JUSFC40 Meet our Grantees Series: Paul Kikuchi: Composer, Percussionist, Sound Artist

February 17, 2016 

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Paul Kikuchi (left) with Koto and Shakuhachi player Koichi Hiroki at the National Bunraku Theater of Osaka.

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission is having conversations with a number of grantees.

Paul Kikuchi, a composer, percussionist and sound artist from Indianola, Washington, was a recipient of the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship. He traveled to Japan for several months in 2015 to conduct in-depth research into Japanese history, music (gagaku and enka), and papermaking (washi) to inform a new musical composition as well as “re-imaginations.”

The Fellowship is funded by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and administered in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Here, Kikuchi reflects on his experiences as a Fellow living in Japan.

As a U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellow in Japan, Paul Kikuchi was welcomed as a guest researcher at the Research Center for Japanese Traditional Music at 京都芸大 (Kyoto City University of the Arts). “Having access to KCUA resources such as musical scores, recordings, the traditional instrument collection, and the ability to consult experts in the field is truly amazing,” Kikuchi says.  His project in Japan was a song-cycle based on the written memoir and 78 rpm record collection of his great-grandfather Zenkichi Kikuchi, and he focused on composing a new work for traditional Japanese instrumentation and electronics. While in Japan, Kikuchi wrote an extensive travel journal that is a treasure trove of photos, sound recordings, compositions, and reflections.

The opportunity to pursue an artistic residency in Japan exposed Kikuchi to the soundscape of the country, and he spent significant time in Kyoto. “”Kyoto is a city of bells,” he remarks. “As an artist, it was an amazing experience to be in that type of place. Some bells I could hear, and others were so far away, yet I could feel their presence.” The sounds in Kyoto gave him a connection to the history and culture of Japan. “You start to feel like you are hearing bells that have been ringing for a thousand years.” “The experience of being in a different culture, was really freeing,” says Kikuchi. “It opened up other avenues. I found myself getting into photography and video just because of the visual aesthetic.”

In Japan, Kikuchi found a deep connection with his personal history. He was able to visit Iwate prefecture and stay in his family’s old farmhouse, where he found photos and artifacts that informed “Bat of No Bird Island” – a musical exploration of identity, culture, tradition and lineage. It takes the memoir and 78 rpm records from Kikuchi’s great-grandfather Zenkichi, who emigrated to the United States in 1900, and combines them with modern sounds. It is an expression of culture, history and sound – blending the present with the past.
These thematic threads are seen throughout Kikuchi’s work.

ScreenHunter_1649 Feb. 11 08.34During his Fellowship, Kikuchi performed “Oobire” at the International House of Japan in Tokyo. “Oobire,” he says, “blends traditional Japanese instruments with processed recordings of old Japanese 78s and field recordings; as well as bells, resonant bowls, and wooden temple blocks I’ve found in my travels. I am reaching back to ancient Japanese forms and sounds, while also attempting to sonically distill and express my present experience living in Kyoto.” Oobire draws from Kikuchi’s interest in – and love for – traditional Japanese music such as Gagaku as well as the lesser known Shinto ritualistic music called Azuma Asobi. The Oobire composition is designed for sho, hichiriki, shakuhachi, wagon, and percussion/electronics.

Kikuchi says his experiences in Japan as a fellow are still influencing his creations. “I felt like I just scraped the surface of what I could do there. I think it’s definitely still affecting and informing my work on a lot of levels.” He encourages other artists with an interest in Japan to apply for the Fellowship. ”It lets you just be there and soak it up. Go, and be open and try not to necessarily schedule every little thing. Just allow things to unfold. Because they will.”