Sisters Haruka and Rika Fujii are keenly aware of their musical lineage; their mother, Mutsuko, is a pioneer when it comes to the marimba.
“It’s still difficult for us to generate the kinds of sounds that our mother was able to,” Haruka says with some pride. “She can do it like nobody else can.”
The sisters’ musical abilities are also quite impressive, however. Haruka recently returned from San Francisco where she is currently based. She studied at The Julliard School in New York and performs as both a solo percussionist and chamber musician with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
Younger sister Rika studied at Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo and performs as a stage percussionist as well as a taiko drummer here and abroad.
The sisters’ own musical journeys, though, began with the piano. Both of them played the instrument when they were younger, but eventually switched to percussion.
“I preferred an ensemble rather than playing alone,” Haruka says.
Rika agrees, noting, “I preferred moving my body rather than sitting still in front of the piano.”
Haruka adds that the switch caused her and her sister to realize how talented their mother was. Percussive instruments are more physical than other instruments and a rarer choice among Japanese women, so there was never a guarantee that it could develop into a career. However, they have overcome many of the obstacles their mother did, eventually forming Utari in 2012.
“Many fantastic percussion pieces were written by Japanese composers between the 1960s and ’80s,” Haruka says. “We refer to it as Japan’s ‘golden age’ of avant-garde music.”
Mutsuko was a part of that, and Rika says that she and Haruka see their mission as making sure those pieces, a lot of them composed for their mother, do not stay buried in the past.
“Many of them are unrecorded, unpublished, unknown overseas and almost forgotten in Japan,” Haruka says.
Utari will feature such hidden gems at its upcoming show in Tokyo on Oct. 29. Among the pieces to be performed is “Torse V,” composed by Akira Miyoshi in 1973. It will be performed in collaboration with Mutsuko. Also on the roster is “Ahania II,” a piece Yoshio Hachimura wrote for Mutsuko in the 1980s.
Utari isn’t solely concerned with nostalgia, though. The sisters are also actively creating their own contemporary pieces. One such work, which they commissioned to composer Yasuhisa Toma, consists of three smaller pieces titled “Moon,” “Window” and “Nail.” It features vibraphone and marimba, and will be played at the upcoming concert.
“Although both belong to the keyboard percussion family, the metallic vibraphone produces an urban sound while the wooden marimba sounds as if it’s coming from a dense jungle,” Toma says.
The program is set to also include pieces by contemporary composers who are active in the United States such as David Lang, Mark Applebaum and Hiroya Miura.
The physical movements of percussive performances also make for a more visually stimulating show. The sisters say they need to keep in shape through daily exercise and yoga, but ultimately the reward is an artistic one.
“There are so many kinds of percussion instruments and unlimited sounds that form into music,” Haruka says. “I find the process so interesting, and that is what contemporary music is all about.”
Utari in Tokyo Vol. 2 takes place in the small hall of Bunkyo Civic Hall on Oct. 29 (4 p.m. start; ¥4,000, ¥3,000 for students; 03-5474-5733). For more information, visit www.utariduo.com.