TOYAMA – For Yurie Akaiwa, what began as a graduation project at the University of Toyama has turned into a unique artistic endeavor that fuses Japanese art with traditional Western musical instruments.
The 26-year-old craftswoman, an employee of Yanagisawa Wind Instruments Co., has already used her urushi (lacquer) technique to recraft five saxophones to stunning effect. One tenor sax she produced through meticulous manual labor, applying layers of lacquer, is decorated with patterns of clouds and peach flowers painted with gold powder.
“It is interesting that we can still try new things today by using an ancient natural material,” Akaiwa says, as she shows off her work in a shop in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture.
Urushi, made from the sap obtained from lacquer trees, has been used to coat a variety of objects in Japan and elsewhere.
The sap can cause skin rashes before it dries, but for the most part people who use lacquered objects don’t have to worry about that. Lacquer containing impurities, however, will prevent coated goods from drying completely and have been known to cause problems for users.
Akaiwa studied urushi lacquer craft at the university’s Faculty of Art and Design, and she chose the saxophone for her graduation project because she was familiar with the instrument from her days as a student when she belonged to a brass band.
At first, she struggled with getting the lacquer to stick to the instrument, and she repeatedly conducted tests to find the right combination of lacquer mix and a way to get the coating to stay on the saxophone.
“I wasn’t paying attention to the sound (of the instrument) at all,” Akaiwa says, adding that all she cared about were the aesthetics.
However, test trials after it was assembled went well and she received positive feedback from saxophone players, which assured her of its quality and functionality as a musical instrument.
Encouraged by the test results, Akaiwa continued her work at the university and her instructor’s workshop for two years after her graduation with the support of Yanagisawa Wind Instruments.
She was hired by the Tokyo-based company in 2017 and has been continuing her research and producing her musical instrument creations as a researcher based at the university.
Akaiwa recently figured out that the timbre of saxophones changes depending on areas where the lacquer is applied.
“Probably, it should be possible to make instruments suitable for playing specific kinds of music, such as jazz or classical music, as well as other genres,” she says. “I would like to pay more attention to the sound from now on.”
Professional saxophone quartet JG recorded its new album, which was released earlier this year, using four of Akaiwa’s instruments — soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones.
JG, or Jemmy Genic, is scheduled to perform with the urushi-lacquered saxophones at a concert in the city of Toyama on Nov. 2.