Japanese-born pianist and composer Sumiko Sato says she’s loved music her entire life.
“My mother says [that] as a baby I stopped crying when she hit a note on piano,” Sato said.
For Sato’s latest project, however, she looked a generation before her own existence for inspiration.
Originally from Iwate, Japan, Sato credits her grandmother with a great deal of musical inspiration. Before the older woman passed away in 2013, at age 102, she told her granddaughter about the old-fashioned sake-brewing songs popular long ago.
Those songs, which arose from seasonal sake-brewers as they worked, were popular for centuries. The rise of modern day automated sake factories are threatening their existence.
Sato will pay tribute to the brewing songs of old with an evening of music called “Sakaya Uta,” presented as part of the Wayward Music Series, on the evening of Jan. 21, 8 p.m., at the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center.
Sato will perform with her ensemble including Paul Taub on flute; Tari Nelson-Zagar, on violin; Kevin Krentz, on cello; Dennis Staskowski, on contrabass; and percussionist Paul Kikuchi.
The pianist, whose work combines elements of jazz, classical, rock, pop and avant garde, started in this case with recordings made in 2015 by “four Sake brewer masters who are the last generation able to sing [them].” She then selected eight of the songs, and structured her own interpretations using more modern harmonies, fixed forms and strict tempos.
“The original music includes microtones and irregular rhythms, which I have found challenging to work with, in my composition,” she explained.
The eight songs, in their new forms, cover a variety of sake-making enterprises, from washing the rice to mashing the brew, and beyond. Also on the bill will be a documentary film showing old-fashioned sake-brewing techniques from the Showa period in Japan; to be shown, at least in part, while the music plays.
An additional piano selection for the program, "Homage to Deer Dance,” was commissioned and premiered for a concert celebrating the 120th Anniversary of the birth of poet and author Kenji Miyazawa on Sept. 16, 2016.
“Shishi Odori” or “Deer Dance” is a representative local performing art of Iwate — a ritual designed designed to promote peace and drive away evil spirits. The piece was written in the summer of 2016, after having read Miyazawa’s story, "The Origin of the Deer Dance.”
Sato arrived in Seattle in 1988, studying music at the University of Washington on a Rotary scholarship. She studied composition and improvisation with trombonist Stuart Dempster, clarinetist Bill Smith, and others. After finishing her doctorate in music at UW in 1996, she’s divided her time between the Pacific Northwest and Japan.
Her future plans include a recording of the sake-brewing songs, due for release in the summer of this year. The songs, she concluded, “had rarely been sung outside the breweries and are now on the verge of extinction. I wanted to dig them up and shed light on the beauty of the songs, using the contemporary language.”