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Sunny with a Chance of Beetle

This article has been originally published in Japanese dated February 3, 2024, on Style&Idea.

Chatori Shimizu in the Real World: Composition through Journey

As I live in the "Real World", I engage my five senses daily, relishing every moment. During meals, I focus my attention on my taste buds to savor flavors, pondering ingredients, soup stocks, and seasonings. While traveling, I absorb changing landscapes, inhaling scents, and feeling the air on my skin. Vital to me is regularly immersing myself in diverse creative communities, fostering constructive criticism and artistic inspiration.


In high school, I harbored aspirations of becoming a composer. Yet, I found classical music and its derivatives too formalistic and somewhat dull. Choosing to study computer music at Kunitachi College of Music over a conventional composition major was a bit of a gamble for myself to be a composer. I explored live electronics and sound generation under Shintaro Imai, while seeking composition tutelage from Motoharu Kawashima. Some of my compositions from those years include "shikaku" (2013) and "fiddle" (2014).


Propelled by a fervent desire to explore broader horizons, I moved to New York upon graduating from Kunitachi to pursue sound arts at Columbia University's MFA program. However, shortly after moving, I fractured my leg, depleting my scholarship funds on exorbitant medical bills of the United States. Unable to afford rent, I took refuge in Columbia's Computer Music Center with a sleeping bag. The building was accessible 24 hours a day, and other artists enrolled in the visual arts MFA program had their studios in the same building, where they worked tirelessly to create their art (to be more blunt, they also lived there). Here, I witnessed unconventional and unorthodox art performances, where I describe it as “expressions without a seatbelt”. It was artistic freedom devoid of constraints.


After receiving my degree at Columbia, I embarked on various artist residencies across the United States, and for half a year, I delved into research at Pittsburgh University as a Mitsubishi Foundation Fellow. During this period, I composed narrative-driven pieces like the voiceless SATB piece "Kingyo Obsession" (2017). Yet, I began to feel an unease in my comfortable environment, and started yearning for a more honest criticism for my works. I began to admire the music scenes of Europe, where tradition and theory was more prevalent (at least that is what I have heard back then). At age 27, I enrolled in the master's program at Germany's Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber, studying under Mark Andre and Stefan Prins. In Germany, a focus on logos underscored the compositional process, demanding verbal articulation of my works. This shift from intuitive creation to conceptual and theoretical explanation proved both invigorating and enriching. Post-graduation, I remained in Germany, creating works like "Nenneko Pantsu" (2021) and "Ebi Revolution" (2022), integrating choreography and visual elements into my compositions.

Ebi Revolution (2022): strings&noise (Sophia Goidinger-Koch and Barbara Riccabona)

In October 2023, I relocated to Taipei, Taiwan, as a grantee of the Asian Cultural Council. Here, I mainly work with musicians and dancers who practice free improvisation. This includes collaborating with a middle-aged male dancer who spins around completely naked for an hour and a half without a break, and participating in an improvisational session with a sheng player who plays her instrument like a pan flute. I feel that I am in a sensual realm of expression, which is completely opposite from that of Germany, where everything was explained with words. Many of the performers I met in Taiwan had never studied “art music” structurally in academia, yet they produced music that truly and genuinely touched my heart. Creating music intuitively with my friends in Taiwan is the most relaxed and fun thing I've ever done, and I feel like I'm able to create music with my “seatbelts” off, in a sense different from that of the United States.


Looking back, I realize that every few years, like a pendulum, I send out “Chatori Shimizu in the World of Reality” into completely opposite creative environments. The diagram below represents the creative environments in which I was immersed in the country where I was based. Of course, this is by no means saying that all of the German music scene requires theoretical and conceptual explanations, and that all of the Taiwanese scene creates works based on sensibility. This is a simplified and subjective representation of the orientation of the communities in each country that I was lucky to be immersed in, which greatly influenced me.


Change in expressive environments

Contemporary music undoubtedly stems from European musical traditions. While I have extensively studied Western art music and continue to compose using its creative methods, I recognize that Western approaches are not the sole "correct answer" for contemporary music when considering global perspectives. In the future, I aim to create music works that deeply resonate with me, transcending classifications such as auditory or visual art. I aspire to draw inspiration from a diverse array of musical cultures, unrestricted by the confines of "Western" sounds.

Chatori Shimizu as a Composer (1): Liberation of “Time”


Up to this point, I have been discussing the influences and experiences of "Chatori Shimizu in the Real World" in a somewhat objective manner. Now, as "Chatori Shimizu as a Composer," I would like to introduce a method I often consciously employ – "releasing the flow of music".


Music, fundamentally, is a time-based art. Classical music typically adheres to time signatures and tempo specifications, forming a metronomic time identity. Conversely, music like Gagaku (Japanese court music) features a temporal nature where the beat's expansion and contraction are left to the player's discretion. Such ambiguous beat intervals are challenging to notate in Western staff notation. My journey with Gagaku began when I learned shō at the encouragement of a Danish exchange student while studying at Kunitachi. To this day, exposure to Gagaku's unique time identity remains invaluable to me.


Metronomic time identity serves composers well. It allows for the notation of intricate rhythmic information and its communication to performers. In large ensemble performances, such as orchestras, uniform counting of beats makes practical sense. However, should rational rhythms be applied universally to all music? Wouldn't this constrain the music's freedom and potentially suffocate its essence? Moreover, as both a pianist and a shō player, I understand that actual performance often diverges from the composer's envisioned interpretation. Factors like space size and audience presence significantly influence the timbre and reverberation time. It is the performer who translates the written score into an auditory experience for the audience and can adapt to the performance space's characteristics. Witnessing performers constrained by notation based on metronomic time identity is disheartening. Consequently, I strive to provide performers with a flexible temporal framework whenever possible.


"Self-Portrait" (2022), commissioned by "Oto-to-Kotoba-no-Aida", exemplifies this method. This piece for piano and calligraphy does not use time signatures, permitting flexibility in piano pedaling and enabling the pianist and calligrapher to determine the optimal time flow for each performance. The piano's sound movement comprises a "call", akin to a grace note, and a "response" denoting the conclusion of the call. The pianist adjusts the duration of reverberation based on the day's circumstances. Fermatas on rests or notes don't mark rhythmic units but instead create a temporal vortex, incorporating various sounds like decaying piano reverberations, ink falling, or brush friction on Japanese paper. During performances, it is the performers who take the stage, entrusted with crafting the optimal blend of sound and time.

As the title implies, "Self-Portrait" serves as a representation of myself. I requested the calligrapher to craft the character for "monkey" (猿) in a manner that mirrors my form, elongated and slender. While in conventional writing, the left side is written first, I have instructed the calligrapher to begin writing with "𠮷" (tsuchiyoshi) in the upper right corner. It is worth noting that "𠮷" conveys the notion of "moral superiority". At times, many individuals perceive themselves as morally superior to others. Online platforms abound with abusive language masquerading as "justice", criticizing others. Similarly, real-world factions engage in seemingly futile conflicts. While I'm not averse to confrontation or necessary criticism, encountering individuals lacking the imagination to consider others' perspectives, proudly clinging to their "morality," fills me with a sense of darkness and pessimism, viewing them with contempt.


However, I eventually realized that I, too, unwittingly positioned myself in a morally superior stance, delineating a divide between myself and others, passing judgment on those who "brandish their self-centered morality". This realization sparks another cycle of "detestation" within us, elevating ourselves to a higher moral standard than those yet to grasp the concept of “ignorance”. In Western philosophy, the distinction between humans and animals has long been pondered, with "morality based on imagination" often cited as a human attribute lacking in animals.


Humans, in essence, may be monkeys blindly embracing the notion of possessing "morality based on imagination". No offense intended to monkeys.

Chatori Shimizu as a Composer (2): Liberation of “Space”


The second important method I employ in my musical compositions involves designing the environment to shape the viewers' "experience" from a blank slate. Traditional concerts of classical and contemporary music often occur in shoebox or vineyard-shaped halls, where performers occupy the stage, and the audience typically faces them. Adhering to this convention, whether consciously or not, imposes significant constraints on our creative freedom.


"shikaku", titled using the Japanese homophones "四角 (square)" and "死角 (blind spot)," endeavors to completely redefine the conventional understanding of physical space based on these homophones' concepts. In the center sits a prepared piano, surrounded by four groups of instruments: two percussions, three wind, and one string instrument, arranged on each an independent stage forming a square. Each instrument group faces a different direction, performing in synchronization with the conductor's real-time image displayed on analog screens placed for each group. The audience experiences the music from seats positioned around the musicians, all facing outward from the square formation. Naturally, depending on the viewer's location, a "blind spot" of music emerges, resulting in varied auditory experiences throughout the space.

Score excerpt of "shikaku" (2013)

Shortly before I embarked on composing this piece, I found myself experiencing the same dream every night—a journey through utter darkness in search of something indiscernible. The urge to seek out this unknown entity overwhelmed me, compelling me to venture forth despite the obscurity shrouding my path. In the depths of darkness, my only point of contact with that elusive "something" was through touch. Each night, its form varied in size, shape, and texture, yet its essence remained unmistakably consistent. Contact with this enigmatic "something" brought a sense of serenity in my dreams, leading to a swift and pleasant awakening. Perhaps this recurring dream echoes the essence of "The Blind Men and the Elephant", a fable originating from India. "shikaku" is a music composition born from this mysterious experience.


Another composition I'd like to highlight is "Nenneko Pantsu", featuring a glowing soprano saxophone and installation. Commissioned by Yui Sakagoshi, a saxophonist based in France, the music video was filmed in spring 2021 in room 402 of Hotel Grafalgar in Strasbourg. Initially conceived as a music video, this piece challenged the conventional notion of premiering works before live audiences, instead offering musical experiences to viewers via YouTube - an unconventional approach in contemporary music.


The music video unfolds from the first-person perspective of the protagonist. It begins with the protagonist riding the elevator to the basement fourth floor, the doors opening to reveal a short hallway leading to room 402. After unlocking the door with a card key, the protagonist enters the room to find a peculiar woman playing a glowing saxophone. As the music unfolds, numerous underwear emerge from unexpected places. The saxophonist alternates between ambiguous gestures and clear messages, evoking a sense of chaos and pressure for the protagonist, pieced together from fragmented moments of the past. Ultimately, overwhelmed by the surreal narrative, the protagonist flees back to the elevator as the music ends with the closing of the doors.

There are several advantages to creating a complete music work in video format. Primarily, it allows for a fixed perspective from the audience. In addition to saxophone sounds, this work incorporates choreography and various staging elements. We can also anticipate theatrical effects by panning the camera over preparations. By uploading music videos to platforms like YouTube, audiences can experience the works without constraints of time or place. For me, creating music without the sole intention of premiering in physical spaces liberates me from preconceived notions of the "ideal form" of composition, to which I had unconsciously adhered. Following the upload of "Nenneko Pantsu" on YouTube, an unexpected turn of events led to an even newer approach.


In the summer of 2021, saxophonist Serafima Verkolat inquired about performing this work at the St. Petersburg Contemporary Music Festival in Russia. After consideration, I concluded that "Nenneko Pantsu" could adapt well to live performances without compromising its original concept. On a side note, this occurred approximately six months before Russia's military invasion of Ukraine. I never imagined that a war would start, however, perhaps I am just not versed in geopolitics.


To ensure reproducibility, I created comprehensive performance notes, expanding their length approximately fivefold from the original score. These notes detail performer specifications, costume instructions, bed and lighting installation, and pedal wiring for electronics. Choreography and audience perspective are critical aspects of this work; omitting them would alter its essence. Consequently, I have decided to mandate a live projection with a videographer in performances.


To replicate the video version of "Nenneko Pantsu" as closely as possible in concert settings, only the "mysterious woman playing the glowing saxophone" is permitted on stage. However, live projection necessitates the videographer's presence, posing a challenge. Ultimately, I decided the videographer would wear black attire and act as Kuroko - a stagehand camouflaged in black where both performers and audiences pretends to not be able to see. The dedicated videographer projects real-time footage from a smartphone camera onto a screen, presenting audiences with the same perspective as the music video.


In addition to notated music, choreography, and electronics trigger instructions, we added a new staff for live camera in the score. This discovery of live projection significantly influenced my subsequent compositions.

図6. Nenneko Pantsu (2).jpg

Score excerpt of "Nenneko Pantsu" (2021)

As times change, our ways of experiencing music are diversifying. While I continue to compose music intended for traditional performance venues, where performers and audience members face each other from the stage and seats, I am also intrigued by composing for non-conventional spaces, both in physical and virtual realities. Additionally, I explore digital distribution of music works as videos. Contemplating how to present music works from a zero-based perspective expands the possibilities and broadens the range of expression.

Chatori Shimizu as an Observer: Distance from Self


I admire Chatori Shimizu's creations and eagerly anticipate the future music works he will produces. Exploring Chatori's music compositions from a third-person perspective, observing the fragments of the unconscious realm that permeate the works, and attempting to articulate them is fascinating – a process he may not even be aware of.


Human beings exist in a perpetual state of balance between opposing states of existence – front and back, inside and outside, ego and non-ego. These boundaries are ever-changing and increasingly intricate. Even humans themselves cannot fully comprehend their essence. Consequently, the composer may not grasp the full essence of their own works.


During the creation of "Nenneko Pantsu", I pondered the concept of "freedom" in life, a subject that has been debated throughout history. One question that arose was whether we experience more "freedom" in our awakened state or in our dream state.


The appearance of underwear in the work symbolizes "something we all wish to conceal and bury deep within ourselves". While many people wear underwear daily, displaying them to strangers is deemed inappropriate. Similarly, society often suppresses past failures or unconventional tendencies, deeming them "shameful" and hiding them from public view. However, in our dream state, these suppressed fragments may surface unexpectedly. This suggests that, in exchange for relinquishing control, one may experience a form of "liberation" in the dream state.


Upon completing the music video for "Nenneko Pantsu" and reflecting on it repeatedly, I realized that "Chatori Shimizu as a Composer" perceived the world of reality as an "elevator car", while symbolizing the dream state as a larger "hotel room". Although the elevator and hotel room initially held no profound meaning during composition, as an observer, I felt the real world was a narrow "elevator car" and the dream state a more "free" environment.


British philosopher Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) asserted that an artist and viewer can discern the artist's mental state through the work. I share this belief, viewing myself as both an artist and observer, constantly making discoveries throughout my journey.


Reflecting on past experiences, I recall a time when I felt akin to Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis", experiencing a transformation into a beetle. In the fall of 2019, amidst dissatisfaction with my compositions and various life stresses, I felt physically and mentally exhausted. Although I did not physically transform, the experience left me immobile and despondent for over two weeks, resembling Samsa's plight.


In 2022, I received a commission from double bassist Seiya Kondoh to compose "Hentai Beetle" (2022) based on my beetle-like experience. The work premiered in Tokyo, featuring percussionist Mizuki Aita. Six beetle legs, constructed from wooden poles painted brown and black, were affixed to the contrabass, enabling independent movement. As the bassist lay on the floor, the beetle legs, futon, and double bass were assembled, with wires connecting the legs to black slippers worn by Kuroko, the percussionist. When Kuroko moved as notated on score, the beetle's legs synchronized accordingly.

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Score excerpt of "Hentai Beetle" (2022)

The composition commences with an alarm clock ringing loudly, its blaring tones echoing through the space. Soon after, the rhythmic breathing of the beetle permeates the air, punctuated by the unsettling creaks of its six legs in motion. The double bass emits sporadic low notes, merging seamlessly into the cacophony, forming a disorienting passage of time. Periodically, the percussionist strikes a large drum like a thunderbolt, momentarily bringing the audience back to their senses before plunging them back into the murky depths of uncertainty, blurring the lines between dream and reality.


This piece invites the audience to slowly circulate clockwise around the prone figures of the double bass player and percussionist lying on the stage floor. Their gaze is directed downwards towards the pathetic beetle, trapped in its bed. While ideally, this immersive experience encourages movement, logistical constraints may prevent such audience interaction. During the world premiere at the Recital Hall of Tokyo Opera City, audience mobility was restricted. Therefore, I opted for live projection, akin to "Nenneko Pantsu", to simulate the perspective of one walking clock-wise around the musicians – allowing the audience to virtually traverse the scene.


Contemplating the composition process, I deliberated over whether to have the percussionist exist independently from the beetle on stage. However, the notion of multiple players, particularly someone other than the beetle, sharing the same space felt disconcerting. Thus, I designated the percussion player as a Kuroko, remaining invisible to the viewer, preserving the solitary presence of the beetle.


Initially, my decision to instruct the percussionist to lie on the floor and manipulate the beetle's legs was instinctual. Yet, during rehearsals, observing the piece from a third-person perspective, I realized the symbolism embedded in the Kuroko percussionist. They represented the minute "human" aspect lingering within me post-transformation, a futile struggle to preserve remnants of humanity amid the beetle's form. The thunderous drum strikes mirrored the surges of panic coursing through me, akin to electric shocks reverberating through my being.

Like the examples illustrated above, I find it essential to adopt a third-person perspective to culminate my creative journey. This metaphor encompasses the triad of "Chatori Shimizu" personas, each contributing distinctively to the composition process. Firstly, there's "Chatori Shimizu in the Real World", traversing between dreams and reality or assuming the form of a beetle depending on the milieu. Then emerges "Chatori Shimizu as a Composer", diligently depicting the life and encounters of the former with precision and impartiality. Lastly, there's "Chatori Shimizu as an Observer", discerning the emergent meanings from depictions with an autonomous lens. Only through the synergy of these personas can creation flourish.


The three personas of Chatori Shimizu while composing

In my view, true art emerges when approached from a third-person perspective, attentive to the artist's unconscious discourse. An artist's initial conscious impulses extend beyond planned expressions, often revealing unconscious treasures from unanticipated realms of the work. Thus, an artwork transcends mere presentation, evolving as "Chatori Shimizu as an Observer" discerns the artist's "unconscious voice" within the creation.

Let’s Enjoy “Chatori Shimizu” Together


"An artist must possess a strong ego" were the words of a dear late friend whom I deeply respect. Undoubtedly, I harbor a profound desire to express myself, fervently hoping that many will encounter and engage with my creations. Yet, upon revisiting this article, I find myself questioning the existence of a definitive "self". Since the age of 13, I've maintained a nightly diary, which serves as the crucible for my musical compositions. A bite from a giant mosquito gives birth to "big mosquito" (2017), while the extraction of my wisdom teeth birthed "magic manju" (2023).


As for my trajectory, I myself do not know where I am headed to. Having already undergone the transformation into a beetle, I wouldn't be startled if I were to metamorphose into a concrete wall next. Uncertainty shrouds my future—where I'll reside, the individuals with whom I'll form deep bonds with, the novel concepts and sensibilities that will captivate me, and the methodologies I'll employ in my creative process. Yet, with "Chatori Shimizu in the Real World" navigating each moment step by step, and "Chatori Shimizu as a Composer" diligently translating his encounters while shedding subconscious constraints, a new work will inevitably emerge. I eagerly anticipate experiencing these forthcoming musical works as "Chatori Shimizu as an Observer".

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