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An Introduction

Keiko Abe: Inspiration
Teacher, Mentor, Colleague, Friend

Keiko Abe entered my life at the 1981 Percussive Arts Society International Convention held in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I first met her, heard her rehearse, and saw her perform. On the strength of that initial meeting, and especially after seeing her perform, I signed up for a five-week intensive class with Abe, conducted in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, four years later.

Because I was lucky enough to spend a great deal of time with Keiko Abe during those weeks in the Netherlands, it was the start of our friendship—a friendship that would prove life-altering. For during all the intervening years since, as I have known Abe as a performer, composer, teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, she has not only changed the musical direction of my life, she has been a continual source of inspiration.
Here, then, is a brief account of my personal experience with this great, and greatly inspiring, artist.

When I was in my twenties, I earned an M.M. in Percussion Performance from Indiana University School of Music where, for two years, I studied with George Gaber, a professor of percussion. I also studied with Cloyd Duff, the timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra. (Both Gaber and Duff hold the distinction of being members of the Percussive Arts Society's Hall of Fame, and were among the most important teachers of the 1970s.)

But while I was primarily an orchestral timpanist at this time, I'd always enjoyed playing the marimba, and was starting to learn some compositions from the Japanese marimba literature. Then, around 1980, I started to become more interested in marimba performance. I'd performed several recitals of marimba music, and felt eager to improve my level of performance skill while expanding my repertoire. But, at this point, I knew very little about Keiko Abe—other than the fact that many of the pieces I was performing had been written for her.
A year later, I had an opportunity to meet Abe, introduced by a Japanese composer I'd collaborated with, when she came to Indianapolis to perform at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). When I expressed interest, she graciously invited me to listen and observe during her dress rehearsal in the concert hall.

What stunned me during this rehearsal was her complete mastery of the music, her total focus, and her concentration. Her preparation was so thorough, her performance at the highest artistic level. I knew then that if I wanted to attain some part of this excellence as a marimba soloist, I needed to study with Abe. I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about all aspects of performing. And in the field of percussion, there were no concert artists for young performers to study with (as there were for young pianists, violinists, and classical guitarists)—until Keiko Abe.

During Abe's concert at the 1981 PASIC, I paid close attention to every aspect of her performance: how she related to the audience, how she approached the instrument, as well as her approach to the music. I noticed that she played the entire concert from memory, and had totally internalized the compositions she performed. Her focus, concentration, and musical energy brought the entire audience into the sound of the music while she played. And her musical interpretation was natural, fully integrated with her physical movements and technique. She seemed completely at one with the marimba—entirely comfortable with the mallets, the instrument, and the music. Every move she made was part of her presentation—from the moment she walked onstage, to the moment she walked off again.

I made a silent vow with myself to study with her. I wanted to understand how she prepared, and how she thought about music. I realized how far away my level of performance was from her level—she set a new standard, a new goal for me to strive for. Abe excited my determination to improve my solo marimba performance.

After the convention, Keiko Abe visited Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, invited to give a presentation for the composition department. When I asked about taking a marimba lesson with her, she immediately had me assist in her presentation. I would perform Time for Marimba as written; she would perform an improvised version of the same piece; then we would perform together, with her improvisation played over my "straight" version.

For the composers in the class, this demonstration was about improvising within the genre of serious classical music. But for me, this demonstration was about a musical experience I will never forget. It completely changed my concept of the marimba on a multitude of levels.

Not only did Abe have a marimba with more sound and a wider dynamic range than any instrument I'd ever heard before (she was traveling with her Yamaha, low-F instrument). But her performance was so dynamic and so filled with energy that, as soon as she started playing with me, my dynamic range and musicality expanded. Her musical energy simply pulled me into her musical interpretation and performance. She opened the door into a totally different musical aesthetic, one with more depth, more complexity, and more focus than I had ever known.

As I practiced and performed over the next few years, I became acutely aware of the limitations of my four-octave, Deagan Diana model marimba. While I had the range to play Japanese contemporary music, I did not have an instrument large enough to perform Abe's composition, Michi. More importantly, after hearing Abe's marimba, and experiencing the big sound and wide dynamic range of her performance, the small sound of my marimba, with its limited dynamic range and projection—even though it was still beautiful and resonant—hampered, I realized, my musical interpretation. I began to search for a new marimba.

In November of 1984, that year's PASIC was held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I went to Keiko Abe's concert, eager to hear her perform the new composition she would play with a percussion ensemble. Just before she performed, Jim Coffin, from the Yamaha Corporation, told the audience about the marimba we were looking at on the stage. It was the first five-octave concert marimba, the Yamaha model YM-6000. The design had just recently been finalized, and this was its premiere performance in the United States. Yamaha, Coffin said, would make five more YM-6000s in the coming year.

When I heard Abe and her percussion ensemble perform Marimba Spiritual—with the beautiful, low range of the marimba supporting the first minutes of the piece, and, in the middle of the composition, the bass line under a melodic line, two octaves higher—the sound was overwhelmingly spectacular. I knew this was the marimba that I wanted.

After I placed my order for a new YM-6000 in February of 1985, I learned it would be between six and nine months before it was shipped to me from Japan. At the same time, I was preparing to fly from my home in Bloomington, Indiana, to the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands for an intensive, five-week, international marimba class that Abe would teach during April and May of that year. She had suggested this opportunity when I wrote to ask about additional study with her.

But the information about the international class was very sketchy. Not only were there no brochures, I only had a letter from the director of the Utrecht Conservatory advising me of the dates and the cost, and promising suitable housing, should I wish to attend. I wrote back and enrolled in the class anyway, and received instructions to take a taxi to the director's house, once I arrived in Utrecht—on the Sunday evening before the class.

I felt more than a little uncertain about this trip, having no idea if Abe would be teaching for the entire five weeks, and if so, how often she would teach. Maybe she would be there five times. Maybe she would be there for just a few days. But I decided to take the chance and go ahead with these plans, and when I arrived in the Netherlands, everything worked out beautifully.

Monday morning, after my arrival the previous night, I went to the Conservatory, entered the percussion room, and waited with the other nine or so students for the first class to start. At 10:00, Michael de Roo, the percussion teacher, and Keiko Abe walked into the room. To my astonishment, she came right over, took my hand, and said she was very glad to see me again. Then, she exclaimed, "You ordered my marimba!"

As it turned out, our class met several times a week, in addition to our private lessons, rehearsals, and practice time. I was very busy, trying to learn and observe as much as I possibly could. But perhaps the best part was the amount of time Abe and I spent together during meals. She never seemed to tire of my questions about concert preparation, learning new repertoire, mallets, and the sound of the instrument.

There were four or five marimbas made by different manufacturers available to us at the Conservatory. These included Keiko's own YM-6000, along with a prototype four-and-a-third-octave Yamaha marimba that had a slightly warmer sound. I spent many hours practicing on each one of these instruments, listening carefully to their intonation and their overall sound. By the end of the class, my ear was fine-tuned to discerning the differences, and Keiko's discussion of instrument acoustics also helped me understand why they all sounded so different from one another.

Then, during one of our mealtime talks, Keiko surprised me by volunteering to travel to the Yamaha factory in Hammamatsu, Japan, to select the bars for my marimba. I could hardly believe her generous offer, but I was very grateful. And when I received my marimba in December of 1985, after I unpacked it at my house on Christmas Eve and set it up, I was surprised to learn that it was a serial number ten—one of the first ones made. Even more surprising was the sound, which was a complete joy to me.

This marimba had incredible responsiveness to the slightest touch, and very clear differences in sound among all the playing areas of the bar. It also had a very long resonance, with a clear, focused pitch. But I realized, as soon as I started playing it, that my mallets were all wrong. At the same time, I also knew that it was going to take some serious work to discover how to really play this instrument in a way that would bring out all its musical possibilities. This was just the beginning of a new journey of discovery, and that thought was both exciting and a little intimidating to me.

When I returned from the Netherlands, I talked with a number of my colleagues (I was then teaching, freelancing as a percussionist, and developing my solo performance) about my experience in Utrecht, and several decided to join me in inviting Keiko Abe to Indiana to teach a summer marimba class. A few months later, in July of 1986, this class was held in the beautiful historic town of New Harmony in southwestern Indiana. When Keiko arrived, she had just finished recording her Marimba Fantasy project, the first recording comprised solely of her own compositions. During her week with us in Indiana, she played all these pieces, and everyone was moved by the beauty and majesty of her music, and the sound of the marimba.

Later that fall, Barbara Allen, my business partner in GP Percussion (a company we started in 1982 to manufacture timpani), Kay Stonefelt, then a doctoral student and now Director of Percussion at SUNY in Fredonia, and I contracted with Denon, the record company, to have two hundred copies of Keiko Abe's Marimba Fantasy pressed for sale in the United States. We sold them at PASIC '86 in Washington, D.C., and this was the first time that recordings of Keiko Abe's music were available in the United States. (The next pressing did not occur until the German company, Wergo, pressed a CD with the same name in 1990.)

At some point, probably around the mid-1980s, I began thinking about documenting Keiko Abe's life and work. As a preliminary effort toward that end, I visited Japan for the first time in 1996 (Abe had invited me to perform in a concert there) and I interviewed her about the development of the YM-6000 marimba—later writing an article for Percussive Notes, the Percussive Arts Society journal, that was titled "Keiko Abe's Quest: Developing the Five-Octave Marimba."

Then, in January of 2000, after finishing a long-term project, I was thinking about what to take on next, in addition to teaching and performing. My earlier idea of writing Keiko Abe's biography came to mind, and the timing seemed good, so I contacted her.

We met in Amsterdam during a break in her schedule, and discussed the details. She agreed to work with me on this project, and we began in July of 2000. At first, my purpose was simply to document her work and her activities. I had wanted to give something back to her—a tribute, as well as a thank you for all that she had given me, by enriching my life so immeasurably—through her music, her teaching, her instrument design work, and even her generosity in selecting for me such a wonderful YM-6000 marimba.

But as my research progressed, I discovered that, even though I knew Keiko Abe fairly well, I had no knowledge of her early years, her studio work, and her career before 1977. So this project became an increasingly fascinating and enriching learning experience.

My first research trip to Japan was in July of 2000. At that point, what I knew of Keiko's story included the Japanese contemporary music she had commissioned, her own compositions, and her work with Yamaha in creating the five-octave marimba. I interviewed many composers, colleagues, friends, and former students during this first trip, and returned home with over twenty interview tapes to transcribe. And because of the kind generosity of Keiko's mother, Fumiko Abe, and Keiko's friend, Shoko Kuramasu, I also collected some wonderful childhood and family photographs.

During my second trip to Japan in January of 2001, I decided to focus more on Keiko's childhood and early study of music. I had many questions to ask her, including—if there was enough time—the story behind something especially intriguing I had noticed in some album liner notes, about a group called the Xebec Marimba Trio. On the last day of my visit, we had finished our interview at about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I asked Keiko, "Tell me about the Xebec Marimba Trio."

She walked over to her LP collection, looked through the shelved records, and pulled one out. "Have you heard this?"

Of course, my answer was "No."

"Do you want to hear it?"

When I of course said, "Yes!," she put on the Xebec Marimba Trio's 1966 recording, Fascinating Latin Rhythms.
It is impossible to describe how stunned I was to hear Keiko Abe and her trio, backed up by the Columbia Pops Orchestra, playing Yellow Bird, a calypso tune that was one of the biggest pop hits of 1957.

As I stood there listening, it quickly became clear to me that my long-held understanding of Keiko Abe as a classical musician, specializing in contemporary music, was decidedly incomplete. My concept of her career had been transformed, right then and there. I knew nothing about this aspect of her musical life, but I knew that other people had to hear this music. Her biography would not be complete without it. Unfortunately, my flight home was the next day, and all Abe's earlier albums had been out of print since the 1960s. I had to find a way to get copies of this music, and that ultimately required another trip to Japan.

In early February of 2002, I returned. This time, I brought everything I needed to collect audio recordings. I packed a turntable, pre-amp, USB analog-digital converter, laptop and CD burner in my luggage. I set this all up in my small rental apartment in the Sangenjaya area of Setagaya, the section of Toyko where Keiko lives. The next day, I walked to Keiko's house and we started going through all the albums on her shelves, selecting the recordings I would preserve on CDs and use as audio excerpts in my biography.

What began as two albums of the Xebec Marimba Trio grew into seven. There were also six more albums of pop music with Keiko as a featured soloist, recorded in the same timeframe as the Xebec albums. Then, there were recordings of world premieres at private concerts, and lots of albums on which she played in a chamber ensemble. I ran out of time during my two-week stay before I ran out of music to record. And I returned home with twenty-five CDs full of material. I also returned home with an entirely revised plan for Keiko's biography.

I had learned how central music was, and is, to Keiko Abe's daily life. In fact, even though I am a professional musician and have been in the company of many exceptionally talented artists for extended periods of time, I have never known an artist with the depth and passion, the singlemindedness, and the sheer talent of Keiko Abe. As I listened to her music of all styles, analyzed her compositions and arrangements, re-read the transcriptions of our discussions about her overall philosophy, both on a personal level and as a musician, I gradually learned what the term musical genius means—because Keiko Abe is certainly that.

Not only does Abe have exceptional gifts in terms of her musical talent, her photographic memory, and her extremely fertile imagination—as her artistic vision has grown and matured, she has transformed her instrument, the marimba, and the world of all marimbists everywhere. This transformation has taken place simply because she has followed her heart and her soul, seeking music and a musical instrument that would give voice to her inner musical world, and would give her the spiritual connection she seeks through music. Hers is an artistic impulse of the highest order.

And so it is my sincere hope that Keiko Abe's story will inspire readers to find a deep and satisfying spiritual connection to their own art—whatever expression and form of art that may be.

Rebecca Kite
Leesburg, Virginia
August 2006

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