Arnoud Noordegraaf

composer | director

A.M.

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

original creation: 2010 November Music festival NL.

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.