Interview With U.S./Japan Creative Artist Michelle Nagai

August 24, 2012 

2011 Composer and U.S./Japan Creative Artist Michelle Nagai Comments on the Creative Artists Fellowship.

1. How did you learn about the U.S./ Japan Creative Artists Program?

I learned about this program several years ago, while searching around on the internet.  At the time, I didn’t feel “ready” to apply.  A few years later, my friend Jane Rigler went to Japan on the program and was very encouraging when I approached her for advice on applying.

2. What was your primary artistic objective for this fellowship and were you able to achieve it?

My primary objective was to be able to steep myself in the culture and day-to-day activities and lifestyles of a rural Japanese village. I absolutely accomplished this, and in fact, went far deeper into that process than I ever would have imagined possible.  As a result, I was able to accumulate a wealth of experiential knowledge that will figure directly into the creation of an opera I am now working on.  I had initially planned to study the music of blind “goze” performers.  I did study this music, and I made a fantastic connection with my teacher.  However, that study would have been insignificant if I had not simultaneously been able to stay in the village where I did.  Learning about the music WITHIN the specific rural culture that the music emerged FROM was really an essential piece of my endeavor and I feel very fortunate to have accomplished it.

3. How did this program affect your professional development with regard to new contacts, ideas, techniques, etc?

Having spent five months in Japan, I feel vastly more confident in myself as both a composer and an individual.  I met many people in Japan who I know will support my future work and my plans to return to Japan.  But more importantly, I feel a sense of empowerment now to pursue the work and ideas that were just hatching when I arrived.  I’ve come to better understand, and subsequently, refine, both the way that I work and the way that I talk about my work.  Now that I’m back in the US, I feel a sense of eagerness to begin talking to promoters, venues and other supportive organizations about my work and my opera project.  The shyness and insecurity I felt prior to living in Japan has evaporated.  Rather than worrying about how “authentic” I might seem to potential funders or performers, I now feel a true sense of ownership over my experiences in Japan and the particular knowledge that I have accumulated.  I am really excited about my work in a way I haven’t been in years!

4. What effect do you feel you may have had on the Japanese artists and public you encountered?

I think, because I was living in my village for quite some time, that I was able to share quite a bit of myself with people in Japan.  Although language and communication was often a barrier, I think many people were able to connect with, and understand, what I was doing in terms of observing and listening.  Some of my most memorable conversations about the value and experience of art and music (with a lot of sign language and gesturing) were with locals in my village – average citizens of rural Japan, with little exposure to the arts and culture.  These were moments when I felt I was really connecting with people on some very human level that is almost impossible to encounter in a concert hall or art gallery setting.

5. In terms of cross cultural exchange and understanding, what are the benefits of this residency to you and to your Japanese colleagues?

The benefits were immense.  I think this was especially true for me living in a rural place, far from Tokyo and the English-language world. Very few people spoke English (apart from my family) and, because I had a young child attending local school, I had to interact with all sorts of people – not just other artists or educated cultural consumers.  I think this was what made the cross-cultural exchange and understanding more substantial – there was no choice!

6. What would you consider are the two strongest elements of this program?

For me, the long duration of the program (5 months) and the emphasis on the artist’s experience, rather than the creation of a product, are the program’s strongest elements.

7. What would you consider are two areas of improvement for this program?

Honestly, as I experienced it, the program was really perfect.  I understand that it has gotten much shorter (now only 3 months) and I worry that this will be a very, very different experience for upcoming artists, and that more emphasis will be put on pursuing a specific product-oriented project.  One thing I’d suggest is to really encourage artists to get out of Tokyo and Kyoto, at least briefly.  These days, it’s quite easy to get around in the city, everyone speaks English and it’s all kind of familiar if you’ve ever lived in a big city anywhere. Many artists will probably arrive already knowing lots of people in Tokyo and perhaps already having visited, so it will feel familiar and fun (which is great, of course!).  But if artists don’t get out into other parts of the country, at least for a portion of the trip, I fear they might miss a HUGE opportunity to alter their surroundings and perhaps encounter something unexpected and life-changing.  This would be a real loss of one of the strongest elements of the program.

8. Were there any unanticipated outcomes or benefits of this program?

Well, I didn’t really understand how much this year in Japan would change me.  I expected some things to be different and I expected to learn a lot as a result.  But I had no idea how much I would be transformed – as a composer, as a woman, as a mother of a Japanese-American kid, as the wife of a Japanese person.  Every aspect of who I am has been touched by being in Japan, in unexpected, unanticipated, extraordinary ways.  The only thing I can think of that compares to this experience, is the time just before I had my son, when a friend said that my life was going to change forever after my child was born, but that Icouldn’t possibly imagine what it would be like or HOW it would change until that time.  Traveling to, living in, and now returning from Japan, I feel much the same.  I couldn’t even have imagined these results a year ago.

Commission:  Thank you, Michelle.

MN:  You’re quite welcome.