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Nobuya Monta at the 2012 Composers' Festival (photo:

Contemporary music to stir the emotions

The second International Composers’ Festival is fast approaching and renowned Japanese composer, Nobuya Monta, has been officially appointed the Festival’s new Composer in Residence. Maestro Monta will be composing a new orchestral work especially created for the Festival on the 6 & 7 September 2013. He will also travel from Osaka with a host of Japanese musicians to be with us at the Festival in Hastings!

The Festival attracts interest from composers all over the World, because it avowedly promotes new music that is beautiful, melodic and stirs the emotions – hence last year’s theme of ‘beauty’ and this year’s theme: ‘Emotion’. Maybe we shall see a new wave of music – the Hastings Wave! HOT reporter, Chris Cormack investigates in an interview with Nobuya Monta.

What kind of a musical upbringing did you have?
I grew up in a very ordinary Japanese family. My father, who passed away last May, was a bank employee and my mother was a typical Japanese woman. Although my father was not musical, my mother played the piano – my musical talent must have come from my mother’s side. It is really rare for Japanese people to have an opportunity to study or even listen to traditional Japanese music. In fact, I’ve never seen Noh theatre. This traditional music is totally another world for me. I had listened to almost no Western classical music until I entered primary school. However, it impressed me and stimulated my curiosity about Europe. On the other hand, I didn’t really like Japanese pop songs which were broadcast on radio or television even though they were in the Western style. I had no professional musical education until the age of 16 – it was a just a general music class at primary and secondary school. But even this early, I was enchanted by music and enjoyed playing instruments in the school band. This was the starting point of my ambitions to be a professional musician.

What kind of music do you compose and perform?
I played some wind instruments, trumpet, clarinet and so on at a school band. Then, I studied oboe at Kyoto City University of Arts. That is why, it is easiest for me to write for wind instruments. I play the piano as well but not professionally. When I score for piano, I need to pay special attention to traditional fingering techniques or it can frustrate pianists.

I began the serious study of composition after entering University. As an exercise in traditional harmony and counter-point, I composed some pieces in the style of Debussy and Ravel. Then, I proceeded into atonal composition as we all did. My first atonal composition was a piano piece applying dodecaphonic theory. A few years later, I wrote a big orchestral piece using various modern techniques from Takemitsu to Penderecki and qualified for a master’s degree. However, it was my last atonal composition. I had to return to tonality in my compositions. This was to me the vast world full of imagination.

What effect did coming to London to study composition have on your work?
I came to London at the age of 38 and studied composition for one year only, because I was working as a music teacher in Japan and a one year absence from school was the maximum allowed. However, this dreamlike one year thoroughly changed my later life. If I hadn’t had such amazing experiences in London, I would have simply continued as a school teacher and composed nothing important.

Would it be fair to say that you are fairly isolated as a  “tonal”  music composer in Japan?
In Japan, there are composers who write band music or choir music with tonality but those kinds of music are regarded as music for amateurs or children. I’ve met no Japanese composer who writes chamber music or orchestral music with tonality. Japanese music society is ultra-conservative. Composers strongly believe that contemporary music must be atonal and they never acknowledge the worth of tonal music.

Nobuya Monta and part of Osaka Concert Orchestra

Actually, I am ignored in Japan. It is not easy even for me to find another Japanese composer with similar interests in tonal music. I’d like to say that atonal music is already becoming out-of-date. Over one hundred years have passed since some composers began atonal composition. That is long enough and I don’t think that there was remarkable progress during that time. When I listen to atonal compositions by Alban Berg or Anton Webern, they sound much fresher and richer than the latest atonal compositions.

I understand and recognize the value of Japanese traditional music. A lot of Japanese composers write completely abstract music, mixing Western and Japanese tradition or traditional instruments. Such sorts of music sound strange or even sometimes grotesque to me. Japanese traditional music is essentially abstract. Sometimes pitches are out of tune. Rhythm and metre are ambiguous. In this sense, Japanese music may contribute to avant-garde music. I believe that Japanese people originally have no strong sense of tonality. Thus it is natural and easy for Japanese composers to write atonal music.

Nobuya Monta with some of musicians visiting us from Osaka

I have some European musician friends who live in Japan. Thanks to them, I was able to develop important connections in France Belgium, Germany and Italy, but my most important connections  have been with the UK over the last twenty years. One of my friends, a Swiss pianist living in Japan introduced me to Maestro Michele Incenzo who was professor of clarinet at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia for thirty years. I have dedicated to him over ten works. He said, “I have played a lot of avant-garde (atonal) music because it was my job. I want to play beautiful (tonal) music the rest of my life”.

Tell me about the Osaka Concert Orchestra and Japanese players who are visiting the UK with you.
I organise chamber music concerts in Osaka from time to time and bring together a chamber orchestra consisting of freelance musicians. In 2010 and 2011, I brought around ten Japanese musicians to UK and formed  “World Chamber Orchestra” with British, Spanish, Lithuanian and Polish musicians. Concerts were held in London, Oxford and Brighton. Some of those Japanese members participate in the Composers Festival this year.

Fairlight Hall (photo: Antony Mair)

This time, I formed the Osaka Concert Orchestra for the International Composers Festival as usual. On 10 September 2013 Hastings International Composers Festival presents an exclusive candlelight concert in the beautiful Fairlight Hall with selected members of the Osaka Concert Orchestra and Hastings Sinfonia.  The programme will include works by Nobuya Monta, Polo Piatti and two World premieres by Robert Draper (Rondo in A for orchestra) and Peter Byrom-Smith (Postcard from Hastings).

What moved you to set A E Housman poetry to music?
I quit writing songs and choral music thirty years ago because I was no longer inspired by Japanese poetry and texts. However, when I was in London, I tried to compose one song to an English poem (not Housman’s). Unexpectedly, it was quite a success. After returning to Japan, I wanted to write more. Then, I found a small anthology of English poetry and came across some poems by Housman. I found these tremendously touching though my English was still poor. I quickly set four of his poems to music. They were sung last year by the Hastings Philharmonic Choir.

When I composed them, I didn’t know that several British and American composers had already set his poetry to music. It was only  later, when I listened to some of them that I was astonished at the crucial and absolute difference in expression between the others and mine. I now think that my musical adaptations add a valuable new interpretation of the text.

Nobuya Monta's musicians

What aspects of last year’s festival did you like best?
In Japan, I am isolated. Last year, I found that there were a lot of composers writing tonal music in UK. I was encouraged anyway. I really hope that a historical new wave will rise from the Festival.

Which of your music will be performed this year?
This year at the Festival the World/UK premiere of my Guitar Concerto will be performed together with my  Sinfonia for Strings (world premiere). I have also written a song especially  for the Winchester Consort with lyrics by Sarah Teasdale [1884–1933]), and we shall also hear my Sonata No. 2 for clarinet and piano (UK Premiere).

Would you like to comment on Hastings bid for City of Culture 2017?
I would really be excited to see a new wave of contemporary classical music born in Hastings; that would put the town on the cultural map. Walking through the streets of this historical town, I feel that it is happening soon!

Hastings International Composers’ Festival:
Friday 6 Saturday 7 September 2013.
Events start at 6pm on Friday 6 and 10.30am on Saturday 7 September at St Mary in the Castle, 7 Pelham Crescent, Hastings, East Sussex  TN34 3AF

Rehearsals for the 2012 festival can be seen on filmPolo’s Dream

For a Radio 3 announcement on the Composers’ Festival and a Nigel Hess piece of music, slide time to 2:07.12. Find the Festival on Radio 3’s Musical Map of Britain

Posted 12:38 Tuesday, Aug 6, 2013 In: Performance

1 Comment

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  1. Uemura, Toshifumi

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate it and glad that my friend, Maestro Monta got an interview and answered as a Japanese composer. I met him in Tokyo first and Kyoto next. His music was so impressive and remembered that I have moved by his music and his soul. His love for classical music and passion in his mind are great. I hope he will continue to compose another Japanese poem.

    Comment by Uemura, Toshifumi — Friday, Aug 9, 2013 @ 07:29

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