chamber opera
soprano, clarinet, violin, trombone, double bass, perc,
double-action toy piano, sound tracks and two channel video installation.

duration 66 minutes

Mikae Natsuyama, soprano

libretto: Adrian Hornsby
set design: Bart Visser

produced by Roland Spekle / Barooni

original creation: 2010 November Music festival NL.

revised version premiere: June 9 2011, Holland Festival, Amsterdam.

Japanese premiere: November 2, 2012, Shibuya Auditorium, Tokyo

A love story about sound, time, being, and being nineteen

A.M. is a feature length music theatre performance for soprano, four musicians, sound tracks and a large video installation. A.M. explores the deep, mysterious and somewhat exotic heart of Tokyo city night life. Inspired by the writings of much appraised best selling author Haruki Murakami, Noordegraaf dove deep into the city of Tokyo, to find the heart of this immense and dense society. From this, a new and sparkling story evolved, collaborating with British playwright Adrian Hornsby.

Yoshi, a recent college drop-out, is obsessed with recording the secret music of Tokyo at night. He’s also obsessed with pink cakes, clementine peel, the disappearance of consciousness and women’s breasts. Riding a torrent of thoughts he goes out with a contact microphone to feel for the hidden echoes and reverberations stored within the bodies of vending machines.

Kyoko, a girl from Hokkaido, is wandering night Tokyo search of her adult self. Caught between introversion and a desire to be understood, she feels oddly adrift within her own body. Ever since a childhood illness affected her hearing, she has been haunted by the sound of a woman singing — a beautiful voice coming from the other side of silence, but seemingly trapped behind glass, without air, without sound ...

A.M. ingeniously intertwines modern opera with film and mixed-media theatre — deftly weaving music with narrative to create a rich meditation upon sound, time, being, and being nineteen.

It’s late in Tokyo, and the trains have stopped running. People who haven’t made it home are marking out little places to sleep. Others are going deeper into the night.

In a café Yoshi and Kyoko bump into each other. They lived in neighbouring apartments as children until, eight years ago, Kyoko’s family moved north to Hokkaido. She is nineteen now. In some ways though they have barely changed: Yoshi still talks about everything all at once; Kyoko is still a little diffident, as though on the periphery of herself. They exchange numbers and part.

Kyoko’s return visit to Tokyo is confusing. When she left she was a girl. Now she wants to explore the side she never saw — the night city, the adult city. She wanders the streets turning her way through a series of interior monologues. Is she a woman now? The music of her thoughts melds with the soprano’s arias. It’s a voice that has been trapped inside her head ever since the mumps affected her hearing as a child.

Spliced together with this are Yoshi’s interior monologues. He is out making recordings of the city. He has a theory that the inner lives of people are left reverberating in the things they touch, like sounds in the body of a musical instrument. He imagines all Tokyo laid out like a soundboard beneath twelve million strings. He listens — listening for one, for someone.

The narrative and musical elements draw together to create a stirring landscape of sounds, images, thoughts and emotions. Through a series of parallel scenes they build toward an astonishing climax, in which Yoshi and Kyoko fall through their surroundings and into a realm where the soprano sings on the other side of silence. It seems to offer to both a connection, and a release.

Yoshi and Kyoko meet again with the dawn coming in. The trains are starting up again, and it it time for her to go. He takes a step toward her, and they hold each other.

A final aria washes the night away. People are picking up milk and hurrying down escalators. Much of what has passed feels like a dream. And yet, like a dream, we carry something from it. It is the feeling of having heard something inside someone else.

A.M. on stage presents a remarkable synthesis of opera, film and theatre — drawing freely on such forms as arias, spoken word monologues, film scenes, documentary footage and mixed-media staging. Yet running through all these elements, and providing the magic glue, is the music of the story itself. A.M., its characters, and the audience too are brought together around the experience of sound.

The two main characters, Yoshi and Kyoko, appear on film via a two-screen video installation. In the space between them is the soprano, whose live performance turns the physical theatre into an inner dream, while the “real world” of the fiction exists purely as projected light. As the piece develops, it reaches deeper into this dream, ultimately realising it for the characters, and releasing them through song.

The result is a hypnotising interweaving of music, narrative and the human voice. A.M. is in part an exploration of metaphysical ideas, with streams of thoughts drifting through the philosophy of being. And yet the piece remains strikingly fresh and unpretentious. The love story at its core is movingly simple, and its telling encompasses a picaresque sequence of night encounters which sparkle with humour. In their separate journeys, Yoshi and Kyoko pass variously a man searching for his keys, a woman at a Coke machine .... Each incident imparts a mercurial moment of the wisdom of the night.

A further role is played by night Tokyo itself. Specially shot documentary footage captures the unique visual feel of the city in the small hours of the a.m.. Its lights, architecture, moods and spaces create a mesmerising continuous presence, almost like a force field through which the story and characters move. And while the essential themes of A.M. are universally human, it speaks also of Japan — through the rhythms of its investigations, and the relationships and distances it explores.

In approaching Japan, the writing of Haruki Murakami provided a rich source of inspiration, and a certain brush-and-ink lightness to the touch. The story was developed through personal interviews with Tokyo-ers, while certain psychological aspects drew on the novels of Kobo Abe. A.M. was further informed by the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara and Yasujiro Ozu, and the documentaries of Jake Clennell, Kristian Petri, Jan Röed and Johan Söderberg.

For his composition Noordegraaf used a broad spectrum of colours and city sounds, recorded during various lengthy night time sessions wandering through the streets of Tokyo. He scored for a (Baroque) soprano an ensemble four players panned out over multiple loud speakers. Noordegraaf musically shapes the contemplation from an exotic culture, mirroring to the West and back to the East too.

from the HOLLAND FESTIVAL catalogue, interview by Joep Stapel with Arnoud Noordegraaf

The Breathing of Tokyo

Composer and director Arnoud Noordegraaf on A.M.

Tokyo itself is one of the leading characters in A.M., the multimedia production by composer and director Arnoud Noordegraaf, a new version of which is premiering at the Holland Festival. For an entire night, we follow a boy and a girl on their ramblings through the city, searching for each other and for themselves. The music is a variegated collage of tone colours, city sounds, snatches of jazz and muzak, and in the midst of all this, the crystal-clear soprano of Mikae Natsuyama. Tokyo crackles, rustles and coos in this sensory reflection on identity and individuality.

JS: An earlier version of A.M. premiered in 2010 during November Music. To what extent is this a new composition?

AN: ‘Although the title has remained the same, for me it really feels like the premiere of a new work. When the Holland Festival asked me to make a new version of A.M., I was immediately enthusiastic, particularly because they guaranteed a live ensemble. Much of the film footage from the old version is also used in this new version, but I completely reworked the dramaturgy from scratch, together with the librettist, and then I set to work writing new music for everything.’

JS: Where did the first idea for A.M. come from?

AN: ‘I had already been toying with the idea of doing something with the work of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. You might say there is a certain stylistic affinity: depicting a situation very realistically while letting surrealistic elements shine through – that’s what I like to do, too. In 2009, I took a couple of Murakami’s books with me and went to Tokyo, where I wandered around for a week. I very soon got the feeling that the city itself is a kind of organism, which despite the enormous amount of people exudes a certain relaxation. You begin to feel you’re only a particle in a whole, one of the blood cells streaming through the veins of a gigantic being. At night the city is at rest, to be sure, but it continues to breathe. So I got the idea that Tokyo itself had to be one of the main characters in the performance. Murakami’s books soon disappeared from my satchel, because I began to soak up the influences that formed his work. Suddenly I could clearly see where Murakami’s atmosphere of everyday absurdity comes from, and I think that the scenarist and librettist Adrian Hornsby was very successful in capturing that ambience.’

JS: What is the story of A.M.?

AN: ‘The piece takes place during one night in Tokyo. That is the first meaning of the title, the nocturnal side of the clock. Besides that, A.M. refers to the first-person singular form of the verb ‘to be’. The structure of the play is determined by the encounter between a boy and a girl, who each then go their own way. The boy makes night-time recordings of the vending machines that are found everywhere on the streets in Tokyo, in accordance with his theory that all of the sounds of the city are captured within them. During the day there is too much noise for this. The girl wants to find out whether she is independent enough to spend a night rambling about the city on her own. Like Murakami, the two are searching for the form of their individuality, and for them this is a quest, almost a fight. The Japanese culture is strongly focused on the group, not on the individual. In our part of the world, it’s sooner the opposite: we are used to total individuality, and feel almost inconvenienced if we have to deal with a group feeling. That difference is something which intrigued me immensely, and by showing the tension between the group and the individual in Japan, we hold up a kind of reverse mirror to the Western spectator. Only at the end of the night and do the boy and the girl meet one another again, each of them an important experience the richer – and a part of that experience is that they have a bond with one another.’

JS: The images of people in night-time Tokyo are sometimes almost voyeuristic – and absurd, like the businessmen sleeping on the street. How did you film them?

AN: ‘We had a big video camera for the scenes with the actors, but on the street we took a lot of footage with digital single-lens reflex cameras. They are quick and flexible to use, and what’s more, don’t attract attention. Filming on the street in Tokyo is almost impossible; actually you have to block off the whole street and ask everyone who walks by for their permission. In the case of those sleeping businessmen, that was impossible anyway, of course. You see them everywhere; on Friday nights they go drinking with their boss, and the etiquette is that you can only go home after the boss has finished drinking. Evidently that’s often at a time when the last train has already gone, and since only the boss can afford a taxi, these people fall asleep at the station or even collapse totally plastered in the middle of the street. You don’t get robbed, not even when you are sleeping off your hangover and your laptop and your briefcase are lying around on the pavement. In Japan you don’t have that much street crime – again, this has to do with that feeling of collectivism. The Mafia are formidably organized, but you don’t see petty thieves.’

JS: The camera sometimes follows the passersby in such a way that you almost can’t imagine it’s still there – as if it’s the night itself that is looking.

AN: ‘Often the camera was practically invisible: when you have a camera lying on your knees, people don’t expect you to be filming. What’s more, in Japan you are expected to realize that you have to respect the privacy of others, so people assume they’re not being filmed. That’s how the scene in the Starbucks was filmed; for such things, you’re actually supposed to rent the entire place, which turned out to be very difficult, seeing as they are all open 24/7. So we did it guerrilla style, with the camera on the edge of our table, while the actors performed their scene three times over.’

JS: As A.M. progresses, the division between stage and film becomes blurred. What’s the relation between the film images and the live actions?

AN: ‘In all of my work, I look for a combination of film techniques and the possibilities of live music, which appeals to the emotions more directly. That’s also the case in A.M. All of the information about the story of the boy and the girl come from the film images, which are projected on screens that are set up at both sides of the stage, so that the audience continually has to choose where to look.

The four live instrumentalists have a very central place, in the middle of the stage. They don’t have a specific theatrical role, but are a very obvious presence. The soprano, Mikae Natsuyama, can be part of the ensemble – there are five places – but she can also step out of the group and explore the rest of the space. And indeed, this, too, is an image of the individual who is questioning her place in the collective.

The soprano has an ambivalent role in the piece. The audience forms two walls of the space in which she is caught, making it subtly complicit in her confinement. Gradually it becomes clear that she not only has a musical role, but is also a crucial part of the story: she is the one who connects the two main characters and tries to bring them together. She is a cross between the chorus in a Greek tragedy, which comments on the action, and a kind of angel of the night, who tries to effectuate something within that story. In doing so, she constantly looks back, and ahead to the apotheosis of A.M.: the moment in which you decide who you are, where you stand.’

© Holland Festival / Joep Stapel 2011