Drawing from influences ranging from Squarepusher and Dirty Loops to Stravinsky and Copland, Fumiko Miyachi is a composer and pianist currently based in Birmingham whose music I first encountered at a performance of her Variation on Purcell/Warlock Fantasia No.2 for strings by Aldworth Philharmonic in May 2016. Miyachi’s music offers a vibrant mixture of colour, driving beats, and morphing harmony. Her work as a performer alongside Kate Halsall as the Cobalt Duo is equally impressive. This blog, based on a recent conversation I had with Miyachi, explores some of her work to date as well as how she came to writing music, and some advice she has to offer for fellow composers.
At the time we talked Fumiko was looking forwards to an upcoming premiere of her recent work C8H10N4O2 (otherwise known as Caffeine). The performance was given by the Orchestra of the 21st Century which is a unique project based at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in which their Thallein Ensemble join forces with Orkest de Ereprijs from Holland, to create a radical re-imagining of the orchestra. To date Miyachi’s music has been performed and commissioned by a wide range of musicians and performance groups including the BBC Singers, Opera North, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, at the La Linea Latin Music Festival, and (more recently) broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of International Women’s Day 2018. But how did she get to where she is today and what has influenced her approach as a composer along the way?
A journey to composition
Miyachi started her musical life as a pianist and for some years was convinced she wanted to be a concert pianist. However, whilst attending Junior Royal College of Music Miyachi took up composition as a second study because it was compulsory to have one and quickly realised that she enjoyed the act of writing dots on paper. Miyachi took up the cello at a similar time and in so doing gained an insight into the world of orchestral music. Soon, writing dots on paper had become much more interesting than practicing other people’s music and her path ahead was set.
The jazz pianist Dominic Alldis was Miyachi’s first composition teacher and introduced her to work as diverse as Bill Evans and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; a diversity of sound still evident in Miyachi’s music today. Miyachi takes a refreshingly matter of fact approach to talking about her journey into composition, recognising that for her the beginning of the journey was a circumstantial necessity but that once she was hooked the hours of study and exploration of what was out there were hers to give:
‘He told me to go and buy the score and study it, so I did.’
Miyachi’s composition teachers have also included Martin Butler (who supervised her PhD in composition at Sussex University, completed in 2005/6), Jeremy Dale Roberts, and Malcolm Singer. One she singles out as perhaps the most important is Peter Norris, a contemporary of Glen Gould with whom she spent numerous hours discussing anything and everything related to music.
Over the course of her journey to composition the styles and particular works which have influenced Miyachi are numerous and she continues to listen as widely as possible today. One work she did pick out during our conversation was Nielsen’s 4th Symphony The Inextinguishable.
‘I just thought it was the best piece ever!’
Nielsen’s work held Miyachi’s interest at around the same time as she was planning her Erasmus year abroad. With Denmark not an option, Finland was the place that attracted her the most and there she spent a productive year immersed in composition from all angles.
When exploring Miyachi’s work for the first time you can’t help but notice the lack of overly poetic titles, and yet there is a running theme: elements. In her recent debut album Transitional Metalthis theme becomes explicit but how exactly do the titles relate to the music? And Why metal?
For Miyachi using elements, molecular formulae, and coded titles allows her to avoid being too descriptive or suggestive about how her music should be listened to or what exactly it is saying. Molecular formulae also offer an interesting starting point when generating material. Miyachi’s music is about the sound itself and the titles are starting points rather than implications of narrative or subject. Nevertheless, given a title, it is impossible to listen to the music without looking for connections to it and perhaps this is part of what makes Transitional Metalso intriguing; it is a collection of characterful works each offering a very personal reflection on a specific metal we thought we knew. Throughout the album the Miyachi sound is one of sparkling rhythm, patience, and detailed motivic layering.
On writing music
Miyachi’s work as a composer is intimately related to her own experience as a performing pianist and her time spent as an orchestral cellist listening to the inner workings of an orchestra. The connection between people is an important part of Miyachi’s approach to writing music and whilst each piece she writes is a new journey, the starting pointusually comes from knowing the players, the brief and the occasion. Miyachi enjoys being a musician amongst musicians, bouncing ideas off others, but in the end as the composer, to be the decision maker driving her own work forwards.
‘As a musician it’s nice to have interaction and playing in a cello section gives you that much more than playing piano. Playing cello in an orchestra fine-tuned my ear and trained me in listening. Pianists are terrible at listening.’
This variety of experience as a musician in combination with her openness to discovering new music and willingness to draw on everything from Stravinsky to the Swedish band Dirty Loops puts Miyachi in a unique position from which to create her own musical voice.
But the actual writing of the music is, for Miyachi, only part of what it takes to be a composer. When asked about what it’s like to be a composer today Miyachi highlighted the challenges of being at once an artist, fundraiser, and manager. As a teacher she focusses on the technical:
‘You can’t teach people to be creative, but if someone has something to say I can help work on the technical things which will allow them to say it.’
To fellow, and future, composers her key pieces of advice are firstly not to be afraid to say you don’t like something, and secondly (perhaps more importantly) to perfect your ability to make pristine parts for your players. They’ll thank you for it.
Written by Laura Shipsey
Dr Helen Thomas