Table Speech

“Behind the Scenes of Movie Music”

March 19, 2008

Mr. Shin-ichiro Ikebe,
Professor of Tokyo College of Music

 There are two broad types of music. One is the area of “pure music”, such as symphonies, operas, choral music, piano music, etc., to be performed in concerts. The other is the area of “accompanying music” for films, theater, and television dramas. Although I have done a lot of work for television drama and theater, today I will talk about the world of cinema.

 I was in charge of the music for director Akira Kurosawa’s films, such as “Kagemusha”, “Yume”, and “Madadayo”. The omnibus entitled “Yume” was particularly well received. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene where a funeral procession goes down a mountain path in a rural area. The instructions for the music in the scene were to “make something that cannot be associated with any specific period or place”. Even though it was an impossible order, I composed about 15 short pieces and had the director listen to them. The response to the first few pieces was a series of nos. “This is not bad,” came around the eighth piece, followed by a “Yes, this is nice, it’s good…” at around the tenth piece. That is how the music was decided.

 I also had my own ideas, and had worked out a scheme of which order to play the songs. I arranged them with the general idea of when I should play the good pieces. Somehow it worked out well when I played the songs that I wanted the directory to choose, as the eighth or tenth piece.

 Japanese films have won the Palm D’Or, the grand prize of the Cannes Film Festival, four times in the past: Director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “Jigokumon”, Director Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha”, Director Shouhei Imamura’s “Narayama Bushiko”, and Shouhei Imamura’s “Unagi”. I composed the music for all except “Jigokumon”. It is rewarding that the joy of encountering the great work of a great director has born fruit in this way.

 I also have many fond memories about Director Shouhei Imamura.

 In “Narayama Bushiko”, there was a scene in which farmers sing as they work. That very song they are singing was composed by me. When I first sang the song to Director Imamura, he muttered, “mmm… I can visualize the five lines (i.e. the staff notation)”. He said, “This song can’t be something that would sound like it was written on a music sheet, it has to sound like the music was born from the soil”. The song was supposed to be something that had been sung for a long time, passed down from the farmers’ ancestors, even though I was actually composing it.

 I reworked on the song, and asked him to listen to it again. After I sang it to him, he joked that he could “still see about four lines”, but gave me an OK.

 I taught the song to the actors. The actors practiced….many, many times, until the song became not just like a song they had just learned, but something that was engrained in their bodies, sung by generations of their ancestors.

 When I make a song “that would have been born from the ground”, what brews within me is not music theory, but rather something like a physiological reaction. I feel like the sounds are living creatures, rather than physical phenomenon. As I write the notes, the sounds have their own will, and indicate where they want to move. The sounds would get angry if I try to do something that goes against their will.

 As much as sounds are like living creatures, they also resemble “water”. Like water, it is easy for sounds to descend, but they need some kind of measure to ascend. They need to be given some energy.

 When I compose music, there are moments when I let the will of the music take over me. The music moves on its own. Even though I am the one who is composing the music, I capture the way the notes move in my mind and create the piece based on that movement. This state of mind of letting the music take over, is something that I have acquired through many years of work as a composer. I have gradually come to understand what the notes are thinking, and where they are trying to go. Upon reaching this point, I feel that I can say to the music that “you are in charge”.

 I truly feel that through this job, I have been able to meet a really nice guy, called music. And, I believe that is the composer’s most treasured asset.