Dreams of a Sleeping World
Art, Poetry and Music Collaboration
Chad Cannon is an American composer interested in the intersection of cultures, history, and human stories. His score to the Academy Award-winning Netflix documentary, American Factory, has been called “stirring” (NY Times) and “graceful” (Washington Post) and was nominated for a Cinema Eye Honors Award. Other film scores include the Minneapolis police documentary Women in Blue (“lush and powerful” - IndieWire), the Hiroshima film Paper Lanterns (“haunting and mystical” - The Japan Times), and the upcoming PBS special Harbor from the Holocaust (with special guest artist Yo-Yo Ma).
As orchestrator, additional composer, and/or cultural consultant, Chad has collaborated with some of the world’s best-known film composers, starting with Japanese composers Joe Hisaishi (known for his work with Hayao Miyazaki) and Shigeru Umebayashi, in addition to Harry Gregson-Williams, Alexandre Desplat & Howard Shore (under Conrad Pope) and Tyler Bates (under Tim Williams). Titles include Disney’s 2020 Mulan, Sony PlayStation’s Ghost of Tsushima, Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets.
Praised by The New York Times as “subtle, agile,” and with “vividness of emotion”, Chad’s concert works tend to explore human emotion through the lens of cultural history, and often include visual or literary elements. The Dreams of a Sleeping World, an hour-long symphony with woodwind soloist and choir, is based on 10 paintings by Japanese-Brazilian painter Oscar Oiwa, and features poems from around the world by individuals who have experienced large-scale calamities firsthand. The symphony was premiered in 2017 by Mate Bekavac with the Slovenia Philharmonic and Choir, and recorded by Vladimir Kulenovic and the Hollywood Studio Symphony in 2018.
Chad is the founder of the Asia / America New Music Institute (AANMI), which promotes cultural diplomacy through contemporary concert music. AANMI has done work in Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, and the U.S. He holds degrees from Harvard & Juilliard.
Pratik: What’s the nucleus of your collaboration, Dreams of a Sleeping World?
Chad Cannon: The Dreams of a Sleeping World is, at its core, a piece about human suffering. Inspired by ten paintings from Japanese-Brazilian visual artist Oscar Oiwa, the piece explores an array of human and natural catastrophes through the linguistic lens of poets who have experienced these events firsthand. I specifically chose Oscar’s work because it represents a contemporary artist’s reaction to the sometimes-terrifying effects of a globally connected society, and I chose these particular poets because I felt that the words needed to come from the people who know what it’s like to have their world, their community, their lives, shattered by events that were completely beyond their control.
My own life experience has been a lovely, peaceful one, full of joy and happiness, but I have had the opportunity to visit places in the world where great suffering has occurred. Throughout my 20s, I spent a great deal of time (cumulatively about 3 years) working on humanitarian or charitable projects in Asia. These experiences included participating in projects in Tohoku, Japan, following the 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown), 8 music tours with Midori Goto (including visits to Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nepal, each of which involved visiting refugee camps, special needs schools, hospitals, schools for the blind and for the deaf, etc.), and a 2-year church mission in Japan for the Latter-day Saint Christian church. All of these experiences left me a changed person, and The Dreams of a Sleeping World is the reaction of my inner soul to all of the things I saw, heard, and felt.
As far as the “nucleus” of the actual work itself, I would say that in addition to being “about” human suffering, the work also deals with the great cycle of life and death. When we are born into this world, fate seems to be the guiding principle – we have no say whether we are born into a slum in Dhaka or into a penthouse suite in Manhattan. We don’t get to choose if we are male or female, or which language our parents will speak. We don’t get to choose if our children will drown in a tsunami, or if our grandmother will die underneath a falling beam during an earthquake. However, we can indeed control how we treat those around us, and we can choose to have hope in an otherwise bleak universe. I am talking about the hope I saw in faces of humanitarian aid workers such as Seng Rah Lahpai in Myanmar, or firefighters from Yamagata who would spend their weekends volunteering in Miyagi Prefecture after the tsunami. It’s the kind of hope that lets us celebrate our common humanity in the face of huge adversity.
Pratik: Do you see any role your American upbringing has played in the making of this symphony?
Chad Cannon: That is an interesting question, and I’ve actually never considered in relation to this particular piece! I would say the number one “American” factor in this work is, ironically, the idea of presenting a more “universal” worldview. The United States is a place where people from basically every cultural tradition on earth mingle freely. My high school in Salt Lake City was quite diverse, even though Utah as a whole is mostly Caucasian and Christian. From a young age I started meeting people who had come from war-torn parts of the world. For example, one of my first dates in high school was with a lovely person who happened to be a refugee from the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Meeting somebody who had seen firsthand the devastating effects of such a catastrophe made me realize that not everybody on earth gets to grow up in such peaceful circumstances. I suppose that could happen anywhere, but for me the pluralism of American society is the thing that makes it most American!
As far as the musical language, there are some moments that are meant to be understood as “American”, such as the lonely jazz trumpet solos in the third movement, Ghosts, where the American poet Brian Turner is giving his perspective as an American soldier in Iraq. Likewise, the incredibly beautiful words of American poet William Stafford provide the closing “curtains” to the whole symphony, and the music at that point I would say becomes a bit American overall in its brightness of color, even though the context of the painting and the poem is the city of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.
Pratik: Can you please describe briefly your journey as a Music composer?
Chad Cannon: From a young age I was surrounded by music. I’m the youngest of 6 children and my mother’s two battles in life were to get her children to play music seriously, and to attend church seriously. Of course at church there is a lot of music as well! Eventually I realized that I was able to imitate other composers’ writing, and pretty soon I was off writing my own music. When I became an adult I studied music at Harvard University and later at Juilliard. Finally my road led me to Los Angeles, where I first worked for a famous orchestrator named Conrad Pope on big-budget Hollywood films such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy. Nowadays I spend most of my time composing my own music for a variety of media projects, most recently for the Oscar-winning documentary film, American Factory.
Pratik: Who were your major mentors/Inspirations in this journey?
Chad Cannon: I already mentioned Conrad Pope, he was essential to my post-schooling years! When I was a student, I was hugely inspired by the American composer John Adams. At Harvard I took a course about his operas, and he and his long-time collaborator Pete Sellars came and spent a few days workshopping with our class. I also had a chance to see their production of Adams’ opera, Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That was a transformative experience for me to hear the power of lyrics, visual spectacle, and live orchestral music all coming together in a meaningful, politically, and culturally “relevant” manner.
More recently I have had the wonderful privilege of working as an arranger for Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, whose work on Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films have received worldwide acclaim. Hisaishi is a true master of orchestral and character-based compositions, and I can honestly say The Dreams of a Sleeping World would not exist without Hisaishi’s influence. I’d say you can clearly hear this in the 6th movement, where I tried to include much color and childlike wonder, a la Hayao Miyazaki / Joe Hisaishi.
Pratik: Who are your favorite poets/music composers? What art forms -- Poetry/Music/Art -- can play in today’s society?
Chad Cannon: Oh, there are so many! I think my all-time favorite poet is Langston Hughes. For me, he captured the essence of what it was like to be an African-American in this country prior to the Civil Rights Movement. I’m not a scholar of his life or his works, but I think it’s fairly clear that his poetry played a major role in helping the wider world understand the suffering of his own community. Poetry, music, and art can all play a role in helping people build empathy for those whose life experiences differ from themselves, and empathy is something the world needs a LOT more of.
Pratik: When did you first meet Oscar? Can you please share your experiences of working with him.
Chad Cannon: I first met Oscar when I was an intern at the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in New York City in 2012. ACC is an organization founded by John D Rockefeller III, who loved Asian art. Its main purpose is to support artist exchange programs between the U.S. and Asia, and also between countries within Asia. Oscar was an ACC grant recipient, and had donated one of his paintings to an ACC fundraiser. In an attempt to help the ACC get interest, I took a family friend to his studio to observe his work. It was so inspiring for me to see an artist who just gets up every day, comes into his studio, and creates works of art all day long. It made me want to become a full-time artist myself, and I still think of Oscar’s dedication every time I find myself struggling in my own composing studio.
Later on, as my career started to develop following my years in NYC, Oscar had reached out to me to see if I could create some music for a video of his for an exhibition he was going to have in Beijing. He sent me a book of his paintings as a thank-you, and when I opened that book and started looking at his incredible oeuvre, I was stunned! I decided right then and there that I would love to create a large piece of music inspired by his paintings. So, The Dreams of a Sleeping World (the title of which was taken from one of his other paintings), began to take shape.
Oscar was extremely generous in letting me browse through all of his works, and very supportive when I ended up choosing to divide the 10 paintings into Part I - The Sea, and Part II - The Land. The first five paintings are water-themed, and the second five are earth/land themed. Oscar was also very kind to let me pair poetry with each of the paintings, which in a way ascribed whole new meanings. For example, the second movement, Invisible Sea, is paired with a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. The poem seemed to me to be all about death, and the symbolism of dying to the bottom of the ocean seemed perfect for the imagery I was seeing in Oscar’s painting. The original intent behind Oscar’s piece, however, had to do with the B.P. Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So in other words, the painting itself was super specific, whereas my reaction to it was much more broad. And there are examples where the opposite happened. Swirl, for example, is a painting Oscar intended to reflect a sort of inner chaos, or a psychological unfolding, but I chose a poem that was specifically about the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome disaster that happened in Louisiana. So there, we had a painting that was more broad in intent, and my selection of a poem draws the audience into a very specific mindset. In each instance, though, Oscar was incredibly flexible and really gave me creative freedom to craft the narrative of the symphony.
One other thing about Oscar is that he is incredibly warm-hearted and fun to spend time with. We have had meals together in many different cities now. In 2019 I had the wonderful opportunity to be present for the grand opening of his summer-long solo exhibition at the Kanazawa 21st Century Art Museum, which is one of Japan’s most prestigious and well-visited contemporary art museums. Oscar is so humble, and has a great sense of humor, and I think both of these qualities come across in his artwork, even though the art I chose for the symphony was mostly quite serious.
Pratik: How did you pick up the poets included in the Collaboration?
Chad Cannon: I spent about 3 months reading poetry online until I found the poets and poems that felt right for this project. I was just immersed in reading, and thinking, and searching again. Thank goodness for online poetry forums! I actually should have spent more time in a physical library but alas, ever since my Harvard library card expired, I have been mostly an online reader. In some cases I discovered poems accidentally, but mostly I actually searched for poetry specific to events I had in mind, such as the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake & Tsunami, or the Vietnam War.
Pratik: Where did you first meet Yuyutsu and how did his poetry come part of the symphony?
Chad Cannon: Yuyutsu came into my life because I had searched specifically for “Nepal Earthquake Poems,” which of course led me directly to his anthology, Quaking Cantos: Nepal Earthquake Poems, which is full of heartbreaking and also loving poetry. The very first poem, “Twisted Galaxies,” was just the perfect, pithy set of words that conveyed exactly the kind of naturalistic beauty and tragedy that I was searching for. I was really trying to find the right voice for those many people I had seen in Nepal who were struggling to rebuild their communities after the 2015 earthquakes. When I visited Nepal in November and December 2016, I got to visit with the Kathmandu University Music Department, which at the time was holding classes in a house in Kathmandu, because their campus in Bhaktapur had been completely destroyed and then flooded by all the rain. At first I felt terrible for these poor music students and professors for their loss, but then I felt so inspired by their resilience and their dedication to their art. My main takeaway from that experience is that the human spirit is unbreakable, particularly when paired with something as human as creating works of art. Yuyutsu’s poetry for me became the embodiment of that unbreakable human spirit, so I ended up choosing that as the “voice of Nepal” in the symphony. I’m so grateful Yuyutsu was kind enough to drop by Los Angeles and stay in our landlord’s guesthouse when we had the L.A. premiere of the Dreams of a Sleeping World film (which is now available for anyone to see on YouTube).
Pratik: We know your associations with Japan and Nepal? Please share some of the highlights of your stays in these nations as a music composer.
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