Yuji Takahashi - A  Biographical Sketch

     Thomas Schultz

Yuji Takahashi was born in Tokyo in 1938, where he studied composition with Minao Shibata and Roh Ogura, and piano with Hiroshi Ito. In 1961, he made a sensational debut at a modern music festival sponsored by the Nippon Broadcasting Company, substituting at the last minute for the regularly scheduled soloist. This marked his emergence as a leading exponent of new piano music. The start of his career as a composer can be traced to 1962 and a piece for electronics and twelve instruments. At about the same time, along with fellow composers Toshi Ichiyanagi and Kenji Kobayashi, he organized an ensemble for new music, the New Directions group.

Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Takahashi lived in Berlin from 1963 to 1965, where he studied with Iannis Xenakis (his 1997 essay “Xenakis in Kyoto”, thoughts on Xenakis’ music, ideas and teaching, can be found on his website http://www.suigyu.com/yuji/ ). In 1966, supported by a grant from the J. D. Rockefeller III. Fund, he came to New York to compose music using computers, and was subsequently a highly visible and influential participant in new music activities in the U. S., with appearances at the Berkshire Music Center, the Ravinia Music Festival, the Stratford (Ontario) Festival and The Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo. During this time, he was a soloist with such ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic. He gave solo recitals at the Athens Festival, the Stockholm Festival, the Oxford Bach Festival, the Domaine Musical in Paris, the Signaal series in Amsterdam, the Twice Series in Los Angeles, the Princeton Chamber Concerts and the Evenings for New Music and New Images of Sound in New York. In 1966 and 1968 he performed and spoke at the UNESCO International Music Council Congresses in Manila and New York and wrote a work performed at the Japanese Music Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair.

Takahashi remained in the U. S. until 1972, teaching piano at Indiana University and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  In 1971, during his residence in San Francisco, he performed 3 of his own electronic works (Time, Yeguen, and Bridges) at one of the first informal concerts (called “Bring Your Own Pillow” at the Hansen Fuller Gallery on Grant Avenue) of what was to become the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

For many years, Takahashi was known, along with only a few other pianists - Tudor, Kontarsky, Helffer, Woodward, Jacobs, Rzewski - as someone able to decipher and play the most difficult new works for piano. Xenakis wrote both Herma and Eonta for Takahashi. Takahashi premiered Herma in Tokyo in February of 1962 and Eonta in December, 1964 in Paris, with Boulez conducting. Xenakis looked back on their initial meeting in a 1980 interview with Balint Andras Varga:

In the course of that 1961 visit to Japan, I made the aquaintance of Yuji Takahashi, the brilliant pianist, who must have been around twenty then. His recitals consisted mostly of the works of contemporary composers. A few months later I received a letter from him: he was very poor, he wrote, but he wanted to commission a piano piece from me. I was moved by that gesture.

He only paid half what he had promised and he still owes me the rest. But he had no money and I liked him, his playing and his mind.

I remember showing Herma to some composers. Are you crazy? they asked. Why write such a difficult piano part? Nobody  will be able to play it! Maybe after four or five years of hard work. Why didn't you write it as a piano duet or for two pianos? I became worried and wrote to Yuji to ask his opinion. Is it really impossible to play? He replied that Herma was very difficult but not impossible. A few months later he could play it by memory.    

Takahashi also gave the premieres of a number of works by Toru Takemitsu – Piano Distance (1961), Corona (1962), Arc (1963), and Asterism (1969) and has written about his relationship with Takemitsu in the 1996 essay “The Life of the Composer” (published on his website).

Among the recordings I find in my library at home that Takahashi has made as a pianist, are the complete works of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, music by Messiaen (solo pieces, also Visions de la Amen with Peter Serkin), Xenakis, Cage,  Rzewski, Na, Cardew, Takemitsu, the Indonesian composer Selamat A. Sjukur, Earle Brown, and Roger Reynolds, also Bach's Art of the Fugue and the E minor Toccata, two volumes of Satie's solo piano music, a Sonata of W. F. Bach and Marche et Reminiscences pour mon dernier voyage of Rossini. I’ve heard him play live in concert the Goldberg Variations of Bach, some Satie and Chopin as encores, and have seen two videos; one, of a concert where he played Chabrier (or Mompou, I can't remember which) for the patients of a hospital ward, another where he played the A minor Rondo of Mozart and Janacek's In the Mist. I once asked him if he’d played much Busoni: “You’ve played the Toccata?” – “Yes” – “the Elegies?” – “Yes”, - “the Sonatinas?” – “Yes”. It turned out that he’d played almost everything Busoni had written!

The high points, for me, among these recordings might be his playing of Art of the Fugue, a very freely-played E minor Toccata from a recital given in Tokyo in 2001, a turbulent, wild version of his own Mulle Taryeong, from the same recital, a light-hearted reading of Webern’s Kinderstuck, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, Rzewski’s The People United, of course his classic recording with Konstantin Simonovic of Eonta, and the live recording of his own solo work from 1995, Finger Light, where he plays for a full 20 minutes without using the pedal (as far as I can tell), piano-playing unlike any other I’ve heard that brings the pitches and quality of the intervals into extraordinary focus. Listening to him in this work brings to mind the experience I’ve had of watching, in amazement, the interaction of the dancers’ complex, fleeting foot and leg movements in a Merce Cunningham dance.

Also important are his recordings, as conductor, of music by Xenakis, Maceda, Gubaidulina, Zorn and Varese.

What I especially admire about Takahashi as a pianist: the breadth of his learning and performing, the cat-like agility and physical animation of his playing, the way his playing is infused with a natural rubato and constant inflection – in a way, the opposite of a pianist like Glenn Gould - his ability to produce unexpected and unimagined sounds and, in particular, his attitude towards “the score”, distilled over years of practical labor as a composer/pianist and a welcome antidote to the stifling view, held by many today, of the performer as one who, as accurately as possible, realizes the “intentions” of the composer.

In 2002, soon after playing Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated at a festival and at universities in Seoul, Korea, I wrote to Takahashi about the piece (I'd very much admired his recording of it), and he wrote back to me about Rzewski’s piece, but also, more generally, about his activities as a pianist:

I played The People United so many times in the 1970s all over Japan, not only on the usual concerts, but also for workers, for political activists, sometimes combined with speeches and singing of the original song. I arranged for it to be published by Zen-On (this later turned out to have been a mistake). I recorded it around that time. It was a time when we were Maoists or at least some kind of leftists.

Now I don't play it anymore - not only that piece, but many pieces I used to play like Evryali and Synaphai of Xenakis, many Takemitsu pieces, Messiaen, Boulez, Cage, etc. I am bored of being a pianist for contemporary (European) music.

I think there is a time when one has to do certain things, not only in life, but also in music. In the 1960s, I was one of very few pianists in Europe who played Xenakis, Boulez, Messiaen and Cage. I translated and published Xenakis' book, Maceda's book, introduced Gubaidulina to Japan. Now other people take over. I consider myself a pioneer. As Mao the poet said in his "Ode to the Plum Tree": "not competing for spring/ only calling that it is coming/when mountain flowers are in full bloom/be among them smiling". Now many people play them so I don't have to do those works anymore.It should be so - music will be passed to the new generation. If the same people had continued to play the same music, those works would not survive.

Upon his return to Japan in 1972, Takahashi was involved in organizing and performing with like-minded groups of musicians – the composers’ group tranSonic (along with Takemitsu and Joji Yuasa), in the 1980s, the Suigyu (Water Buffalo) Band, writing and performing Asian protest songs and, in 1999, Ito. He has done much work in recent years with computers in the making of music; in 1989 he appeared at the Macintosh Festival in Tokyo, and in 1991 organized the first Pacific Rim Computer Festival and the Ikebukuro Cyber Café. He has also participated in symposiums and discussions of his work, such as the 19th ISCM Summer Course for Young Composers in Poland in 1999 with Louis Andriessen, the 1999 Tokyo Festival, where he appeared with, among others, the Korean traditional musician and composer Byung-ki Hwang, and the 2003 Northeast Asia Festival in Osaka, where he organized a symposium called “Proposals from East Asia” with the Chinese composer Xiao-song Qu and the Korean composer Hyo-shin Na. .

In 1997, he was composer in residence at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, where numerous works of his were played, many of them by young musicians, and where he performed as pianist and conductor. This is where I heard him give a “solo” recital which commenced with a performance by Mayumi Miyata and Ko Ishikawa of ancient music for the sho (a traditional Japanese mouth-organ), continued with Takahashi playing the first half of the Goldberg Variations, followed by one of Takahashi’s own recent pieces for two shos and the concluding half of the Goldbergs. The second half of the recital was dedicated to recent piano music.

Takahashi’s musical/political activities have connected him personally and musically with composers like Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff (I first encountered Takahashi’s piano solo Kwangju, May 1980 in a copy sent to me by Wolff). His work here has borne fruit in many pieces, among them:

For You I Sing This Song, written in 1976 (for the American bi-centennial) for the group TASHI. The composer’s introduction states: “…dedicated to the people’s struggle against oppression inside and outside America. The first movement is based on a Vietnamese song, in which young women address the Liberation Fighters against American aggression; the second movement is from “Rise Up, Boricua”, a song for the independence of Puerto Rico; the third movement is based on a song sung by Navajo women to sustain hope after their capitulation to Kit Carson in 1864”.

Kwangju, May 1980, written to accompany the slides by Taeko Tomiyama, as a memorial to those who died in the uprising of the Korean city of Kwangju against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-whan. Takahashi has said about the origins of this piece: “I wrote it on the train to Tokyo, and recorded it on arrival because it was urgent to present the slides for the rally. I had already prepared the materials, like folk tunes and protest songs, and used them for a documentary film on the event (that music was rejected by the political organization that sponsored the film – they said it was not militant enough), so what I did was to recombine them for the slides and the piano solo.” The piece also exists in a version for orchestra.

A composer’s attitude toward performances of his/her music can be indicative of larger issues – social, political, aesthetic. Takahashi’s remarks to the ensemble for For You I Sing This Song: “Avoid using visual cuing. Play without excessive gestures. Keep distinctive and personal tones without trying to blend with others. At the same time, be attentive to other performers throughout. Never try to dominate over other performers.” Instructions for his piano solo Piano 3 state: “Lose control a little. Respect your mistakes and modify the written notes accordingly, or improvise the change. The duration of a note, short or long without regularity, stumbling into the next finger or hand position sooner or later than the expected timing.” Attempting to follow these instructions, I’ve felt, at certain moments, that I come close to something approaching a new way of playing the piano or, at the least, sensing a new, up to now unexperienced, element in playing. I’ve felt something similar (although arrived at quite differently) in playing certain works of Christian Wolff.

Takahashi once reacted to a performance I gave of Piano 3, saying: “…it sounded good, not like European/American contemporary music, and good because different from what I vaguely imagined it would sound like. But I would prefer that it sound not like it was prepared and rehearsed, but rather found on the spot. Also, you must be free from any mood. Every sound is transient, so is the mood. It could change instantly without reason.” I find myself thinking quite often about his statement, “Every performance is a questioning”.

Written for the Takahashi 65th birthday concerts given by the Wooden Fish Ensemble in November, 2003

© Thomas Schultz, all rights reserved