Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Sakura, Sakura...the blossoms bloom again

Well, John and I have been working on a nice arrangement of "Sakura" for performing in our koto and shakuhachi duo, and we finally came up with a version we really, really like. This has been quite a challenge because I have made various arrangements of this piece over the years, each of them different - the melody is so beautiful and simple, but the challenge with well-known "simple" melodies like this is to avoid having them sound trite, to make them sound fresh, as well as to make them fitting for the instruments you are writing for.

When I was in Japan, I avoided all folk songs like this completely; I was completely focused on learning the chic, cool, dynamic music of composers like Sawai Tadao. "Sakura" seemed too conventional, too stuffy to me, when I was in my 20s and 30s. When people would inevitably ask me, "Can you play Sakura?" I would say yes, but I avoided playing it whenever possible.

Of course, Sawai himself has an arrangement of the piece (an advanced solo work) that I learned to play, and performed frequently after I got back to the states. It is a wonderful version, but it has a lot of tricky bridge moves and quite a bit of tremolo, both things which made it like a rocky road, with stones that could trip you everywhere, when performing it. I told myself for years that I would write my own version -- and I finally made myself do it. After Sawai passed away, I was moved to write my own "Sakura" for the recording that featured my Ensemble, called "Taka." I call my solo version "Blossoms."

That's when I found out why there aren't more versions available -- it is very hard to make an arrangement of something so well-known that sounds unique! There are also some technical challenges for koto players with the accidental at the end of the piece.

Later, I made an arrangement for the ensemble for a performance at the Cherry Blossom Festival. Then -- another one! This time for the "Oyasumi" recording with Aiko Shimada. I thought that would be the last one but, here I am again, thinking of Cherry Blossoms....

And now at last we've gotten our own new version (basically) worked out the way we like it. We had the beginning and end figured out, but the middle version stumped me....as so often happens, when I least expected it (I was a few minutes early to a library storytelling program in San Francisco, in the meeting room by myself, tuning up the koto)the idea came to me. I quickly scribbled it onto a piece of paper and brought it home. Voila! Sakura!! Like an old friend.

Sakura, sakura....the older I get, the more I like these kinds of melodies, the beauty of Cherry Blossoms....

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