Composer Kaoru Ishibashi, who performs under the name Kishi Bashi, is as musically eclectic as it gets: He’s studied film scoring at Berklee, he’s played jazz and classical violin, he’s toured with pop stars and played in celebrated indie-rock bands. But he’s done his most ambitious work with “Omoiyari,” a multimedia project that he’ll present at Berklee this week, as both a set of live music and a “song film” which he co-directed.
The music is based on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the film documents his visits to the camps and related locations. The Berklee show on Tuesday night will feature a screening of the film, followed by a performance of the musical piece.
Bashi says he was first drawn to the topic after seeing an influx of anti-Asian sentiments during COVID shutdown. “At first everything I wrote was quite angry, aggressive and agitated,” he said this week. “But that is not really my brand of music. After hearing about the Muslim ban I started looking at our history of xenophobia, and how we have and have not learned our lesson. As anti-Asian hate started rising, I saw that as a calling card for empathy toward all immigrants (The piece takes its title from a Japanese word for empathy).
“As far as my music is concerned, I relate to what is more uplifting and ethereal; so I chose to focus on the positive — the healing and forgiveness and compassion. My family has no direct connection to the incarceration, so I saw it more as a civil rights issue.”
Some of the music came out of improvisations that Bashi did after visiting the spots along the Pacific Coast where Japanese Americans were sent after Pearl Harbor, taking to the piano while the inspiration was fresh. “It wasn’t always easy to be inspired then, but some of the better moments made the film. But I’ll say there were some duds in there as well.” The film has since been picked up by MTV’s documentary branch for distribution.
Originally a jazz violinist, Bashi went to New York after graduating from Berklee. There he formed the band Jupiter One, and later joined the acclaimed indie band Of Montreal (he was in the lineup when they played the Paradise in 2011). He also did one tour as a violinist for Regina Spektor; and his own music draws from those influences and more.
“I have dabbled in classical music, but I think a classical musician would be offended by my calling myself one. But I really love orchestral music, and working with a broader palette than just a guitar. My genre is really indie pop, and to be honest I really love a lot of that pop music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Who isn’t inspired by Brian Wilson and ‘Pet Sounds’?”
Composing this piece has actually made him more optimistic, he says. “Personally I feel more confident. It seems very hopeful that being a bicultural American is a new identity that is now accepted. I still believe in democracy. America is my home and I’m as patriotic as the next person. Give us some diligence and empathy and a proper economy, and we’ll all be OK.”