very moved by it.
A: A couple of weeks ago I saw this Brian Cox interview where he’s asked by a schoolgirl how he manages his time playing music and working out physics. I don’t think anyone in that TV show really understood what he meant, but his response sums up what I do. Music and physics are both simply a human response to the environment. I am simply channeling what I see and feel into my playing. There is no right or wrong. I might play something that sounds horrible, but it doesn’t matter because I’m merely a vessel to transpose the environment into sounds. It’s really up to the people who are hearing the music to decide what’s working and what’s not. In that sense, yes I am very comfortable. I’m not being judged on anything here
R: In September 2015 we visited the Isle of Eigg as part of a year-long project about Eigg. It was a stroke of luck that our trip coincided with a boat tour of a ship called ‘The Leader’ which was cruising around the inner Hebrides and Eigg, with geologists, writers artists and musicians on board. (The trip re-created the journey made by geologist Hugh Miller who discovered the bones of a Plesiosaurus on the north coast of Eigg in the summer of 1844).
I remember we joined in on a day-trip to the cliffs at the north end of the island with geologist Prof’ John Hudson and poet Norman Bisset among others. We stopped at the foot of the cliffs where you began to write your piece for string quartet ‘Gaia Metempsychosis’ (link below, work in progress) Can you talk me through that – what you were thinking or feeling as you sat beneath the cliffs, and the ideas behind the piece?
A: Oh yes that was an inspiring trip. I have this fascination with death and decay, like most artists do. It’s a mirror image of life and prosperity. Darker the room, brighter the flame. Anyhow, I saw the ancient rocks finally melting in the sea in front of me. The history died. That was an inspiration. That feeling contrasted being on the island where a lot of people living there are expats who chose a self-sustainable alternative life. So I began writing the sketches of what became the string quartet piece, where there is a lot of death that is also celebratory. I did imagine skeleton bones in an underworld ball room while I sat there.
R: On our return to Edinburgh you worked with Jennifer (poet J.L. Williams) on a poetry and music collaboration in response to the paintings and themes of the Eigg project, which was performed live at the Scottish Storytelling Centre against the backdrop of my paintings (The ‘Eigg Trilogy’). I named one painting ‘North –Transmigration’ based on the ideas you’d discussed, which echoed what I wanted to capture in the painting – the passing of time, or the way we distill time through art and the creative process. Jennifer’s poem in response was also very moving, and I was struck by the intensity of the combined works. As you know, this collaboration is a real highlight for me, among many years of working in collaboration with artists. Can you tell me more about how you and Jen worked on that, and the process, particularly for ‘North – Transmigration’?
A: We sat and recorded the music and poetry live in her living room. It had to be spontaneous, and I wanted to respond to both the paintings and her readings. There are a lot of elements I picked on from both the reading and the painting; tempo, velocity, volume, brightness, associated memory, etc etc. They all morphed into this one thing which I was, again, a vessel to make them into sound.
R: Lastly, I’ve focused mostly here on our collaborations, but would you like to talk about what you’d like to do in future musically? Also, you’ve composed a series of successful pieces for film, can you give an example or two of your favourite film music scores by yourself and by other composers?
A: Currently I am working with a real-time music sampling artist Dave House (a.k.a. The Reverse Engineer). We are an experimental electro-pop duo with a gig coming up. We are both enjoying the process very much as we both venture out from our comfort zones. I’m mainly singing and dancing in this.
I really like what Jonny Greenwood does in PT Anderson films. He’s a serious scholar in contemporary music but following rather traditional composers like Olivier Messiaen. Often film directors are scared of putting on music that have too much emotional drive to it, so working with a director who understands your artistry is a gift. I’m not sure if I actually like any music that I’ve ever written. I rather have other people be the judge, so that I can free myself from that constraint. I am most self-critical of my work and it’s frankly an annoying trait.
R: I think self criticism is true of any artist, I know there’s usually a point when I’m painting where I wail – ‘I can’t paint’! If we’re doing it right it’s probably necessary. There was an interview with David Bowie a few years ago where he laughingly but honestly described the process as quite painful, we get angry and frustrated with ourselves. In your case Atzi, I’d say it’s worth the pain, or at least I know there’s plenty of people who appreciate the results! And I’d like to say – that sparkle you talk of (in answers above) when collaborating, is mutual. Thanks for taking time for this Atzi, and I look forward to working with you again later this year.