Q&A with Satoko Fujii: On Ambition


Satoko Fujii, 60, says she still feels like a “young musician.” She plans to release an album each month during 2018.

(Photo: Bryan Murray)

Satoko Fujii is a Japanese avant-garde pianist and composer, renowned not only for the vision of her recorded output, but also her prolific writing and recording. She’s averaged half a dozen albums each year since debuting as a leader in 1991.

Fujii, now 60, has announced her intention to release an album each month during 2018, beginning with “Satoko Fujii: Solo.” Downbeat talked to the pianist about this ambitious project, as well as her career, influences and approach to writing and recording.

This new CD is the first in a proposed monthly collection of releases to celebrate your 60th birthday—what was the thinking behind this particular project?
In 2017, there were seven CD releases either under my own name or on which I played as a sideman. I already have plans in place to release five or six CDs in 2018, so I thought it would not be difficult to release 12, and that was where the idea of monthly releases came from.

It may not be difficult, but that does not mean that it will not be challenging. I will be 60 this year, which is not young, although I do feel young—I still feel like a fledgling musician. I thought the challenge will be good for me.

You already have more than 80 CDs released. Is there only a very short amount of time between writing the music and getting it recorded?
I have never really thought about my work in terms of the speed at which I write and record—or the number of albums I put out. I simply make music the way I like to make it.

I really don’t think about how other musicians work or what makes them create their music in the way they do. I just concentrate on what I am working on. I have always enjoyed working on music right away, as soon as I have an idea, while I have the energy that a new idea gives me. Then I like to get my ideas down and recorded, so that I don’t forget the feeling that created them.

What is your quality control for your work—how do you know when a piece or an album is ready for recording or playing live?
I compose every day. I spend the first 20 to 30 minutes of my day sitting at the piano; I call it my “diary.” This is when I take fragments of ideas and expand them to make a complete piece. The fragments usually give me the direction for the instrumentation which will be most effective, and ideas toward making the next album I am working on. For me, composing is all about finding the fragments that build into finished pieces. They are already there, I simply need to find them. Once I have found them, they are visible, so I don’t really have to work on them, simply develop and complete them.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music that you’re creating?
Actually, I feel the complete opposite.

I feel that working on many and various projects is easier for me than if I was only working on a few things at any one time. When I am working on something for solo piano or touring and playing concerts by myself, I find I get ideas for making big band music, for example. These different ways of writing and performing are all connected in my mind, and the energy to keep working as I do comes from doing so many different things. I think I would find it difficult to work on only one project at a time. I think I would feel like I am at the far end of a one-way street: I have come down here and now I cannot find a way out to continue my journey.

While you were attending the New England Conservatory of Music, you took lessons with Paul Bley. The sessions consisted of discussions about your music. How much of an influence was he on your career?
I cannot imagine what my musical life would be now without meeting Paul Bley. Before meeting him, I didn’t like my music, and I didn’t even like myself. We spent so much time talking, and that made me change. I started to accept myself as an individual, and that led to me accepting myself as a composer and as a musician.

Do you have any routines around rehearsing, performing live or recording?
I like routines, I enjoy them; things like getting up at the same time, and having a similar breakfast at the same time each day. But that is as far as routines go for me.

I don’t have any particular things I do before going to a recording studio or before going on stage for a concert.

What music do you like to listen to—and can you ever listen simply for pleasure without it inspiring you to write something?
I like listening to any kind of music. Even though I don’t plan to listen carefully, I always find that when I listen, I really easily get inspiration that helps me with my music. Maybe that’s the same for any musician, I don’t know.

Is avant-garde music something that can be taught?
I think there are some things that can be taught in music, and that applies to avant-garde music as well. It is all about learning about music. But I believe that we need to fly from there and create original music. I have studied with many great musicians, and I have studied music at two schools—Berklee College of Music in Boston and The New England Conservatory of Music. But I have always made music with my feelings and my ideas.

Do you have any musical ambitions left to fulfill?
My grandmother passed away 25 years ago, and before she died, she lost her hearing. She told me that after her hearing loss, she could hear unbelievably beautiful music in her ears.

I asked her to explain it to me, but she couldn’t. All she could tell me was that she never heard this beautiful music before she lost her hearing. I would like to make the music that she could hear—music that no one has heard before and that is unbelievably beautiful. DB

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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