GETTING TO KNOW: SATOKO FUJII

For virtuoso Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii, the search for musical identity has been a long journey. Training in classical piano from an early age constrained her improvisational urge to ‘just hit things’ on the piano, to explore sounds in themselves. Later studies in jazz at Berklee College of Music, Boston, reinforced her view that following conventional approaches to improvisation and composition was creatively inauthentic. During further advanced studies at the New England Conservatory, pianist and improviser Paul Bley encouraged Fujii to pursue her musical ideas however inchoate they might have initially seemed. From then on Fujii followed her intuition unwaveringly and created sounds that she liked – ‘violations’, as she calls them. The determination to forge her own creative path has produced music that has brought international critical acclaim.

Satoko Fujii photo by Bryan Murray_SYS2 (155 of 633)-Edit.jpg
Photo credit: Bryan Murray

THE STREET TALKED WITH SATOKO BEFORE HER ARRIVAL IN AUSTRALIA AND PERFORMANCE IN CANBERRA.

YOU ARE RETURNING TO AUSTRALIA WITH NATSUKI TAMURA AND ARE PERFORMING WITH AUSTRALIA’S PREDOMINATELY FEMALE BIG SIRENS BAND. PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS COLLABORATION AND WORKING WITH THEM TO PERFORM THE FUKUSHIMA SUITE.

I have played with many big bands in different cities and countries–in Boston, New York, Nagoya, Kobe, Chicago, Berlin, Bielefeld, Melbourne, Perth, Lille, Oakland, etc. Every time I play with a different big band, I find that the music comes out differently. The difference is not good or bad. I think the difference comes from the different backgrounds and cultures. I really enjoy listening to the different voices. I have never played with a female big band and am very curious to hear how the music comes out. I myself am a woman so I am sure we can share our feelings, thoughts, and ideas. I am so excited to meet them, talk to them, work with them, and make music with them. The music will be very special.

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR COMPOSITION, THE FUKUSHIMA SUITE.

When the Fukushima incident happened in March 2011, I was in Tokyo. It was a really scary experience. We couldn’t see the radiation but we knew that the wind was carrying it down to Tokyo. We really didn’t know much about what happened and what was going on, and we still don’t. I think there is no safe place in this world, unfortunately, but the Fukushima incident is not easy to accept because it’s something we could have avoided. There are so many disasters in this world that we cannot control like tsunamis, earthquakes, illness, tornadoes, etc. Why do we need to add even more? I wrote this suite based on my feelings and experience from this incident. I think music can convey things that words cannot, especially deep emotion.

DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.

I was very shy when I was little. I couldn’t talk to other kids and didn’t want go to kindergarten. I asked my mother if I could quit school. She didn’t want to push me but she let me go to piano lessons instead of kindergarten when I was four years old. She thought it was better to have other ways to communicate with people outside the family. She also knew I liked music and I was already improvising on the piano. I had a hard time talking and relaxing with other people but I felt very free and could relax when I played music.  With music I felt that I could do anything. These days I am not so reserved, but sometimes I am still a little afraid to talk to people. With music I feel completely free from shyness and worries.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE PIANO FOR YOU AS AN INSTRUMENT?

I have some complex feelings about the piano. I didn’t choose my instrument. I started playing piano because there was a piano in my house when I was three years old. During the teenage years many of my friends chose their own instruments. I was not sure piano was my favorite instrument then. After I studied classical piano for 15 years, I found I couldn’t improvise and couldn’t play anything without a lead sheet in front of me. I was like a well-trained dog. I left piano for a few years, but I came back to it after listening to Fumio Itabashi, a great jazz pianist at a jazz club in Tokyo.  That made me realize how much I love it. Piano is like a pallet of ideas. Somehow it is logical and simple to think of equal temperament music. It is like my extended body.

HOW DO YOU APPROACH LEADING AN ENSEMBLE?

When I lead an ensemble I try to have a picture in my mind that I can explain clearly to the bandmates. This makes the process easier and it always works fine. But I also like to get the music to places I didn’t expect it would go. In most cases I incorporate those surprises. I believe music needs to be open and free and can be in any shape. If I never got anything I didn’t expect, I’d have no reason to play with other people. An ensemble is just like a society. We make something together and accept other voices to make it richer. I bring my ideas but I try to be ready to discover other ideas to include. I have so much fun playing music with other musicians.

HOW HAS YOUR JAPANESE CULTURAL HERITAGE INFORMED YOUR CREATIVE LIFE INCLUDING COMPOSING AND PERFORMING?

After studying classical music and jazz for a long time, I realized I didn’t know any Japanese music, so I studied Japanese folk singing, Minyo. While I was studying it, I noticed how deeply I reacted to this music. I felt different parts of my brain working when I played and listened to Japanese music. It was an important experience for me. I strive to get this feeling in my original music. I know it is not like using Japanese instrument or scales, and I am still struggling to find the way. But even when I don’t try, I know my music sounds Japanese. I was born in Japan and grew up in Japan, so I am sure I carry Japanese cultural heritage inside me.

YOU HAVE AN ENDURING RELATIONSHIP WITH ACCLAIMED TRUMPETER NATSUKI TAMURA. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES IN MUSICAL STYLE THAT YOU BRING TO YOUR COLLABORATIONS AND WORK TOGETHER?

Natsuki is very different from me. He is very open, relaxed, optimistic, and easygoing. That is totally opposite from me, but we have very similar values. I still am so inspired by his music. I know many musician couples who don’t play together because they don’t accept each other. We are different. We accept each other and even when other people don’t like our music, he likes my music and I like his music. When I compose, I always ask him to listen. It’s an important part of my process and helps me go on to the next stage. I like having two more ears to hear my music, and he always encourages me.

YOUR CAREER HAS TAKEN YOU ACROSS CONTINENTS AND MUSIC GENRES. WHAT IS YOUR OBSERVATION ON THE RECOGNITION OF FEMALE COMPOSERS AND BAND LEADERS?

In all countries and in many music genres, there are still fewer female musicians than male musicians. In schools I think there are more female players but many of them quit when they graduate. It’s sad because I think female musicians can bring a lot of power, color, and richness to the musical world. I know male musicians who are always happy to work with female composers and leaders. Female composers and leaders aren’t as common so we get some attention for that, but soon I think it might not be such a special thing. I hope so, anyway. Girls, you are encouraged to become musicians!!

WHAT IS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THE MUSIC/JAZZ SCENE IN AUSTRALIA?

I have been in Australia three times before and I have many Australian musician friends who live in and out of Australia. I’m always amazed by their technique and originality. Australian musicians are different from European, American and Japanese musicians.  They have unique qualities that probably come from Australia’s geographic position. They carry the strong European classical music history, too, so they have great technique. I met many interesting musicians in Australia and I am sure there are more who I haven’t met. Australia is far away from America and Europe, but it is closer to Japan. I think Japan and Australia can strengthen their musical connections so musicians can collaborate and create something special together.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

I am very interested in music that cannot be notated with traditional musical notation. I have already played and composed a lot of that kind of work, but I still use piano when I compose and I think it actually limits me in certain ways. I am now struggling to compose without piano.  There are always good things and bad things when one uses convenient tools. It makes the work easier but you probably lose something important. I want to try making music only with my imagination and finding my voice in this way. There are some projects I am currently working on and I don’t want to quit any of them. I always want to add new things that interest me. So I will keep composing with piano, and add doing so without piano.