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J-Pop Exchange Exclusive Interview with Akira Miyagawa

Akira Miyagawa J-Pop Exchange Radio Show Exclusive Interview


OAD: 10/15/201

SeanBird (JPop Exchange): Hello Mr. Akira Miyagawa. Thank you very much for your time today. Let me start, if I may, by asking how you first became interested in music. Did your interest in music begin in your childhood?

Akira Miyagawa: My father was one of the most successful musicians in Japan. He passed away a long time ago, but . . . I was born when his career was starting to surge and I grew up seeing him work very hard every day. I watched him play piano and write down new music, create music for TV shows and concerts, all the time, and I had not a single moment to think about myself working on anything other than music.

SeanBird: Then, you mean your mind was already set when you were born... or the moment you had self-consciousness?

Akira Miyagawa: Oh yes. I wrote an essay during class when I was in 1st grade in elementary school, and what I wrote about was my dream to become a songwriter and arranger. I was only 6 years old then.

SeanBird: Wow. Then it was very natural for you to become a songwriter?

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, it was certainly natural with the environment that I grew up in. I had nothing other than songwriter in my mind, and I never had a doubt about my dream. Actually, after deciding "I will become a song writer," and seriously starting to study music and working in the music business, there were numerous moments when I needed to break through the stone walls and time after time I noticed that "To take the same job as my Dad did, was a very tough decision." However, that was the moment I learned how famous my Dad was and how successful he was in this business.

SeanBird: Your father was famous for writing songs for the legendary anime, 'Star Blazers' or “Space Battleship Yamato” (Yuchu-Senakn Yamato). Did you learn songwriting tips from him?

Akira Miyagawa: My father was rarely home, and I never had a once-a-week, or once-a-month song check type of lesson from him. I learned mostly on my own. My Mom was very supportive and I was encouraged to take lessons, and she found my teacher . . . etc. So, my mother guided me more than my father. But sometime . . . later, when I became a junior high school student, I formed my own band with my classmates and I started to write songs for my band. My father came home late at night and I heard from my Mom that my Dad had gone through the music I wrote while I was asleep and said, “Is this the piece Akira wrote? This base line is good.” So, I smiled and said, "Oh good." I grew up in such a way and my Mom kept telling me what he said about reading or hearing my piece . . . sometimes it was like . . . "Your Dad said this melody isn't good" or "Your Dad said that orchestration is wonderful". . . my Dad and I were in that kind of relationship.

SeanBird: Then it was more like learning from his example than being taught by him directly...

Akira Miyagawa: Yes that's right. I watched what he was doing very closely . . . I even went to his work place and watched his recordings and stage rehearsals sometimes. One day, I started playing the synthesizer during a recording and, sometime later, I got a chance to arrange some songs. And soon, I started thinking, "If I were the person in charge of this project I wouldn't make it in this way" or "maybe this is the bad part of my Dad" but most of the time I was amazed, "What a great melody he created! He really is a great man." In short, I learned a lot from my Dad by watching him close-up as I got older. It was a great joy for me to see both his pros and cons; his Good Teacher part and the Not-so-Good Teacher part of him.

SeanBird: Would you mind talking about your song-writing process? How do you create and write your original songs? When you compose music, how do you progress from inspiration to creation?

Akira Miyagawa: In any type of project, I start out from the visualized image of the book.

SeanBird: The Book? You mean the script?

Akira Miyagawa: Yeah, most of the time it's the script. For example, when I write songs for animation . . . though I don't have much experience writing songs for animation, when I write for anime . . . to hear the cute or evil voice of the characters doesn't help me to visualize the image of the song -- I'd rather read the script and know what kind of line that character said, and imagine what kind of voice that character might speak in and let my inspiration grow inside my head. The script is both a scenario and a book for me . . . and by watching those words and lines . . . I start to see my original vision. And imagination grows and I start thinking, "maybe the face looks like this" and "the situation can be like this" then the vision gets clearer . . . and I start to feel the atmosphere of the vision. I can see the place, I can even imagine the air floating in this vision, and then naturally I hear the sound from it. I hear the music from this vision at the same time. This vision starts out from the written words or sentences. So, I think it's also important to see the actual illustration and faces of the character -- that's not enough . . . For example, there was a character named, Count Brocken (Brocken Hakushaku) in the anime 'Mazinger Z'. He was the character with his own head in his hand. His head was separated from his body, and when I first saw his illustration I didn't have a simple horror image reaction from his appearance. He had many, many experiences in his past and had deep wounds in his heart, etc . . . this was what I read and knew from the script. Then the music followed from my vision . . . when I could synchronize my feelings with this vision I can hear the music . . . or when I could see the vision I can hear the music . . . I think these 2 are the beginning of my song writing process.

SeanBird: Is the music that follows only melody or a fuller sound something like orchestration? Or maybe even both??

Akira Miyagawa: I'd say both; both . . . at the same time. And after hearing them, there are many times that I think back and find out, "ah--, it was the sound of an orchestra" or, "that was played only by piano." Most of the time it comes to me generally in one sound.

SeanBird: So you start sketching those sounds . . . ?

Akira Miyagawa: Yeah, yeah. To write down the notes exactly the way I hear them is the technique of song writing . . .

SeanBird: I see . . . Even if you can hear it, if you couldn't write it down . . .?

Akira Miyagawa: That's right. What I learned at music school and studied over 10 or 20 years during my training period was the very basic and important skill of writing down the music that I heard, immediately.

SeanBird: In contrast, are there ever cases where you write a song without any script or basic lyrics, in complete free style?

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, of course there are.

SeanBird: Can you tell me how you write on such an occasion? For example, while you're taking a walk…?

Akira Miyagawa: I'm not the type of person who can suddenly come up with a melody that was god-given from the sky. The sound that I come up with is the melody of something that means something. It can be a taste of emotion . . . or . . . even in the case of free song writing, there still are some options that I have to follow like, "please write a song from zero in any way you want, but please write it in a composition style that fits to my concert band, and the due date is September 30th" . . . something like that. First, I start by thinking up a title for this new creation. And I start pondering what kind of song I'd like to create. Of course I don't write a script, but I try to come up with a song that can make people want to write a script.

SeanBird: You mean something that contains a story?

Akira Miyagawa: Yes. I try to come up with a title that can inspire a whole story from it.

SeanBird: You mean the title of the song?

Akira Miyagawa: It can be the title of the song, or it can be a keyword of the song. For example, I wrote a song named "Calling (nariwai)" last year. And the reason was simple, I liked the word "calling" and this word means "work for living," "earn money for living" or "irreplaceable work"...

SeanBird: Each person has their own calling...

Akira Miyagawa: Right. And my calling is to work with music, and this is the truth. I thought this word "Calling" is wonderful, so I started writing songs, and at the beginning of this writing process I saw many visions. Like . . . once, I came up with the inspiring sentence "This place was certainly here since long time ago."

SeanBird: May I ask what you mean by that?

Akira Miyagawa: The cities keep changing and there aren't any places that are exactly the same as 40-50 years ago. Tokyo for example, even though it looks very similar it's not exactly the same as it was in the past, right?

SeanBird: Yes, the buildings might be different, and the people who live there might be different also…

Akira Miyagawa: That's right. Maybe the tree has grown taller... after all it's different from the past. There was the time when Samurai were walking on the same street where I stand today, with a topknot (chonmage) and wearing a sword (katana)! On THIS road!! Exactly the same road that curves to the right side today!!

SeanBird: That Samurai turned to the right, just the same as we do today!

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, that guy should have turned to the right side, just as we do today. In the older age, maybe somebody wearing a grass skirt was cultivating a field. A long time ago, there might have been somebody walking with a wild beard and wearing an animal skin like ... pithecanthropus or… sorry I don't know the name well, but Peking man have walked on this same road many years ago.

SeanBird: There could have been an elephant walking too!

Akira Miyagawa: Oh yes. Nobody knows about the past, but the scenery changes dramatically and probably we can say that exact same scenery will never come back . . . but THIS PLACE was surely here since many years ago. When I think, "This place was really HERE since a long time ago," then people who were HERE in the past might have something in his or her hand. That person could have some kind of work or occupation to make a living. Then maybe . . . this is a very romantic thing to imagine though, the image starts to grow . . . but this kind of image is very difficult to put into words. So, in my case, the only way to express this image is through the music. And I really start feeling the urge from deep inside myself, and by that time I already hear some kind of music; "Maybe I can express the mysterious feeling with this tone or that sound..." etc. When I start writing a song from scratch, I look for the keyword like this. This is how I work.

SeanBird: So, after finding a script or a keyword, you start reading the image and...

Akira Miyagawa: Yes. Yes, yes. But in the simplest way, there's a very useful keyword that I can use for any kind of work, and that is, "life". To write new music can be interpreted as the birth of music, it can't be separated from the word, “life". Whenever I think about life, this word can be the most useful and powerful keyword than any other word.

SeanBird: And life is HERE – a long time ago, and today.

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, it's something we all have in common. Life was in the past and is today, and all over the world...

SeanBird: In Japan, and in America too.

Akira Miyagawa: Yup, and even if we have different religions. We do have a lot of differences, but we have one common thing, that we live this life just for one time and the end of this life comes only once. When I think about this, an image can grow freely and I can hear the music easier.

SeanBird: I understand that. Thank you very much. For the next question, I'd like to ask more about creating music for anime, let us hear the song writing process for the animation, 'Kirby'. As a songwriter, from which part do you start getting involved to the project? Do you watch the animation before you start writing songs? How different is it from the time when you write songs for the TV shows and Musical? For example, the song titled 'Pop Star'. This song expresses both disappointment and hope in very dynamic way. And I think it was significant that this song was used in the very first episode of the ‘Kirby ’animation. When Kirby’s world broke down, this music was expressing the serious danger drawing nearer to him in a very effective way. I think this song offered a perfect tone to this scene.

Akira Miyagawa: Oh really! I'm very happy to hear that. Certainly, in the case of animation … I've been in this business for quite a long time, but still... I'm searching for the best way to work on anime projects. The reason is ... in an anime project, the most important thing is the image that the director has. If I didn’t follow and work together with this image, my creation would be useless. Even if the music itself was brilliantly good, if it didn’t fit it would just become crap. From a different point of view, animation is created and supervised by one . . . and that’s the work of the animation director. For example, all the animation projects from the world famous animation studio, Ghibli, every title is directed by Mr. Hayao Miyazaki and unless he says, "yes"...

SeanBird: Nothing starts and nothing ends.

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, that's right. However, in the case of stage works, like musicals ... it's very different. There's a book ... or script, before the songwriter, lyricist and producer... we can start the project from the music. Usually, we start our project by selecting the producer together with the songwriter and lyricist. But in an anime project, the music team can't ignore the image that the producer or director and all the other staff have. That's why I'm still wondering, and trying to find the best way to work with anime ... But I think the song you mentioned, 'Pop Star' was . . . I wrote this song a long time ago, so I'm sure there are many parts that I don't remember well, though . . . I think I stick to this song ... thinking about the image of Kirby that came from my own vision, I thought "Maybe he is lonely?”, “Is he a prince of a star? " and sometimes I thought, "Maybe he is strong but reckless and someone who just eats a lot?”; “Is he a fool?" I thought many, many things. In some parts, he is out of his mind and it was also one of his adorable points. . . But to me, he seemed to have some kind of heavy sadness on his shoulders. And the part of the story when he came to earth all by himself on a spaceship from a far away star, it reminded me about the world famous story, 'The little Prince' written by Saint-Exupéry. So I started digging through my vision of Kirby so that my own sound could be heard. And the producer of that animation perhaps liked it. I don't know what he really thought though . . . I think he thought that the song was suited to that scene. I just want to be true and honest to the sound that I hear inside of myself. But at the same time, I have to write songs in the way that project members want me to write them, and I want to mix in the song I hear inside my head from myself. So, to let both of these stand out is very difficult, and in that way, I feel a restriction on song writing.

SeanBird: You told me about how you create music for a musical . . . and how the process starts between songwriter and lyricist . . .

Akira Miyagawa: Of course we also talk with the producer. But, you know, the word 'musical'. . . the main thing in this is music. So, the most important thing is the song we can perceive from the script . . . we can't select or write songs just from the 'what's hot' type of fashion sense. A musical is something more real down to earth and it's something that musicians should be in charge of. If the musical is boring, that's the responsibility of the musician, songwriter and lyricist. In other words, there's a part that singer or producer can't do anything I think this is how music is important in musicals and how music stimulates the dreams or ideas and designs, the plan of the producer and everyone's vision for it. This is the slight but very essential difference from animation. An anime or movie is something that starts and ends with the producer . . . so the staff and musicians work for the producer in those projects . . . maybe this is only the case in Japan, though . . . maybe in America, there can be cases when the musician is more important than the producer even in a project for anime . . . sorry, I don't know much about that. Anyway, in any project, and no matter if the producer I work with is famous or not, I want to be a mother of that piece. It could be either father or mother. . . I want to be the parent of the piece. I'd like to be the mother and originator of the musical; this is how strongly I hold my pride when I work on a musical.

SeanBird: As well as your work as a composer, you are also known for your musical performances; for example, as the music director for the Osaka Philharmonic Pops and for the Akira Miyagawa & Ensemble Vega. Please tell us more about these experiences.

Akira Miyagawa: Okay. You know the Boston Pops Orchestra usually has concerts as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but sometimes they become a Pops Orchestra with a special set list and play songs from movies and stuff like that. I've been blessed with chances to be involved in those kinds of Pops Concerts in Japan, and I’ve been working on their orchestration and being involved as a conductor for over 16 years. But I'm not like the other songwriters who can accept the offer without hesitation. To tell you the truth, I hated the Pops Concerts. What I didn’t like was . . . something that starts with, "Here comes a famous song, the theme of Star Wars" or something -- dan dada da ~ ♪ and then in the end, "And to conclude this concert, everyone knows this medley of Disney songs" -- cha, chachacha ~ ♪ and then, Snow White and Dumbo and Bambi and -- What else? Pinocchio, and maybe Aladdin, and then the theme of “Beauty and the Beast” fades in?? Yeah, we can do every song and squeeze them into a medley. But I never liked this style. So I wanted to do the pops concerts in my own style, and over the past 16 years I changed their overall approach or order. The overall approach or order of the concert itself. I think this idea is quite theatrical, but I wanted to express my original taste, as a person who has experienced many musicals and stage performances. So, though it's not really a story telling, I try to put each musical piece in the right order to tell a story or message throughout the concert by using the In (negative) and Yo-u (positive), or maybe I can say an effective order of major and minor songs. I believe the audience can feel the core enjoyment of the music if the music is played in the right order. -- So that the audience can imagine and find, “What kind of interesting point lies beneath or within this concert?” With this strategy, there is less of a chance to get bored throughout the concert. While a happy song is being played, the audience can enjoy that bright and happy sound. Then, suddenly a sagging song trembles their heart and some might even cry. After that, maybe a joyful song can follow and warm their heart . . . I write songs and create a new orchestration as if I'm composing songs for the concert stage like this.

SeanBird: Then one concert itself becomes . . .

Akira Miyagawa: As if it were a 2 - hour musical. What I aim at is a concert that is like 1 song in 2 hours. I talk between the songs sometimes, but that talking section is there to enhance the charm of the song. I carefully choose words to stimulate the audience and have an enjoyable moment, so the listeners can be well-prepared for the next song. To be more specific, when I do the orchestration . . . say there was an Oboe and Clarinet in the group, -- I write notes for each part as if I'm writing a script for 3 actors. This is because there are quite a lot of cases where . . . something like the Oboe only has 2 notes in the intro part and does nothing for over 85 bars, -- and in most cases this happens just because of the ego of the song writer, and this is a bad example.

SeanBird: You mean there are songs in which some particular instrument been used only for one or two bars?

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, but I think this is not good. Even if that instrument has a minor role, every role can have a chance to read the striking line. The role can phrase the main role from the side, or interlude. It should have a chance to be in the spotlight at least once or twice. I don't think there isn’t any theatrical method, -- even when there is only a musical performance on stage, I write songs with the reliable knowledge I learned at the theater.

SeanBird: Oh, I see. That’s why your career is described as both songwriter and stage songwriter. Now I understand!

Akira Miyagawa: That's right.

SeanBird: It was interesting to hear how you said; instruments on stage take part as . . .

Akira Miyagawa: An actor . . .

SeanBird: And that actor is alive from the beginning until the end of the song?

Akira Miyagawa: Yes! Yes, that's right.

SeanBird: He is alive and sometimes he talks and then he goes back and waits quietly until his next scene.

Akira Miyagawa: If orchestration wasn't organized in that way . . . Can you imagine how the minor role, for example . . . the Oboe player would feel during a badly written song? At the beginning, he comes out just to say "Tattarara ~" and then take a nap during the song, and at the end he wakes up just to say "the end" . . . do you think you'd love to take that part and play this instrument with your heart only for those 2 parts?

SeanBird: No, not at all.

Akira Miyagawa: Then, what if after saying "Tattarara~♪" at the intro and then resting for a while, at the climax -- the Oboe comes out and says an important line, like . . . "Oh yea. I think so too" and then the main actor will say "Oh yea? You think so too!? Then let's sing together.” After singing in unison for a while the Oboe says, "Okay, I've got to go now. You can do it by yourself now, right? I'm heading off . . . bye," and he goes again . . . in such a case, I guess the Oboe player will play his instrument with his heart. He can keep his pride throughout this song because he knows he is also one of the important parts of this story. You know a good orchestration is performed with really good sounds and is rich in emotional expressions performed by good players. And so, I think that's a good orchestration.

SeanBird: I believe you have also done some acting, for example in the television programs “Quintet” and “Doremifa Wonderland” (for which you also serve as the composer). How do you feel about your acting experiences? What was it like to be involved in both aspects of these productions? Do you find the roles of both composer and actor to be easily compatible?

Akira Miyagawa: I didn't really learn how to act but I had an interest in acting. When I was a high school student, I chose to take an acting class and learned about acting and drama. For the cultural festival in high school, we did a puppet show. And naturally, I took part in it as a songwriter. In my Junior high school years, there was also an annual festival and I wrote songs for the play . . . I played instruments and also set up the equipments for the play. Acting is . . . I think it's something quite different from song writing -- and there aren't many songwriters who really understand about acting.

SeanBird: I agree with you. It's very rare . . .

Akira Miyagawa: Maybe from that point perspective, I might be a very rare entity.

SeanBird: I do think so too.

Akira Miyagawa: Because I had an interest, I tried to act by taking on a role, but I didn't speak much on stage. I'd rather be a person behind the scenes and support the actors on stage.

SeanBird: Okay... then let's move on to the last question. In regards to your entire body of work, are there any particular pieces that stand out as favorites or have a particular significance for you?

Akira Miyagawa: Hmm . . . that's a hard question.

SeanBird: Well then, how many songs have you created or arranged so far?

Akira Miyagawa: If I include the songs I arranged, it would be a really big number. I guess over 5,000 songs. I don't know, but... my most favorite is...ah! The one I wrote for the musical about 12 years ago. The title is ‘Tomorrow morning the god will arrive’. I felt as if the god really came down on me while I wrote that song and I still feel the same way today when I listen to this song. I really wish if I could write every song like that one! We are planning to record the song this August, so I hope you can hear it Sean-San. This song is like a hymn . . . I'm very interested in how American people will hear when they heard this song. But . . . hmm . . . I don't know . . . my favorite song . . . my number one song . . . maybe that's something I can tell after 20 years when I have decided to stop writing songs. You know, I can't say, "This song is good and the rest is no good" . . . oh well. I'd like to keep my attitude high and think the next song is the best one ever.

SeanBird: That's great! You just told me that you're thinking you might stop writing songs in 20 years or so. Do you have any plan or wish to work on any particular type of new project or activities? What kind of feeling or vision do you have toward your future?

Akira Miyagawa: Well... ah-, in our life, there are times that things won't happen in the right order. I'm sure there are people who have experienced things in the right order, from small to big, but in my case everything happened in quite a messy way . . . a variety of incidents, and of course there were times that I was rewarded, but things could be linked up a few years later, and only then I understood that, "Ah! That happening resulted in this!" and the reasons and the meaning followed. Of course I have several hopes and wishes. I think a musician like me, who was born in Japan and never studied or lived abroad, can also have chances to have my music be accepted and loved by people all over the world. It can be either loved or recognized or . . . loved . . . accepted in anyway. I don't think a person who never studied or stayed in America can't write songs with the taste of America. Even if you are living in Japan, you can create a song that American people like, and maybe it's something that you can create because you want to create . . . but the result is something that comes after . . . sometime in the future. Maybe someone from America might like the piece I wrote. Nobody knows what happens in our future. Someone somewhere might like my music, and might accept it at a certain point. It can even have a possibility of being in the middle of fashion sense; of reflecting a fashion trend or create a new trend. There was a DVD that did over 500,000 in sales. Its title was 'Matsuken Sanba' which I wrote for Mr. Ken Matsudaira for his show 15 years ago. Ten years later, a person from the record company asked me "Do you still have the master tape of this song", and its DVD was created.

SeanBird: After 10 years? Wow...

Akira Miyagawa: Maybe it was 11 years ago. It happened only inside Japan, but that song became a big hit and that was the first time I received a big number of royalties and I was surprised like "Wow! I can receive this much?" This kind of thing can happen in the future again . . . . But if possible, I want to create a song that can amaze people all over the world and surprise people with the music made by a Japanese person, who was born and raised or lives in Japan. And let someone say, "Among numerous musicals, there's a great Japanese musical like this."

SeanBird: That's nice.

Akira Miyagawa: Many people know American musicals. For example, if you hear the name 'Sound of Music', everyone around the world knows, "Ah! That's a musical American people created" right? The musical itself takes place in Austria though . . . everyone knows. And also 'West Side Story' everyone knows, "that's the story of NY" and "American song writer, Leonard Bernstein, created it". Everyone knows that much. I'd like to create one like that. Just one is fine . . . and stop creating songs when I achieve this goal.

SeanBird: I understand. Then what about the songs you create now being accepted by the public after decades...

Akira Miyagawa: Yes, that can happen even after my death. Even after I stop writing songs, things like that can happen. Though . . . I think a creator can't create a thing without a dream like this. We can't make something from complete zero without a dream or hope. We want to believe and have certainty that something that came from ourselves was god - given. Understand the reason why, “Many people sang this song together". We want to believe "What I heard inside my head was good" and “My interpretation of the sound was correct”, “That song was sent from heaven” ... I want the confirmation and know what I created was a good piece. And admitting the reality, that kind of thing can happen after my death. I don't mind if someone sings my song after my death. I don't mind even if my death comes first, before my pieces are accepted by many . . . I've been living for over 50 years . . . that's what I think after my half-century of life.

SeanBird: Thank you very much. If you have any message to the listeners in America, please...

Akira Miyagawa: Oh well, well.... I don't have much ... it's a great pleasure to be here like this today. I think it's a great, great pleasure to have a chance like this . . . it's a limited time but to have my music heard by the listeners in America is wonderful. Thank you very much.

SeanBird: Thank you too.