Aucklander Samuel Holloway is best known as a classical composer and educator but just occasionally he dons another hat as dance party DJ.

He doesn't have a guaranteed floor-filler but his most recent set included a selection from Wendy Carlos' 1968 synthesiser oddity Switched-On Bach. It's a bold choice and, like Holloway's own compositions, a little provocative.

It earned him his first ever heckle; you get the sense he might have enjoyed that.

Away from the turntables, Holloway's latest work, Japonisme, features in a series of concerts, Distances, which include a prestigious performance in Wellington as part of the New Zealand Festival as well as gigs in Auckland and Dunedin.

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Japonisme sits alongside new works by Kiwis Dylan Lardelli and Chris Gendall and pieces from German and Japanese composers, notably Toru Takemitsu, whose 1972 work Distance almost gives the concert its name.

We too rarely hear boundary-pushing contemporary music in concert halls, particularly since Holloway's own ensemble 175 East went on indefinite sabbatical. He's aware of the need to create opportunities such as this one.

"Part of it is about [contemporary composers] taking responsibility and making things happen. This concert and events like it are part of that," he says, adding that this one has been some time in the making. "In the end, we came up with a New Zealand/Japanese/German thing."

The German "thing" is supplied by the baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann — the only concession to concertgoers looking for something familiar — and the appearance of several members from new music collective Ensemble Musikfabrik, cutting-edge artists based in Cologne.

Ensemble Musikfabrik specialises in music which often sees them playing their instruments in non-standard ways. In Japonisme, it's the combination of instruments that is unusual. As well as oboe, guitar and recorder, Holloway incorporates three traditional Japanese instruments, a koto, a sho and a shamisen.

The koto is the plucked instrument that creates the sound most people will imagine when they think of traditional Japanese music; the sho is a sophisticated mouth organ looking a little like Sauron's Dark Tower in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies; while a shamisen looks and sounds a like a three-stringed banjo. The instruments have a long history but are rarely integrated into works by Western composers.

"I think I have a taste for interesting sonorities," Holloway says. "As an ensemble, the group of instruments is challenging. There are a number of plucked instruments and wind instruments and it has taken a lot of thought to come to terms with how they might work together."

He knows some may see his use of Japanese instruments as a form of cultural tourism; that self-awareness is reflected in the work's title.

"The term Japonisme was primarily used in the visual arts in the 19th century and refers positively to an admiration of Japanese culture, but it's also used negatively in the sense of a misrepresentation or appropriation of aspects of Japanese culture. There's an ambiguity in the title that I like."

Holloway has tried to avoid the trap of fetishising the instruments.

"In new music, it's a bit of a thing to get an instrument from somewhere else to make it 'special'. I'm cautious of that. In the writing process, I thought at length about how I was presenting these instruments and their unique properties and how to show due respect for their cultural and historical significance."

Another way to do that is to have your music played by artists for whom the instruments aren't exotic at all. These concerts boast the Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio. The members are all experts on traditional Japanese instruments but if anything they are more adept playing contemporary classical music than ancient tunes and are considered superstars in their field.

The trio has been here before thanks to a connection formed with Dylan Lardelli who, as well as being a composer, is an inventive classical guitarist. Lardelli performs one of his own works in the concert.

"Dylan's very internationally focused," says Holloway. "He's connected all over the place and that's because he's both a really interesting guitarist and because his music is admired by lots of people."

Lardelli had plenty of input in creating the programme; Holloway says particular thought went into what music would fit, what the performers would enjoy playing and what would give a sense of coherence to the audience. Holloway's work closes the Wellington show.

"Japonisme is an unusual way to end a concert; we're not going out with a bang. Concerts typically end with something dynamic and rhythmical, because that encourages an enthusiastic response."

Because all musicians care if people clap at the end?

"Well, we want a response," says the heckled DJ-cum-composer. "It doesn't have to be a clap."

LOWDOWN
What: Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio & Musikfabrik soloists with Dylan Lardelli
Where and When: Bishop Selwyn Chapel, Parnell, tomorrow; St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, Friday; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Sunday