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Nobuyuki Tsujii: Pianist.
January 9, 2010 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Nobuyuki Tsujii is a 21 year old blind Japanese pianist. Van Cliburn has this to say about Nobuyuki "Miracle is the only word to describe him. This is truly an act of God."

Nobuyuki was born blind but was gifted with a talent for music. At the age of 2, he began to play Jingle Bells on a toy piano after his mother had been humming the tune. He began his formal study of piano at the age of 4.

You have to experience Nobuyuki play a piano. 1 2 3

Short video biography of Nobuyuki.
posted by pwally (35 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
My favorite comment from youtube "Is this real life???".
posted by pwally at 11:40 AM on January 9, 2010


Astounding. Wish the first video showed his insane hand work more than just shots of him looking kind of weird as he plays.
posted by mathowie at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2010


Holy mackeral.
posted by jquinby at 12:01 PM on January 9, 2010


Stunning.
posted by TheWaves at 12:01 PM on January 9, 2010


Awesome stuff. Thanks for posting.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 12:11 PM on January 9, 2010


Dude. He plays some notes so fast it sounds like a slapback echo.
posted by chillmost at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2010


I will likely be the lone voice of dissent here. He has all the technical skills, but he is lacking in artistic interpretation. It may come with age, but it may not. It is extremely subtle and difficult to explain, but he varies volume and tempo rather mechanically. Compare his Chopin Etude, which leaves me a bit cold, with the same piece by Valentina Igoshina, which sends chills down my spine.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:43 PM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I agree with weapons-grade pandemonium. I heard one of his pieces on NPR w/o context and while I thought it was well-executed, I found it musically wanting. The particular piece was a different Chopin piece that I know inside out, as I my mom used to play it.

However, it should come as no surprise that there are wide opinions on the quality of performance. If you read Carl Tait's review of the 2002 competition, he gives my brother Mike a pretty hard time about his transcription of the dances from West Side Story and found his other pieces fairly unmemorable, but the Jury disagreed...
posted by plinth at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this, pwally.

As a piano player, I have to fight back the urge to react harshly and say "meh, I've seen better." I have seen better, and there are younger players than him who I think are much more talented, even blind ones—a lot of the stuff in those Chopin Etudes is just virtuoso-sounding fanfare which is great for showing off; like a lot of classical works, it doesn't have much for the left hand to do, for example. But the fact is that the kid is very good, excellent in fact, and a hell of a lot better than I am even though I'm ten years his senior. So it would really be mostly sour grapes to criticize.

It's my personal contention that the fastest and most innately gifted piano player ever recorded was a man called Art Tatum, who was himself mostly blind as well. (He suffered from cataracts soon after he was born, and while not fully blind in both eyes, he was fully blind in one eye, and the other couldn't see as far as the keyboard.) A child prodigy (expert by the age of three, apparently) who was classically trained, Art Tatum was clearly one of the most gifted piano players in the country by the time he was 20; he still lived in Toledo then, working radio shows and clubs and learning from the best piano players of the time via piano roll recordings on his mother's player piano. Duke Ellington says in his autobiography that there was a big buzz about this back then amongst the New York jazz circles: 'if you're ever in Toledo, look up this kid called Tatum—he's incredible!' Duek claims that he did just that in 1930, when Art was 21, and told Tatum to get to New York as quick as he could, since he was already better than anybody else there, too. "Mmm... maybe next year." When Art Tatum actually made it to NY three years later, nobody was ever in any doubt.

Anyhow, I'm spending too much time setting this up. Here—if you like pianistic virtuosity, get a load of Art Tatum:

Yesterdays
A Bit Of Dvorak
A short clip from 1943
Someone To Watch Over Me (audio only, but it's one of my favorites)

They say Sergei Rachmaninoff was in New York once when somebody took him to see Art Tatum. Apparently his reaction was thus: "If this man ever decided to start playing 'serious music,' we'd all be in a whole lot of trouble."
posted by koeselitz at 1:29 PM on January 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


Van Cliburn is still alive?
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:05 PM on January 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here is Valentina Igoshina explaining why she couldn't play a very "simple" Chopin prelude when she was 12. She could play the notes ("of course"), but she could not find a personal interpretation until she was 20. Nobuyuki Tsujii is missing this. It matters a lot at this level of music, and if you're just listening to notes instead of feeling the music, you'll miss it, too.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:08 PM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]




It is extremely subtle and difficult to explain [...]

At least a few Youtube commenters on nearly every classical music video I have ever seen on the site will always claim that a given performer's rendition of a piece was some variation of "technically adept but sterile" and that some other performer's version was far superior. This is phenomenon is markedly worse for piano. If all I had to go on were youtube comments, I would assume that all pianists hate each other.

As a lay person when it comes to classical music, I am nonetheless left with the impression that not even knowledgeable listeners can usually agree about what it is exactly that separates sterility from passion once certain basic technical hurdles have been passed.

This kid seems like a pretty good pianist to me, but what the fuck do I know?
posted by pts at 3:50 PM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


My partner tells me Liszt's Paganini is a very technically difficult piece, which makes Tsujii's playing that much more impressive.

But he also tells me it is known in the community as a "showy" piece — you play it to display your technical chops rather than emotional range. Good stuff nonetheless.

If you like that piece and you want to see a little showmanship, check out Evgeny Kissin's rendition. The fingers literally dance on the keys.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:06 PM on January 9, 2010


fourcheesemac: heh, that was my reaction, too.
posted by koeselitz at 4:08 PM on January 9, 2010


Let me put it this way: Nobuyuki Tsujii is a much, much better pianist than Andrea Bocelli is a singer. Bocelli does not belong in the big leagues. This kid deserved to make Van Cliburn. Whether he deserved to win or not, well, the judges made their choice.
posted by Faze at 4:14 PM on January 9, 2010


weapons-grade pandemonium: “I will likely be the lone voice of dissent here. He has all the technical skills, but he is lacking in artistic interpretation... It is extremely subtle and difficult to explain, but he varies volume and tempo rather mechanically.”

pts: “At least a few Youtube commenters on nearly every classical music video I have ever seen on the site will always claim that a given performer's rendition of a piece was some variation of "technically adept but sterile" and that some other performer's version was far superior. This is phenomenon is markedly worse for piano. If all I had to go on were youtube comments, I would assume that all pianists hate each other.”

Well,—first, pianists do hate each other, or at least enjoy competition. Second, all those comments aren't necessarily by pianists. Third, youtube comments are generally stupid.

pts: “As a lay person when it comes to classical music, I am nonetheless left with the impression that not even knowledgeable listeners can usually agree about what it is exactly that separates sterility from passion once certain basic technical hurdles have been passed. This kid seems like a pretty good pianist to me, but what the fuck do I know?”

It may be a bit subtle and more nuanced, but it's far from unconcrete. I know rock music (which I love; no offense to it) tends to encourage us to seek out the raw gut-felt passion in any piece of music, since that is its particular emphasis; but there are very real and direct factors which bear on a piano player's quality in terms of interpretation, and those very real factors can be observed, measured, and quantified. In fact, you might have missed it, but weapons-grade pandemonium started listing some: variation of volume or tempo; is it mechanical, or organic? Is it jarring, or fluid and natural? In basic terms, what parts does he play loud or fast, what parts does he play quiet or slow, and how does he get from one to the next? Yes, it's a little more complex, largely because these are really readings of a piece which Chopin (or another composer) wrote down, and we might not have the music in front of us to know. Chopin might have told the player to play a certain bit fast, and another bit slow; but the way that player does it, how fast or slow he plays it, whether that difference is exaggerated or very minute... all of these things are factors which, with indeed scientific accuracy, we can quantify. It begins to be a question of something a little less easy to rigorously determine when we talk about what's preferable, because we're then talking about how we think the piece ought to be interpreted and therefore what it means. However, as a matter of skill and technical brilliance, it's quite possible to discern whether a piano player is good at varying his dynamics (that is, his speed and loudness) or if he's really just following the markings in a basic way, without taking into account the structure of the piece.

It really is possible to be objective about judging musicianship. Yes, musicianship isn't all there is to music, but simple musicianship can indeed be judged.
posted by koeselitz at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2010


I'm with fourcheesemac--every single time I see a reference to Van Cliburn, I think "My God, Van Cliburn is still alive?"

Some day I'll be wrong, and that will be a sad day. Mr. Cliburn has done a lot for generations of young pianists.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:36 PM on January 9, 2010


koeselitz: I tried to be clear that I didn't actually base my assessment of the ways in which pianists relate to each other solely on youtube comments! I only meant to suggest that just looking at that particular style of drive-by discourse, they seem to be capable of some pretty harsh evaluations that aren't necessarily totally objective.

I have many years of childhood piano, and though am not in any sense a pianist, I'm not completely unfamiliar with the ideas you're expressing there. Nonetheless, I really appreciate your taking the time to clarify them, and doubly appreciate the Art Tatum links—I can barely imagine that a human can be so good at something. I literally cannot imagine what the worst must look (or sound) like to someone like that.
posted by pts at 4:45 PM on January 9, 2010


The piece is about technical virtuosity, so it may be difficult to judge Tsujii's emotional range from solely viewing that. Here's a solo performance of the original by violinist Hilary Hahn, for example, that's worth a look.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:47 PM on January 9, 2010


Well pts:

As a lay person when it comes to classical music, I am nonetheless left with the impression that not even knowledgeable listeners can usually agree about what it is exactly that separates sterility from passion once certain basic technical hurdles have been passed.


It's because different people have different ideas about what technical choices most effectively communicate. Let me give you some examples.

For some people, the most emotional intimacy comes with playing with a lot of gestures that are generally considered 'romantic', like little variations in tempo (rubati being the industry term), and big variations in tempo and tone, playing with a lot of emoting, theatrical playing. For excellence in this field, see Elly Ney playing the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Huge liberties taken with tempo and dynamics, which in this case work very well. But if you're not so into romantic playing, you might prefer Daniel Barenboim's more consistent take.

To some people, speed and power and range, mechanical showmanship, lend power to an interpretation. You might call a pianist who excels in this category a 'racehorse' pianist. My favourite one is probably Martha Argerich. Listen to her play Debussy's Jardins sous la Pluie. It's an amazing mechanical feat. But you might think that mechanical impressiveness doesn't necessarily serve the piece, and if you think that, you'll probably get more out of Gieseking's also tremendous interpretation.

Some listeners like a pianist that takes liberties with a score, like Horowitz. His rendition of Scriabin's Fifth Sonata disagrees a number of times with Scriabin's tempo and dynamic markings, in order to pull different things out of the score. However, others prefer someone like Sviatoslav Richter, known for taking scores very seriously. Richter's Scriabin 5 just happens to be my favourite recorded piano playing.

These are all world-class pianists playing technically challenging pieces faultlessly. But every pianist chooses a different way to communicate through the piece. The matter is complicated by the fact that your preferences, if you're a classical nut, vary from piece to piece and composer to composer. You might like your Beethoven academic and your Bartok clangy, your Chopin Etudes super-fast and your Chopin Ballades super-slow.

So we're not talking about nothing, we're just talking about a tremendous morass of aesthetic preferences from which it's impossible to pluck a single objective judgment. If you want to get into classical music, don't let this discourage you: It's one of the best things about classical music. There's only one Crime and Punishment, one set of aesthetic decisions that were made with respect to that subject matter. But if you look up a bunch of different recordings of a popular piece, like say Rachmaninov's Prelude 23 Op 5., you get to hear maybe a dozen total geniuses who have each worked tirelessly to come up with their own way to break your heart with those massive chords.
posted by voronoi at 4:50 PM on January 9, 2010 [13 favorites]


Oh, I know, pts. And it's true; musicians especially, I think, can be rough on each other. Sometimes it's because they (we?) are very competitive; sometimes it's because we're assholes.

In fact, classical music lovers can sometimes get way too vague and 'ineffable' in their descriptions of performances—as a guy who likes plain-speaking and jazz, I'd always rather just talk about it directly.

“Nonetheless, I really appreciate your taking the time to clarify them, and doubly appreciate the Art Tatum links—I can barely imagine that a human can be so good at something. I literally cannot imagine what the worst must look (or sound) like to someone like that.”

Oh, I'm with you there. It's funny; I think almost all of us, especially those who've really worked on an instrument, generally have to come to a point where we realize that there are just those who we'll never be able to match, even if we spend every minute of the rest of our lives working at it.

Doesn't mean it isn't wonderful to have those people around. Again, pwally—thanks for these great links.
posted by koeselitz at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2010


gah, more awesome links! thanks, voronai - though I may never get any work done again...
posted by koeselitz at 5:02 PM on January 9, 2010


[voronoi, sorry. didn't mean to misspell yr name.]
posted by koeselitz at 5:02 PM on January 9, 2010


Compare his Chopin Etude, which leaves me a bit cold, with the same piece by Valentina Igoshina, which sends chills down my spine.

Honestly I liked them both, in quite different ways. It really is like a reading, as you said. Give two performers the same poem to read, and each may illuminate different meanings in it.
posted by hermitosis at 5:20 PM on January 9, 2010


voronoi: God damn it, man, I'm on a deadline.

Seriously, though, thanks for the explanation and examples. Favorited with extreme prejudice; will listen to all your links as soon as I have time.
posted by pts at 5:22 PM on January 9, 2010


Listen to her play Debussy's Jardins sous la Pluie . It's an amazing mechanical feat

Thanks for the memories, voronoi. I played that piece when I was 16. It's not as difficult as it sounds, partly because the rapid fire notes are being played with the left and right hands over top of one another--sharing the load, as it were. There are much trickier pieces out there, mechanically speaking. But I prefer Gieseking's interpretation.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:48 PM on January 9, 2010


I've generally preferred women performing Chopin (with the probable exception of Artur Rubinstein) and this is long before YT videos that emphasize attractive and extremely feminine women. I'm referring to this previous comment. I can see why someone would prefer Valentina Igoshina's performance, but listening to the piano only, without the intro monologue in the Igoshina video and the distractions of the visual, I like Tsujii's performance more. I'm not sure what that says about me (or you, the listener), the pianist and the composer. Although I've heard decent recordings of women playing Beethoven, without exception, all of my favorites are men.

And if sexism in music wasn't enough, how about racism? Since the YT phenomenon, I've been exposed to a great many Japanese performances of classical Western music. Frankly, I've been surprised with what I've heard because, although I expected the technical accuracy, I didn't anticipate soulful performances. The reason for this is because of the significant cultural differences in the near past as well as the periods when the music was written, and even more so, the fundamental differences in how music is made. The Japanese, with their sometimes quarter-steps and Westerners with their half-steps; the emotional meaning of music, I would think, is quite different. But this is, apparently, not so. Some of my favorite performances are by Japanese artists.

pts: You know more than you give yourself credit for.

pwally, thanks for this post. Really extraordinary!
posted by Mike Buechel at 6:34 PM on January 9, 2010


WPG: WIth 'amazing mechanical feat' I wasn't referring to the piece itself but Argerich's playing, the speed and clarity of which are pretty fantastic. Also if you haven't seen Argerich play Rach 3, it's worth your time. Did you play Pagodes as well? I love that piece. Richter's interpretation is stunning.
posted by voronoi at 8:39 PM on January 9, 2010


If all I had to go on were youtube comments, I would assume that all pianists people hate each other.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:32 PM on January 9, 2010


What a fantastic thread! Thank you all.
posted by carping demon at 9:44 PM on January 9, 2010


Speaking of Art Tatum, you all should look into Claude Bolling, a really (I think) over-looked pianist, specifically this CD. A lot of his other stuff is kind of meh, but he can fucking roll it out. On that CD there is a track of him playing Yesterdays, and I have to say that I think it is so much better than Tatum's version. Here's a YT link, not to anything on that CD, but to a recent live performance, in it he's 81 years old.
posted by past at 3:56 AM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wish I loved practicing the piano as much as my mom wanted me to love it.
posted by spec80 at 6:29 AM on January 10, 2010


Jesus, just look at him as he takes his bows. That's the look of pure joy. Look at his face. That onslaught of clapping and bravos must be like sensory overload to him. I bet it feels incredible.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2010


I must say, I prefer Harpo Marx's interpretation of Rachmaninov's C# minor Prelude, which I find more invested with genuine, deeply felt emotion. It must also be noted, in addition, that his impeccable technique is certainly nothing to scoff at.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:56 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


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