Name: Satoko Fujii
Occupation: Pianist, composer
Current release: Satoko Fujii's Piano Music is out on Libra.
Recommendations: Book: Demian: Die Geschichte einer Jugend von Emil Sinclairs Jugend by Hermann Karl Hesse
Music: Three Places in New England by Charles Ives
If you enjoyed this interview with Satoko Fujii and would like to stay up to date, visit her official website. You can also find her on Facebook, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I even don’t remember when I started composing, but I remember I was improvising with piano and voice before I started classical piano study at the age of four. I was a very shy kid and didn’t go out to play with other kids. I stayed at home and improvised to have fun.
Sometimes I got some inspiration by flowers in a vase or a breeze blowing through the window or just my imagination. For me, it was a way to be free and have fun without any obstacles.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I had a hard time opening up my creativity after I studied classical piano for more than 15 years. I couldn’t accept my voice without any written music to read. I had no confidence.
Learning to open myself up and accept myself again was a long process. I studied with Paul Bley and that gave me a good start toward building my confidence and getting comfortable with myself and my own creative ideas. I believe this was my big first step toward developing my authentic voice.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I am a Japanese, woman, improviser, jazz pianist … etc. But I believe I am a human first.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
From the very beginning I wanted to follow my own voice, but sometimes I wasn’t sure how to find it, or if I had one at all. The more I played music, the more comfortable I felt exploring aspects of my creativity.
I now know I can do whatever I want and I don’t care how other people view it. I mean, as a jazz musician, I have heard “your music is not Jazz” many times.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
For me time is very important in music. It’s an essential component of the canvas on which we create. Without time, we cannot draw any picture.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I make music using sound and silence. And sound can be any sound. In my compositions, I often explain the texture and timbre using words. Sometimes these words are more important than other notations.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I like working with collaborators because of the mutual inspiration and development it creates. Collaborators help me discover myself, my voice, as well.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My husband is also a musician. We spend morning until noon composing and practicing every day. If we need to do more, we do it after lunch or later in the afternoon.
For us, making music is very much like other things in life. I compose music like I cook … I practice piano like I clean the house … etc. And we have fun doing all these things. Music is a big part of my life.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I have large ensemble projects that I compose and play with. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, making many CDs. But I have one composition for large ensemble that is very special to me called “Fukushima.”
When the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident happened in 2011, I was in Tokyo and experienced the nightmare. It still continues. We are still so afraid, but at same time I saw that people never lost hope. This was a very powerful experience for me and I wanted to write music based on my emotional response … fear, anger, anxiety … and at the same time, some hope.
I had to wait five years to start writing music because before then I couldn’t see the experience calmly.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I compose as I cook, I play piano as I talk to my husband. I don’t need to have a special state of mind. I just need to relax and hear my voice. I don’t need to have meditation and special tea before I compose.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
For a long time, I didn’t know what music could do to heal or help people.
When 9/11 happened in NYC, my husband Natsuki and I were there, staying on 14th street in Manhattan. We saw the things that happened from our window. We had planned to take the train to Boston the next day, but we were not sure if the trains would run. We went to Penn Station in case we could get on the train. At the station we heard music, some elevator music which is not special at all, but I could feel the music infiltrate people’s hearts. I didn’t even notice that there was no music in the city, on the radio, on TV for more than 20 hours until that moment.
I still cannot explain how deeply moved I felt. Music has power that nothing else has.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It is hard to talk about it. We live in a society with people picking up influences without even knowing it. I have plenty of CDs and LPs in my room. My brain is filled with many different pieces of music, words, images … etc. And I make something out of this salad bowl brain. That is all I can tell.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I have a very strange way of “hearing.” When I hear something, I can feel the air between my ears and the place where the sound occurs.
When I went to America the very first time, I was surprised how the car noise sounds different than it did in Japan. In Japan, because of the humidity the car noises don’t travel so far. In America I could feel it go up to the clouds and come back. It may sound strange, but when I hear airplane sounds from the sky, I can tell the season. In winter it sounds very clear, maybe because the air is very dry.
I get a lot of inspiration from these noises and air effects. These air effects are actually one of the things that motivate me to make music.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don’t use words in my expression, so my music cannot express concrete political opinions. But with my art I try to express how we can be free from limits.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Nothing can exist forever. And that is why music is beautiful. Music vanishes right away. We cannot keep it in our hands. Time and life are the same. I express ‘right now.’