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Canadian musician pens piece for 'Tsunami violin' performances

Miguel Sosa contributes to Bond Made of 1,000 Tones project for March 11 survivors

by Michael Kleindl

Special To The Japan Times

Four months ago, Miguel Sosa, a composer, concert pianist, conductor and teacher was asked by Taizo Oba, organizer of the Bond Made of 1,000 Tones project, to write an original composition for one of the two “tsunami-debris” violins.

Sosa’s first thought was “Me? Really? I never saw myself as someone who would be doing a contribution like this.” Oba, though, couldn’t have made a better choice.

After the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, master luthier Muneyuki Nakazawa was moved to collect pieces of maple and pine from driftwood and debris in the tsunami-ravaged city of Rikuzentakata and other places along the devastated coast of Iwate Prefecture. Over the next year he crafted two violins, one of which has a painting on its back of the “Miracle pine” — the lone pine tree that withstood the waves that wiped out the rest of the grove of 70,000 pines that had lined the beach of Rikuzentakata.

Nakazawa conceived of the Bond Made of 1,000 Tones project with the hope that his violins would be played in a chain of 1,000 performances by musicians around the world to console and remind people of the tragedy. With Oba’s help, the project officially began on July 20.

Oba had known of Sosa through his 2009 solo piano CD, “Sakuradayori” (“Letters From Spring”). This collection of 17 short meditative pieces “gives people a lot of space,” explains Sosa. “The melodic lines are simple and calming.”

But Oba could not have known that when Sosa wrote those pieces he was going through a period of deep personal despair. He was avoiding human contact, often walking, seeking out natural spaces in Tokyo, Yokohama, Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture and other places in Japan. He would observe waves in the ocean, clouds in the sky or trees in a park, and he found inspiration. The songs he wrote in response to his own personal tragedy are tranquil, quiet and uplifting.

Born in Bogota, Sosa, 47, began his musical education at the age of 5 when his parents discovered he had perfect pitch. They started him on violin, but after six months he smashed it against the wall out of frustration at not being able to produce a sound.

“My mother switched me to piano lessons after that,” he adds with a laugh.

In his early teens, Sosa’s family moved to Canada, where he eventually met celebrated French pianist Jean-Paul Sevilla, who accepted him as a student. When Sosa showed up for his first lesson, Sevilla took him into the kitchen, where he was confronted with an array of vegetables and other ingredients. Sevilla told him to cook dinner.

“Sevilla told me that before giving any piano lessons, I needed to show him I could cook,” he recalls. But Sosa knew nothing about cooking, so for the next several weeks he went off to learn. Finally, he was able to prepare a dinner for Sevilla, and the piano lessons began.

“I didn’t understand it at the time,” Sosa says. “But Sevilla’s purpose was to show me that a cook, or any artist, must look at what is available and see potential.

“Therein is the art,” he explains. “You need to know what to do with very raw and basic things. Sevilla taught me this very valuable lesson.”

Sevilla also introduced Sosa to his next influential teacher, the renowned French pianist Eric Heidsieck. So in his late teens, Sosa went off to Paris to study with another master. Again, the lessons at first were not about the piano.

“Heidsieck made me walk around Paris,” Sosa recalls. “He sent me out to museums, parks or just to walk around the city, then come back and talk about it.” They would talk of theater, paintings, architecture or ballet, sometimes for hours.

“From him,” says Sosa, “I learned to be aware, to see. He gave me lots of opportunities to see. I’m grateful for that.”

Sosa first came to Japan in late 1991 through his piano duo partner, Satoko Hojo, whom he had met several years earlier at the University of Ottawa. Sosa admired her music professor at Musashino University, so she put them in contact and Sosa was invited for a short visit. They hit it off and the professor proposed that Sosa come to work in Japan. However, at the time, no positions or funds were available.

In 1995, though, an opportunity opened up when a position became vacant in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the sarin gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway. Sosa found a job tutoring musical notation at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. Now, he passes on the lessons of awareness and potential to his academic writing students at International Christian University.

“One thing I learned coming to Japan is that you need silence before you can have music,” he says. “When I was studying in Europe and Canada, I never thought that the basis of sound is silence. I just thought sound! Give me sound! In Japan I’ve learned to respect silence . . . and then you have sound. So, at the beginning of this new piece there is a lot of space, or silence, between the notes,” he adds as he refers to the composition for the Bond Made of 1,000 Tones project.

He has titled the new seven-minute composition “Ribbons,” because ribbons are universally regarded as symbols of hope. And he conceived the basic musical sketch of the piece as he was taking a walk. “I found myself taking lots of pictures of the sky,” he adds. “I see the changing of the sky, the light, the clouds, as changes in sound. Like a symphony.”

Sosa doesn’t sit at a keyboard when he composes. He does it in his head. “Seven minutes is a lot of notes, but I can remember them all. Then when it’s finished in my head, it’s like taking dictation. I write down what I hear, like words.”

He has kept the new composition short because people from many levels will be playing it, not just professionals, so the piece should not be technically challenging. Also, because the violin is traveling so much, people won’t have a lot of time to practice the piece. “So the music should be something you can read quickly,” he snaps his fingers, “and you can play it.”

Sosa and Hojo have been performing concerts together now for 23 years, and on Oct. 27 at Aobadai Philia Hall in Yokohama, they will be giving a 1,000 Tones project performance of piano duo pieces with violin, arranged by Sosa. Oba has invited the internationally acclaimed violinist Sayaka Kinoshiro to join them in several pieces, including the premiere performance of “Ribbons.” She’ll be playing the “Miracle pine” violin.

“Every concert is special,” says Sosa. “Every concert is an act of love. It’s delicate though.”

Things can fall apart very easily, he says. But in this case, the concert is more than an act of love for the art of music. “It’s the birth of something very special and you know that it doesn’t happen twice.

“This concert is a show of respect for what you do,” he says, “respect for this violin, and the whole situation.”

Playing for Japanese audiences is special too, he adds. In North America some musicians just play a concert and move on. But in Japan, the audience comes to listen to you, or with you, he says.

“I’m always very moved because the Japanese audience tends to be more silent when you go on stage. And sometimes when you finish playing,” he pauses, raising both hands slowly and simultaneously as if lifting them from a keyboard, “there are two or three seconds of total silence. And it’s like the audience is with you.” He brings his hands together. “That silence is just magical.”

Recently, says Sosa, he saw an interview on NHK television with a man in Tohoku who was trying to rebuild his little fish-processing factory. You could tell the man felt honored to be on NHK, he adds. “It looked like he had put on a new shirt for the occasion.”

“That man had so much respect for the reporter who had come there to speak with him,” says Sosa. “This is what we have to recognize. These people are really trying to rebuild their lives, and we have to tell them we have respect for you.”

“I often think if I were in their shoes, what would I do?” he asks. “Would I be able to rebuild my life?”

Sosa does not believe in fate, but he firmly believes he is meant to do certain things. This most recent natural disaster and tragedy have brought him to this violin.

“I am very honored to write this piece . . . to tell the people in Tohoku, “You are not alone. There are people who support you and respect you,’ ” he says. “The most terrible thing for them is to be forgotten.”

The “Miracle pine” violin will be passed to the next performer, generation to generation, with the score for Sosa’s composition tucked inside the instrument’s case along with the works by other composers who will be contributing to the project. The performances will be connected to one another by bonds of respect, each performance like an origami paper crane, one of 1,000 folded and strung together as a collective symbol of hope and recovery.

For information about Sosa’s upcoming concert, see sound.jp/duo/ (in Japanese).

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