Monday, December 24, 2018

The Final Satoko Fujii “Kanreki Cycle” Releases

As was the case this past June, my listening schedule turned out to be such that I could not keep up with the month-by-month releases in Satoko Fujii’s “Kanreki Cycle” conceived to honor the year of her 60th birthday. This time, however, I am accounting for the last two releases in the series; and those two releases have some interesting commonalities. Most importantly, they both present Fujii solely as a composer whose music is being performed by others. The November release consists of short compositions for solo piano, all played by classical pianist Yuko Yamaoka. The December release, on the other hand, is another Satoko Fujii Orchestra recording, this time of the ensemble Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo. Because this consists only of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section of bass and drums, Fujii is not one of the performers. This article is also a landmark occasion, because, as anyone following the above hyperlinks will discover, finally seems to be catching up with creating Web pages for Fujii recordings!

The full title of the solo piano album is Diary 2005–2015: Yuko Yamaoka plays the music of Satoko Fujii. Since 2005 Fujii has made it a routine that, before sitting down to practice her piano technique, she would devote fifteen minutes to practicing composition. Each of these efforts would be logged into a diary, identified only by the date of the entry. The Diary album consists of 118 of those entries, entered into the diary between January 28, 2005 and March 13, 2016 (that last being the only entry that goes beyond the “boundary” of the album’s title).

I made it a point to identify Yamaoka as a “classical” pianist, because, in my personal collection, I have decided to log these pieces as “classical compositions,” rather than “jazz performances.” That is the way I classify the piano preludes of George Gershwin, and I see no reason why these pieces should receive different treatment. However, because of their brevity and pedagogic foundations, I would say that these pieces have more in common with the Mikrokosmos collection of Béla Bartók than they do with anything that Gershwin ever wrote.

Given the approach that Fujii took, it is reasonable to appreciate that all of these pieces are brief. The longest is a little more than two and one-half minutes in duration, while the shortest takes only sixteen seconds. More interesting, however, is the diversity of different techniques that Fujii documented over the course of this decade of effort. Some of the pieces involve a simple (but sometimes atonal) melodic line. Others amount to taking basic lessons in species counterpoint and putting them into practice. Still others involve full-handed homophony; and at least one (if memory serves well) involves a tone cluster.

To be honest, however, I am not sure I have encountered a “diary entry” that I can link to one of my recordings of Fujii’s piano-playing. On the other hand, I really did not expect to make any “discoveries” of this nature. There is no reason to expect that “warming up” activities should transfer “whole cloth” into specific performance gestures, particularly when those gestures may be rooted in some (possibly opaque) combination of improvisation and through-composed writing. If Mikrokosmos amounts to dexterity training for piano-playing, then Diary may be taken as a particular approach to “ear training for listeners.” Regardless of whether or not this music has a “purpose” as such, however, I suspect that I shall revisit the tracks of this album, simply to enjoy the pleasure of eavesdropping on an “artist at work.”

Album cover of Kikoeru (courtesy of Brathwaite & Katz Communications)

The Orchestra album, on the other hand, is a collection of six compositions, four by Fujii and two by her husband, the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. The title of the album is Kikoeru, which is Japanese for “can hear.” The album was conceived to serve as a memorial for the tenor saxophonist Masaya Kimura.

That tribute is most evident in the second track, Fujii’s “Farewell,” which features an emotionally intense accompaniment to a full-throated solo by tenor saxophonist Kenichi Matsumoto. Tamura’s two tracks, on the other hand, the last two on the album, tend to go over the top, almost to the point of throwing even the slightest suggestion of discipline to the winds. Taken as a whole, one might almost call the album Six Ways of Remembering the Dead, acknowledging that memorial need not be limited to outpourings of grief.

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