Akira Miyagawa interviews, 2019

After taking part in the fall 2017 publicity campaign for Yamato 2202, Composer Akira Miyagawa was out of the spotlight for nearly two years, until the arrival of the October 2019 Yamato concert Close To You Tonight. For that occasion, he emerged from rehearsals to speak again in a pair of interviews published close together.

The first was featured in Star Blazers/Yamato Fan Club Magazine Vol. 4, published in late August. The issue focused on music with a large collection of interviews with musicians and performers. Miyagawa’s interview gave an unprecedented look at the philosophy he brings to his work. The second interview appeared in the Close To You Tonight concert program book when the event occurred on October 14, capturing a moment when his enthusiasm for this new experiment was at its peak.

Both interviews are presented here.

When thinking about music, the most important thing is “life”

From Star Blazers/Yamato Fan Club Magazine #4, August 30, 2019

Akira Miyagawa has been playing Yamato music for two generations after his father Hiroshi. As one of the living witnesses of Yamato music, he talks about his memories and his passion for the next generation.

Interviewer: You haven’t just listened to the Yamato music made by your father, you’ve also been involved in composition and performance. Do you remember him as a mentor, or as a comrade who fought on the battlefield?

Miyagawa: Far from being a comrade in battle, he’s the creator of Yamato music. I’m like a little boy who was in the outfield.

I only started to get involved with Yamato music because I was studying composition. Until then, I was studying harmony and counterpoint. If you don’t acquire an accurate sense of the foundations, you’ll never get into arts college. The thing that got me doing it in earnest was Symphonic Suite Space Battleship Yamato (1977). By the time of Farewell to Yamato (1978) I was fully devoted. The White Comet theme is the one most made with counterpoint. Hiroshi Miyagawa wanted to write it in the method of Bach. The reason for that was the pipe organ.

He hadn’t graduated from a music college, so he asked me, “Hey, Akira, is this all right?” I was just a high school student at the time, so I said, “Yes, I think it sounds better that way.” And he said, “Oh, is that so?” He seemed a bit reluctant. (Laughs)

Looking back on it now, I get the feeling that, “Oh, that’s exactly what he should have said.” He’d been composing the White Comet wind score until a couple days before, but then he went back to it. These days, the feelings of my father come to mind from back then. Like, “What bugs me here now that I’m sinking my teeth into the harmony is that I missed my chance to talk about it.” (Laughs)

I’m not sure about my memory because it was a long time ago, but I think that’s what must have happened because I said that. I didn’t notice when I made my ear copy, but when I did an arrangement just a few days ago I thought, “I think it sounded like this, but…maybe I changed it!” And I sweated over it a little.

[Translator’s note: “ear copy” is the term given to rewriting a score by listening to it, if there is no access to sheet music. Akira transcribed all of his father’s compositions this way since no paper scores were left behind.]

At times like those, I take advice from the man called Hiroshi Miyagawa. He’d say, “Let’s see what happens if you express that here…” Even when I’d hear him in my inner thoughts saying, “As for me, I’d do it this way, even as an experiment.” I’d also hear him say, “It’s good enough if you express it like that, because you’re the one playing it.”

Interviewer: Have you been “talking” to Hiroshi from the old days?

Miyagawa: I’ve been doing it a lot since I started composing. Before that, not at all. He was one who appeared and disappeared like the wind. That’s the kind of father he was, always busy going to Ginza. (Laughs)

Interviewer: You didn’t see him often, did you miss him?

Miyagawa: I didn’t feel lonely at all, and I’m at my best when I’m alone! I wonder what that feeling is. I liked to build huge robots with blocks at home, and when it combined with this or that, it became a huge airplane. I thought that up myself and built it. I was never interested in building houses the way the instructions said. It was more important to make it my own way. I loved to build things and play with them.

My father was the same way, probably. My father and his father. My grandfather designed railway bridges, and since he was someone who supervised the construction on site, his drawings remained at home. In other words, as an on-site supervisor, he wasn’t just a designer, he was excited about the process of his design becoming three-dimensional. It’s the same personality type, isn’t it?

My job is to write a score on music paper, and there’s no technology that can capture 100% of that information. It’s 75% at most. Then I go to the site and explain, “It’s like this, it’s like that,” and while doing it, “Oh, I’ll change it here.” My father was more like that. Like, “Melody! Chord!” and hand it out to everyone. Everyone knows it’s hard to play, but they all drink it in together and breathe it out. I like to think of it as a dream that we shape together on the spot. That’s the essence of our work.

My father didn’t discuss his work, but one thing he made clear was that there was hardly a case where you just “write the score and that’s it.” It was perfectly completed and projected when it went out on TV. My grandfather was like that too, not just a designer or just a supervisor. Once you put it out there, you can’t run and hide. It’s quite bold, isn’t it? I wouldn’t want to look like a phony musician. When I go out, I speak clearly. Naturally, since I compose this music myself, too.

Interviewer: Did you feel that when you did ear copies of Hiroshi’s music for Yamato 2199?

Miyagawa: I’ve said this in previous interviews, but I laughed about, “Oh, no wonder dad didn’t have any time back then.” (Laughs)

Like the moon crater song that I told him I liked, it always goes up a semitone over 8 bars, then comes back again. It can be used endlessly. In other words, there wasn’t enough time to make an A melody and a B melody. When I think about it, that’s why it’s harder to add a B melody this time. In anticipation of that, he used a semitone when he didn’t have time to do it better.

This is fantastic, I thought. This guy is smart. After that, the sticking point was the unison. For one melody he wrote, “col trombone.” The word “col” means “to copy.” With another piece written for violin, he’d just have “col violin” in the section for oboe. With this method, you can make a score in no time. You make a sound and it’s like, “Aha! Let’s put some timpani in!” (Laughs)

[Translator’s note: “col” is Italian for “with,” and in music it simply means that one instrument copies the melody of another one. In this case, the oboe would play the same melody as the violin. It’s a method of recycling music.]

But there are jewels in that. It doesn’t mean that you have to write it densely. In the end, you just capture the essence. The rest is concentration, isn’t it? Concentration, or a natural high. It’s important to be able to do that.

Interviewer: Do you have a process for getting to that high area?

Miyagawa: I think being interested in what’s inside you is a big part of it. In other words, how are you breathing? What’s going on with your backbone? Introspection and reflection…I’m interested in that kind of thing. I’ve been to psychology and yoga classes. In those situations, I feel like I’m always feeding my “intuition.” I’m afraid there are no examples of “if you do this, then do that.”

After that, when I read a sentence, I try to catch as much as possible of what isn’t written there. I think everyone who likes writing and haiku does that. It means developing a habit of trying to understand. My intuition tells me that even if it doesn’t seem like something’s there, someone’s thoughts must be behind those words. Sometimes I think it’s just selfish imagination, but don’t you sometimes get the feeling that you’re catching something that isn’t on the surface? I always think that there must be something invisible. Life is the most invisible thing, isn’t it?

I want to see all of it. The invisible things even science can’t see. When you think of it as the ultimate invisible thing as you consider music, what you think about first, with the least risk, is “life.” As long as you think about life, nothing is lost. If any creative activity has nothing to do with life, then it’s fake activity. Any creative activity that lacks life is fake. I’m sure everyone is aware of this. It’s about being conscious. That’s been going on for decades now, and it’s always a high. On the other hand, I still trip over visible stones. (Laughs)

Interviewer: Do you remember what started you thinking about that?

Miyagawa: To be honest, in my case there was a trigger. It’s kind of a big thing, but soon after I got married, we had a child and that child died. That was about 30 years ago. It wasn’t an accident, but a sudden death, and the next few months and years were…it’s a sad story, but at that time we couldn’t allow it to end sadly. As a composer, it’s hard to confront life that closely unless you’re in wartime. So I read various books and thought about it. And I’ve been working with something (called music) to touch that which is unseen. I think it happened because of that incident.

Interviewer: Because you’re a person who creates things, you thought, “I’ll make something.”

Miyagawa: I think so, right? I thought, “I can’t just let it end like this.” I think I cultivated the standards and values of my belief system over that year and a half.

I was absent from work for a while in those days. When I returned to recording TV programs after that, the beauty of that sound stayed in my ears. It was like, “What’s with you guys? You weren’t really trying until now, were you?” (Laughs)

Studio musicians are all friends, so the vector of the music changes suddenly when everybody turns in the same direction. Therefore, I thought I should write music like that. That’s how I should produce it. I shouldn’t neglect that. From there, I started to see a lot of things. I have to talk about this from time to time. It feels very useful.

Interviewer: You took over Yamato music from your father, so who do you want to take it over again when the next generation makes Yamato?

Miyagawa: To everyone who continues to make Yamato, including the designers, the photographers, the composer and the recordists, I want to say, “Struggle!” You can’t make much without getting your hands dirty. Those who are on site now, struggle and get your hands dirty. It may hurt a bit, but do it anyway. You may get burned a bit, but do it anyway. Saying this may make me come off as some kind of “grandiose old guy,” but I’ve learned it from experience, so I’ll leave you with that as my gallant parting words.

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

Let’s all taste the music

From the Close To You Tonight concert program book, October 14, 2019

Akira Miyagawa knows Yamato music better than anyone else, having inherited it from his father, Hiroshi Miyagawa. The man who carries on the music of Space Battleship Yamato talks about Yamato music and his feelings about this concert.

Interviewer: What will this concert be like?

Miyagawa: This time I wanted the concept to be a salon concert with an emphasis on interaction between the audience and the performers. It was Shoji Nishizaki’s idea. I’m thinking about a structure that allows everyone to taste the music.

It’s already been a while since I heard, “This time we’ll hold it in Orchard Hall” [in Shibuya, Tokyo] and when I heard that I thought, “It’s finally time to do a symphonic suite.” Then this year I heard, “It doesn’t seem to be an orchestral concert,” and it became, “Ah, that’s it.” Because the stage is large, I thought it would be a symphonic concert. Since I misunderstood it, maybe everyone else did, too. (Laughs)

Interviewer: When you say Yamato, you get a strong impression of an orchestra, don’t you?

Miyagawa: It was suggested that this time it would be played by just five or six people. How do you do it with that number? I thought hard about how to play the songs that way. For example, White Comet rearranged for wind instruments, or a gypsy violin. We wouldn’t just play the music we’ve made already, it’s more like a concert you can enjoy in chamber style.

I was motivated to do a symphonic suite, but I turned 180 degrees to think about a concert where we could enjoy playing this way. By the way, I’m still fired up for the symphonic suite I was going to do at first. I plan to complete it for a different occasion. (Laughs) That’s something like a free research presentation, isn’t it?

Interviewer: Is this concert close to the image of a live house performance?

Miyagawa: I wonder if it should be thought of that way. I’ll play something in front of everyone and say, “There was a melody like this” and add commentary to give it a flavor while adding a story. I think it will be like that. I’d like to make a concert where each performer’s personality comes out clearly.

Interviewer: Did you choose all the performers who will participate?

Miyagawa: I chose some from my friends who usually play together. Jun Tsunoda [guitar] and Shigeki Ippon [contrabass] were members who actually participated in the Yamato 2202 recordings. This is the first time I’m playing together with Aoi Mizoguchi [on cello]. There aren’t a lot of people who appreciate cello, so I asked for it this time. I think the Space Battleship Yamato generation will probably like it.

Interviewer: The love of Yamato is important, after all, isn’t it?

Miyagawa: That’s right. But it’s more like the love of Hiroshi Miyagawa. (Laughs)

The music of Yamato influenced a lot of people

Interviewer: Space Battleship Yamato influenced a lot of fans. Is it the same in the music world?

Miyagawa: Speaking for myself first, there was a lot of music that influenced me as a teenager. However, I was closer to rock and jazz so the only classical music that influenced me was West Side Story and Space Battleship Yamato. More precisely, Leonard Bernstein and Hiroshi Miyagawa, who wrote that music.

But in the days of the first Yamato TV series [1974-75], even if you call it an orchestra it was a small one that played in the studio, so it was a little different from the original idea of an orchestra. The first time it was organized as a real orchestra was later when they made Symphonic Suite Space Battleship Yamato [1977]. At that time, there was a feeling that my father had stuck his foot into the classical world. He’d done classical and jazz and jumped over the fence into pop, which is why his influence on people who wanted to make music became so widespread.

Interviewer: Does that mean that the world recognizes it as classical music?

Miyagawa: Among those who play violin, there are those who aim for jazz violin and many others who aim for classical violin. Classical is overwhelmingly more common. The music of Yamato influenced those who have those jazz roots and the boys and girls who are planning to play classical music. I myself wanted to study more classical.

Interviewer: At that time there was no other anime music with a classical taste.

Miyagawa: It’s not just a taste, but a structure that gives it that essence. When I listen to the B side of Symphonic Suite, I’m crying by the time we get to Iscandar. I think a lot of people were influenced by that, including my generation.

Interviewer: Music is now no longer just an accompaniment for visuals.

Miyagawa: Right. I feel that it “overarches” the visuals. Also, Yamato seems to have influenced ending theme songs. I think anime endings have a variety of patterns. I was inspired by Lupin III (1971). When I first heard the ending theme, I was dumbstruck by how cool it was. (Hear a 2008 rendition by the original performer here) Both Lupin III and Yamato’s Scarlet Scarf had that kind of ending you could “soak in,” didn’t they? But the first time I heard Scarlet Scarf, it was very strange. Yamato had a great opening theme and its music was the best, but at the time I thought, this ending is just an outdated Showa ballad! (Laughs)

But there was something good about it that I didn’t understand at the time. It was a good song. The lyrics are great and so is the melody. That’s why it endures. Above all, you can feel the worldview and the theme of the story in that song. I think Scarlet Scarf was the first song of its kind.

Interviewer: Moreover, it was remarkable to do that with an SF mecha anime as the subject.

Miyagawa: That’s right. It was okay to have an ending that makes you feel, “I can immerse myself in this.” It’s possible that everyone noticed that.

I will settle White Comet for myself

Interviewer: The innovative musical flow of Yamato was inherited into the music of Farewell to Yamato. This time the concert will mainly feature the music of the remake, Yamato 2202. What do you feel are the characteristics of Farewell’s music?

Miyagawa: When I took on the music for 2202, I first listened to the sound sources of Farewell. I wanted to understand what my father was trying to do, in his own way, to make it different from the first Yamato. Did he try to step more into classical music?

First, there are a lot of arrangements for string instruments. In the first Yamato, it felt like the rhythm and brass sections handled the string parts. The strings and the horns were both considerably increased in Farewell. I guess he decided it was suitable for this work. And pipe organ. He thought he’d be able to make it with those two foundations. If it was my father’s style, and if there’s a lot of brass, it would become jazz and rock by all means. I think he tried to bring it closer to classical with more strings. He thought it would make a difference.

I think he went with pipe organ to give a foreboding image of a scary enemy. Because the music was made before the visuals, he wrote it before he knew how scary the enemy would be. Using the instrument called the pipe organ, he pushed the image of the White Comet as far as possible. He entrusted the main part to the pipe organ and surrounded it with string instruments. I think that’s how it came together. My father wasn’t the type of person who put a plan together and made it, he just pushed an image as far as he could, and it got close to the visuals.

Interviewer: The idea of entrusting an enemy’s image to a specific instrument was wonderful. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a pipe organ, I only see the image of an evil enemy. (Laughs)

Miyagawa: That was decisive, wasn’t it? No one imagines Gatlantis from the sound of a flute. (Laughs) By the way, there’s an instrument called a Hurdy-Gurdy, the prototype of the violin, and it’s not well-known, but it also has the perfect sound for an enemy image.

(See an introduction of the Hurdy-Gurdy here and hear a sample performance here.)

Interviewer: The White Comet Theme is included in this concert.

Miyagawa: When I was coming here on the train today, I noticed that the phrase “Daaan…da-dan…” in the White Comet Theme is the same as “Yaaa…ma-to” at the end of the Yamato theme. (Laughs) Interesting, isn’t it? Since the same person made it, the motif will be similar, won’t it? Also, as I said earlier, I’m going to try a gypsy violin-style arrangement of the White Comet Theme. That melody is similar to the progression of [violinist] Sarasate or Paganini’s songs. I’ve already written a score, but it’s an arrangement for wind instruments. The pipe organ is also a wind instrument because it uses pipes to produce sound. That’s why I thought it would certainly be suitable as wind music, so I wrote it that way. Another thing I’m thinking about is an organ concerto with both organ and orchestra.

When I made an album called Acoustic Yamato, for Columbia a while ago, I took on the challenge of a jazz arrangement of White Comet, and it was very interesting. That motif has the same bite. So I’m going to play with that song again. This time I’ll take the challenge with three arrangements: gypsy violin, wind instruments, and the organ concerto. With this, I intend to settle White Comet for myself in a way. I’ll take the opportunity to announce the wind and organ concerto at another time, since I don’t think I can play it by myself any more. (Laughs) By arranging it and leaving it that way, I intend to produce my own results.

Interviewer: Speaking of arrangements, I was surprised to hear a taiko drum used in Ark of the Stars.

Miyagawa: That was [Director] Yutaka Izubuchi’s idea. That guy is amazing. I had been thinking about something comparable to the pipe organ creating the image of Gatlantis, and when he proposed the taiko drum, I thought, “That’s breathtaking.”

Interviewer: On the other hand, what were the guidelines for new pieces in 2202, like Great Emperor Zordar, which is also part of this performance?

Miyagawa: Great Emperor Zordar aims for a dissociative effect. In The Godfather, there’s a scene where Michael, played by Al Pacino, purges his betrayers, and we hear a hymn. It flows through the overlapping church scene, and it completely conflicts with the murder in the purge scenes. Your feelings are shaken by the contrast. That was very striking, so I tried to incorporate the effect into Zordar’s theme.

Interviewer: That’s the Zordar theme? It’s a piece that also makes me feel sadness.

Miyagawa: The pipe organ resounds through the scene because he’s at the heart of a mighty empire, but I thought there might be a side to him that we don’t know. He’s not just attacking and destroying, he has circumstances of his own. He becomes a more three-dimensional character when you think that way.

Interviewer: Is there some pressure when you write a new piece of Yamato music?

Miyagawa: It’s not like a Yamato switch turns on when I start doing Space Battleship Yamato. That’s true for everything. At all times, the ruler that works on me is, “Would my father do it this way?” I can’t help it any more. My father’s influence is still great. In 2017 I was in charge of the NHK morning TV drama Hiyoko, and when I make that music, it’s still true. Not just my father, but also Leonard Bernstein.

It seems like a virtual ruler is always working in my head, the people who have influenced me saying, “This melody will support you.” I don’t think it’s just me, but it’s also the same for novelists and painters. Certainly, a work is born inside of you, but strictly speaking it’s not something you create all on your own. I respect any writer, and the ruler should work on everyone who has ever been influenced. Even if you make something in defiance, you’re still responding to an influence.

When I heard my father’s music for Space Battleship Yamato, I thought, “Wow, Dad!” My children also play music, and they started by imitating. I wonder if they also thought, “Cool, Dad!” (Laughs)

Interviewer: When you initially took on 2202, you said that you were worried about it. What are your thoughts on the next work, Yamato 2205, The New Voyage?

Miyagawa: By doing 2202, I clearly understood that I have the grounding to make Yamato music. I’m no longer afraid after doing 2202, and I can see the possibility of continuing.

I don’t know what it will be like. (Laughs) This is my first try.

Interviewer: How will the songs we’ve been hearing about be played? It seems like it will be a fun concert.

Miyagawa: This concert is locked and loaded! You can describe it that way. It’s not like you can’t do Yamato music without a large orchestra.

I think the good thing about a concert is its sense of reality. The sound is invisible, but when you listen to the live sound produced by a performer in front of you, doesn’t it feel like you can reach out and touch it? There’s a feeling of atmosphere and experience. Let’s share that with everyone in the venue this time. I think that’s all there is to it.

Besides, you can’t reproduce any of it as accompaniment to the visuals. (Laughs) I hope everyone will compare by listening to a CD when they get back home. The only thing it has in common with the CD is that the special arrangements are played by some of the same people. Therefore, you haven’t heard any of the songs before that you’ll hear in the venue. It’s the first time we’ve performed them. So I don’t know what it’s going to be like. (Laughs) It’s unprecedented. That’s why I’m looking forward to this concert, too. I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is truly live.

(Interview conducted July 7, 2019)

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