Reich, Pärt and Davies find New life in Kuniko’s marimba

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, the International Herald Tribune, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 14.09.2013

Renowned Japanese percussionist Kuniko Kato makes stunning music from the simplest of instruments, stretching their sonorities to heights never previously heard on record. In her new CD, Kuniko Cantus (CKD 432, Linn Records), she shows what can be done when her insight into contemporary compositions converges with her talent for composing, arranging, careful choice of venue, sound engineering and even the programming of a CD.

The title track, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, is an Arvo Pärt composition arranged by Kuniko and supervised by Pärt.  She keeps to a pianissimo mood but gradually expands the piece with the addition of orchestral parts. When she has finished, 29 parts have been layered under the dominant tones of her marimba. As she writes exuberantly in her liner notes, “We had over 200 tracks by the end of this recording!”

She collaborated with Pärt, Steve Reich and  Hywel Davies in her arrangements and performances in these percussion versions of their work. She says she is drawn to contemporary composers because she wants to make minimalist music “more accessible”, and she achieves her goal brilliantly.

A followup to an earlier Linn release, kuniko plays reich, this CD opens with Für Alina, a short and quiet Pärt piece for vibraphone and small brass cymbals known as crotales. It creates a perfect somnolent mood for the rest of the program. She then moves into Reich’s popular New York Counterpoint, replicating the original clarinet sound with special mallets and striking techniques on the marimba.

The most unusual piece is Davies’ Purl, another marimba composition that makes full use of the instrument’s five octaves.  Always attentive to resonances, Kuniko struggled through multiple takes, she says, to achieve the humming sound that Davies required.  I find myself agreeing with her description of the evocative images Davies has conceived. “When I close my eyes,” she writes, “I am greeted by visions of sunlight dancing on water, gently changing color.” 

Kuniko created and staged the Sound Space Experiment – Steel Drum Works four years ago in Tokyo and it still attracts an internet audience. This version of Ravel’s Bolero will stay in the memory for its extraordinary musicality and the evident joy Kuniko and a participating Tokyo audience derive from playing with oil drums, and rattles while she carries the melody on the Caribbean steel drums, marimba and vibraphone.

(Link to video for iPad Reades:

Kuniko is recognized internationally as perhaps the most innovative musician in her field of percussion. She has performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and has worked with such conductors and composers as James Wood, Seiji Ozawa, Iannis Xenakis, Toru Takemitsu and the late Franco Donatoni.

Her recordings for Linn, a Scottish label, have recently become available in the U.S. through Naxos. 

Kuniko’s commitment to living composers is a welcome step in her development as a mature musician.

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