#22 Kenji Williams
Interview with Toshi Shioya
Kenji Williams is an award winning filmmaker, music producer, theatrical show director, and classically-trained violinist. As the founder and director of BELLA GAIA, he explores the nexus of art and science in his many collaborations with NASA scientists and world-music musicians. We interviewed him about his upcoming show on March 31st, BELLA GAIA: Origin Stories of Japan, which will combine live music, dance, and performance with extraordinary large-format projections of Earth from space.
– Speaking of your groundbreaking multimedia project, BELLA GAIA, what made you decide to start this?
Meeting with an astronaut, Mike Fincke — that was the beginning. I met him when he came back from the International Space Station: he spoke of his completely transformative experience seeing the Earth, a bubble of life in the blackness of space, a world with no political boundaries. I was moved by this story, it inspired me to begin BELLA GAIA. I was not sure what I was doing, what it would look like, or how to get there, but BELLA GAIA grew organically from that moment.
–You are such a unique artist, not just a performer, please tell us more about yourself.
My mother is Japanese, and my father is Welsh. I lived mostly in the U.S., but I was born in Malaysia and also spent time in Japan. But my family is from everywhere, I had a sort of international childhood. My parents came to America when I was three years old, and I attended both a Japanese school and an international school. I spent three years in Japan when I was seven years old, living with my grandmother. I spent another three years in Tokyo when I was an adult, it was a very unique experience. BELLA GAIA is almost an expression of my childhood, my growing up in different cultures, with different languages.
– Please tell us how you met J-COLLABO and about this special project, this new version of BELLA GAIA.
I first met Sagaseki-san, then I was invited to collaborate with Hachinohe-san, who is a calligrapher — and also with Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) who is a DJ and my good friend. We did a collaboration at a gallery in New York, and it was fantastic. The Japanese community in New York is very strong, but I thought this was a unique, artist-centered way to bring us together in a new way. I really enjoyed creating this new version of BELLA GAIA.
– Please tell us about your upcoming show on March 31st, BELLA GAIA: Origin Stories of Japan.
First let me tell you about BELLA GAIA, our original piece, an ensemble of five musicians and two to three dancers. The visual perspective is unique – it’s as if you were an astronaut in space, looking down at the Earth and its beauty. We zoom down into different countries, examining how culture connects with nature throughout our history. We begin looking at what is happening now, how environmental issues affect our cultures. We remind the audience of Man’s dialogue with nature, how we have lost this in the modern world, and the current and coming consequences of this action.
We go to India, where we have Indian dancers and amazing Indian music players. We go to Egypt, where Egyptian belly dancers perform along with an Egyptian flute player. We go to New York City, where we hear jazz and hip-hop music. And we also go to Japan, accompanied by Yumi Kurosawa’s amazing Koto sound.
Our work with J-COLLABO on Origin Stories of Japan is an extended version of the Japan section of the original work, focusing on Japan and its culture, the relationships between humans and nature. We explore the Shinto religion, which was in Japan before Buddhism arrived there, and is about connecting with nature: all the gods are animals, objects, spirits or elements. We also explore Buddhism, using calligraphy, its relationship to the natural world, and its ideas of harmony, balance, and peace. In Japan, despite instances in the past, the two religions are not in conflict now, which is extraordinary. If you go to shrines and temples there, you will see influences of both religions. I want to remind the Japanese people of the deep meanings behind these things, as they don’t really understand the meaning of Torii gate or of the details of the things surrounding them.
– There are three main components in this piece, Noh, Gagaku and Souryo. Please tell us your experience with Noh and Gagaku.
Origin Stories of Japan show begins with a Noh performance, with Taiko and Koto. I have seen and been inspired by Noh dance, it’s a perfect way to start the BELLA GAIA show. I have also seen several Gagaku performances, with a collection of Silk Road instruments onstage, in work closely tied to Shinto. The songs and performances are not really entertainment, rather they are spiritual ceremonies and rituals to help us connect with the gods, the heavens, and the universal consciousness.
This is exactly the mission of BELLA GAIA, which I see as a post-modern ritual. This goes to the heart of my personal passion, including documentaries I made in the past, about rituals and their importance. Rituals are often connected with nature, we have many of them in our world today. Unfortunately there are few nonreligious, nonexclusive rituals like the Olympics or New Year’s Eve, which nearly everyone celebrates. I feel that this is what is missing in our modern world, that earth systems are collapsing because of human negligence. BELLA GAIA is my expression of that. It is nonexclusive, everyone is welcome. The piece reminds us how the natural world works, how we fit into the relationship between humans and nature.
– What do you see happening for BELLA GAIA in the next five years?
In five years, I would love to be working from a fixed location, performing the piece in its theatrical version. This would allow us to technically expand the complexity and interactivity between performers, technology, and the visuals. I want to explore the interactive technologies of data visualization and motion tracking of holographic projections, integrating them seamlessly into the show.
In ten years, I would like to begin touring, copying or franchising our show in countries around the world. As with The origin stories of Japan, I would like to customize BELLA GAIA for local audiences, creating more personal connections for them.
I am already planning to do The origin stories of India, since I love India’s music, art, culture and history. Hinduism is similar to Shinto, because its gods are animals, and it’s all about rituals involving elements of nature, such as rivers and elephants. I would also like to explore the Middle East and Africa.
– What is your message to the younger generation?
To the younger generation, I would say, “Have no fear, follow your dreams and keep reminding yourself of your place in the world. Now more than ever, we live in a global village, we need to understand how our actions affect other things, no matter how small they are. Be mindful of what is happening around you, be strong, beautiful beings.”
Creative Director and Composer, Kenji Williams is an award winning filmmaker, music producer, theatrical show director, and classically-trained violinist. A world bridger of music, visual arts, science and unique storytelling, Williams explores the nexus of art and science through collaborations as diverse as NASA scientists, consciousness researcher Deepak Chopra, and top world-music musicians. With over 30 years of music experience, performance, composition and production, and 20 years of film production experience, his current project, ‘BELLA GAIA’, involves collaborating with institutions such as NASA, The Smithsonian, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and has presented BELLA GAIA at over 150 concerts, in 8 countries, from New York’s Guggenheim Museum to the Winspear Opera House in Dallas TX, and influential conferences such as The Economist magazine and the Aspen Institute. In addition to public and critical acclaim, Williams has raised over half a million dollars in funding from NASA and other foundations, and Pioneer, Panasonic, and Sony corporations have sponsored Williams with technology to support his artistic vision. Combining unique skills in film and music, Williams has earned international film awards from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, Sundance Film Festival and other organizations. Williams has been featured in the media from BBC radio, to mainstream Japanese press, to NPR, PBS, ABC, and FOX. Composer and producer of 6 music albums, Director of 15 films and music videos, 3 feature length projects, 3 multimedia theatrical live shows and 1 fulldome planetarium show, Kenji Williams is respected for pushing the boundaries of audio visual art and pioneering the convergence of art and science.