10 Student Stories to Celebrate 10 Years: Kai Kubota-Enright
September 15, 2021
In celebration of 10 years of Bow Seat’s Ocean Awareness Contest, we are showcasing some of the young artists who have helped turn this competition into a global community of creators and changemakers working on behalf of our blue planet.

Kai Kubota-Enright is a composer and pianist from Vancouver, British Columbia, and is currently studying composition with Prof. Melissa Hui at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. They have composed for numerous short films and documentaries, including two recent videos by a fellow Bow Seat alum. Their music often incorporates improvisational, electronic, and site-specific elements, and may be found as part of larger multimedia collaborations involving dance, installation art, and projection art. In 2019, they received a SOCAN Foundation Young Composer Award for “Isaac,” an electroacoustic piece. Their music also frequently draws inspiration from the sea and other natural environments in an attempt to harmonize artistic and ecological concerns. In 2018, they received a Bronze Award in Bow Seat’s Ocean Awareness Contest for their piece “Aquas.” Kai is a judge for the Contest’s Performing Arts category.

When did you first become interested in protecting the ocean and environment?

My concern for the environment, like many of my generation, began at a fairly early age. It may not have been an issue that was as emphasized as it is now, but I do think there was at the very least an awareness that our current way of life was unsustainable, and that change was needed. A work that had a great impact on me as a child was the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki. The film is set far into the future, after the collapse of our current industrial civilization. Explaining how deeply polluted the soil and waters of the earth are, the main character Nausicaä asks, “Who could have made such a terrible mess of this world?” I suppose it was an early instance in which I was compelled to look at myself as a participant in environmental degradation, at the very least on a societal level.

At times I struggled to justify my desire to pursue an artistic career, feeling it to be self-serving and egotistical. However, as I grew older I eventually realized the very important role arts and culture play in responding to environmental issues (among other things.) We need people to be looking at our society critically, to bring us new perspectives, expose our blind spots, and push us to face reality. And it isn’t just criticism. We also need to be reminded of why we seek to protect these places in the first place, and to witness visions of a more beautiful future. To imagine new paths. Artists do all of this and more.

How do you think your work or creative practice has developed or changed over time?

I think my approach to responding to extramusical material has changed quite a bit. My own submission to the Ocean Awareness Contest was a piece which utilized a motif that was derived from a specific collection of climate change data. I highly doubt I would approach a composition in this way now. Apart from emotional effect, rhythm/movement, and other abstract means of connecting the music to the environment, using a data set to create a melody was an obvious, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-explain technique. Now, however, I feel such a choice resulted in an arbitrary and superficial musical expression. There was no real reason to use that data set over another, and just because there was an interesting story behind it, it didn’t make the actual music itself any more meaningful or impactful. I don’t want to have to explain my music in order to have people appreciate it. (I should caution that I am not against the use of data in music in general—this is nothing more than a personal reflection on my own past work.)

Compared to this externally focused process, I think I am now attempting to create a more balanced process that involves a personal, inward-facing response. There aren’t really objective elements—it is a practice that is interested in my subjective perception of space, and my own emotional response; the manner in which we are individuals, but also a part of an environment ourselves. Essentially, in my music, I attempt to illuminate the subconscious impressions that surroundings leave upon me.

How is climate change affecting your community?

This summer, there have been record-breaking temperatures recorded in British Columbia as well as the Pacific Northwest in general. In B.C. alone, it is likely that hundreds have died from heat-related causes, and the impact on marine and terrestrial environments have also been catastrophic—an estimated one billion sea creatures have died on the coast of Vancouver. The longer, drier, summers have increased the risk of forest fires, and indeed as of this writing, there are almost 200 active wildfires. Apart from the obvious devastation, smoke from these fires causes significant and visible drops in air quality.

These are just issues that I have experienced in some form living in B.C. this summer—it is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think what it illustrates is clear. Climate change is not some abstract issue that will occur in the future, but an active and ongoing crisis with grave impact on the environment and humans alike.

Are you working on any creative projects right now?

Among other things, I am currently working on a piece for string quartet and vibraphone called 蟬 (cicadas) that is almost complete. In this piece, I attempt to explore and unify a variety of my artistic interests, mainly the relationship of our memories to time, place, and environment. Much of the musical material for this piece is inspired by various species of cicada I have heard during my summers in Japan, creating dense atmospheric soundscapes of noise. The goal is to create
music that imparts a sense of environment rather than an ordered, human-centred expression.

The sound of cicadas, of course, has a temporal association, which was important to me, but as well has various cultural associations. I began to consider the often unconscious impact that our surroundings have on our mind. This led me to create musical “memories”— standing in stark contrast to the so-called “cicada music”— which interrupt, communicate, and coexist with their calls in various ways, the same way that in life one may see or hear something which transports them into some other part of their mind. It is my hope that, at its core, this music will invite the listener to reflect upon the relationship between themselves and their surroundings on a personal level.

What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak up and create positive change on issues important to them?

In this world that frequently makes us feel helpless, I want to remind you of the power you have as an individual (and remind myself in turn.) Even though the challenges we face often seem insurmountable, each individual who seeks to make a difference is doing so, no matter how little or how large. When reflecting upon history, we often concentrate on a few iconic figures, but it is important to remember that any movement is composed of many separate individuals. Each and every one of us has a role to play. You matter.

Winners of the 10th annual Ocean Awareness Contest: WATER RISING will be announced in mid-November of 2021. The 2022 Ocean Awareness Contest: THE FUNNY THING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, is accepting submissions through June 13, 2022. Learn more about how to participate.

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10 Student Stories to Celebrate 10 Years: Kai Kubota-Enright

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