After the culture shock that were his training years on the east coast of America, the Japanese music pioneer Gen Tanaka (1994) is rediscovering his musical identity and spiritual path. Tanaka was one of the four nominees for the Gaudeamus Award 2021.
“Get out of your slumber! That’s probably the underlying message of all the music I’m writing at the moment. I try to make my music feel like a splash of water on a drunk person’s face.” Tanaka writes piercing, highly dynamic music, with rich, dense chords that sound like a call to arms. “That sort of density and richness of sound is something I draw upon from things like gamelan music, where essentially generating an overwhelming amount of vibration is used to dismantle the defenses of the listener.”
Tanaka’s music comes from a deeply spiritual place, but is a far cry from what most people would think of as ‘spiritual music’: “You know, drones, people hitting gongs, chill stuff. My music is not that chill. I try to portray real sensations, feelings of suddenly getting a much bigger perspective on everything. It can mean things like making peace with chaos and death. It’s never easy.” Tanaka wants the audience to be moved by his music and is skeptical of a purely intellectual approach to music. “Pop music is everywhere nowadays and it’s primarily concerned with affect. It really makes you feel stuff. In response to that, I think many composers have looked for cerebral gratification instead. Personally, I think pop music just raises the bar on how visceral music should aim to be.”
Similarly, he feels that the constant drive to innovate that has long driven contemporary composed music has lost its relevance in our fast changing times. “I think innovation is exciting, but novelty for the sake of novelty feels like a dead end and resembles economics too much for my taste. The focus on innovation often leads to music that is mainly intellectual, not originating in the body. While I think this ‘disembodiment’ in favor of ideas and symbols is precisely the cause of many of our problems today.”
Whereas a lot of eastern religious music is largely improvised, for Tanaka strict composition is still the best technique to achieve what he wants. “If you look at my music, it’s almost always a group of people acting like one single engine, like one instrument. And I think that’s really a strength of composition: getting multiple people to act together, and sculpting very specific forms and shapes.”
The main piece that Tanaka submitted for the Gaudeamus Award was called square one. As with all the other nominees, Tanaka’s main submission will be performed during the festival, but in his case, the piece has since been completely rewritten, and retitled to Vamachara. “I feel like as a composer, I’ve only really just started. I’m beginning to realize that with very large pieces I just need to write and write and write. And then the musical language that I’m using becomes more and more clear. And then I throw away everything that I wrote and start over.”