Part of what made the 1979 film Being There such a fantastic piece of work was that Peter Sellers was given the chance to add pathos to his acting arsenal. Not that it wasn't a funny movie, it was, riotously so. But a new humanity came through in his portrayal of a simple (to put it lightly) man who unwittingly becomes a top presidential adviser in a way not present in his previous roles.

International Contemporary Ensemble © Rob Davidson
International Contemporary Ensemble
© Rob Davidson

The comparison about to be made isn't meant to suggest that Dai Fujikura's music is funny – the parallel isn't that perfect – but it's more perfect than not. His Composer Portrait concert at Columbia University's Miller Theatre, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, included a new piece suggesting a deeper sensibility, a new humanity, in the composer's work. It wasn't a detour from his past work, it just enriched it.

There's something enormously pleasing about Fujikura's music, a sensibility that isn't quite humor but isn't far from it. The same might be said for the man. During an onstage talk with ICE bassoonist and co-artistic director Rebekah Heller, he repeatedly drew laughter from the audience with his demeanor, with his smile, with observations that weren't quite funny, just relatable. There's an impishness about Fujikura that carries through in his music. It's effusive and delightful, it's real, whatever that means. But the new piece reached further, which was exciting.   

Dai Fujikura and Rebekah Heller © Rob Davidson
Dai Fujikura and Rebekah Heller
© Rob Davidson

Scored for two clarinets and a string quartet that included double bass and only one violin, Gliding Wings was gorgeously rich in sonority, as if the instruments now had been freed from their pens. Fujikura wrote the piece to suggest a new sort of song for birds in flight. In doing so, he allowed us to luxuriate in the instruments' voices. The clarinets were reedy, singing in unison much of the time. The bass was strong and resonant. The other strings floated in harmony. The piece, like many birds, was unafraid of being beautiful.

The evening opened with Minina from 2013, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and dulcimer, written in the months after his daughter's birth. A section for flute, dulcimer, bells, chimes and cymbals imagined (he explained) the dreams of a person who has only been alive for a month. Later, soft dissonances seemed to represent a world where everything is new. Silence Seeking Solace, for voice and string quartet, was written the same year. Soprano Alice Teyssier gave it a wonderfully muted reading, starting at a near whisper and never reaching full voice, always restrained. Vocal lines were echoed first by the viola, later by all of the strings, as if to prod her to speak up. They seemed intent on blanketing her, rising and falling with her.   

Alice Teyssier and the International Contemporary Ensemble © Rob Davidson
Alice Teyssier and the International Contemporary Ensemble
© Rob Davidson

One ought be careful in ascribing to much Japanese perspective to Fujikura. While born in Osaka, his schooling was and current home is in England, and doesn't tie himself to his cultural heritage. But there was something about Abandoned Time (for electric guitar and ensemble, 2004, revised in 2006) that called the prose of Haruki Murakami to mind. Even the title suggests the author's way of pinning nostalgia to fading memories. The piece recalls boys in Fujikura's school dormitory playing electric guitar, a role filled by the fine guitarist Dan Lippel. The dramatic use of expression pedal and finger-hammering captured well the adolescent fascination with the instrument and its concomitant posturing.

The evening ended with the 2008 Secret Forest for a contingent of 16 players. The piece calls for musicians to be interspersed around the hall, but with fire codes preventing that arrangement, the ensemble opted to mic the brass instruments and space them out by means of the PA, done subtly enough to be disorienting. The ensemble sound was a little too full and didn't quite scan in a way that was quite satisfying.

The concert didn't just celebrate Fujikura's work; it was built on a long relationship between the composer and ICE. In 2003, Fujikura was one of the first winners of ICE's Young Composers Call for Scores and they have collaborated consistently since. He is now nearing the point of being a middle-aged composer, and with Gliding Wings demonstrated a new and wizened voice. No doubt, greater works are in store for the partnership.

*****