Hikaru Tamaki and Yoko Reikano Kimura are a happy couple. Not just in marriage but also as Duo Yumeno, a contemporary classical music duo that aims to tap the potential of combining Western and Japanese instruments. Tamaki is a cellist, while Kimura is a koto and shamisen performer, as well as a classical Japanese singer. They are based in New York, but hold concerts across the U.S., in Japan and in Europe.
Primarily, the two perform contemporary classical compositions commissioned from composers worldwide specifically for their unique instrumentation. Often such compositions center around Japanese sources. Recent performances have included a piece by Elizabeth Brown based around waka poetry written by survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and a set of four Daron Hagen compositions that focus on the female characters of the historical text “The Tale of Heike.”
Born in Kyoto to a Japanese-American mother and a Japanese music teacher father, Tamaki decided to leave the country after high school to study music at Eastman School of Music as well as Rice and Northwestern universities, before eventually performing in several orchestras across the U.S.
“I started playing cello after watching the anime adaptation of ‘Gauche the Cellist,’ the Kenji Miyazawa story,” recalls Tamaki. “I wasn’t particularly interested in music before then.”
Kimura, three years younger than Tamaki, was born in Saitama and began learning koto at 10 after having studied piano from the age of 4.
“I went to a friend’s birthday party, and her grandmother played the koto for us. It was beautiful,” Kimura recalls. She convinced her parents to let her learn the traditional instrument in the Yamada style, and also studied shamisen and classical singing as part of her training.
Later, she attended Tokyo University of Arts and the now-defunct NHK Professional Training School for Traditional Musicians. It was through her performances and teaching as a younger musician that she became interested in new compositions for traditional Japanese instruments.
In 2008, Kimura was invited to collaborate with Japanese musicians at the Cherry Blossom Festival Fort Wayne in Indiana.
“There was a (choice of working with a) Japanese violinist, a cellist and trumpet player,” she says. “Trumpet seemed difficult for koto and I had played with a violinist for a long time. So, I chose cello.”
Tamaki, who was serving as the principal cellist of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, was introduced to Kimura. A year and a half after that first performance at the festival, the two got married, and kept working together. First in Indiana, then in New York after Tamaki stopped performing with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
“There are so many musical styles in New York, all mixed together, so we thought a group like us could exist there, we had more chances there,” says Kimura about the move. “We also wanted to perform in a cultural place.”
“There are places like that on the West Coast, but we knew people on the East Coast,” adds Tamaki.
“We had also been invited to New York before multiple times by shakuhachi player James Nyoraku Schlefer,” continues Kimura. “So that was at least part of the reason why we stayed there.”
For the couple, basing themselves in Japan appeared less of an option, even though Tamaki says there are a lot of groups with similar instrumentation.
“In Japan, they tend towards arrangements (of pop songs, rock songs or already existing tunes). We want to play music that makes the instruments sound good,” he says. “Why do you need to play pop on the koto? The aim was to play original new compositions, for cello and koto or cello and shamisen. We felt very strongly about that (when we started out).”
“It would be nice if there were more groups like us,” Kimura adds, commenting that the duo hopes that through their performances, traditional Japanese instruments will become more widely used across a variety of genres — and not just in the U.S., where audiences may be more receptive to Japanese instruments played in new ways.
“In New York, no matter what you do, whatever you try, people show up wanting to listen. They seem to say, ‘I’ll start by giving it a listen,'” says Kimura, going on to explain how in Japan, traditional Japanese music fans can be more hesitant to accept new forms of playing.
“Even if you try hard to make something really good, you can be misunderstood,” she says. “There will be people who reject you just for making something new.” In the U.S., appreciating Japanese music is not unusual or difficult for audiences, she continues: “There are some people in New York who know the koto well.”
“It’s not as if the average Japanese person knows Japanese music any better than the average New Yorker,” says Tamaki. “In Japan, there are still people who have never heard koto before, or cello for that matter.”
The couple are often asked if their American audiences differ much from Japanese ones. “Recently for me, the audiences feel (like they are becoming) kind of similar, wherever you go — though of course, (these days) they get to see a lot of different kinds of people performing. Kimura says. “Thanks to the internet, the information people have access to is very even now — and that makes some audiences more similar.”
Tamaki adds: “In Tokyo, there are so many different performances happening. People do listen to a lot of music.” But it’s the greater freedom of New York that keeps them from returning to live in Japan.
The duo’s name, Yumeno, means “of dreams” in Japanese. The name is taken from a scroll that Tamaki received from Zen Buddhist monk Soko Morinaga that reads: “In the land of dreams, not a single cloud exists.” The couple chose Duo Yumeno because they hope their dreams will be “as clear as a pure blue sky.”
For Tamaki and Kimura, New York provides an ideal base to play their unique combination of shamisen, koto and cello within a variety of venues. “This might be a type of music that’s less likely to become popular,” says Kimura. “But we want just to make good music.”
Names: Hikaru Tamaki and Yoko Reikano Kimura
Profession: Musicians — koto, cello and shamisen — Duo Yumeno
Hometown: Tamaki — Kyotanabe, Kyoto, Kimura — Higashimatsuyama, Saitama
Age: Tamaki — 43, Kimura — 40
Key moments in career:
2008 — Tamaki and Kimura first perform as a duo at the Cherry Blossom Festival Fort Wayne in Indiana.
2009 — Duo Yumeno is founded.
2015 — Duo Yumeno receives Aoyama Baroque Saal Award in Kyoto.
2016 — Duo Yumeno performs at the Chamber Music America’s National Conference in New York.
2017 — Duo Yumeno perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Misses about Japan: Tamaki: “How the people are considerate and thoughtful to others.”
Kimura: “Onsen (hot springs), cleanliness, transitions of the four seasons.”
Words to live by: “Our name is taken from the first two characters of a saying that we love: ‘In the land of dreams, not a single cloud exists.'”