Tomoe Kawabata on the French-influenced compositional school in Japan

Japan and France have long been involved in a cultural love affair. From as early as the second half of the nineteenth century the two countries have exchanged artistic aesthetics and ideologies. Similar to Van Gogh’s adoration of the colourful palettes seen in Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Melbourne-based pianist Tomoe Kawabata is attracted to the piano’s ability to communicate colours and emotions.

As Kawabata prepares for her recital of French-influenced contemporary Japanese works, she reflects on the visceral response she has to music and the expansive sense of time and space evident in Japanese compositions.

MLIVE: Tell us about your early life in Japan. How did you wile away the hours as a child?
Tomoe Kawabata:
I was a very active child. I loved swimming, skipping rope and playing on the monkey bars. Skipping rope was especially handy so whenever I had a spare moment, I went outside and jumped rope hundreds of times. But I also enjoyed spending time on indoor activities – Japanese calligraphy and the Japanese abacus (soroban). I learnt Japanese calligraphy for 12 years and found it quite meditative. It was one of my favourite things to be calm and focus on something in front of me.

MLIVE: What led you to become a pianist, recitalist and chamber musician? Was there ever a plan B?
Tomoe Kawabata:
I am not sure what exactly led me to become a pianist. However, I remember that whenever I was asked what I would like to be in the future, I would say I wanted to be a pianist. From a young age, I was always amazed by how music can express anything such as emotions, images, smells, colours, an indescribable universal or timeless feeling. These aspects were attractive to me, and I wanted to explore the world by communicating directly with music – by playing. Piano just happened to be the instrument I learnt. I have been satisfied with it because it can play a wide range of roles and enables me to access as wide a range of experiences as possible.

MLIVE: After completing your Master of Music degree from the Tokyo College of Music you relocated to Australia. What motivated your decision, and how did you find the move?
Tomoe Kawabata:
After graduating from the Tokyo College of Music, I was looking for a piano teacher outside of Japan to further my studies. I was looking mainly at Europe, however I happened to meet a professor who was teaching in Sydney, and thought he would be a perfect teacher for me at that time.

‘My initial plan was to study in Australia only for a couple of years but after moving here, I felt driven to do something that might contribute to the Australian music world as a Japanese pianist.’

Because Australia is such a multi-cultural country and its music world is not so strongly bound by tradition, I felt it has great potential to grow and develop its music scene rapidly, and to lead the next era of the music world in interesting and exciting ways. So, I became a permanent resident in 2005 and am very happy to be part of the Australian music world and to live in Australia.

MLIVE: Can you tell us about the work you’ll be performing in the Sound Gallery?
Tomoe Kawabata:
The program explores the French-influenced compositional school in Japan, from the early 20th century to the present day. To this, I have added several pieces by influential French composers in order to illuminate the Japanese music more clearly. Tomojirō Ikenouchi was the father of this French-inspired school and was the first Japanese composer to study at the Paris Conservatoire (between 1927 and 1937). He was an influential pedagogue who fostered the development of many important Japanese composers including the three Japanese composers I selected for this program: Akio Yashiro, Akira Miyoshi and Akira Nishimura. Yashiro and Miyoshi studied at the Paris Conservatoire later as well, and were heavily influenced by French music. Nishimura did not study overseas and his compositional style is quite different from others, however, he studied with Yashiro as well, and the refinement of his style shows influences from French music.

The program begins with the first Australian performance of Yashiro’s early Sonatine, composed at the age of 15. Influences of Ravel are apparent, but overall it has a rather traditional Japanese sound which serves as a good introduction to this recital. Then the program moves on to Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, Debussy’s Ballade, Nishimura’s Mirror of stars and Miyoshi’s Pour le piano I and II – mouvement circulaire et croisé.

‘I programmed the works in this order to gradually and naturally move from influential French music to that unique sense of Japanese space and time. Ravel was revered by these Japanese composers, and Jeux d’eau is one of the French impressionist representative works that so effectively depicts nature in music.’

Debussy’s Ballade is a little unusual within his output. Rather than representing particular imagery, the piece produces a serene space and is emotive, with beautiful quiet space towards the end. Nishimura’s Mirror of Stars transports us to a different world with its unique Japanese sense of space and time. It creates a marvelous effect with a minimal amount of notes sparkling in the stillness, just like looking at the stars in the night sky. Miyoshi’s late pieces, Pour le piano I & II carry this Japanese sense of time further. It is an arch-like form like Jeux d’eau, with increasing complexity to build a powerful sense of musical drama, using the entire keyboard. Importantly, all this drama feels as though it is generated from the stillness.

The last two works are Dutilleux’s early Au gré des ondes and Miyoshi’s early piano sonata. Miyoshi was heavily influenced by Dutilleux and his brilliant and dramatic sonata shows significant influences from Dutilleux’s own piano sonata. Au gré des ondes was written in the same year as Dutilluex’s Sonata and shares common elements with the Sonata, cast in a far simpler, charming way. By hearing Au gré des ondes, I hope listeners will be able to hear the root of Miyoshi’s compositions.

MLIVE: What is something you’ve read or watched recently that’s resonated with you?
Tomoe Kawabata:
This is something that is very different from music, however I have recently been very interested in and enjoying watching performance by world-class karateka (karate experts). It is a very new thing for me and I had no idea about karate until my eldest son started learning three years ago. First, I started watching karate to try to understand what it is and what my son is doing, and soon realised how inspirational and powerful it is. I have always been fascinated by how humans can bring their focus, energy and senses to their highest level, and sometimes reach another level that most people cannot attain. Karate is a martial art and very different from music, but at the same time it has similarities in terms of mental concentration, persistence and daily discipline. The great karate performance changes the atmosphere and energy of the space, creating meaningful tension. This is exactly the same as what the great music performance does. It is fascinating to explore the upper limits of what humans can do, and I would like to continue to explore this myself.

Tomoe Kawabata
Wood, Metal and Vibrating Air piano recital series
27 June 2019
David Li Sound Gallery