Tim Hansen

As a teenager, Masatora Goya was more interested in playing rugby than the piano. Born in Malaysia but raised in Japan, Masatora says his home life “wasn’t that musical.” Sure, there were CDs in the house (and cassette tapes, it was the ‘80s after all), but, as Masatora describes, “it wasn’t like the home of music aficionados”.

As a result, music was a vocation that Masatora came to at a relatively late age. “I was 27 when I attended music school in Japan as a vocal major in contemporary music,” recalls Masatora. “I then came to the US at 29 to study musical theatre, and gradually moved into writing as the years went by. So I really never had a systematic training to be a ‘classical’ composer.”

Then, in 2009, Masatora’s father fell gravely ill and became bedridden. Naturally, his father’s illness and subsequent passing had a profound impact on his family in many ways, but one of the more unexpected effects was that it appeared to awaken a latent passion for music throughout the Goya household.

In the time preceding his death Masatora’s father surprised his family by revealing that he had a love of chansons that he hadn’t indulged since he was young, and so his family positioned a boom box beside his bed and played every chanson they could lay their hands on. Masatora’s mother, who owned several musical instruments that she never actually played, suddenly took up the shinobue with the zeal of a convert: “my sister reports that she’s still practicing for several hours a day”, says Masatora. Meanwhile, Masatora began to reconsider exactly what kind of music he wanted to create and share with the world, and so began his shift from musical theatre to contemporary art music.

Today, Masatora has found himself an increasingly popular choice for ensembles to commission. His background embodies both a fairly unique mishmash of cultures as well as an unusual artistic development from writing pop-songs to musical theatre performance to composing contemporary art music, which contemporary musicians find immensely appealing.

One curious result of Masatora’s unusual musical roots is that he is increasingly asked to write works using traditional Japanese instruments or techniques, something that the Japanese national cheerfully admits he knows nothing about. “I need to study those instruments and repertoire from scratch,” he says. “In a strange way, Japanese traditional music is as foreign as Western classical music or hip-hop to me. In Japan, I wasn’t paying much attention to my ethnicity because I never grew up with what Americans see as the authentic Japanese culture like Noh, Zen, Kabuki and things like that: Japanese society no longer embraces it so you don’t experience it if you live in a modern city. But as I present new music people are hearing something not American or European in my music and finding it attractive.”

The 2012 panel for the JFund certainly heard that something, as Masatora was one of a handful of composers awarded the coveted JFund Grant. The resultant work Sound of Life was premiered by Melanie Chirignan (flute), Carlos Boltes (viola) and Scott Hill (guitar) in November last year. The four movement work explores four stages of human life: infancy, adolescence, middle age and “the autumn of life”, as Masatora poetically describes it. Aside from being a significant development in his career, Sound of Life offers a neat parallel to the role that cultural displacement has played in Masatora’s work, in that he and each of the performers have completely different heritages: Japanese, French, Chilean and Canadian.

Masatora, though, still does go to pains to distance himself from labels such as being a “Japanese”composer. While he says “I seem to have my own ideas how I can infuse Japanese elements into Western chamber music in this 21st century America,” for Masatora, the more interesting aspect to composition is simply that “a composer, musicians, and the audience are together creating and experiencing a new universe at a concert: we are co-conspirators”.