Albert Einstein once said that the “important thing is not to stop questioning.” A similar aphorism applies to composer and classical musician Yoko Hamabe Wylegala, whose life has been defined since the age of 7 by studying and questioning one subject or another.
“My parents took me to a ballet recital of ‘Swan Lake,’ and I was awestruck by the music. So I asked for Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ album as a birthday gift,” she says from her home in Washington D.C. “That was my first encounter with music. I wanted to experience the real thing, and to understand what Tchaikovsky’s music meant.”
When Wylegala’s birthday arrived, however, she was sorely disappointed to discover that the album she received was an edited version that didn’t include the one piece of music she was hankering to hear again — the section played during the pas de trois of Act 1. Undeterred, the whole experience became a definitive moment for Wylegala, who grew up to study at various universities scattered across the globe in order to experience and understand not just music, but everything that interests her. And her interests are eclectic — from music and the tango to mahjong and philosophy, she says she is always learning about something.
“I’ll keep studying for the rest of my days,” she says. “Over the years I’ve become accustomed to studying anywhere. I’m able to carve out the time necessary for periods of intense concentration in any environment.”
After attending a music university in Japan, Wylegala married Andrew Wylegala, minister counselor for financial affairs for the American Embassy in Tokyo.
The job took the couple to all corners of the globe, and every few years Wylegala found herself in a new locale with a different language. She explains that she has had to adopt a “go with the flow” mind-set when it came to unfamiliar territory and language. It was during her husband’s second post, in Mexico, that she became particularly aware of the joy of studying for study’s sake
“Mexico was crammed with color and emotions — it just woke up my senses. And in that environment I developed a passionate desire for self-expression,” recalls Wylegala. “I turned to music, because it was something I knew best. I hunted around for a music school and enrolled in Centro de Investigacion y Estudio de la Musica and studied music again, right from the beginning. The classes and exams were all in Spanish, so I had to learn that as well. The whole experience was very rewarding. I rediscovered the joy of starting a subject from scratch, and sitting in a classroom with no other goal except to learn, learn and learn.”
From then on, Wylegala has always combined studying with a nomadic lifestyle. The countries she has lived in the past 30 years span far and wide — Germany, Peru, Iraq, Hong Kong — the list is long.
“I first went abroad in my junior year in high school,” says Wylegala reflecting on her globetrotting past. “I went to Australia on a Rotary Youth Exchange program. It was an eye-opening experience. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of Australia, the power of its natural landscapes and the diversity of the people. Everything was incredibly different from anything I had experienced in Japan. For example, there were student-run disco nights at my school. One teacher quit his job to be a rock band roadie. Such things were unthinkable back in Tokyo.”
Australia planted the seeds of Wylegala’s quest for knowledge and freedom. “I was stunned at the size and scale of peoples’ houses. It struck me that in Australia, you didn’t need a huge income and elitist background to live in a big house with a pool,” she says. “The society there just seemed so prosperous, and respectful of personal happiness. My value system was turned upside down and stretched inside out. When I went home it was very tough adjusting back to the standards of Japanese life.”
It was providential that she met Andrew in Tokyo after she returned to Japan. He, too, was a Rotary exchange student and the pair became friends. “We got married in 1989, and since then my life has been, on many levels, a continuous journey,” says Wylegala.
Over the years that journey has been studded with the various subjects of her continued education. Wylegala continued to play concert violin and the flute in various orchestras, but when the couple was stationed in Hong Kong, she decided to try for a doctorate in music composition.
“I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Hong Kong. All the classes and paper requirements were in English and naturally, my dissertation had to be in English as well,” she says. “The university had a very liberal vibe and the professors were open-minded. I had no trouble fitting right in, and during this time I also took undergraduate classes in philosophy and other topics. I guess I just love life in academia.”
Wylegala settled on a dissertation titled: “Audience Accessibility: Applying Game Rules in Music Composition.” To accompany her written work, she composed a musical suite inspired by the rules of mahjong.
“Mahjong has a bad rep,” she says, laughing. “Some of the professors expressed slight dismay over my choice of material, but I pushed back. I was convinced that the game held interesting potential for musical composition.”
When the Wylegalas were assigned to Japan in 2012, she was halfway through her dissertation, but she continued to work on it, finishing it while going back and forth between Hong Kong and Tokyo.
“The hardest part was trying to find the necessary English texts in Tokyo,” she recalls. “But I kept at it and when I finally got my doctorate, I felt like I had achieved something more than just a wealth of knowledge.”
Wylegala’s time in Tokyo was also filled with additional study. She attended aesthetics classes at the University of Tokyo to deepen her knowledge of the arts. “I love being a student,” Wylegala stresses again. “And having the chance to attend lectures in my native language was invaluable to me.”
The Wylegalas returned to the U.S. in 2017 and now live in Washington D.C. She has since composed a piece that was recently played by the Illuminart Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Tomomi Nishimoto at Bunkamura in Tokyo, and is at work on other pieces for concerts and recitals. Besides composing herself, she teaches composition to aspiring musicians.
“I came into composition later in life so I know the obstacles and difficulties of this endeavor,” she says. “But in this particular field, age is a non-factor. This may sound simplistic but I believe it’s a matter of being passionate, committed and finding your own groove.”
Name: Yoko Wylegala
Profession: Musician and composer
Key moments in career:
1996 — Moves to Mexico and enrolled in the Centro de Investigacion y Estudio de la Musica
1999 — Debuts as a violinist for the Mason University Orchestra
2009 — Starts working on a doctorate
2016 — Completes dissertation and receives Ph.D.
2018 — Composes concert piece that is played by the Illuminart Philharmonic Orchestra at Bunkamura Orchard Hall, Tokyo.
Favorite words of wisdom: “Tears come from the heart and not from the brain” — Leonardo da Vinci
Things I miss most about Japan: “Real conversations with the people I love. I used to miss it more, before the days of Skype and email. And the food! In my early days in the U.S., I went to a Japanese restaurant once and was so overcome by the taste of rice that I started crying.”
Things I love about the U.S.: “How everyone is positive and always looks on the bright side.”