You two have been working together for quite some time. Could you tell us how you met and how you came up with the idea for The City in the Piano?
Yui: Actually, it was a Japanese journalist who introduced us! Then Aki came to one of my performances in Berlin. After the show, she simply approached me to see if I would like to do something together. As you can imagine, I was very honored and flattered. The actual project was Aki’s idea: She had already been working on the subject of music and the metropolis, but wanted to add an extra dimension. This combination of contemporary piano and dance was new ground for both of us.

Aki: I have always been interested in cities and their soundscapes – every city has its own rhythm. We wanted to put the microcosms of cities under the microscope and recreate a new utopian city via choreography, composition, and improvisation. To bridge the gap, I decided to take classical concepts from western music and reinterpret them from our perspective.

photo: Antonella Travascio
photo: Antonella Travascio

Your performances inevitable center around a solo piano. What makes this particular instrument the perfect metaphor for modern metropolitan living?
Aki: I am first and foremost a pianist – my instrument allows me to express complex musical ideas. In a way, it is my own “metropolis,” one I take with me wherever I go.

Yui: Most instruments take a lot of practice to sound good – even getting a single note right. A piano gives you all the sounds you want at the press of a key. To me, this is a great analogy for the effortlessly way we navigate and operate in a city. At the same time, this ostensible ease is rooted in a complex system. Under the hood of the piano, several different mechanisms come into play, just like a city’s infrastructure. Beautiful façades hide intricate systems that choreograph the life of millions in such a condensed space. Simple surfaces and ease of access often make us forget just how complex a city (or piano) can be.

photo: Falk Wenzel
photo: Falk Wenzel

Which city has left the strongest mark on your work – and why?
Aki + Yui: Both of our lives take place between Tokyo and Berlin, so these are probably our most influential cities.

And what are the biggest differences between the two?
Yui: Both cities are very different. Even in hyper-crowded environments, Tokyo exudes a strange sense of calm. Take the famous Shibuya crossing where hundreds of people mix and mingle, but nobody ever bumps into each other. Like a swarm of jellyfish, they intuitively navigate the busy flow. Berlin, on the other hand, abounds with conflicts of shared space. People even argue over bicycle path use. Similarities between the cities are mostly down to technology: Nowadays, everyone seems to be glued to their cell when they are navigating the city.

Aki: On a culinary note, Tokyo has so many wonderful noodle restaurants while Berliner’s love their “curry wurst” (curried sausage, editor’s note). Well, I like them both!

photo: Dieter Hartwig
photo: Dieter Hartwig

Moving on to the music: Your performances include many jarring and disturbing sounds like crashing metal, ripped strings, and even the noise of the dance itself. Are modern cities noisy monsters? Is this something you would like to highlight or change?
Yui: While quiet and order are very pleasant, noise and dirt are integral parts of our lives. There is nothing critical about these sounds – to me, they are analogous to onomatopoeia in language. We are just trying to reflect phenomena and impressions of urban life without getting too abstract. Working within the constraints of the stage, we improvise to convey a sense of a city. Just like opening a beer with a lighter, we use the piano and body for all kinds of rhythms and sounds.

Aki: Noise, music, and metallic reverberations all constitute the sound of a big city. This is not about good or bad assumptions, but about drawing awareness to our urban microcosm.

photo: Antonella Travascio
photo: Antonella Travascio

Is there something you would like to improve, though? Any particular aspect of life in the city?
Yui: People should focus more on the here and now and less on tomorrow or all the what ifs ….

Aki: I totally agree.

photo: Antonella Travascio
photo: Antonella Travascio

Both of you had classical training. What kind of role do traditional dance and classical or jazz music play in the cultural fabric of contemporary cities?
Yui: Classical ballet is rooted in European body language. Over the last century contemporary dance has developed as an alternative to ballet. Still, both dance forms reference each other and should both be represented equally in the cultural landscape.

Aki: I have been playing classical as well as contemporary music, progressive jazz, and improvisations for many years – and get to see first-hand just how vital and appreciated this genre continues to be in cities around the world. I think that the classical arts will always get a positive response. They are an important key to the cultural landscape of our modern and shifting cities.

Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to the cultural variety of our cities!

Interview: Frank R. Schröder
Header image: Antonella Travascio