Alongside our record review of her latest recording: Vaughan Williams Complete Works for Violin and Piano, we also asked a few questions to get to know Midori a bit more, and learn about her musical journey and RVW150 project.
Hi Midori, for anyone who hasn’t heard of you before, please could you briefly introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m a violinist, composer and writer from Japan, based in London. I specialise in the research and performance of British and Japanese music. I’m a lecturer at Queen’s University (Canada), based at Bader College (UK Campus), also currently undertaking a CHASE/AHRC funded PhD research at Goldsmiths, University of London.
How old were you when you first started playing the violin and what initially drew you to the instrument?
I was 7 years old when I first played the violin– my first encounter with the violin was through the Japanese anime, Sailor Moon. One of the characters, Sailor Neptune, is a violinist who performs on concert stage and I was completely mesmerized by the sound and the whole image! I was growing up in Hong Kong at the time, and Sailor Moon was hugely popular there. Since my mother is a pianist, classical music was something very familiar to me from a young age, but I had not heard a violinist giving a solo concert before. And of course, when I told my parents that I wanted to start learning the violin because of Sailor Neptune, they thought I wasn’t serious and said, ‘No way!’ For about a year, I kept saying that I really wanted to play the violin. Finally, they agreed and gave me the opportunity to have my first lesson. Perhaps it was that factor of imagining what the violin would sound like in real life (even my role model, Sailor Neptune was not a real human being!) that developed my curiosity and drew me even closer to the instrument.
What is your composition process like?
As I often write for site-specific projects, it usually starts with a bit of contextual research (such as the architectural, acoustical properties and cultural heritage). Then it is a sort of ‘trial and error’ process. It is important for me to experiment and be spontaneous, as I find that good ideas often come from moments when I least expect it.
When did you compose your first piece and what was it like to share that with people?
My first solo composition (as I had been arranging and collaborating with other composers before then) was Full as Deep (2018) which was written for a place called Undershaft in the City of London, as part of Musicity x Sculpture in the City. Sharing my piece in the actual location for which it was written – and then seeing the audience reaction - was truly exciting!
What inspired you to develop a cultural exchange project in the UK and Japan, and why do you feel it’s important to promote works by composers from both countries?
After the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, I carried out series of charity concerts in London to raise funds for the victims. This experience led me to believe the power of music as a tool to bring people together across different cultures. At the same time, as I was interested in the research of music in the UK and Japan and discovered that there is still so much great music to promote in cultural reciprocity - I felt a sense of my role as a Japanese musician in the UK to develop a bridge between these countries that enable people to engage with rare music. I think this is important work because music provides a ‘gateway’ to understanding another culture and history. Even if the music is unfamiliar, the act of ‘listening’ already enables us to expand our perspectives. I hope that in the coming years, I would be able to introduce more works in both countries.
Moving on to your recent project celebrating the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' birth this year:
What was the first piece of Vaughan Williams' music that you can remember hearing, and which, if you could choose just one, might be your favourite?
The Lark Ascending was the first piece that I had heard and also played. It’s very hard to choose a favourite piece out of the Vaughan Williams repertoire, but as I’ve just released an album, my favourite is the first track, Romance. It is a piece that reflects on the composer’s memories at his childhood home, Leith Hill Place, which is now owned by the National Trust. I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with Leith Hill Place on some filming and events this year, and we filmed the music video of Romance at the house. Performing his music at the very location that inspired it and seeing the beautiful landscapes that the composer grew up with, was a truly special and touching experience.
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending (as part of National Trust/Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty campaign, Making Space for Nature)
What drew you to Vaughan Williams' music and why did you feel inspired to bring his music to a wider audience in the UK and Japan?
Perhaps it is the sense of familiarity that drew me to his music. In the similar way that the composer was inspired by folksongs because the music felt like something he had known all his life, there was a kind of nostalgic feeling that I immediately connected with. This familiarity actually comes from the fact that English folksongs are widely known in Japan, and many are known as Japanese songs - English folksongs were imported to Japan in the late 19th Century and put to Japanese lyrics. Therefore, I was convinced that Vaughan Williams’s music would resonate with many Japanese people. Indeed, Vaughan Williams is most known in Japan for Fantasia on Greensleeves – in fact, Greensleeves is the most popular tune for ‘music on hold’ on phones! However, his other pieces, such as the Symphonies or Chamber Music are still rarely performed in Japan. Due to his multifaceted nature, which goes much beyond folksongs, I felt it was important to promote these works both in the UK and Japan.
What was involved with the research that you did into the pieces on the album?
I researched through the Vaughan Williams archive at the British Library and found some interesting material including his manuscripts for the Violin Sonata. It is always interesting to see these manuscripts, because it enables us to understand about the compositional process and possibly the intention behind some of the materials in the music. For such a complex piece as this Sonata, this research was a vital process! At the time of preparing for this album, I was also translating Simon Heffer’s book Vaughan Williams into Japanese (which was published recently), so looking at the repertoire for Violin and Piano also enabled me to understand further about his life, and vice versa. This album which includes the complete repertoire for violin and piano, encapsulates the wide range of his compositional style.
How did your collaboration with Simon Callaghan come about?
I was first introduced to Simon through the Delius Society, when I was producing a series of concerts based on my project entitled ‘Delius and Gauguin’. As Simon had already recorded some of Delius’s works, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with a pianist who was already familiar with Delius’s sound world. From there, we recorded my first album Colours of the Heart. As Simon’s interest is also in playing some of the rare works by British composers, we have played many concerts together since then.
You mention that the Violin Sonata in A minor is one of the most technically demanding sonatas in the violin repertoire - for non strings players, can you explain why?
The piece includes many passages in which the notes are played very fast, or in combinations that are awkward for the fingers. Vaughan Williams certainly knew how to write for the violin, and looking at his manuscripts, I’m convinced that he was intentionally trying to push the technical boundaries in order to express the inner struggle – which at times comes as an outburst. It is also demanding as there is hardly any place to rest throughout the movements!
Where can people find more information about the project or buy the album?
The album is available as CD and digital streaming on all major platforms. The CD booklet includes special photos taken at Leith Hill Place and manuscript images, as well as my liner notes, so if anyone is interested to find out more about the pieces, please check out the CD!
Further information is available on my website:
You and Simon have created a short film to accompany the album which the readers can watch below. Would you mind giving us a brief introduction and some background information into its significance?
Romance was dedicated to the composer’s friend Dorothy Longman, a violinist who often played at his childhood home, Leith Hill Place. Vaughan Williams had introduced Dorothy to her future husband, Robert Longman, and this piece is sort of a memorabilia of their love and friendship with the composer. Because of this context and the beautiful, nostalgic imagery that this piece expresses, I proposed the idea to film at Leith Hill Place as this would provide the perfect setting for this music video. I was very fortunate to have the support from Leith Hill Place and the National Trust, and work with film director Oliver Bowring (Musicarta Media). We filmed on a very cold day in February after the UK experienced days of storms and rain - just for that one afternoon though, as you'll see in the film, we had clear skies and could see all across Surrey from the house. Perhaps it was ‘Uncle Ralph’ (as Vaughan Williams was known), watching over us!
Vaughan Williams: Romance
Now for some questions outside the realms of music:
What are your hobbies outside of composing?
I’ve always liked doing sports, but since the pandemic hit, I’ve become more interested in finding quiet exercises that can be done at home. Therefore, more Yoga and more recently – HIIT exercises! This is great as I am often stuck indoors composing, writing or practicing, so it’s a great way to switch my mind to something completely different.
Where is your go-to holiday destination?
I love going to Onsen (Hot Springs) in Japan. My favourite place for Onsen is Lake Kawaguchi (spectacular views of Mount Fuji). Going to Onsen on holiday is not just about taking the bath, but it’s the whole experience of staying in the Ryokan (Hotel), having the delicious meals there and immersing oneself in the beautiful nature. Therefore, it is a great way to totally relax and indulge!
And one of the most important questions for us, what is your current HiFi/music listening setup?
I am a big fan of KEF speakers and Sennheiser headphones. I usually listen to CDs/streaming through these outlets. As I am often travelling and listening to music on the go, recently I’ve been using my Sennheiser ear monitors for listening at busy locations. Before, I only used them for performing on stage, but I found that these are also great under such circumstances!