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Conversations with Mari Kawamura

Hi Mari, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I was born and raised in Japan, and started playing the piano at the age of five. I started because I saw my cousins were taking lessons and asked my parents if I could as well. I don’t remember any exact moment when I decided to become a professional pianist… but I remember having amazing teachers throughout my studies. Ms. Emiko Kumagai first introduced me to the wide variety of different colors that can be produced on the piano, and I was so fascinated by each lesson with her that I just kept going, wanting to achieve these colors myself. 

Although my parents don’t have any musical background, they’ve always been supportive of me, but It was still sometimes difficult for them to help me continue this journey… Because of my father’s work, we had to move every three years, and this meant hauling a grand piano along with all the other furniture and our belongings, making me feel that we were like snails always carrying our homes around with us. During this time I also took bullet trains from Nagoya to Tokyo every two weeks, spending 4-5 hours at a time taking piano lessons.

Later, I went to Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music for my undergraduate studies. During this time, although I was still mostly playing classical repertoire, such as the works of J.S Bach and Beethoven, I enjoyed hanging out with composition students and discussing Western music, Japanese traditional music, and pop music, from both the performers’ and composers’ perspective. I feel like these trivial conversations at a cafeteria on campus cultivated my identity as a musician. These composer friends also asked me to perform their compositions, and gradually I got more and more involved in contemporary music. Professor Vadim Sakharov, my piano teacher at the time, introduced me to Scriabin’s late piano works, and the mysterious harmonies in his music also immediately enchanted me. These experiences gave me an introduction to modern atonal music, which has been a major part of my musical life ever since. 

As much as I love listening to and performing the classical repertoire, it can sometimes be intimidating. I find that it’s not always easy to express yourself comfortably in these kinds of works where you’re very aware of the interpretations already performed by legendary pianists in the past. I feel much freer working on new music, and feel like I have the room to really use my own voice as a musician. It is also fun and satisfying to be a part of the creation of new works, and this is something that you can’t really get performing long established music. 

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London to study for my master’s. This program encourages the students to develop individuality as musicians with unique repertoire and special concert programming interests. I remember making a conscious decision then to focus on performing the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Because of this decision I came to the US in 2014, since I felt that would be an excellent place to study contemporary music. I emailed a prominent American pianist, Stephen Drury to ask about scheduling a lesson because I was familiar with his piano albums. I remember I was very nervous clicking the send button, but he responded within 30 seconds, saying “Sure! When do you wanna come?”. I studied with him for two years in Boston, and I am still incredibly grateful for the new music community there, which welcomed this inexperienced and unknown pianist with open arms. 

After studying in Boston I moved to San Diego, hoping to gain new knowledge and meet new people to collaborate with. This is my fifth year at UCSD, where I’m working toward my doctorate. One thing that surprises me as a person from Japan is that teachers and staff here never say “no” to any idea of the students’ even when they may sound absurd or illogical. The education in Japan tends to be done by “correcting” students’ “mistakes,” so I received a lot of “NO’s,” there, but here they seem to respect the possibilities of any idea. They sit with us, help us clarify our ideas, and suggest ways for these ideas grow to realize their full potential. This helped me to gain confidence and a creative mind as an artist. I’m especially grateful to Professor Aleck Karis, who among others, has given  tremendous support to me in my artistic and academic development. I am also learning so much from my colleagues, who are talented artists with diverse backgrounds, and through our collaborations and conversations I feel that we are part of a very special environment.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
I have had some ups and downs, but I don’t mind the bumpy roads because low times make us stronger and wiser. Luckily, I always had strong supporters. The biggest struggle I’ve experienced, though, was perhaps when I had to deal with adjustment disorder and depressive moods during my first year in Boston. Everything there was new – a new environment, a new school, new teachers, new people – I couldn’t get used to them and I felt frustrated with myself for not behaving like I wanted to. I also received sad news during this time that my pet rooster, who lived with us for 12 years, had died. I felt very lost and deadened, and once I started crying, I just couldn’t stop. I also suffered from insomnia, but after sessions with a counselor and yoga classes, the symptoms got better little by little over a year. When I look back, it was a great opportunity for me to stop for a while, gain an understanding of who I was, and learn how to take care of my own mental health. I like myself better now.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
My main artistic concerns lie in two contrasting ideas, which are mobility – in other words “virtuosity”-, and space, or “ma.” When we hear the word “virtuosity,” we often imagine something rather acrobatic – like fast passages in Liszt etudes or large crashing chords in Rachmaninoff concerti. Of course, these are fascinating and exciting, but I think the meaning of “virtuosity” has been changing in the contemporary world. For me, “virtuosity” means expanding the colors and sonorities of the piano outward, and using the instrument in its entirety. With this idea in mind, I organized a performance project in 2018, which juxtaposes historical and contemporary ideas about virtuosity, through collaborations with three of my UCSD colleagues, Joseph Bourdeau, Annie Hui-Hsin, and Anthony Vine. The project toured both the west and east coasts in 2018 and ‘19.

On the other hand, ma, meaning “interval” or “gap” in Japanese, is a concept concerning space and time, which has served as an essential element in Japanese traditional arts for centuries. Ma has often been interpreted simply as “silence,” but in reality the word carries many more nuanced associations. For instance, a temporal “break” between two activities can be ma, as can the fading of things into nothing, or even the anticipation of unseen spirits moving through the forest. In this way, the word implies a gap which is not truly silent or empty but which is endowed with energy and possibility. 

The sense of ma has been very important for me when interpreting Japanese music as well as Western classical or contemporary music. I am currently exploring this idea by recording several solo piano pieces which I think embody the idea of ma, and I’m hoping to release the project as an album next year!

I also love interdisciplinary collaborations, and recently participated in a tour of Denmark with Danish composer, Lil Lacy, three other musicians, a biologist and lighting artists. As a team, we worked to understand and explore the mysterious worlds of plants and looked for ways to cooperate with them to create artistic works. 

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
I want to thank my parents first for having always been by my side. Thank you to my teachers for their guidance and the love they gave me, and to my friends and collaborators, especially Lauren, Lil, and Joey, for numerous projects together and for being wonderful friends. I’d also like to thank my partner Sasha for his artistic insights and endless support.

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Image Credits
Lucy Obryan, Klavs Kehlet Hansen

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