Multi-talented Tomoko Momiyama's pliant mannerisms and reflectiveness are part and parcel of her artistic nature as an international music composer, performer, playwright, and producer of multi-disciplinary art events and performances. The 35-year-old Japanese woman graduated from Stanford University in the US with a bachelor's degree in music and human biology and studied composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, in the Netherlands.
Thailand is one in a number of countries where Momiyama has showcased her talents as an acclaimed artist. She sees her role as a communicator and creator of spaces where music can originate naturally from people, cultures and environments. One sits through a performance of hers feeling enlightened, watching her weave folk songs of the contemporary world.
Many of Momiyama's works are community based, and she has composed works for several countries in the Asean region. She hopes to one day do something for Thailand.
"No, I have not composed anything for Thailand yet," said Momiyama nonchalantly. "I would love any opportunity to create music through in-depth exchanges and dialogues with Thai people. I will be especially interested in working with marginalised people, focusing largely on factors, such as their culture, environment and social community, that influence their daily lives.
"I am also intrigued by today's Thai art films, which I find to be unique. If an opportunity arises, I would be happy to work on a film project with a Thai director."
While sharing her take on music, Momiyama said it was fundamentally a way to communicate with the spirits, with the unknown, and often with oneself and others. She gets inspired listening to ancient folk from all parts of the world, often songs with no known composer and music which she says has a universal appeal.
Making music a career was a gradual process for the softly spoken artist who first recognised her desire to be become a composer at the age of 12 _ soon after she had started to play saxophone in the wind ensemble at her junior high school. It was while listening to Gustav Mahler's First Symphony during a car ride with her parents that she experienced a sense of awakening which left her overwhelmed with tears.
In retrospect, she felt as if the composer, almost 80 years after his death, was talking to her through his music. This close-to-spiritual encounter made it obvious that when she grew up she wanted to become a composer.
Momiyama continued playing the saxophone after her family had moved to New York from Tokyo when she was 14. It was her passion for music that gave her a sense of well-being.
"Since I did not speak any English at the time, music was sort of the only way for me to communicate with the others," said the prolific artist.
"I went to a public high school in a sleepy suburb of New York during the week, but over the weekends was able to escape to the city and play music with other talented kids at Manhattan School of Music. This school is an internationally renowned music conservatory, which offers a special programme for pre-college students on weekends. It became an oasis for me during my high school days."
Choosing the right major to study at university became a predicament mainly because her parents weren't sure how secure a career in music would be for their daughter. While she understood their concerns for her future, she felt strongly she should follow her heart.
Listening to an orchestra rehearse at Manhattan School of Music, she could not stop tears rolling down her cheeks when she realised music was in fact her life-long passion. She felt a strong sense of deja vu, recalling the moment Mahler spoke to her through his music when she was 12.
As she was able to pick multiple subjects at university, Momiyama majored in two vastly different topics, music and human biology, at Stanford University.
Her first serious pursuit of a music career came after a failed attempt at taking her life at age 18. She thought she had been given a new lease of life and decided to treasure the time she had and use it to follow her dream of making music a part of her innermost being.
Music is the path Momiyama believes will enable her to transcend her own self and help her experience a sense of eternal unity with the universe _ however fleeting it may be.
In a way, having a career in music was never a choice for her. She said candidly: "Although I had no idea how to make a living as a composer after graduating from university, and still cannot say I really know, there was no question about myself being anything other than an artist.
"It is just that I've struggled every moment to live music, to become music, and somehow, I have been able to continue the struggle and survive this far. Music is my reason to live, and by trying to live my life, I happened to build my career in music."
In an occupation that doesn't always deliver monetary rewards, Momiyama has had her share of hurdles. Financial insecurities largely arise because she can seldom ensure her projects will be funded and realised until very close to their implementation.
Also, most grants only cover transportation, accommodation, a per diem allowance and some production costs, but rarely enough for an artist fee. This means that the artist gets paid just enough to survive during a project, but not an adequate salary for the intervals between projects.
Momiyama explains her predicament by saying: "As much as I am grateful that many of my projects have been funded so far, I am also trying to rely less on grants.
"However, since my work is outside of commercial markets and not actually targeted for mass consumption, it is extremely challenging to establish financial security solely through my artwork in this capitalistic world we live. Somehow I have been able to sustain myself with enough projects every year, but I honestly never know how my next month or next year will pan out financially." Momiyama has also had her fair share of personal struggles as a contemporary composer. It is important for her to constantly question what it means to create music at this time in history. What is the role of a composer and what function can music have in a society? How can she create music that invites people to reflect on where they come from and imagine where they want to go? Can she compose music that belongs not just to her, but also to the people?
While she tackles those questions, the challenge to produce quality work has always been a top priority.
About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert