On a rather blustery but snowless day in late December, I had the chance to chat with flutist Kohei Nishikawa and his wife, pianist Hideko Nara about their upcoming performances in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto, scheduled for mid-February.
Nishikawa Ensemble came to Montreal in May 1999 to perform in Montreal's Asian Heritage Festival. Their thought-provoking style and sound enthralled spectators, and their unique and human approach to their art was thoroughly savoured by all those who had the chance to meet them.
Sandra Kadowaki(SK): What is Nishikawa Ensemble?
Kohei Nishikawa(KN): We started Nishikawa Ensemble three years ago; my goal was to erase the boundaries from the world's countries and musical instruments, towards a sort of borderless type of musical sound. I studied the Western-style flute first, and worked for 10 years in occidental music. I stopped working in the occidental music field when I had the chance to study Japanese tradtional flute, and I found a real sense of freedom in performing this music. It takes 8 to 10 years just to study, and I now have been working in this traditional field for 10 years.
SK: What do you like about performing in Canada?
KN: The United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Germany each have their own style and distinct musical traditions. I have the feeling that Canada is more open to a type of "world music", and I especially feel that Montreal and Toronto have a real need for all kinds of music, all kinds of food, all kinds of culture! This makes for very good audiences in these cities, and the challenge is to understand what they truly think of us. Toronto is the challenge for English speaking Canada, and I think Montreal is the challenge for the French speaking population, or a more European style of audience. There are two distinct audiences in these two cities.
SK: Has the response been positive in both cities?
KN: Yes, definitely, better than in Japan. But I really want to listen to what the audience says. Applause is a good sign, but never a sure indicator because it can vary; applause can be merely polite, or to get rid of tension, it can be feeble or enthusiastic. We like returning to the same city to do many small concerts. On this tour we will be going to Quebec City as well, and so we will have the chance to meet more people and make new friends.
SK: Why do you think the response to your music in Japan has not been as enthusiastic as it has been here?
KN: Every audience in the world has its own style. The audience that likes orchestras will attend orchestra concerts all the time; if they like traditional arts like kabuki, they will go to see only kabuki. Having worked in kabuki for three years, I know that if we were to try something new, the audience would be shocked or simply not interested. If the audience is open to new things, they will accept new sounds. In Japan that is a bit difficult, since styles like kabuki and noh do not allow for much change, being ancient traditional arts. Even government policy will not allow for change! It has been hard to ask the audience in Japan to accept change to tradition, and to ask what they think. Acceptance has been easier here in North America.
SK: You mentioned earlier that it is very important for you to come here not only to play your music, but to meet new friends as well.
KN: It's simple to come just for the concert and to introduce the audience to Japanese music. But that is not everything; we want to blend all the ideas from North America, Europe, Asia. I still accept work with orchestras because I have to make a living, and this is business. Our ensemble's sound is far from just business for me. In creating new programmes, playing new pieces with guest artists, we can build up our repertoire and get feedback from our listeners. In our new ensemble with its new sound and group dynamic, we come together as equals, completely on the same level. So the name of the ensemble is actually a bit of a problem since it is only includes my name! But that happened in the early days when we (the ensemble at the time) needed a name for a recording, so we quickly said "Nishikawa Ensemble", and it was just never changed.
SK: How did you come to meet some of the recent additions to the new ensemble?
KN: Quite by accident, really! A friend in Montreal introduced me to Arashi Daiko; we went to watch them rehearse and met Patrick Graham, one of Arashi's members and a professional percussionist. We also met Janet Lumb, director of the Montreal Asian Heritage Festival, who introduced us to pipa (Chinese lute) player Liu Fang. In order to meet people and make contacts, we need to come constantly, on a regular basis.
SK: Would you ever consider moving to North America?
KN: That is the main difference between my wife and me! Hideko is concerned about the pets; we have two dogs, two ferrets and she is famous for feeding about 20 neighbourhood cats who come to see us every day! If I were to live here, I would want to learn French, and improve my English. And I would have to learn the Western way of thinking, which is very different from the Asian way of thinking. You must understand music with not only your mind, but with your whole body. When I play in a more contemporary style, it is not so easy to understand the music's origins with my whole being. So I definitely do not want to stop working in Japan, but I feel I should spend more days and months here. But there is time for that later.
SK: Knowing a certain kind of music with your body and your mind; do you think that because you were born Japanese that you were born with an innate connection to or understanding of the Japanese arts?
KN: Both Hideko's and my fathers are businessmen and there is no music in our roots. So we started to understand Japanese music with our studies, not at home. When Hideko and I started to learn to play Western music, we also had to learn about the way of life in order to fully understand and interpret the music. If my lifestyle was the same as a European's, maybe it would be easier to understand European music. For sure it is easier for us to understand Japanese music because our lifestyles are the same. Language as well affects people's way of thinking and lifestyle. In English, you say, "Hello, how are you, I'm fine thank-you." In Japanese, our answer to the question 'how are you' would be, "Genki-desu, okage sama de" which means, thanks to or by the grace of, which is not at all the same as "I'm fine, thanks". So there are very different ways of thought in language, lifestyle and it happens in music as well, of course.
When asked about the philosphy of Nishikawa Ensemble, the ideal that all its members adhere to, Kohei Nishikawa summed it up as, "There are no walls or boundaries in music, acting, singing... My dream since childhood -- and this is where the challenge lies -- is to bring all types of music together, to unite good people [musicians] and cooperate world-wide towards the creation of a new sound." Ever-striving to expand its musical horizons, Nishikawa Ensemble will not disappoint. Their performance is sure to leave you with some inspiring ideas about music -- Western, Eastern and all that falls between.
This year's repertoire includes pieces composed by American David Loeb, Canadian Simon Bertrand, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, as well as some traditional pieces.