For this Toho Kingdom interview, I am speaking with Reiko Yamada, principal keyboardist of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Miss Yamada was a piano major at the Tokyo College of Music in the 1980s—at a time when famed composer Akira Ifukube served as president of the school. She attended four years of his composition seminars and came to know him very well through the last few decades of his life. She has performed Ifukube’s music in concerts both in Japan and in the United States—most notably his classical piece Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra. We will be talking about all of this and more in the course of this interview.
Patrick Galvan: In starting this interview, I would like to ask about your background. When did you first become interested in music? Did you have family members who were professional musicians?
Reiko Yamada: I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 years old. My father was a traditional folk song (minyō) singer when he was young.
Galvan: What sort of music were you interested in when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite musicians and/or composers?
Yamada: When I was in elementary school, I liked to sing the songs that appeared in my school textbooks; there are music classes starting from the first grade in elementary school in Japan. I also liked playing Mozart’s sonatinas, listening to J.S. Bach’s organ works, and singing the hymns that I learned at Sunday school at church. I also enjoyed listening to my father when he sang traditional folk songs.
Galvan: Why did you choose to study the piano? Do you play any other instruments besides the piano?
Yamada: It was natural that I would play the piano since my older sister had already been taking piano lessons when I was born. I play harpsichord, organ, celesta, harmonium, and synthesizers since I’m the principal keyboardist in my orchestra.
Above Image Courtesy of Reiko Yamada.
Galvan: You were a student of Akira Ifukube’s at the Tokyo College of Music in the 1980s. Were you familiar with Mr. Ifukube’s music before you met him? If not, how were you introduced to the work of this composer?
Yamada: Actually, I’d heard Ifukube’s film music without knowing the composer’s name. When I saw Godzilla (1954), Daimajin (1966), and The Burmese Harp (1956), I was so impressed by these movies and their powerful scores.
When I entered the Tokyo College of Music, a classmate who had studied with maestro Ifukube introduced me to Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra. I was greatly impressed by the music right away. I felt that this composer was somebody very special. Then I found out the composer was Akira Ifukube, who happened to be our music college’s president.
Galvan: I understand that since you were a piano major, you were initially not allowed to attend Mr. Ifukube’s composition seminars. How did you become his student?
Yamada: I visited the president’s office with my classmate who’d introduced me to his music. I met maestro Ifukube in person to obtain his permission to attend his seminars as an audit student.
Galvan: Please describe Mr. Ifukube. What was he like as a teacher and as a person?
Yamada: He was truly a gentleman. He was always well dressed with a bow tie, always calm, and had a natural dignity. He was generous with great manners and treated us politely, even though we were just college students. His seminars were like a salon in style: we talked over a cup of hot tea. His teaching was never forced; his instruction was easy to understand even though it engaged with very profound things. He always treated his students as equals.
Galvan: Did Mr. Ifukube have any philosophies regarding music? If so, did he teach them in his seminars and could you share some examples?
Yamada: He often shared wisdom in sayings like the following:
“Excellent manners are always simple, and therefore excellent music is always simple and easy to understand.” This is based on an idea of the Chinese historiographer Sima Qian.
“I pursue my composition with abundant spiritual force, soul, and vitality rather than national and heuristic emphasis.”
“Music should not show disdain for its audience.”
“Music cannot express anything but itself.” This was in reality an idea of Igor Stravinsky’s, a composer whom he greatly admired.
Galvan: In interviews, Mr. Ifukube comes across as a very knowledgeable person. Besides music, he seems to have known a lot about films and science. Did he incorporate his other interests into his seminars?
Yamada: Yes, his knowledge was astonishing, as if he were an encyclopedia. He was able to explain the essence of true music with accessible examples. We discussed all kinds of subjects such as ethnology, culture, orchestration, history of instruments, manner of the tea ceremony, films, criticism, and acoustic vibration.
Galvan: Mr. Ifukube often talked in interviews about how he was influenced by the music of the Ainu. Did Mr. Ifukube ever discuss the Ainu in his seminars?
Yamada: Yes. He told us about the Ainu through various anecdotes about their culture, lifestyle, ceremonies, instruments, and clothes.
Galvan: In a 1995 interview with David Milner, Mr. Ifukube said he wrote his book Music Guide / Introduction to Music because many Japanese people had become interested in western music at the expense of traditional Japanese music. Did he ever discuss this phenomenon in the time you knew him?
Yamada: I’m not sure if he talked about his book; however, he did mention that many Japanese people had lost interest in traditional Japanese music. After World War II, many of his contemporaries were eager to assimilate avant-garde music from Europe.
Galvan: What is the most important thing you learned from Mr. Ifukube?
Yamada: “Seek that which is essential.” If you perceive the essence of something, everything—including your attitude—will come into harmony. This is a philosophy related to Taoism and Shinto. Ifukube was a humble and remarkable man—he was at once flexible and immovable.
Galvan: Erik Homenick told me in an interview that you got to spend a lot of time at Mr. Ifukube’s house during the 1980s, along with other composers such as Toshiro Mayazumi, Sei Ikeno, and Riichiro Manabe. What are your favorite memories of these parties?
Yamada: It was so wonderful to see all his pupils, from prominent composers to young composers, and see how they admired, respected, and loved maestro Ifukube. Everybody looked so happy and had great times together.
Galvan: After you graduated from the Tokyo College of Music, you came to Roosevelt University’s Music College to pursue your master’s. Why did you decide to come to America to continue your education?
Yamada: Actually, I came to RU to study pedagogy with Dr. Ludmila Lazar, to whom I was introduced by one of her students. I used to assist some professors at the Tokyo College of Music and wanted to teach piano since I was getting lots of advanced students who intended to participate in competitions or concerts.
However, pedagogy classes were structured differently from what I’d imagined, and I decided to stay in Chicago to extend my studies and experiences, since I’d cut ties with everything in Japan before I came to the US.
Fortunately, I was able to audition for and join the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and study with Mrs. Mary Sauer, who was the principal keyboardist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After all of that, I had found my true calling.
Galvan: Thank you for correcting me! Did Mr. Ifukube’s seminars influence the way you teach your students?
Yamada: Yes, definitely.
Reiko Yamada talks with Akira Ifukube at the latter’s home in September 2005. Ifukube was to attend Yamada’s June 2006 concert with the Tochigi Symphony Orchestra, where she would perform Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra, but the composer unfortunately passed away just a few months earlier, in February.
Image Courtesy of Reiko Yamada
Galvan: In 2005, you visited Mr. Ifukube’s home to talk about Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra to prepare for your performance of the piece at a 2006 concert with the Tochigi Symphony Orchestra. What did you hope to learn from this meeting with Mr. Ifukube? How did you feel about the concert?
Yamada: Since I’d found several differences between the full orchestral score of Ritmica Ostinata and the version for two pianos, I wanted to ask about these differences. I was also eager to know what maestro Ifukube desired to express in this piece.
I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to talk with him about the piece before the performance. Even though he didn’t impose any of his own ideas on my upcoming performance, he told me many interesting stories and offered examples to help me get the answers to my questions. It really helped me understand his music better and decide how to play the piece.
It was a very exciting concert and a very special moment. The audience and members of the orchestra were greatly touched by the music. I felt that the orchestra and I brought it together and maestro Ifukube’s spirit was certainly there.
Image Courtesy of Reiko Yamada
Galvan: I’ve read that when you perform Ritmica Ostinata, you prefer to use a Shigeru Kawai 9’ Concert Grand Piano. What is it about this particular piano that makes it ideal for Ritmica Ostinata?
Yamada: The SK-EX has quick hammer action with wonderful response, rich bass, and clear, beautiful sounds. I also love the Shigeru Kawai concert piano technicians, who have great skill in preparing their pianos to my personal specifications for performances.
Galvan: You’ve performed Ritmica Ostinata many times since that 2006 concert, including a performance with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in 2008. You’ve also played it twice with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, including at a concert celebrating Mr. Ifukube’s centennial in 2014. Why does Ritmica Ostinata mean so much to you?
Yamada: I feel very close to Ritmica Ostinata. When I play it, I feel that every single note reinvigorates my lifeforce and makes it burst forth. Maestro Ifukube intended to reveal something in this music that will never weaken. It is very important to me not only as a pianist but also as a human being because it made me realize who I am and what I am capable of doing. I also wanted to introduce this outstanding piece that is so representative of Ifukube’s aesthetic to as many people as possible.
Yamada has recorded three CDs of Ifukube’s music for the piano. The first volume ranked as the #1 bestseller of contemporary music at Tower Records in Japan for a week.
Vol. 1, which includes Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra, is currently available for download at iTunes.
Above Image Courtesy of Erik Homenick
Galvan: Your husband, Shigetoshi Yamada, played violin for a 2008 performance of Mr. Ifukube’s Caractere II, Allegro ritmico at Nichols Concert Hall. I believe this was also the world premiere recording of Deux Caractères pour Violon et Piano.
Yamada: Mr. Kiwami Ifukube found the Deux Caractères manuscript score after his father passed away. At that same time, I was planning to make a CD of maestro Ifukube’s piano works and happened to be discussing the recording plans with Kiwami. He asked me if I’d be interested in playing Deux Caractères since he knew my husband is a violinist. We played this version as the world premiere recording.
Galvan: Most of my readers only know of Mr. Ifukube through his film scores. If you were to introduce someone to his concert music, what would you recommend?
Yamada: I believe that any of his pieces would be impactful on people who are not normally fans of classical music. His orchestration is outstanding and powerful, like in his Sinfonia Tapkaara. People also would find some of his famous film motifs actually originate in his concert pieces, both for full orchestra and chamber orchestra.
Galvan: Any other favorite memories or comments about Mr. Ifukube and/or his music that you would like to share?
Yamada: When I talked with maestro Ifukube at his seminars, I found that he used to live in Nikko, my hometown. Incidentally, I used to walk on a road in front of the house where he used to live—I walked on this road every day to go to junior high school. He was surprised and we had interesting conversations about Nikko.
Maestro Ifukube will always be my great mentor. Ifukube’s wisdom will be my important guide on the path to being a better musician and human being.
Galvan: Thank you very much for this interview!
Yamada: Thank you for sharing the great memory of maestro Ifukube.
Special thanks to Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, for his help in making this interview possible.