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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Solo works for marimba

Kuniko Kato (percussion)
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Recording details: March 2016
Jaani Kirik, Tartu, Estonia
Produced by Yuji Sagae
Engineered by Yuji Sagae
Release date: June 2017
Total duration: 156 minutes 49 seconds

Conventional music dictionaries remain tight-lipped when it comes to Bach's works for solo marimba. But here Kuniko's lightly touched marimba performs a strangely compelling alchemy and makes of these famously challenging cello suites and violin sonatas something entirely new.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'An excellent performance which lets us hear the chords inherent in Bach's unaccompanied works' (Audio Accessory)

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I was born into an ordinary family and grew up comfortably in a simpler time. I chose a life of music based on the sounds I had been around since I was little—that music formed the basis of my formative years. A great deal of time has passed, allowing me to reflect on myself and on growing up in today’s world.

Humans aren’t meant to live alone. We rely on the help of others and today we live in a modern society that encourages us to share with each other within the mysterious space-time of reality. I am thankful to the people around me who have allowed me to carry on with music. I am where I am now thanks to music, and this is proof of my path.

I have entered middle age and am matured; yet it still almost feels too early to handle Bach. Perhaps it’s even possible that it’s too early for the marimba, a young instrument in classical music terms, to handle Bach as well. I wonder how many people perform and listen to Bach on percussion instruments?

Regardless, I will do what I want—which is this recording. The opportunity for me to play Bach’s music on the marimba has arrived. This music has become my Bach, and I will continue to perform it. Not all of it always goes perfectly of course. There are still moments when I perform and a particular note is not satisfactory. But that is why I want to keep challenging myself again and again. I want to keep playing this music now and well into the future.

Once this beautiful music has been created, my primary desire is to let people listen to it in their own way. I want to deliver that happiness created from the music to as many people as possible. A concert is a great place for sharing this happiness, but it’s for a limited time; luckily, music can remain for posterity now through the technique of recording.

There are many kinds of music in this world. Music is created by humans, but sometimes I find a melody so beautiful that it makes me feel that it has come down from heaven. It impresses the hearts of so many people through its beauty, and people surrender themselves to it. Whatever circumstances you are in, that music can make you happy just for that moment.

I am astonished sometimes when I hear such a beautiful melody in Bach. We sometimes know the historical facts about a piece of music, but can we really ever know what inspired such a melody and how it was ‘born’?

Everyone says playing Bach is difficult. Of course it is. It may even be harder than Xenakis. If you do not face up to it in good faith, you will not be able to control it and you will be lost.

When I was a child, Bach was given as a piano study (for many years, at least until the period of Debussy, his music was used as études). I remember it was painful to face Bach when practising as a child. Many years later, I even felt embarrassed to play Bach on marimba.

However, recently I re-evaluated what I could play on marimba, the instrument of my choice. The modern marimba used worldwide has five octaves, which I use to create a wide variety of colours and sounds. This led me to start playing not only compositions written specifically for marimba, but also works for other instruments by world-renowned composers, arranging them and trying to expand their musical possibilities from new angles. This resulted in my work on Reich, Pärt and Xenakis, which has been very rewarding and gratifying.

The music by Bach that I chose for this recording took the most time to prepare. Of course it was a challenge, but the pleasure of exceeding my expectations was the most delightful feeling. When that short period was over, I was completely exhausted. Nevertheless, I would have played marimba in Jaani Kirik forever if I could have, and remained absorbed forever in Bach’s music.

But now that this period has been and gone, I sometimes feel a little lost.

I wanted to tackle a lot of compositions new to me for this recording and as a result it sometimes felt like a never-ending process. Recording in a church means dealing with many natural factors. These various factors—such as the changing temperature or the surrounding atmosphere—meant that we were unable to finish the recording in one session, and we had to return once again to Tartu a few months later.

It was wonderful for me to spend so much time on Bach—especially the time surrounded by the beautiful sound at this church. There was only me with my instrument, and nothing to disturb us. While playing, I get a blissful feeling that I am in a place where everything is fluffier, warmer and higher. I assume every performer feels the same.

Every time I play, it is important that, as I approach my musical instrument, I try to imagine the performance ahead of me in terms of the bigger picture. Then I concentrate on one note at a time. As I mentally trace my body’s movements to produce the desired sound, I try to make the instrument feel as though it’s gradually becoming part of me. The more comfortable I felt playing Bach, the more I was able to manipulate the instrument as much as I wanted.

People describe Bach as a type of god. But Bach is not a myth: he’s someone who actually lived on this planet at a particular time (only about 250 years ago) like anyone else—suffering, living as a father, feeling joy and eventually facing death. The vast amount of music he left behind serves as proof of his life. And the love he affixed to each of his magnificent compositions makes me think he was a romantic. There cannot be many other works that have been played repeatedly by so many people all over the world for such a long time as his.

Bach is amazing, of course, and I think what amazes me most is how a human being can look forward and create music that speaks to the future as well as the present. The era of Bach began in the eighteenth century, but it leads right up to us today. It leads directly to Xenakis, and I feel his minimalism leads to Reich and Pärt too.

In Bach’s era there was no marimba, so inevitably I have to choose works written for other instruments. I had to consider what kind of original timbres would translate to the marimba. Sometimes it was a piano, sometimes a violin or a cello; the marimba is also close to a period lute or guitar because the resonance of a pizzicato string instrument matches its sound well. I also considered the unique sound created by a marimba’s harmonic overtones, which make it similar to an organ. At other times, I wanted to produce the sound of an unspecified instrument that does not feel like a marimba.

Because the marimba is a musical instrument that is far from the foundations of classical music (it was first introduced to classical music by Darius Milhaud in 1947), I wondered how close I could get to the desired musical language: the slur and the staccato, the sustainable sound, whether it could properly express a fugue and polyphony. This desire to overcome these obstacles motivated me to meet this new challenge.

For this selection, the original instrument was less important to me than one simple idea: ‘I want to play this piece; I want to listen to it.’ However, I did decide to focus on solo pieces, which resulted in me choosing all three unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and half of the Cello Suites. I have a real sense that it is possible to play all of the works I have selected with one instrument. I believe there are many more ways to enjoy Bach’s works than can ever be heard in one album, but you can enjoy all of these with one marimba.

I especially like preludes that open each of the Cello Suites, which are among the first Bach works I heard. The beginning is full of joy. I imagine a child innocently playing with an instrument, his admiration for the instrument and his encounter with the first sounds he creates. I also feel what he wants to do with that instrument and what he is trying to express. At any age, regardless of how many times you have played or listened, Bach’s music is always fresh for everyone.

The three Cello Suites (Nos. 1, 3 and 5) are based on Baroque dances. I like to imagine that long ago, at a social occasion, one musician would play solo as the whole floor danced under the chandelier (the contemporary version of a night club). It would be wonderful if the hearts of the people around the world started dancing to my solo marimba music.

I think that it is unnecessary to try to give a commentary in academic terms—I prefer to leave the musical notes as they are engraved into history. What I have written here is my story, based on my imagination and my selections. It is my Bach as I feel it now and as I play it with my instrument. I would like you all to make up your own minds, to feel the music and enjoy it freely.

The greatest gift left by Bach is music that is for everyone, therefore my Bach, played on marimba, is there for everyone too; I want to continue to play music that makes people happy. Bach’s music accepts and encompasses everything, as if we were just singing and dancing in the palm of a big Buddha.

Prelude No 01 in C major BWV846
This is celestial music. The sound seems to come down from heaven; it feels as if this music has just been created. The unearthly sound shines brightly; the ultimate example of minimalism, based on the development of simple chords.

Cello Suite No 1 in G major BWV1007
Imagine being born in the sea, like the first animals, surrounded by the deep blue of the water and the sky, jumping up and down like fish in the womb of Mother Nature. Everything on earth lives in the vast embrace of nature; everything wants to live freely, without being tied down to anything.

Cello Suite No 3 in C major BWV1009
Nature spreads itself out across the earth, creating a place for every animal and plant to live—including us human beings. It is such a joy to live as a human!

I marvel at how the C major scale can be developed in such a dramatic way.

Love people, love nature, play music and share this joy every day. If we’re alive, we can do anything. And if we fail, we are always able to start over again. We should live brightly and strongly; what matters most is our vitality, and the courage to face what might come tomorrow.

Cello Suite No 5 in C minor BWV1011
There are good times in life and there are hard times in life. At some point a human being will suffer and struggle, yet everyone must face up to their own self. It takes effort and patience to overcome conflict; despite hardships we will continue to live on. Sometimes we will be exhausted and sometimes we will get stuck; it won’t always be as easy to get through something as you think. But my way was given only to myself. It is destiny. We each have our own unique story. Fate can only be changed by the people you encounter and the choices you make. We meet once, and the day will come when we meet again.

Prelude in C minor BWV999
Every day is chaotic. I will not be caught in anything; I will move along the middle road; I want to be natural; I want to live strongly with my beliefs, even while struggling, sometimes opposing.

The human mind is complex and infinitely pure. It is as deep as the ocean. Arvo Pärt once said that the most beautiful things in the world were the human mind and soul. The deepest and broadest thing in the world is the hearts of people. People with beliefs and love are stronger than anyone, and they stand above everything else. True ‘kindness’ may be ‘strength’.

Sonata No 1 in G minor BWV1001
People have emotions. We need courage to convey our thoughts. These feelings consume energy. There are times when you cannot suppress yourself. From these momentous feelings people grow. Through forgiveness, the heart broadens and love deepens. I want to be resolute with a strong heart all the time. Someday, my mind will calm down.

Bach’s fugues are majestic and dramatic. Like a fugue, our lives have rhythms, wavelengths and dramas. Among our friends, lovers and families, daily activities repeat and disappear.

What is the mind? It can be sorrowful or joyful, or happy (possibly contrary to what you’re feeling deep down). The more we get to think, the more these feelings become intertwined. We may make occasional mistakes, but we move forward anyway.

In the warm sunshine, relaxed by the waves and looking up at the sky, I’m watching the clouds move, unable to see the horizon. It’s as if time has stopped; wonderful memories like these will remain in the heart forever.

The heart is tossed about as if in a storm; dancing like crazy with intense steps. Just move the body according to the rhythm, forgetting what is disgusting and disliked. Eventually sunshine breaks through the cloudy sky and light shines in.

Sonata No 2 in A minor BWV1003
Sorrow visits suddenly one day. Nothing is as sad as parting through death. People react in their own ways to such news. Regardless of whether it is expected or unexpected, sorrow becomes deeply engraved in the heart; memories remain in the heart forever. Where does the soul go? We talk to heaven, but there is no answer.

Memories live on like lanterns that stay alight forever. They continue to dance to the fugue-like conversation of man and woman; kindness and love are intertwining threads of these memories, climbing up to a high place, getting lost, but never finding an exit. Only then do I notice I am alone.

I saw someone rising high above in the sky. It is the person who decided spontaneously to take a journey. Waving with a smile, they said farewell to the people on earth, to the sad faces of the people who were left behind. The figure disappeared as it turned around.

The devil’s dance. The bait hides the hook. You know you shouldn’t participate. Your soul will be taken at once and you will continue dancing forever. You can hear the laughter of the devil: he has won the victory.

Sonata No 3 in C major BWV1005

This is the stairway to a pure, white heaven, climbing one step beyond. No longer able to see the people on earth, there is nothing to look back on. The future must be heaven. The air is beautiful and it’s a pure world: what a wonderful place!

Stepping through the flower garden, there are girls with white dresses and floral corsages. In the distance are singing voices echoing from the crystal building in the distance.

Everyone is sleepy in the warm sunshine, with nothing to worry about anymore. We are relieved to be able to say good night and will soon be sleeping deeply.

Allegro assai
In a dazzling light, is that an angel or a child with white feathers on his back? Children are gathering and playing. Is this the sky or heaven? Where is this place? Music can go to any height, to any higher place.

Kuniko Kato © 2017

This is the third time that I’ve been able to visit Jaani Kirik (St John’s Church) in Tartu, Estonia.

I always feel so happy and relaxed here, where I’m able to conduct my recording sessions and keep playing until I am fully satisfied with what I’ve achieved. I feel incredibly happy to play marimba here and to be surrounded by such beautiful music in this atmosphere. People ask me: why do you have to go to Estonia to record? My answer is: not only do I love the land and the air here, but I am also fascinated by the sound in this thirteenth-century medieval church—something I can’t feel or taste anywhere else.

Throughout history human beings have created so much, and music may be the most beautiful of these things. When we truly listen and experience music, without conversing and thinking, we are free to imagine what is going to be said next; what the scenery framing the composition might be; to experience the pleasant feeling of being surrounded by music and perhaps even letting your body adapt to the rhythm.

Music is a means of expression unique to human beings, one which allows us to connect our emotions with our body through sound. It is an innocent expression that hopefully inspires feelings within every person. The most pure and delicate things can be made to appear in one’s heart. It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to engage with music and experience the feelings that arise from each composition.

Animals have a great physical ability: their muscles and bodies are built to enable them to survive in the wild. They also have keen senses and instincts which help keep them alive. Our own animal instincts seem to be degenerating; but humans are blessed with intelligence and we can always ‘think’. Although we may feel frustrated that we can’t live instinctively, humans are able to form societies with our intellect. Over the years these societies have produced many wonderful things, including culture, art and music. Humans are animals that can ‘feel’ far beyond just the physical. We have emotion; we exchange words in order to convey the feelings and emotions that exist within our hearts.

When and where was music born? For countless generations, we human beings have been living, learning and creating. The creation of music by humans has occurred over a long period of time and this music has existed in various forms; it has transformed itself and become integrated with the history of mankind everywhere on this earth. I think that percussion instruments, whose sounds are elemental, have always been there for human beings.

Music can offer hope to anyone, at any age. It can be said that it is the most beautiful form of expression, a human act with a mysterious ability to engage the five senses and the heart. When one plays music, it’s possible to imagine that the voice might be reaching up to the heavens. I wonder if music and dance together at a festival have similar abilities. Prayer may be born not only of religious spirit but also of the instinctive and innocent acts of human beings. Is music then the best gift to God that human beings can offer?

Music is my hope. Playing music is the manifestation of all my heart; sound is like my soul. Born instantaneously, it diminishes in the blink of an eye. But fortunately we live in a happy time when such music can be preserved.

When releasing sound as music through the act of playing, one can share space and time with many people. The performer can also give joy and sorrow, inspire a state of trance, of meditation and sometimes even courage. Music has a mysterious power to shake the human senses. I play music not just for myself, but also for other people, so I can share the pleasure I gain from music.

Music is a lifetime’s treasure. Each and every person has their own music.

It was 1 September 2015, the start of the second day of the recording in Estonia when I received the sad news of the passing of the person who had the greatest influence on my music career. It’s no exaggeration to say that I almost owe him my music life.

And now, a year and a half on, before this album was finished, a few more important people who I wanted to listen to this recording have also passed away. I hope they are all enjoying listening to this music from the distant sky. In Estonia again, playing Bach in a thirteenth-century medieval church, I felt a sense of reincarnation while I kept remembering these things, day after day. But I kept playing while praising all things, thinking of the people who are still living.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Juhani Jeager, to everyone at Jaani Kirik and Taimi Paves, Director of East Asian Relations at ERP, for your generous support, understanding and kindness in making these unforgettable recording sessions possible. Without your support I could never have made this project a reality. I also want to say thanks to all of the other people who supported this recording project. And finally to my friends, and all the people who passed away and returned to nature—I wish for our lives to be happy. I will always remember the beautiful Jaani Kirik under the clear blue sky in my beloved Estonia.

Kuniko Kato © 2017

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