We are thrilled to introduce you to Minato Sakamoto, the winner of our 2020 8SW Composer Competition for his trio, Rondo Americano. A native of Japan, Minato is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Duke University. His description of Rondo Americano is short and succinct: “A Japanese train buff’s imagination of the “good old days” of America, particularly Chicago, more particularly its trains.” The tempo indication at the top of the score for the work is: Tempo di “L.” In the course of putting this interview together I found out that Minato’s first experience on a train in the United States was in 2014, taking the “L” from Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Needless to say, Rondo Americano is a bit of a crazy and fun ride, and Ina, Matt and I are having a great time (yes, we are rehearsing!) putting it together.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have yet to meet or rehearse with Minato in person. Thank goodness for technology! We are looking forward to some day actually meeting Minato – hopefully soon! In the mean time, I hope you enjoy getting to know this most interesting and fun composer/train buff and newest member of the 8SW family.
Rondo Americano will be premiered on Saturday, November 21 at 3pm (EST). The event will be live streamed. Please visit our In Concert page for details.
SG: How did you become interested in composing? You started out as a Political Science major in Japan and then ended up transferring to Amherst College and double majoring in music and Chinese Studies. What brought you to the States and what compelled you to change majors?
MS: As far as I hear from my parents, my interest in music composition came from my mischievous nature. Looking at me slapping the piano in kindergarten, my parents let me start lessons at the age of four. I loved to draw on scores and hit piano keys randomly and violently. Such misbehavior seems to have been the origin of my enthusiasm for music.
Until graduating from middle school, except for my tendency to “misbehave,” I was much like a typical Japanese amateur piano student whose music world was largely confined to works written before 1850. Upon entering high school, I got my own computer, which meant unlimited access to YouTube, Naxos Music Library, and IMSLP (the International Score Library Project, is a virtual library of musical scores in the public domain.) At the same time, for a very trivial reason, I happened to join the chamber orchestra of my high school as a violist. Though I initially had no idea what the “viola” was, I soon found myself enjoying my chamber orchestra activities. The combination of these two factors expanded my music world to include non-piano pieces and twentieth-century works. It stimulated my innate interest in music. I started studying music history/theory and composing for friends in chamber orchestra. I secretly wrote a lot of counterpoint in boring classes. I also slept a lot during classes since I devoted much of the night to music. I spent most of my after-school time on music. Do you know the consequence of these behaviors? My academic grades became “very interesting” and got me kicked out of high school! Realizing the “danger” of my musical addiction, I stopped my music studies, worked as a farm laborer away from my home, completed my high school degree in a school designed for students with “special circumstances,” took a gap year, and entered Doshisha University in Kyoto. It was a chaotic period of adolescence. My choice of university and a major of Political Science was purely by chance. Most non-conservatory Japanese universities do not have a music department; there were no music courses I could take at Doshisha.
The next chance to study music came out of blue. I participated in a one-year exchange program at Kalamazoo College in Michigan to brush up my English and gain some international experience. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found some music course offerings in the course catalog. Wow, American colleges legitimize music courses?! Amazed by this fact, I totally forgot my original purpose for participating in this exchange program and ended up taking three music courses in the year – without realizing that Doshisha would not count music courses towards a degree. This experience gave me the impression that America is the place where I can be honest about my real passions. I could no longer resist my appetite to study music again; I applied for a scholarship that allowed me to become a transfer student at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 2016.
The liberal arts education at Amherst served me well. I majored in Music and Asian Languages and Civilizations with a focus on China. I ended up spending 40% of my time on music and 60% on Chinese studies, Mandarin, and a bit of computer science. Amherst College also allowed me to participate in a program at Peking University for the entire summer 2017. These diverse experiences exposed me to extraordinary talents in non-music areas – like a classmate who spoke 5 languages fluently while going on to a very prestigious Ph.D. program in chemistry immediately after graduation, not language studies. Is there any way I can make my mark in the world in this vast sea of young talents? I asked myself and realized music as my potential strength. In my senior year at Amherst, I decided to write a musical composition as a thesis. I got overexcited and completed an extravagant 11-movement 70-minute composition Chinese Railway for flute, clarinet, five strings, two pianos, toy glockenspiel, Chinese flute, and cell phone. The final push came from the conductor, who suddenly encouraged me to apply for music schools on the night of the premiere. It was January 2018. By then, he, other mentors at Amherst, and I had been convinced of the strong magnetic power between me and music. Upon this moment, everything went quickly. While serving as a music assistant at Amherst College in the academic year following graduation, I applied for several graduate schools and entered Duke’s Ph.D. program in 2019.
So, to summarize, I had some innate interest in composition. The American college education system stimulated it and brought me honesty. Whatever happened in my life, music should have constituted some part of it. But music composition being my official career results from my experiences in the United States.
SG: Who are your favorite composers? Which do you feel have had the most influence on you and why?
MS: My native musical language comes from Western tonal music that is dominant and installed through public education, media, and popular culture in Japan. Beethoven and Chopin constituted 95% of my childhood listening experience and should have subconscious influence on my musical sensibility. On the conscious level, among the composers from the common practice period, I particularly love Brahms. I am attracted to the blend of his intellectual stance with his intimate, personal, and adorable spontaneity. Brahms’s combination of self-expression and strict limitation touches my Japanese soul, too. Haiku needs to present expressivity within strict formal limitations. Modern Japanese life is typically about how to find a little sense of fun in a highly ordered society. In this sense, I see Brahms as an embodiment of “traditional” and “modern” Japanese cultures. From the technical point of view, his sense of form serves as my reference point when I get lost in a sea of fancy musical ideas. If you delve into the structure of my works, I think you will find the ghost of Brahms lingering underneath.
When it comes to the direct influence that brought me to the sphere of contemporary music, I must credit John (Coolidge) Adams. In my final year at Amherst College, I played his Chairman Dances as an orchestral pianist with the Amherst Symphony Orchestra. It was mind-blowing. It brought me a new sense of musical sensibility that I could still associate with canonic repertoire. Then, I delved into the opera Nixon in China, the origin of Chairman Dances. Wow! I am a Sinophile and classical music lover. Is there any other opera that satisfies these distant spheres so well? That year, the ASO featured American classical composers including Gershwin, Barber, Bernstein, and Copland, offering precious opportunities for me to play the piano part of their orchestral works. Although John Adams might not agree, I personally feel he has brought the immense power of American classical music tradition, which combines rhythmic vibrancy and relative harmonic simplicity, to a new stage. In John Adams, I can hear American music’s rebellious, mischievous originality and concurrently enjoy the nineteenth-century European sense of intimacy, emotion, and vernacularity – the elements that made me love classical music.
SG: Tell us about your obsession with railways. How did it start, what is it you love about trains? How has this obsession manifested itself in your music?
MS: According to my parents, the first word I remembered was “Ababa,” which was my attempt to pronounce the name of a limited express train in Japan. Like many urban residents in Japan, I lived within a walking distance to a railway line. Because I showed intense interest in railways, my parents often read aloud picture books about trains. You might say this is “talent education” for train enthusiasts. I cannot stop laughing, imaging the peculiar scenery of my parents reading to a three-year-old boy something like: “Japan Railway’s X series locomotive, produced in 1990 by the Y company, has a Z-watt power motor controlled by variable-frequency drive.” While I was a college student in Japan, I did a part-time job staffing a train station, announcing with a loud speaker: “coming at platform number 1 is a limited express train bound for Osaka stopping at X Y, and Z.” I also visited 20 countries including all the province-level divisions in China purely to explore their unique—sometimes eccentric—local railways. Thinking about the time and money I wasted on these railway travels, I can only sigh. Ah, such fun times.
In recent years, I have immersed myself in unexpected yet convincing connections between music and railways. I identify three methods of creating music from railways: to obtain inspiration from train-related scenes and sceneries, to mimic sounds of facilities such as motors, locomotive horns, and station bells, and to sonify the abstract pattern of a complex train timetable. As far as I am aware, famous railway-themed compositions, including Different Trains by Steve Reich and Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, adopt the first and second methods. To me, the third method seems particularly attractive since my specialty as a railway enthusiast lies in scheduling.
A train schedule is an organic entity. It embraces the art of construction. For example, my favorite commuter railway company in Japan operates seven types of services on the trunk line: local, sectional express, semi-express, express, rapid express, sectional limited express, and limited express. These different services share the same track while having different speeds and stopping patterns. This condition necessitates complex reordering of trains. The scheduling also coordinates connections between trunk and branch lines. The availability of crews and rolling stock and limited station facilities complicate the scheduling even more. As a result, this company’s train schedule operates by units of 5 seconds. This sensitivity looks artistic and musical to me. I occasionally dream a dream of composing a fugue and creating my own train schedules at the same time. When I contributed to the train schedule book Chinese Railway Timetable published in Japan a few years ago, I felt I was using the same part of my brain as composing music. My orchestral piece Northeast Corridor Schedule (2018) was my explicit attempt to capture the tie between railway scheduling and music composition.
SG: Your sense of humor comes across in your music as it does in the way you relay the experiences that are the inspiration for them. You also like to quote other composers on occasion. Can you elaborate on why and how you feel this tool fits with what you are trying to say or do compositionally?
MS: Wow, this is such a good question!
Humor can serve as a entertainment. It can be a positive expression of vulnerability. It can embrace criticisms. It can protect the weak from the harmful. I am attracted to this multi-contextual nature of humor. Humor does not force the audience into a predetermined direction; the audience may simply enjoy the comic nature of humor or contemplate deeply the issues humor raises. A single person may experience the same humor differently at different stages of life. As Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Great Dictator show, humor exists in mundane as well as serious moments. I feel I am good at implementing such everyday humor musically without being negative, sarcastic, harmful, or dishonest. Humor, for me, is an expression of honesty.
As you point out, I explicitly indicate the musical past in my compositions. I often adopt (and adapt) classical forms such as passacaglia, sonata, rondo, scherzo etc. and quote phrases from canonic repertoire. This is a way for me to honor the music that has contributed to my compositional voice. This also reflects my view on human beings. As a composer, I live in the Western liberal individualism, or the Beethovenian “I-centered” world, that lies at the heart of the contemporary music culture; I accept the assumption that every individual is autonomous and unique. The truth, however, lies more on the communal side; an “individual” is more like a node in the broad network of interactions from molecule to social levels. With musical quotations, I can reconcile these two conflicting self-identifications as an independent entity and a dependent node. My compositions should express my desire to expand my artistic life into the past and thus carve out a space for myself in the community of creative lives. This way, I can sense the presence of both myself and community.
SG: How do you determine whether to quote from the past or not, and what to quote if you do?
MS: This is such a difficult question. We are in the so-called “post-modern” era. For me, this means that most techniques and styles, whether traditional or avant-garde, could evoke certain past music. Quotations have been done in numerous works. So, I found doing quotations and avoiding quotations both difficult and have not come up with a strategy for it. I can certainly list “not” to do. I do not predetermine whether to quote or what to quote before composing. I do not put any particular or heavy meanings to quotations. Such quotations will exclude an audience who does not know them. I also avoid sarcastic quotations, which have been a cliché for 100 years or more.
SG: In 2019 you composed a three movement algorithmic work for soprano saxophone and piano entitled Three Urban Railways. You say that your algorithm extracts frequency and amplitude data of three railway announcements, one of them being Metro-North. As someone who is familiar with Metro North, I find what you came up with for that movement quite apt! Can you elaborate further on your choice of parameters for our readers?
MS: The python program I developed for Three Urban Railways allows me to choose from a pool of pitch, harmony, and rhythm organization techniques I have implemented. For the pitch organization of the Metro North movement, I used a scale generator that produces a scale in the book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky. In this generator, I tried different parameters so that every portion of the resulting scale sounds unpredictable. So, the pitch organization for this movement is deterministic on a macro level (due to the use of algorithm) and unpredictable on a micro level. In general, the use of computer algorithms makes it easier to craft the balance between order and spontaneity I aim for in my compositions. I regard Three Urban Railways as one of the successful examples.
The idea of unpredictability within a larger framework represents my image of Metro North. Its critical mission is to carry commuters from the suburbs to Manhattan. But I see diverse ways each train operates within this framework. Observe Metro North trains on the platform of Harlem 125th Street station. Some are pulled by a locomotive. Some use push-and-pull. Some others adopt electronic multiple units (EMU). The size, color, interior, and number of cars of these trains are erratic, too. The Metro North movement depicts this vibrant, and perhaps somewhat messy, American diversity.
SG: What kind of music/which composers are you listening to at the moment?
MS: To list but a few, Johannes Brahms, Jacob Collier, John Coltrane, Michael Jackson (perhaps “watching” rather than “listening”), Juri Seo, Makiko Kinoshita, Tan Dun, Qigang Chen, and John Adams. I also love the sounds of power inverters that control train motors. I particularly like those by the German company Siemens. Some Siemens inverters make scales like C major scale and F Dorian scale with intriguing pitch distortions.
Perhaps, the most luxurious listening experience in my life is sitting in a noisy, crowded street in a Chinese city, eating cheap and tasty local foods, seeing elderly women dancing, and hearing stall vendors shouting, drunk people talking loudly, and multiple loudspeakers playing different music. I can hear the inspiration for the beginning of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Impressed by this rich sonic environment, I recently created a sound documentary Piano Is Chinese from street sounds in Guangzhou. Now that I cannot visit China due to the pandemic, I enjoy the field recordings I took for this documentary.
SG: I don’t think that we can overlook that we are in the midst of a pandemic. Has it changed your thoughts on the place or purpose of music in our world?
MS: The value and purpose of my music are beyond my control. My job is to focus on communicating honesty through music. If people regard my works as a contribution to the world, I am happy. If people think this is meaningless, I can still accept it without feeling guilty. In fact, I believe people engaging in any vocation should think in this way. What a person regards as his or her purposeful contribution might end up being harmful. What a person does for his or her own pleasure might make a big contribution to the world. The world is too complex. Stating the purpose of whatever I do would feel a bit arrogant.
With this said, I still wish to believe music can continue to make contributions to the world. If the world is filled with immorality, it is a dystopia. But if the world is completely filled with morality, it is as suffocating. In history, music has situated itself in the sensitive balance between justice and injustice. It has not always been “correct” (politically, economically, socially etc..) and it has not always been “wrong.” In the time of pandemic crisis that mandates us to make “right” actions constantly, music should be able to offer a place for tiny, modest bits of incorrectness without harming anyone. At least, I hope mine does.
SG: Where do you see yourself in a few years time, once you have finished your PhD? If someone were in the same position you were in before deciding to Major in music, what advice would you give them?
MS: I wish to teach and practice contemporary art music in a university or conservatory in China. China has vibrant Western classical music culture with younger and larger audience than the United States and Japan. In a similar way Paganini caused extreme enthusiasm in nineteenth-century Europe, Chinese classical musicians like Lang Lang have become pop stars, appealing to both musically literate and illiterate audience. Western classical music has navigated well through the development of Chinese Communism. It also resonates with the modernization ideas in contemporary China. It even realizes some traditional values of the Chinese Confucianism. I delved into these affinities between modern China and Western classical music in my undergraduate capstone paper and recent sound documentary Piano Is Chinese.
I wonder if I can play a role in transferring this rapidly expanding enthusiasm for Western classical music in China to the realm of contemporary art music. If China becomes a new center of contemporary art music, what will happen to the artistic power balance of contemporary compositions that have centered in Europe and north America? Will there be a new “East-Asian” style of Western music? At least in my eyes, Japan seems to have been obsessed with the imitation of the European model of art music. Looking at the surprising originality of older-generation Chinese composers like Tan Dun and Qigang Chen, I do not believe China, a country with such cultural diversity and historical uniqueness, follows the same artistic path as Japan. I believe I can experience a new page of Western music history by locating myself in China.
And, of course, I must mention railways. I have spent so much time on Chinese railways. I love their variety ranging from old Communist-style to high-tech high-speed trains. I also enjoy the magnificent scenery of Chinese long-distance trains. At least for now, I cannot think of my life without China both professionally and privately.
You are correct; at some point in the future, I will probably give advice to students wondering about majoring in music. In general, I would encourage them to do a practical subject as first major and music as second major. The combination of two majors should bring them life that is rich in both financial and cultural experiences. If a student seems gifted in music, I would be more careful. I would probably try not to encourage and not to discourage. True musicians simply need music to survive and protect themselves from something harmful. They do not need encouragement—they do not even need to major in music. Rather than guiding them to a certain direction, I would advise such students to find a way to inform themselves of the most recent artistic trends without losing honesty. In my case, locating myself at Duke achieved this objective. Its stylistically diverse fellows and geographical location not too far or close to major East coast cities allow me to stay myself and still avoid becoming obstinate. Finding such an environment is important for artists, I believe.
Minato Sakamoto is a Japanese composer from Osaka. His compositions practice the unserious seriously, fuse spontaneous and organic qualities, and demonstrate a clear connection to the past.
Minato is currently studying towards his Ph.D. in composition at Duke University. He previously studied at Amherst College and graduated summa cum laude in 2018. His current and past composition teachers include Scott Lindroth, Stephen Jaffe, John McDonald, and Eric Sawyer.
Minato is a Japanese chess lover and Accredited Meteorologist of Japan Meteorological Agency. As a railway addict, Minato constantly wastes his time to explore unique railways in the world. Favorite composer: Johannes Brahms. Favorite locomotive: China Railway DF4 Type.
For more information please visit his website at www.minatosakamoto.com