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Andrew Osmond interviews Cecile Corbel about the music of Arrietty.

“The beginning of my history with Ghibli resembles a fairy tale, starting with the innocent sending of my album,” says French harpist, singer, songwriter and musician Cecile Corbel. “The story pleased the Japanese very much.”

Corbel hails from Finistère, in the far west corner of Brittany. Growing up with a love of Breton culture and landscapes, she began learning the harp as a teenager, seduced by the sensuality of its strings. By the time she was a university student in Paris, she was singing in bars and as a street musician. Music demos led to albums, festivals and tours round the world, from France to Australia. Corbel insists she had no ulterior motive in 2009 when she posted a copy of her third album to Studio Ghibli. For the Breton musician, it was a gesture of respect from a fan, a thank-you from one artist to another. It was pure chance, Corbel says, that the CD found its way to Ghibli producer and former president Toshio Suzuki.

Unknown to Corbel, Ghibli was developing its version of The Borrowers, and Suzuki was quickly convinced that Corbel’s music fitted the film. Soon after posting the CD, Corbel received an email out of the blue from Ghibli. Initially, she was invited to contribute one song, the main theme called Arrietty’s Song. However, the project soon snowballed. After emailing the first song to the studio, Corbel found herself invited to write another, then another, until she and her collaborators found themselves creating the whole Arrietty score.

Much of Arrietty’s music expresses the feelings and experiences of the title character, meaning Corbel had to stay with her a long time, teasing out the different sides of the Borrower teen. “I was almost living with Arrietty for a year!” says Corbel. “There were many drawings on the walls of my studio, posters of the film… My house became the house of the borrowers!”

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The music was recorded in Corbel’s Paris studio, then sent to Ghibli where Japanese music director Koji Kasamatsu cut it to the animation. As well as Corbel on her harp, her fellow musicians played bagpipes, a Bodhran (Irish drum) and an accordion. There was also a bass, a string quartet and an acoustic guitar. The arrangements were handled by Corbel’s collaborator, Simon Caby.

While much of the collaboration was through email, Corbel visited Ghibli in person, comparing her first visit to being a child on Christmas morning. “I felt very emotional at the idea of discovering the intricacies of this magic place,” she says. “I could really understand how the studio’s films were created. My main impression was of a place on a human scale, almost a family, with the energy and the incredible passion of the people who work there.”

Although Corbel met Hayao Miyazaki, she worked primarily with the director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the producer, Toshio Suzuki. “Yonebayashi-san is one of those people who is very thoughtful, always listening,” she says. “Because Arrietty was his first film, he was attentive to the advice of everyone, particularly Suzuki-san, and that’s reflected very much in this film. Suzuki-san is also someone who is very creative, always with a new idea. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Corbel soaked up Japanese traditional music (she also claims she was advised to learn Japanese by visiting bars and karaoke clubs). “There is an obvious connection between Celtic and Japanese music,” she says, noting they share the pentatonic range of five notes, as used in parts of the music for Princess Mononoke. “That sometimes gives them the same melodic colours. Equally, many of the sonorities of Japanese music please me. The players of the koto or shamisen (two traditional Japanese stringed instruments) can recognise the chords of the Celtic harp.”

Corbel sees a Celtic Far Eastern connection that runs through Bob Dylan, who’s popular with Japan’s older generation. Dylan familiarised the Japanese with the violin, guitar and harmonica, as well as the traditions of the Irish ballad. Corbel’s Japanese experience culminated in a fifty-day summer tour, in the build-up to the film’s Japanese premiere in July 2010.

“It is difficult to choose a memory of the tour; there are so many!” Corbel says. “If I were to keep one moment, it would be the concert on the first of July, which was to launch the promotional campaign and ‘give a blessing’ to the film. That took place in the Zojoji Buddhist temple in Tokyo. It was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever played in my life.”

Arrietty is out now on UK DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment.

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