Program Notes of Pieces

NAMU ナム 南無


In 2011, Ms Chieko Umezu asked me to write a solo piece for marimba, as conceived by Chikuzan Takahashi, the outstanding and much loved Tsugaru-shamisen player. Also, an admirer of his playing, I thought the marimba, however, the wrong choice for the purpose. I suggested that instead I might be able to do something with timpani. After a six month struggle (January to June, 2012), I composed a suite that was, perhaps, very different from which Ms Umezu expected. I also felt that in course of our communication and discussion, I had arrived at an unexpected place. In reality, "solo pieces" constitute not only solo for timpani but also solos for many other particular or unusual instruments. In my mind’s eye, it is easier to imagine it as a part of bigger structure (big ensemble/long piece).


Ms Umezu pointed out that the Tsugaru-shamisen indeed expresses very percussive sounds similar to the flamenco guitar. This brings to mind the old Japanese word ‘hayashi’ (‘hayasu’ meaning to ‘inspire’). A singer is aroused with the spirit, as the giver and recipient of this mutual ‘in-spiriting’ comprise a harmonious, flowing and interchangeable whole. Now, if Chikuzan,  Paco de Lucia or other excellent accompanist attract attention merely with the expectation that they are supreme soloists they will leave us, surely, suspended in midair;  for who would receive such spirit? This is not to deny the veracity of  "solo" performance. Simply, that the precision of the Tsugaru-shamisen solo is already poised for transfer to another particular form, the timpani solo. I considered that these real-world percussion instruments, perhaps, in their core, were made to ‘in-spirit’ or ignite others and must more easily signal the sense of ‘hayashi.’ As the composition progressed, however, the piece became increasingly difficult to play and, contrarily, came to express the shamisen's non-percussive elements!


In order to solve this strangely twisted situation, I tried to walk back the way Chikuzan had walked, to know and to find the things that inspired him, the things surrounding him and what he desired to express. The whole process had gradually moved away from his shamisen but the center of the concentric circle had always been Chikuzan.


The construction of the suite comprises five sections: 1. Prelude 2. Hon-choshi 3. Ni-agari 4. San-sagari 5. The call.  As a traditional Japanese instrument, the manner of playing the shamisen is akin to ‘recitation.’ Thus, I hoped to preserve its characteristic intervals and grooves. However, regarding the first piece, the Prelude constitutes the process of building up, feeling the intervals in the body: put differently, ‘the first memories of sound’ involving a maximum dynamic range from ppp (an omen) to fff (a pole) and overtone singing.


Ms Umezu’s purpose was not merely to provide an hommage to Chikuzan. She was desirous also of  a  ‘chinkon,’ a calming of the spirit, a requiem, a prayer for the repose of the souls for her home region – in the northeastern region of Japan - which suffered from the Great East Japan Earthquake unleashed in 2011. 


Chikuzan found time to sit in the mountains listening to the whispering of the woods and the never-ending songs of birds and his mind would flit back to the painful memories when he was begging door to door, with his shamisen, throughout the seasons and the changing landscape of the north. If only he knew how his stark and beautiful mountains, the rivers and ocean had been polluted, radiated, in the ensuing nuclear power accident. How would he feel now?


It is a great consolation that old Chikuzan passed away before his heart burst with grief. What can be done in response to the travail of those who raised him, rebuked him, made him cry, the things that pleased him? Can we offer a prayer, a heartfelt mass for the repose of a soul?


"Chinkon" is not only for departed souls. It is also  urgent desire to enshrine the souls of the living, those who feel powerless, helpless in their bodies. Above all, surely now is the time to offer up prayers with heart, mind and strength for the repose of the soul of nature, its living greatness, which has embraced and nurtured all creatures.


‘NAMU’ is likewise conceived of as ‘seeking refuge’  or ‘the everlasting.’ For example, the Buddhist chant, ‘NAMU AMIDABUTSU’ means to be united with AMIDABUTSU (Amida Buddha) where AMIDABUTSU and the prayer disappear into ‘the one.’ A self beyond individuality must break through individual consciousnessness to cry ‘Here I am!’ This powerful exclamation is ‘spiritual intuition,’ the self-awakening of ‘NAMU AMIDABUTSU,’ as the Buddhist philosopher Daisetsu Suzuki taught us.


The thing that the Kung People of the Kalahari Desert refer to as ‘NUM’ is somewhat similar to ‘NAMU.’ Around a blazing fire, women sing and clap, men dance. The more they dance, the more their ‘NUM’ becomes activated. At its quivering zenith, the soul departs, consciousness is transformed, expanding beyond individuality. The dancer at this stage is, the Kung maintain, empowered with healing.


Let us now proclaim this, “Brothers, form a circle, organized only by this essential, life-giving power.” 


Keiko Fujiie (Translated by John C. Maher)

NAMU ナム 南無 2023Version

``NAMU, commissioned by Chieko Umezu from Tsugaru to Keiko Fujiie as a homage to Chikuzan I Takahashi, was originally conceived as a solo for marimba. "When I was in the early stages of composing the song, the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, and the whole of Japan was enveloped in great fear and sadness. I was speechless at the amount of damage that had been done to the nature of Tohoku, which Chikuzan loved so much. ``NAMU was completed as a solo piece for a Timpanist as a requiem prayer." In the 12 years since its first performance in Milan, Umezu and Fujiie have worked together to repeatedly adapt and revise the work, and with various arrangements including children's chorus, Japanese drums, gongs, vibraphone, etc., it has been performed not only in various parts of Japan but also in Mexico. During that time, we have received guidance and cooperation from many people, but Umezu's daughter, Aika, has always been the closest to support her mother, and, learning from her, has continued to develop NAMU's 10-year history. Aika's growth as she enters the spring of her fourth year at university can be clearly seen in her performance of the piece on November 1st 2023.

The Noto Peninsula earthquake occurred on New Year's Day this year, and Japan is experiencing even greater anxiety. "At a time when the world situation seems to be undergoing a major change, I would like to once again offer my sincere prayer for the repose of the souls of the dead, and ask myself what our mission is as Japanese people living in this era. We send this video to everyone as Team NAMU's wholehearted prayer." -Fujiie

今年の元旦には能登半島地震が起こり、日本はますます大きな不安を抱えています。世界情勢にも大きな転換のうねりが感じられる今、改めて心からの鎮魂の祈りを謳い上げ、この時代に生きる日本人としての使命を自らに問い直したいと思います。Team NAMUの全身全霊の祈りとして、この動画を皆様に送ります。



The twelve pieces of music here are the sketches of everyday lives, the playful moments and dreams of little girls. More precisely, they express the transient moment between young childhood and adolescence. They reflect the images of my daughters and also the misty memory of my own past. I may have spent those days differently if I had the chance. These fantasies naturally enter the work. Of course, the pieces are not solely dedicated to my personal memories and wishes. I believe that each girl is given and grows with a sacred and simple flower of love. The flowers of the girls of the age I depict here have not yet been sullied or distorted by the contempt that surrounds them and reciprocal irritation. Through the pieces here, I tried to describe the beauty of the flowers and also the linkage the girls possess with ʻthe unlimitedʼ. My wish is that they will grow into perfection with increasing depth under a protective care. I pray for this. The girlsʼ delightful surprise when they find simple and modest flowers in roadside grasses. Their sudden silence in sadness when they find the dead butterflies and cicadas with beautiful wings at the end of summer. The moment when their countenance lights up with joy when discovering the round and green fruits among the green thick foliage above them. The girls have no contempt in the quotidian and they have the sense of finding such humble beauty. This is connected with ʻthe unlimitedʼ. It is plaintive that because of the sensitivity their heart often suffers. Our civilization has become increasingly masculine because of the development of science and imbalanced because of the relentless pursuit of power and monetary riches. Civilization has become destructive. It is inevitable that the girlsʼ sadness prolongs in this environment. However, if there is a way in which they can live without numbing, destroying their lively feelings they will add elegance and serenity to the barren landscape. The sadness of the little girls, their silent cries become thin, needle streaks of rain. This will be absorbed even into the armored rational heart of adults.

1. Morning with Roosters Dawn. The little girls wake to the sound of the roosters. They feed them and chase them, round and round, and then get chased themselves!


2. Floating Paper Boats on the River This piece was inspired by a poem by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. One afternoon, a little paper boat floats down a river. A little girlʼs name is written on it. In the evening, she sees, in a dream, the boat floating slowly down the Milky Way.


3. Bicycling to the Wizard's Wood The bicycle. A commonplace thing for adults but a shining treasure that brims with delight for many children. I am sure you would like to take your bicycle into the deep wood. What secrets will the woods reveal?


4. Raindrops Recolour the Landscape Raindrops trickle and curl across the windowpane. Look! What joy! They fashion vivid colours on dry stones, roads, the ground and leaves.


5. Fireworks in a Starry Sky Science has wrought knowledge and information. However, this does diminish the feeling of mystery that stars evoke. Do not fireworks signal the presence of magical power more than an elaborate conjuring trick?


6. Birds Peck-Pecking on Branches The sound of birds peck-pecking together. Their nimble joy delights us but what an awful noise for the worms under the tree.


7. An Annamese Bowl with Leisurely Goldfish Well, here is a goldfish bowl. As in Vietnamese houses, a few pop-eyed goldfish swim leisurely in a large blue and white porcelain bowl.


8. A Sad Melody at Twilight This describes the sad longing that strikes the heart.


9. Daughter of the Mountain This refers the daughter of mountain people in the Russian story ʻStone Flowerʼ. She may not be a human maid. Perhaps a malachite nymph?


10.Children Chasing Birds Children are chasing the birds who are picking and pecking at the scraps of rice and corn in the field. This was an important work for farmers. The movements of the body involved in the work are atmospheric and evoke a sense of fun. Thus, it has been become the motif of much artistic performance. This piece of music presents the image of children copying the movements. The main melody is made by Kanahi, our second daughter.


11. New Year's Eve in a Far-off Land The writing of this was prompted by Alfred Tennysonʼs poem “New Yearʼs Eve” in the Victorian era in England; a scene from a dream and a fairy-tale world, detached from reality, bringing the feeling of distance: “In a Far-off Land”.


12. Lullaby of the Waves The waves come and go. They are a lullaby. My second son Namifu (ʻWave Boyʼ) was sung a lullaby by Koyumi, my eldest daughter.



translated by JOHN MAHER

a Passion ひたぶるこころに -ヴァイオリンとピアノための

ひたぶるこころ(頓心)とは、いちずに思いつめた心。また、容赦なく自分を通そうとする心をいう。英語タイトルはa Passionとしているが、passionの語はラテン語のpassionem(苦しみ)から直接取り入れられ、もとはキリストの十字架上の苦しみを表していたらしい。それにギリシャ語のpathos(愛情、感情)の意味が追加され、強烈な感情を表すようになったという。
kiyokinagisani きよきなぎさに
Perform の語源は、per(完全に) form(形成する)。それとても、ステージ上で、作詞家やら作曲家やらの意図を再現するという狭義の解釈にとらわれず、歌なり音楽なりの力を借りて、何かをなすというふうにも取れる。

伊勢の海の清き渚に 潮間(しおがい)に
なのりそや摘まむ 貝や拾はむ 玉や拾はむや


君や来(こ)し 我や行きけむ おもほえず 夢か現(うつつ)か ねてかさめてか


徒歩(かち)人の 渡れど濡れぬ 江にしあれば…


いかにして いかに知らまし 偽りを 空に糺の 神なかりせば


Wilderness Mute


How many times have I been in Nagasaki in the broiling sun of August 9th….at the stroke of 11:02, the sirens ring, the bells reply, and we citizens offer a silent prayer.  Even with all my empathic power, I cannot imagine that August day.  A sea of fire, flesh burning— the sudden agonies and depths of despair.  We who were not present cannot possibly understand this holocaust.


While checking the final instrument drafts of this work, the copyist asked me if I would like to insert a dedication to be placed under the title.  I hesitated, thinking of Sumiteru Taniguchi, a Nagasaki survivor who had died just ten days before.  A famous image of his wounded back rose to my mind: a boy with his skin burned horribly and an angry scarlet color.  Even as he worked as a postman in Nagasaki, he dedicated his life to activism to prohibit nuclear weapons.  A choice for the Nobel Peace Prize, he did not receive it despite his nomination in 2015.


However, for him this was no matter.  His message was unwavering for over seventy years:

"No more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki, no more Hibakusha, no more war".


This phrase echoes in my work.


When he gave a lecture to students in New York, he showed them the image of his ruined back.  Many of them exclaimed “oh my God!” and took photos of that photo with their smartphones.  They asked if he had ever been apologized to by the United States, but he was resolute in his answer: "I am not here to be apologized to, I came here to insist on the total abolition of nuclear weapons".


Full of passion for his mission, and worrying incessantly about the future, his soul finally left his deeply injured body at the age of eighty-eight.  Despite the damage to his body, he always looked so beautiful and calm with pathos.  


There was a time when artists could foresee the future.  This kind of vision is vital.

We should not be incapable of our own distress. 

We need to look to that future, and make desperate efforts for it.

Sumiteru Taniguchi never appealed to pity.  He wanted us to never become victims.  

So I dedicate my music not to him, but to you.  To all of you whom he cared about.  His burned body was his testament: “I want you to understand, if only a little, the horror of nuclear weapons.”



Keiko Fujiie at Kyoto September 2017


Review by Paweł Jędrzejko from „Presto”, 27.09.2020



On September 19th 2020, at the Center for Performing Arts Piekarnia in Wrocław, the premiere of an extraordinary opera was held - minimalistic, but full of existential metaphors, by the excellent Keiko Fujiie, in an extremely sensitive, refined direction by Pia Partum, to whom Japanese composer gave full creative freedom, which was perfectly executed.

“A Vermilion Calm" - this is how the title of this two-act, consisting of a prologue, twelve arias and an epilogue work - combines the traditions of the East and the West in all harmonious compositional layers: musical, textual, staging and visual. The effect of this synergy is a unique vision of the human condition, entangled in the variability of samsara, but at the same time conditioned by an ego-free, indescribable, extra-linguistic - nirvana.


Everything is delicate here. Classical guitar in the hands of Kanahi Yamashita enters into a subtle dialogue with the cello of the

great Jan Skopowski, to intertwine unexpectedly with the hypnotic sounds of Retsuzan Tanabi's shakuhachi flute, and then submit
to the soft harmony of the voices of Bogadan Makal, Łukasz Klimczak, 
Jakub Michalski and Tomasz Łykowski, and the whole is complemented by the versatile piano by Justyna Skoczek. It is in this musical context that two leading voices are composed: the warm mezzo-soprano of the perfect Urszula Kryger and the extraordinary, moving countertenor Jan Jakub Monowid, who played the role of the Poet, and who, as Keiko Fujiie points out, was the source of inspiration for the final version of the work.

When we were invited (together with her husband, legendary guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita and daughter Kanahi Yamashita - reviewer's note) to participate in the international Silesian Guitar Autumn festival in Tychy, we took the opportunity to visit the NOSPR in Katowice - says the composer. That evening, the invited guest Jan Jakub Monowid, whose voice delighted Fujiie, performed with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. - His countertenor is different from all the others - says the artist. The singer impresses with his "vast scale", but although he sings high, his voice remains "absolutely" masculine "". - Since then - continues the artist - I visited Warsaw twice to participate in opera performances in which the singer performed. I wanted to listen carefully to the timbre of his voice and get to know his technique, because in my mind the idea of a complete revision of the opera that was being created at that time was already budding, with the idea that it was Jan Jakub Monowid who would sing the main role in it. The initial version of the opera, for which I created the libretto myself in Japanese, included parts for tenor, guitar and shakuhachi, but after listening to the Polish singer, I suddenly realized that his voice suited the role of the Poet perfectly. And with this in mind, I changed the entire composition.


In fact, Fujiie's intuition works perfectly well. Monowid's voice is a medium by which the composer manages to introduce an element of transgression into the work. Aware that the parts sung today by countertenors in classical music were often performed by castrates and that the scale of the countertenor is similar to that of "traditional" female sopranos, Fujiie herself emphasizes that this voice is to "bring to mind youth - but at the same time cross the boundaries of fossilized category ". - My story - explains the creator - suggests a kind of marriage between what is human and what is inhuman, but on a slightly more down-to-earth level. It shows the one-sided nature of love, the blindness in relationships, delusions and daydreams, and finally the loss of power. It is a story about the unstable, ever changing borders of sea and land, humanity and wild nature, masculinity and femininity.

These subtle moments of transcendence are clearly noticed by the Poet, whose sensitivity allows him to see and understand more than others do. It guides us through youth, love, maturation, fruiting and death (solar eclipse), which becomes the vermillion gate of the Shinto temple: a place of meditation and insight into the crevices of being, undulating like wind- moved, discontinuous sheets of material, constituting the mise-en-scene of the whole opera. The Poet's feet, buried in the icy sand of a winter beach, feel the force of gravity; his gaze, however, drowns in the eyes of the girl walking on the beach - his gaze breaks away from the cold "here and now", from the silent, non-interpretable being. However, the Girl – just like all the actors of this philosophical production - is a screen for the Poet's projection. Dressed in white, she does not stand out from the white background herself: she is "noticeable" only moments at a time. Though she stands in full light, she disappears whenever the blacks and grayscale of the film projected hide her completely.

The Poet's eyesight, however, gives her distinctive features, although it also, paradoxically, deprives her of her autonomy. The Girl, falls asleep with a touching lullaby, although visible to us, disappears again –this time in the arms of the Poet.
The metaphysical anesthetic of love poetry soon ceases to work: naïve 
youth yields to maturity measured by the number of scarred wounds. The Girl is inevitably maturing; symbolically - her once white skirt turns red. As a woman, she achieves the perfection of a fruit which, hiding the seed of another cycle, must die for reality to continue. Now fully mature, she spreads her wings and transforms in front of the eyes of the Poet into something that she has always been or has never been: her "dim colors" give way to the expressive color of a beautiful vermillion warbler. Slowly the Poet begins to understand Mother Nature's singing and echoes her in a moving, no longer human duet. The longing "olekuleleku" is not a "sung word", it is a transcendent understanding without words, or perhaps beyond words. A beautiful bird swims slowly over the mirror-smooth surface of a calm sea, farther and farther, to the point where there is no turning back. It blends into a new, vermillion dawn, in which it dissolves completely when the sun, free from the moon's shadow, floods the world red. Then the scales finally fall from the Poet's eyes.

Poetic transformations are accompanied by a subtle harmony of the a cappella quartet inspired by the music of the Polish Banana Boat band. The Guardians of the North, South, East and West, like the Greek choir beyond time, take on different roles - but they come and go directed by the will of the Poet. The question of Poet’s agency is clearly visible in the confrontation of his "movement" with the "stillness" of the constantly present on stage, frozen in the lotus position, meditating elemental master Retsuzana Tanabi, who will remind us of himself just standing up once. Then we notice that it is his "non-European" shakuhachi that opens the cracks of reality: it is the wind awakened by him that blows away the seemingly uniform screen of the stage reality on which our projections undulate, but behind which lies an unnamed void. It is in this form that the great circle of nirvana and samsara closes - but it is also he who, constantly escapes our "western" attention due to his permanence. The poet does not notice him for a long time. Mother Nature has been working with him from the very beginning - and all voices and instruments resonate with him.

Of course, this reading of Keiko Fujiie's opera is also purely a private projection - but a projection inspired partly by the opera's libretto, which was created in collaboration with the the American instrumentalist and music teacher Laurie Randolph living in Berlin. Keiko Fujiie says about this collaboration as follows: - First, I translated my Japanese libretto into English myself, supplementing the opera with a few arias and an epilogue, for which I wrote the lyrics in English straight away (therefore there are no Japanese versions of these pieces). Then I asked Laurie to make a linguistic proofreading of my translation. But, as is usual with native speakers, they would like to improve everything! That is why working with a libretto and reaching consensus took both of us almost three years.
However, in the course of these activities, we both understood how differently we think and how differently we interpret reality when looking at it through the prism of our native languages.

The difference, to our mutual surprise, turned out to be huge. But we already had the melodies to which the language of the libretto had to be adapted to be sung. Naturally, in many places I had to modify the melody to suit Laurie's requirements and the character of the text.


Eventually my hero (Poet) became a kind of hybrid: his features are Western, but his DNA is still Japanese.

A Vermilion Calm, Keiko Fujiie's "genetic" experiment, was ultimately all too successful. Going beyond the boundaries set by the inherited and encoded in language system of values embedded in Buddhism, Shinto, Tao and Confucianism of Japanese culture, but at the same time breaking the expectations of a European music lover rooted in Greco- Judeo-Christian categories of Western culture, the Japanese composer confirms that she is a world-class composer. It is impossible to crush Fujiie's work into the narrow framework of a single culture, a binary understanding of gender or an anthropocentric system of values. However, one can - and should - submit to its meditative silence, in order to see in a deep peace of mind what is most important to each of us.