Good Vibrations – An Interview with guitarist Shin-ichi Fukuda
This article first appeared in Time Out Singapore.
Derek Lim talks about the joys of classical guitar with Japanese virtuoso Shin-ichi Fukuda, a headliner at the International Guitar Festival
In Spanish, it’s ‘la guitarra’; in German, ‘das gitarre’. A rock concert would be lame without it, and a Mexican wedding would have all the energy of a funeral. We’re talking, of course, about what could possibly be the most popular instrument in the world – the guitar.
But mention the names Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani or Manuel Ponce to anyone on the street, and you’ll likely face blank stares. Who are they? Only three of the most famous composers to write guitar music.
Welcome to the esoteric world of the classical guitar. Although the Spanish-origin instrument has existed since the Middle Ages, with a rich repertoire developing in the nineteenth century, it’s only come into its own in the last 100 years as a lead classical concert instrument, rather than just a vehicle for accompaniment.
The annual Singapore International Guitar Festival (3-9 December), now in its seventh year, hopes to showcase the guitar as a solo instrument worthy of sharing the same stage as more ‘serious’ instruments, such as the piano and violin.
The festival’s lineup includes seminars and a hotly contested guitar competition, as well as six recitals with performers from France, Italy, Spain, Brazil and Japan. These diverse performances will feature virtuosos of different guitar styles, including flamenco, Brazilian and Mexican music. But it’s likely that for the cognoscenti, the highlight of the festival will be the Japanese master, Shin-ichi Fukuda. For decades, his lustrous tone, innate musicality and left-hand technique have secured his position as one of the best guitarists to emerge from Japan.
Surprisingly, Fukuda, born in 1955, was not a child prodigy; he started playing music at the relatively late age of eight. Like many Japanese children, his first instrument was the piano, which he studied for two-and-a-half years before switching to guitar under the tutelage of maestro Tatsuya Saitoh. ‘I went to a very small private music school, and I think God decided [that I should learn guitar] because on the second floor of the school a new guitar course was starting,’ Fukuda says over the phone from his home in Osaka. ‘I had grown very tired of the piano, so I happily moved to the new course. It felt very natural to me.’
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the guitar was still a relatively new instrument in Japan, considered more of a hobby – and definitely not for children. That didn’t bother the 11-year-old Fukuda, by far the youngest student in a class of adults. He showed remarkable talent early on; fortunately, that same year, 1966, was the height of Beatlemania, and the group’s first and only tour in Japan sparked a phenomenal leap in the guitar’s popularity.
The Beatles’ wave of popularity also swept over the young Fukuda, who had a fling with the electric guitar. But eventually, his love of the soft, mellow vibrations of nylon strings used on the acoustic guitar won him over, and he chose it over the more strident tones of steel strings used in folk music and electric guitars.
Fukuda also credits his teacher with exposing him to classical guitar music through LPs of Beethoven and Mozart; he became enthralled with the diversity of the genre and its possibilities. He was particularly taken by a concert by the (now pre-eminent) Australian guitar virtuoso John Williams in 1969, which Fukuda attended at only 13 years old. There was no turning back; then and there, he decided to become a classical concert guitarist.
It was to be a lifelong love affair. He left Japan to study the guitar at L’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris under maestro Alberto Ponce, graduating in 1978 with the premier prix and a performer’s diploma. He continued his studies at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, with maestro Oscar Ghiglia, graduating in 1980 with the highest-honour diploma. In 1981 he found fame, winning first prize in the prestigious 23rd Paris International Guitar Competition.
Yet all that was half a lifetime ago. Fukuda’s come a long way since, but like any musician worth his strings, he’s surrounded by good companions. Over the years, he’s acquired several guitars that he continues to play today, including an RF Lacote (1840) made in France that he uses to play French and early Spanish music, and a Gaetano Guadagnini (1829), a valuable instrument he plays often in concert (and considers his treasure). In Singapore, he will play a $16,000 modern guitar made by good friend Masaki Sakurai.
Born outside of the European musical tradition, Fukuda has made it his mission chanceto try to understand the meaning in the music he plays, yet stay objective as well. ‘I always considered myself foremost a Japanese, and because of my nationality I can watch the Western music world from the outside,’ he says. ‘For example, if I were a Spanish-born guitarist [playing Spanish music], I could only search for the truth of the music from the inside. From where I am, I feel I am always the same “distance” from all kinds of music, be it the French Impressionists, Spanish or the Viennese modernists.’
It’s this musical candidness that shines through his performances of Bach, among a host of other composers. He has recorded more than 50 CDs, LDs and DVDs, the latest of which is a CD of the Spanish guitarist-composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’, a central piece in the repertoire of every classical guitarist.
In fact, Fukuda’s Singapore recital has a heavy emphasis on Spanish and Latin American music, such as Isaac Albeniz’s haunting ‘Asturias’, one of the most famous pieces for guitar that was not originally written for the instrument, as well as works by Sor, Enrique Granados, Heitor Villa-Lobos and the mysteriously titled ‘El Arpa y La Sombra’ (The Harp and the Shadow), dedicated to Fukuda by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer.
Is there a composer Fukuda wishes would have written a piece for the guitar? ‘If I could go back in a time machine, I would ask Beethoven to write a concerto,’ he muses. ‘Maybe in the near future we will have another Bach or Mozart.’ Until then, his commitment to classical guitar and developing its repertoire will ensure it remains a concert instrument to be reckoned with.
Fukuda pulls strings on 5 Dec, see here for full details on the International Guitar Festival.