Nobuyuki TSUJII


Interview by Sachiko Nakajima │ Photography by Mika Ninagawa │ Text by Potato Yamamoto │ Cooperation by sonorium

Vibration as Connection.
Enjoying What is Only Possible Then and There
It was on a day at the very brink of the new year that Nobuyuki Tsujii showed up for his interview, in a meeting room in Tokyo. Tsujii's debut album, “début,” had been released in 2007 when he was only 19 years old, and sold 280,000 copies—a number virtually unheard of in classical music. In 2009, he had become the first Japanese person to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. So it may come as no surprise that he is now a world-famous pianist, flying about the globe for his recitals. Tsujii, however, also has microphthalmia, and has been blind since birth. How does he feel music, and what is his approach to playing the piano?
The interviewer was Sachiko Nakajima, who as a jazz pianist and mathematician has quite the unusual background. As Nakajima asked her questions, often from various different perspectives, Tsujii rocked his body gently side to side, as if to keep rhythm, and unspooled his thoughts, slowly and purposefully.
Becoming Friends with the Piano
I live in New York, but was offered this interview opportunity when I just happened to be visiting Japan. I was very happy to receive the offer, because I love your piano music.
I actually went to New York this September to do a concert in Carnegie Hall with an orchestra.
Oh yes! I very much wanted to go. How was the audience in New York?
They were a warm audience. I hear that the audiences in New York have an ear for music and that they can be hard on performers, but they'll give you some very warm applause if you perform well. This was my third time performing at Carnegie Hall—I don't quite know how to say it, but I think it's a special concert hall. The sound echoes very well, there's a sense of history, and the piano there is in extraordinary condition.
Each piano is unique in its own way.
With an extraordinary piano, all it takes is one note for me to feel “wow, this piano is amazing,” which feels very nice. The way the sound echoes is different in every concert hall, and each piano has its own sound. Sometimes, when I perform at older halls abroad or in halls with a piano that hasn't been played very often, I find it's harder to get the sound out. I do struggle during these performances.
During the pre-concert rehearsal, I get to know the piano, become friends with it, and make sure we both understand what we're about to do. And then during the concert, we become one with our audience as well, and we all share in the music. It can be inconvenient as a pianist not to be able to carry our instruments around with us, but it's fun to be able to encounter all different kinds of pianos in all different kinds of concert halls.
In jazz, there's the idea that honky-tonk pianos (pianos that are slightly detuned) are different, but interesting in their own way. Your specialty is classical music—have you ever encountered a piano that was unique and interesting, even if it didn't fit the standard mold for what is considered “beautiful” in your genre?
Sometimes when I go abroad I encounter pianos made by unusual manufacturers. Some old pianos that were made a long time ago can produce very good sound, and I personally like the feel of the wood and the gentle sound of these pianos.
Sensing How the Music “Breathes”
How do you keep rhythm and account for timing?
It's mostly instinctive. The way I account for timing changes based on how the sound echoes in the concert hall. And the way the sound echoes is different based on whether or not there's an audience in the hall. So the way I play differs based on the atmosphere that's there when I perform, and it can be completely different from the rehearsal to the actual performance, from yesterday to today. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't, and I think that's the particular joy of concerts—the fact that that specific performance is only possible then and there.
When it's time for the actual performance, do you become completely absorbed in playing the music?
I concentrate and become very absorbed in the music. I'm always nervous before I start playing, but there's that adrenaline rush and excitement that comes from playing in front of an audience that makes it different from when I'm just practicing.
This is kind of an abstract thing, but I find when I perform that there's a certain “energy” that I get from the people around me—from the audience, of course, but also from the various other musicians on-stage with me. During a jazz performance we'll often communicate via eye contact, but I was wondering what you think of this kind of “energy.” How do you communicate with the people on-stage, and particularly with the conductor?
Pianists generally perform by themselves, but when I play with an orchestra, I sense the way their music is “breathing” and match it. The more we rehearse together, the better we're able to communicate and understand each other, and be a better ensemble.
I'm sure a part of this is compatibility, but has there been a conductor you felt particularly in sync with?
I've been influenced by all kinds of people, but I think the answer to your question would be Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is a conductor but also a pianist. He was a pianist I very much looked up to when I was young. I used to listen to his CDs a lot, and thought of him just as “the man from the CDs,” but then I was given the amazing opportunity to tour with him, playing piano while he conducted next to me. His music is extraordinary, yes, but he's also a very kind person, and this really comes through in his music as well. All throughout the tour he practiced piano every day, without fail. It was a learning experience for me, and I remember thinking how amazing that was, that if someone at the level of Vladimir Ashkenazy was still practicing every day, I had to try harder too.
Feeling with the Soul, Seeing with the Soul
There are many blind people who are extraordinary musicians. In the jazz world there's Roland Kirk, who played two saxophones at once and produced very joyful music. In the world of piano there's Horace Parlan, whose right hand was impaired due to a childhood illness, as well as Michel Petrucciani, who had osteogenesis imperfecta and who played piano with a unique and distinctive touch that captivated many people. Have you ever felt that your blindness gives you a certain advantage over other pianists?
I personally think that with music, it doesn't matter whether you have an impairment, or what languages you speak. I don't really know how to explain it… But I don't feel that I'm special. I do think I have fun when I play piano, and that that's reflected in my music. I've never really thought about it myself, but sometimes people tell me that I'm good at getting all the right notes, even when there's a lot of large leaps on the piano.
Is it muscle memory? Does it feel like your hands just automatically get sucked in the right direction?
I think I do rely mostly on muscle memory. Neither of my parents are musicians, but they told me when I was little, that I would suddenly start playing my toy piano in time with a song that was playing, even though no one had ever taught me how to play, which I think is pretty strange. Now, the piano has become just another part of my body.
One time, I performed in a jazz concert with blind musicians. There, blind saxophonist Wolfy Sano told me that when he played, he would feel the vibrations from the saxophone in his hands, and that he was able to sense a lot of things that way. Do you have a similar sort of experience?
I feel it and I can see it in my soul. The atmosphere of the audience, whether everyone is really listening to the music—I can really, truly “see” it. There are the vibrations from the applause, and audiences abroad will also sometimes stomp their feet, which I can feel through the vibrations as well. For instance, there was when I performed for the first time in Europe right after winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Not many people had heard of me, and I felt from the applause that they were judging me, as if they were saying, “let's see what this guy can do.” I remember feeling that and being uncomfortable—getting nervous, which isn't something that usually happens to me. But then when I started playing, I felt the audience getting into the music, and when I was done, they greeted me with warm applause. I remember thinking “phew,” and feeling relieved. So I really am very sensitive to the atmosphere of the venue when I perform.
There are many different kinds of musicians, and some of them get lost in their own music, but you seem like the type who “feels” the audience when you play.
Yes. I'm the type who wants to be one with the audience and enjoy the music with them.
Playing Piano Like Solving a Math Problem
I'd like to ask you some questions from a slightly different perspective. I've always liked math as well, and I think a lot about the relationship between math and music. For instance, the notes for “C E G” sound good to us because the sound waves are in the 4:5:6 ratios that sound good to us. People see math as this dry, serious thing, but I think there's a lot of art and creativity in it. There's math in music, and there's music in math. For instance, Bach's pieces are designed in a very structural way.
Bach's pieces were put together in complex ways, much like constructing a building, and there's a structural beauty in this complexity. Each composer is unique in their own way, but they've all taken on a variety of challenges in their time. In your time playing piano, have you ever felt the mathematical or structural aspects of the pieces that you play?
Math… I've never really thought about it that way [laughs]. But I understand what you mean about how Bach's pieces have a complex structure, and are mathematical in that sense. There's also the fact that with rhythmically complex songs, you have to play different rhythms on either hand, and tuplets as well. During these songs it does feel almost like you're solving a math problem. In that sense, math and music must be very similar.
I worry with rhythmically complex songs whether I'll be able to get all the pieces together in the right way, but as the sound start coming together, it starts getting really fun.
Like how septuplets feel strange at first, but as you get used to them…
Yes. You get used to them, and they start falling into place. When the notes fall really nicely into place during an actual performance it's really amazing—it makes me feel that all my practice was worth it. There are a lot of notes in piano, so it might be easier than with other instruments to feel the mathematical aspects of it.
There's a new way of mathematical thinking that came out in the 20th century called complex systems, that's had an impact on all kinds of fields. We're in an interesting phase right now, with the focus in math ready to shift from neat, orderly formulas to more “chaotic” ones.
People tend to think jazz is freedom, that it's closer to a complex system, but the beats are actually very regular, and the “play” happens within these beats. Recently, when I listen to classical music, I feel that there's a lot of freedom in it. It's music that's been reproduced, but is always slightly different, depending on the people involved and the environment it's in. Do you have any thoughts about the freedom in classical music?
The first most important thing in classical music is to stay true to the score. We have to play the way the composer would have intended, but at the same time add our own unique touch. We can't put too much of ourselves in the music, but we also can't stay too close to the score—that's what's difficult about classical music. I've actually always loved jazz, ever since I was a child, and at one point I was even debating whether I should go into jazz or classical music. Recently I also play jazzy songs, and I think both genres are amazing.
difficult about classical music. I've actually always loved jazz, ever since I was a child, and at one point I was even debating whether I should go into jazz or classical music. Recently I also play jazzy songs, and I think both genres are amazing.
I can really feel the composer's way of life when I read through a score, and I'm the type of person that does a lot of research on composers before I begin playing their pieces. I've been to the houses of Chopin and Rachmaninoff and played the pianos they actually used, and read their original scores. There are also certain things I'll feel by visiting these composers' hometowns, or taking a walk down the streets they used to walk on. I also feel, personally, that having a wider variety of experiences has allowed me to express things in ways I wasn't able to before.
For People With or Without Impairment
Are there any fields outside of music that you're interested in, or would like to collaborate with?
I think drawing and dramatic reading are very interesting. It would be nice to collaborate with a painter and come up with piano music and a painting on the spot, or maybe create music to go with a dramatic reading. When I was a child, my mother would often entertain me with dramatic reading, making up stories on the spot, and then I would think of some music on the spot to match her story, and play it on the piano. That kind of thing sounds very fun.
That's amazing. Looking back on my own childhood, I remember I didn't like the kind of music classes where we had to play the recorder with all the proper notes. It would have been nice if music education was more playful, like what you mentioned—coming up with music for a story you're told.
It's important for music to be fun. My mother wasn't involved in music at all, so when I started playing piano, I just played the songs I wanted to instead of going by the usual Beyer piano book. Even when I went to piano school, the teacher let me have fun and play whatever I wanted. I think that's why piano is still so fun for me. Perhaps if I'd been forced into doing the same practice pieces again and again, I would've gotten bored, and quit before I'd gotten this far. I think first and foremost that music should be fun.
It's good to get into things through the fun you have with it, and the things you get excited about, rather than just the techniques. I think it's good to go into education from the perspective of a researcher or artist that really loves what they do—it makes it so much more fun. It would probably make a lot of children very happy just to have you come by and play piano with them at their schools.
Someday I want to be able to do that kind of thing and teach everyone how fun music can be.
The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are coming up in 2020. Do you have any interest in sports?
I do like sports. Swimming is one of my hobbies. Music and sports are similar, in that they both involve a lot of concentration. Oh, and one of my dreams is to play piano for a figure skating performance.
I personally would love to see you play piano in the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympics.
That kind of collaboration would be nice. The Olympics and Paralympics are separate events, but I want to do something we can all do together. I think it's important for people with or without impairment to do things together. My mother would often take me to art museums when I was young and explain paintings to me, or take me to see fireworks. These experiences have been really helpful for me when I talk to people that can see. I think music is an area where it doesn't matter whether or not you have an impairment, and so one of my dreams is to use music to do something where both sides can support and encourage the other.
That's an amazing sentiment. Thank you so much for today. I'm very much looking forward to your continued success.

Nobuyuki Tsujii | Pianist and Composer

Born in 1988 in Tokyo. Debuted at 10 years old in a performance with an orchestra. In 2005, became the youngest person ever to compete in the International Chopin Piano Competition, and won the Encouragement Prize. Released his debut album, “début,” in 2007. In 2009, became the first Japanese person to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Currently actively involved in various musical efforts, including composition and recitals both inside and outside of Japan.

Sachiko Nakajima | Jazz Pianist and Mathematician

Born in 1979. Became involved with piano and composition in childhood. In 1996, became the first Japanese woman to win a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad in India. Began playing music while studying mathematics at the University of Tokyo. Currently engaged in musical efforts as a jazz pianist, while also conducting workshops and lectures as a mathematical researcher. Author of Math Listened from Music (Kodansha) and more.