Memento of Flowers:  In Memory of Takada Kazuko
by Takahashi Yûji
(tr. David G. Goodman)

Spread, mist, o’er the river
So I may see it and remember

The shamisen virtuoso Takada Kazuko, with whom I shared my musical path from 1991 to 2007, passed away on July 18.  Having reached the end of our sixteen-year journey together, I set down here a few words by means of parting, sent from one who remains alive to one who has gone before.

Our first encounter was when she performed the voice part for Yagawa Sumiko’s poem “Ari no Susabi no Alice” (Fancy-Free Alice) at the National Theatre in 1990; but our long journey together began in earnest the following year, when she agreed to perform “The Winds are Calling Outside” at the Music Today Festival.  There is an unwritten rule among hôgaku (traditional Japanese music) musicians that the first one to perform a piece owns it.  Although she was aware of this custom, she accepted my invitation, and as a consequence she parted company with her colleagues and wound up wandering a different musical path.  At “Shamisen Ranjô,”  our first concert together, her usual audience did not show up.

For some years after that, I began experimenting with electronic sounds, and Takada performed my compositions for Japanese and Western instruments and in concert                 
with Buddhist chanting and Western choruses, not only on the shamisen, but on the koto and ancient instruments.  Not only did I learn from her about traditional instruments and their music, but she helped me work out the details of my compositions, how they would be played and transcribed.

After debuting my “Is the Bird too a Messenger?” for shamisen/voice, and orchestra in Kanazawa in 1993, Takada took it on tour to Australia and Singapore and also played it with other orchestras.

“For a long while, I too pursued an uncharted course outside of existing organizations.” (Takada Kazuko)

Our cooperative relationship had its ups and downs.
When I met her, Takada Kazuko had developed a reputation as an exceptional musician who was able to perform on the premodern shamisen the superhuman feats of virtuosity demanded by composers of contemporary music.
But what we sought together was something different.  By revisiting the tradition of the instrument itself, we were looking for another form of shamisen music that had never existed but could have.

Not the frenetic speed and complexity of twentieth century music, but delicate differences in sound quality;
Time based on physical sensation, not external discipline like rhythmic structure;
A way of relating to other instruments in concert while extemporaneously combining fragments of a model.

This was the opposite path from that taken by contemporary hôgaku and
A departure from the system of contemporary music in general.
Even if played in ensemble, a music that is neither gagaku nor Buddhist chanting,
one that belongs to no system or genre.

Moreover, as we continued this quest,
In order to prevent our efforts from closing in upon themselves,
Each of us separately sought out young musicians and performers who were not yet part of the system to try out different ways.
A magnetic force held us  in a delicate consensual balance between repulsion and attraction.

In 2002 she wrote:

This has been a strange year for me.
It seems as if ten years’ worth of things has happened.
Battles with disease and death in my family
The sudden illness of a close friend
In the midst of daily life spent in predictable tasks
There are many important things
That we don’t appreciate until we lose them.

Takahashi Yûji’s work “Things to Remember”
Is a song I have enjoyed singing for some time.
What impresses me are the following words:
“I will age; there is no escape from aging
“I will fall ill; there is no escape from illness.”
And it continues
“Those we are close to, that which gives us pleasure
Will depart, change.”
It is as if I am singing of all the things that have happened to me this year.

Whenever she wanted to program this song, I felt as if she was tempting fate
Yet I wrote “Princess of Shadows,” “A Song for Seeking Sadness,” and other such pieces for her.

The same year: 2002
Ever since I almost died of an unexpected illness,
I have grown distant from the shamisen.
Although we continue our long conversation almost every day by phone and e-mail,
Our plans to perform together have not been realized.
Recently, she has had very little work.
Because she was not affiliated with a hôgaku organization, she couldn’t teach either.
I had heard about her situation and knew of it,
But I was busy playing the piano.
I wasn’t aware that she had given up on me
And was convinced I would never return.
Somehow I thought there would always be time.

This moment
Will pass
There is no stopping it

She finally seems to have found a university teaching position
And has some opportunities to perform,
But we have fewer opportunities than ever to meet.

Experiments from that time:
Arranged Violeta Parra’s songs for shamisen and voice, including
“Gracias a la Vida” and “Rin del Angelito.”
Liberate the shamisen into the field of world music,
Bring the singing voice close to everyday speech

Bathed by sadness
Songs shine more brilliant

The last song I wrote for her was based on “Sleep Well,” a poem by Ishigaki Rin.
She performed it on November 16, 2005.

If you didn’t know it was the shamisen, you wouldn’t believe it.
Singing in a very natural voice completely different from usual, I even amazed myself,
And I hope that everyone who hears the piece
Will indeed sleep well.

I had decided to write next a series of short solo pieces for shamisen.
The title was to be “Hanagatami” (Memento of Flowers).
All I had was the image of a basket full of flowers.
I wasn’t aware that this title had been used for a Noh play and in shamisen songs.
It meant a parting gift, memorial music

Just after we decided to perform together in concert in February 2007, she was hospitalized.
Although she knew it was an illness that current medicine couldn’t treat and that she would die,
She repeatedly entered the hospital and was released, even as the paralysis and headaches got worse.

She wrote:
Perhaps I was fated, in sickness as in life, to have things happen to me that would rarely occur to ordinary people.

Her last performance was at the beginning of June, a recording for broadcast.
It was “Shun’an,” a piece in memory of Teshigawara Hiroshi she had debuted for me in 2001.
She was hospitalized for a third time before it could be aired.

The day before she died, in her sickroom.
The hands that once searched the strings for the most delicate sound
Are swollen, without feeling, immobile.
Lips cracked, stained with blood from broken blisters.
As I stroke the inside of her emaciated arm and call her name,
Her eyes flutter open;
She stares at me, unblinking.
I met her gaze and returned it.
I tried to smile and signal her by blinking.
Her speechless throat moved, and emitted one faint voice

How long did I sit like that?
Her eyes closed slowly.
I’ll come back tomorrow, I said, and left the room.
But the one I met the next day was lying in a coffin in the morgue.
I touched her cheek, and it was cold.

Was I just imagining it?
Was I projecting my thoughts onto her unconscious eyes,
Or did I really perceive the weak light of an ebbing flame, pleading for help?

The doubts and explanations I developed later
Were absent at that moment.
But even now, the sensation
Returns to me in the physical memory of my posture at the time

That gaze alone—
Wordless, thoughtless, timeless—
Fills the dimness.

It is possible that to seem—it is to be.
    (Wallace Stevens, “Description Without Place”)

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