Pianist Yazawa looks to the past to find security in the future

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

Pianist Tomoko Yazawa always thinks about her music with the future in mind. However, for her latest album, “Playing in the Dark,” she made a rare diversion into the past — specifically, France at the end of the 19th century.

Although Yazawa was classically trained at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, she developed her interest in contemporary music through further study at l’Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris under Claude Helffer and from her experiences in New York.

“I have mostly specialized in contemporary piano music rather than digging into the past with classical pieces,” says Yazawa, who also commissions contemporary composers to write new compositions for her. “Cutting-edge music offers a glimpse of the future.”

However, Yazawa tells The Japan Times that for the past few years she has sensed a “futile” and “desolate” atmosphere in Tokyo due to a prolonged recession that “gradually obscured my vision of a bright future.” That caused her to gravitate toward works from France’s fin-de-siecle (end of the century) movement. Those pieces “soothed my soul when I played them,” she says before noting that this was before the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent nuclear crisis.

On March 24, 2011, Yazawa hastily moved to Okinawa. It was an unknown land to her, but more importantly it was an island without nuclear power plants.

Yazawa isn’t a Luddite by any means, though. She sees musical scores in a scientific way and isn’t threatened by new methods of distribution for her work, an attitude that’s pioneering among classical performers here. She has embraced new technologies and has distributed her performances through a download service.

“Download services are important because they are easily accessible and economical for listeners, as they can download the works piece by piece,” she says. “It allows me to distribute my music worldwide.”

Yazawa believes these services will grow more popular with the improvement of sound quality and deregulation in the record company-dominant music market.

“If you want to release a CD in this kind of environment, the package itself should be a value-added work of art,” she says. “That way customers will actually want to own it.”

Released from Yazawa’s own label, Geisha Farm, the packaging for “Playing in the Dark” is elaborately designed with a stylish white jacket that features a lotus flower in black and silver created by Noriko Tanaka, a bingata (a traditional Okinawan dyeing technique) craft artist.

“The petals of the lotus are falling like the writing on the wall,” she points out. “That made me upset, but at the same time I was strongly attracted to the image as it goes perfectly with my program of the CD.”

When opened, the flaps of the jacket become shaped like a cross that invites listeners into an unorthodox music world. The album opens with Estonian contemporary composer Arvo Part’s quiet and spiritual piece, “Fur Alina,” in which delicate high tones chime over the steadily held bass as if they were echoing throughout the void of space.

The next piece, “Sonneries dela Rose Croix” by French composer Eric Satie (1866-1925), features a blended minor/major chord progression that evokes an image of hooded monks holding candles and slowly descending a darkened staircase into a secret sanctuary.

Such visuals may be largely a result of Yazawa’s particular approach to recording.

“Human beings have extra-sharp hearing and machines cannot record nor reproduce sounds like we can, so I produce my recordings using special microphone arrangements and thorough sound mixing to create the same quality you’d hear at a live performance, where a listener can distinguish every tonal characteristic in accordance with my touch,” Yazawa says. “I love live performances, too.”

Though Yazawa performed in Okinawa last March, she says she would like to reduce her touring schedule.

“Performances in the disaster-hit areas may sound like I am telling the people to stay there and hold on. I don’t want to say that,” she says. “Even now, I believe that people who are able to leave would be better off escaping radiation contamination.”

The rest of the album mainly consists of the works of 19th-century French composers, such as mysterious etudes by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and “Le Gibet” from “Gaspard de la nuit” by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). It also includes works by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), such as the occult-inspired “Black Mass,” as well as French contemporary composer Tristan Murail’s “La Mandragore” (“Mandrake”), which was commissioned and premiered by Yazawa in 1993.

The end of the 19th century saw both prosperity and global recession, and it may have something in common with the situation society finds itself in today. To escape or not to escape, nobody knows what is really the best idea — but the anxiety is there. At least these dark, elegant pieces can help provide something of a musical security blanket.

“Playing in the Dark” is in stores now. For more details, visit www.geishafarm.com.