Masato Miyata is a fish vaccine researcher and bassist who grew up in Kumamoto, Japan. He has spent 7 years of his life in the Netherlands, and is currently residing in Singapore, a place he has made his home since 2010. His father is a professional classical tenor in Japan, but Miyata-san himself only picked music up seriously at the age of 36, when he started learning the double bass at SKVR in Rotterdam. We sit down to have a chat with him about his cross-cultural journey through music and life, as he explains how, to him, there is a universal commonness and similarity across genres of music, cultures, and even species.
Miyata-san your father was a professional musician yet you yourself only picked up an instrument in earnest at the age of 36, why did that work the way it did?
My father was a voice artist/teacher who practiced and taught everyday, with a specific focus on Italian opera songs, so even though I was growing up in Japan, I was surrounded by Western classical music.
My Father didn't recommend that I go for music because of the tough competition. So, I went for science instead, without knowing how competitive the science world is ... now it’s too late. After many years of struggle, I moved from Japan to Holland to do research. Whilst doing my research at Holland, I felt the need to do something parallel to research, to take a breath, to see an outer world to science. There was an art school very close to my research institute, so learning music was the natural choice.
Okay, but of all instruments, why the double bass?
I think an interesting thing is that all the bassists instinctively like and are drawn to the low sound and low notes of the bass. Personally, I think the double bass is cool. Also, I thought the bass looks easy to start and pick-up (I was wrong). Another thing that I thought was good was that not so many people play the double bass (... I didn't know there was a reason behind that... have you imagined needing to carry such a big instrument all the time?).
Seriously, I think there might be a few reasons behind me going for the double bass. One is that in my childhood, I was in a choir and in that choir I was given the low part, so I always kept singing the bass part. It was kind of annoying because after that I kept hearing the bass part of songs. Another reason is that I was very keen on HiFi sound systems and when I was listening to my favorite artist, Ray Brown, I noticed his LP and CD had a very fat sound for the bass, and maybe that’s another reason I went for the bass, because then I have an excuse to listen to that kind of bass sound 24hrs, without needing to tweak anything. I soon learnt that that was totally wrong because if the bass player is different then the bass sound is completely different as well.
Learning an instrument is one thing, but to play it semi-professionally like you do is another. How did you get to this semi-professional performance stage from being a beginner in your late-30s?
I first started practicing in a school band which I was allocated. After a while, I joined a civil orchestra "Timbres Divers" in Dordrecht, following the recommendation from my jazz double bass teacher, Henk de Light. There I actually met the man who would become my classical double bass teacher, Hardmoed Grefe. He had come there as an extra (helper for orchestra performance), and when he saw me struggling with bow he offered to give me classical double bass lessons. Playing in an orchestra was addictive because of its sound. With a help of this ‘addiction’, I was keep taking lessons for Jazz double bass in SKVR, taking personal lessons for classic double bass, and continued with orchestra, school combo band, and later on I joined a civil big band “Big Band Enterprise” in Dordrecht. Also, I spend a long time to practice with SKVR class mate pianist Henri Noorlander. He was learned by a Japanese piano teacher in SKVR, Miyuki Tamai. I remember Tamai-sensei did a kind of matching to make up us as a unit which worked beautifully. We often did gigs as a piano-bass duo, so as with other settings. It was good time, and we grew together.
In 2010, I got a new job (as a biologist) in a Dutch company by intending to stay in Holland. But my assigned work place was in Singapore. I remember it was so painful to me to leave Holland because of lot of friends and music. But the job in Singapore was too attractive for a biologist so I couldn’t resist. When after I arrived to Singapore, I immediately start checking around the music scene and managed to get to know all heart-warming musicians. After a while, I bumped into Tze at a jam session, and sensed him having some sort of affinity in music like as “Ah, you may understand what I am trying to say” kind of thing (I am not sure he thought the same though).
I actually feel very lucky to be playing in this kind of setting in Singapore because although I am not a professional, yet I still get to play with professionals, which isn’t usually the case. It spoils me a little because the professionals have such good capacity that if I make a mistake, they are able to make up for it. They may not be noticing by themselves but they are keep showing me a discipline as a professional. I think what I am doing is like as playing football in a professional team, mission impossible to catch them up regarding their musical sense, knowledge, skill, and physical stamina. I try my best not to pull their legs. And, this challenge keeps teaching me many things.
That’s really cool! You’ve played both jazz and classical music in both Singapore and the Netherlands. Before we talk about the experiences playing in these two countries, I want to ask, coming from a heavily classical background how did you get into jazz?
For me, jazz in Europe seem to have an anchor point to classical music as well as European folk music. I was lucky to learn Jazz there as it provided a smooth connection to my musical perspective, which was, as you mention, heavily classical. My father kept playing classical music because he believed that classical music was the best. Now he is different, but when he was young he firmly believed that classical music was the best. When I tried to watch TV program for pop music my father would always change the channel to the orchestra. Maybe I didn’t like it as much because of that. I still liked classical music, don’t get me wrong, but I thought why not try something different. Maybe it was to annoy my father.
Later on I realized that I needed jazz music’s complexity, needed more of the variety it provided. I somehow needed some taste of weirdness or bitterness, which I enjoy and which I feel jazz provides. But at the same time, really, to me, both jazz and classical music have a kind of complexity, as with either genre of music there are so many colors, and there is so much change. And then there is fusion, like what Tze does which is a patchwork of so many elements, from the classical to the modern.
I think an interesting idea that’s come up in what you’ve shared is that despite obvious differences between genres of music, there are essential similarities. I want to return to what we were discussing earlier about the experience of playing in different countries and ask whether you felt things are more different or more the same when comparing your experience playing in the Netherlands and Singapore?
To me playing music in an orchestra is like painting a picture. I believe the role of the bass is kind of frameworking things. This belief stems from my early years when I was just starting, because at that point of course I was not good, still not there at a high level so I felt, at least I can make a frame for the rest of the orchestra, at least I can participate. If you try and speak, you go run the risk of going into the picture. Tonality and details act as fundamentals for the picture you are painting, and I feel like playing both jazz and classical music together is really both kind of like painting a picture.
Of course there are differences between jazz and classical music, for example when I do my warmups a certain way, people can tell I have a classical background. But I feel like whether you are playing jazz or classical music in an orchestra, in Singapore, in Japan or Europe the feeling is the same and you are essentially trying to paint a picture in all these different situations. I would even go as far as to say that the picture being painted is the same.
I never really thought of it that way before. Despite the technical differences the essential experience and feelings remain the same across these genres and cultures. I suppose the concept of music being a universal language is really evidenced by your experience. I wonder… does this same concept apply beyond music or art, when we talk about purely interpersonal relationship?
I don’t feel anything different in interacting with different people, humanwise its surprisingly the same. After work, music, or whatever, people just go together to the pub and talk about their daily life like as boy-girl matter, gossiping, hobby, happiness and sorrow. I regularly joined those to improve my language. Great fun to spend a time together, and this is where I learned the fact, fundamentals of human are the same regardless East or West.
I think this sameness and universality is not restricted to music, cultures and people but extends to other species as well. Animals are also the same. As a fish vaccine researcher I have been working very closely with the fish, and you can never underestimate them, they are not that stupid. If you look at birds, cats and dogs, they are smart and have character.
Since we are discussing the similarities between genres, cultures, people and species, I wonder if you see a relationship between the work you do in science and what you do as a performer; does your research affect your music or the other way around?
Not really so much from science to music... but yes for the other way round.
The preparation step of music, like scheduling, like preparing and learning, estimating how long you need to learn one song, and learning by musicians helps me a lot for my research job.
Out of curiosity, as a final question since we are talking about the connection between science and music - have you ever played music for your fish to see how they'd react?
No, I’ve never really considered doing that. But I was seriously considering showing a movie like "Finding Nemo" to my fish when the fish were fighting each other for territory. My colleague stopped me from doing that, and dominant fish was isolated instead.