Story by Neda Ulaby, NPR
Composer Gene Coleman, a Guggenheim-winning luminary in the worlds of experimental film and avant-garde music, is more the type to show up for a residency at a prestigious music festival rather than at the Olympics.
“I’m not a big sports person,” he confesses. But Coleman grew up in a small Wisconsin village where he was transfixed by the Bruce Lee movies he saw on TV, and taught himself karate out of books as a kid. After the International Olympic Committee voted in 2016 to bring karate to the Toyko Games, Coleman was invited by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission to compose a soundscape of music to celebrate the decision.
Coleman’s creation is called KATA, after the elegantly choreographed patterns of movements practiced by martial artists. “If you’re a beginning karate student, you learn kata,” Coleman explains. “And those kata contain all the movements that that particular style of karate is composed of.” It’s like music, and also like code.
For his composition, Coleman decided to track the brainwaves of people performing karate and then turn that neurological data into music. He worked with another U.S. composer, Adam Vidiksis, who specializes in music technology. Together they adapted a motion-sensing device to measure everything from body temperature to heart rate, to create a musical portrait of a mind-body connection
“What it allows for is a very interesting look into the mental state of the performer, whether that performer is a musician or martial artist,” Vidikisis says. (Due to COVID-19, the device has mainly been used so far on themselves.)
“How neurons function is also incredibly musical,” Coleman adds. “They play together. They play in counterpoint. They play as a soloist. They play in larger groups in… a symphony of activity.”
Coleman has collaborated with Japanese musicians since his first residency in Japan in 2001. For this piece, he worked with two celebrated masters of traditional music who embrace experimentation: lute player Sansuzu Tsuruzawa and flute player Akikazu Nakamura, who’s also a renowned composer and arranger.
In a video for the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship, Tsuruzawa explained in Japanese that karate shares with traditional Japanese music a sense of strong momentum and use of an extreme range of breath. Speaking to NPR, Nakamura points out that they also share a deep connection to nature, and create intervals for quiet, peaceful thoughts. “We make a hole in the space over time,” he says.
Asked for his opinion about non-Japanese musicians experimenting with Japanese cultural forms, Nakamura bursts into laughter. He did not find it appropriative. “Actually, half of me was grown… by American culture,” he adds.
When cultures are drawn joyously together in a spirit of achievement and acknowledgement, he says, that’s great art — and also, he adds, the Olympics.