> Ryoko Egawa Saxophone Concert “SOLOSOLO?” with Yoshihide Otomo Meguro Persimmon Hall 2024.5.21

Ryoko Egawa Saxophone Concert “SOLOSOLO?” with Yoshihide Otomo
Meguro Persimmon Hall

Written by Masanori Oishi|2024.7.8

Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


Before the show, the dimly lit space was illuminated beautifully with string lights placed on the floor. The fixed seats and the stage had been removed, leaving a full-floor venue with a total of three clusters of electric lights—in the center and at both ends—with the audience facing and flanking these. The distinctive arrangement of the saxophone and sho, a traditional Japanese mouth organ, was intended for Toru Takemitsu’s “Distance,” a piece that was to be performed on the day. But it was Ryoko Egawa’s sensibilities that shone throughout the entire space from the very beginning to the end of this concert, whose audience was also treated to a variety of other “distances.”


Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


Produced by Egawa herself, the concert was titled “SOLOSOLO?” and featured the saxophonist performing a total of eight pieces, including two new works by Yoshihide Otomo, alongside Otomo and sho player Hanako Nakamura. I had been looking forward to the show, having heard that Otomo would also be improvising on pieces other than his own compositions, and was curious as to how this would connect with the contemporary music Egawa would be playing.

Egawa studied classical saxophone at Tokyo University of the Arts, and her originality began to show itself when she joined Chanchiki Tornade, a band founded by fellow Tokyo University of the Arts student Yuya Honda. In 2006 she became a regular member of Yasuaki Shimizu & The Saxophonettes, and she has also been part of the Otomo Yoshihide Special Big Band since 2013. As a solo performer she plays mainly classical and contemporary music, and she has also performed in duos with piano, harp, and accordion players as well as in saxophone quartets. Additionally, Egawa is often commissioned to perform premieres of new compositions.


Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


Yoshihide Otomo recognizes being deeply influenced by contemporary music in his wide-ranging activities as an improviser, free jazz player, and film score composer. His performance of a graphic score by John Cage at Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall’s “Just Composed” in 2012 left a particularly strong impression on me. In addition, Otomo has guested with the contemporary music ensemble Ensemble Nomad and has been commissioned by the contemporary music composer Dai Fujikura to contribute a piece to each edition of Fujikura’s annual “Bonkuri” (Born Creative) festival.

Before the show, an announcement was made that Otomo would be improvising in between the numbers listed in the program. The announcer’s gentle but honest, “As we go along, you may well lose track of which piece he’s playing,” elicited relieved laughs from the audience. Indeed, half of the night’s program consisted of works by Claude Debussy, Luciano Berio, Toru Takemitsu, Yuji Takahashi, Man Jie, and Otomo, all leading contemporary composers of the twentieth century, and many in the audience were hearing these pieces of music for the first time.


The concert began with a performance of Debussy’s “Syrinx.” Written for solo flute in 1913, in the midst of the shift from classical to modern music, the piece has an ambiguous tonality that gives off a floating sensation. Egawa said she chose “Syrinx” because it seemed like an “appropriate opening” for the day’s program. And as soon as this opener ended with its weak, fading tones, Otomo started playing gentle noises as a prelude of sorts.

This was followed by Egawa’s solo, “Sequenza IXb” by Luciano Berio. An essential part of a classical saxophonist’s repertoire, “Sequenza IXb” is highly technical and takes about 14 minutes to play, requiring intense concentration from both the performer and listeners. I could feel the audience’s focus level rise dramatically with Egawa’s spirited performance. Otomo’s guitar improv that followed was a lyrical one, in which a melody was derived from the overtones of a single note. It felt like a homage of sorts to “Sequenza IXb,” which is built on the circulation of a specific sequence of notes.


Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


The next piece, Toru Takemitsu’s “Distance,” was originally written for oboe and sho, and the composer instructs that the saxophonist and sho player be situated at a sufficient distance from each other. In most cases, the saxophonist is positioned on the edge of the stage, closest to the audience, while the sho player occupies a position at the back of the stage, on a direct line from the saxophonist. Due to this arrangement, the sound of the sho is often heard from farther away than that of the saxophone. This time, however, I was seated at a roughly equal distance from both the saxophonist and the sho player, so I was able to take in the sound from the side and experience the piece in a new way. The introduction of flexibility into the spatial relationship between the performers depending on the listener’s choice of location made for a very pleasant experience that allowed me to freely perceive the new acoustic space generated by this work. Egawa used bass, treble, and voice to express the acoustic “distance” of a single saxophone above Nakamura’s rich sho notes, which radiated throughout the venue.


Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


With the audience now increasingly aware of the physical distance between the performers and the acoustic distance between their instruments, Egawa quietly began to play J.S. Bach’s “Sarabande” from “Cello Suite No. 2” on her baritone saxophone. At the same time, Otomo improvised on his guitar, and the two moved on to Yuji Takahashi’s “Embers.” A highlight of the night, this performance was the first in which Egawa and Otomo’s tones came together, the mellow tunes of the former’s baritone sax resonating with the latter’s noise and low, wall-clock-like guitar sounds. The whole hall was rocking, creating a unique atmosphere. Then, a dancer suddenly appeared between Egawa and Otomo, startling the audience—a surprise appearance by Yasuyuki Shuto.

Once Otomo’s subsequent improv had come to an end and the temporarily overwhelmed audience had calmed down a bit, the concert moved on to “Another Door II,” a piece for saxophone and electronics by Man Jie. With a harmonizer expanding the sound of fine saxophone snippets, what sounded like fragments of a pentatonic folk song from the composer’s home region of Inner Mongolia were repeated strikingly. This piece made me happy every time those endearing bits showed up.


Photo: Ryota Hikosaka


The last two pieces were new compositions by Otomo. “Solitaire for Sax and Deck of Cards” was played solo by Egawa, who flipped playing cards while performing. The piece is based on the idea of reacting musically to cards that appear at random, “taking improvisation to its limits while interpreting the written notes differently every time, on the spot.” Otomo says he wrote this piece with the intention of bringing out, to the greatest extent possible, Egawa’s limitless “multilingual” potential and rich improvisational nature by way of a compositional work. Taking in the melodies and fragments of sound played one after another stimulates the listener’s imagination in a variety of ways. The second new piece, “Duration for Soprano Sax, Sho, Turntable, and Prepared Guitar,” was performed by three players. A line of sound that began with the note A was played by the sho and saxophone before gradually starting to shift with different pitches and timbres. Then, as Otomo’s electronic tunes joined in, the various elements began interacting with each other and expanding the music; in time, the trio’s sounds seemed to combine into an auditory belt that permeated the venue. The three players then closed the concert with an encore performance of Yuya Honda’s “Natsu no nihohi.”


It was interesting to experience how the mind transforms the abstract sounds emanating from Otomo’s improvisation into tangible bits of imagination. These are sounds with a sense of reality. And just when you’re hearing these rich tones shaking every inch of the venue, noise; a howling sound cuts through the air and is delivered to the very edge of tolerance, all but forcing you to cover your ears. I couldn’t help but groan in delight at how the performance, although improvised, was able to evoke a sense of space and a calculated sonic distance between each enunciator and the audience. The rich sonority and smart musicality of Egawa’s saxophone, which filled the entire hall from a fixed position, coupled with music played with solid technique to bring about a whole new world. Given that “SOLOSOLO?” combined improvisation with pieces by some of the most decorated composers of the twentieth century, I wonder whether Egawa and Otomo could have achieved such remarkable synergy without a considerable amount of trust existing between these two musicians. Furthermore, the concert demonstrated how short, as a result of Egawa and Otomo’s years of collaboration, the “distance” between these two musicians has become.


Translated by Ilmari Saarinen



Ryoko Egawa Saxophone Concert "SOLOSOLO?" with Yoshihide Otomo

Date: 2024.5.21
Venue: Meguro Persimmon Hall
Featuring: Ryoko Egawa (Saxophone), Yoshihide Otomo (Guitar, turntable), Hanako Nakamura (Sho), Jie Man (Electronics)
Special guest: Yasuyuki Shuto (dance)

Production Manager: Takashi Kawachi
Art Director: Yasuwo Miyamura
Production Staff: Fumie Manji


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大石将紀 Masanori Oishi

A classical saxophonist active in Japan and internationally, Masanori Oishi received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Tokyo University of the Arts and is also a graduate of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. His solo album “Smoke: Japanese Solo Saxophone Works” won the Agency for Cultural Affairs National Arts Festival Award for Excellence in 2019. In 2024, Oishi released “Toshio Hosokawa: Works for Saxophone” on the Austrian label Kairos. He is currently a specially appointed associate professor at Osaka College of Music, a visiting professor at Elisabeth University of Music, and a lecturer at Tokyo University of the Arts and Senzoku Gakuen College of Music.