A Lithuanian interwar mystic who captivated a Japanese pianist and composer: Yusuke Ishii releases a record of Vytautas Bacevičius’ works

  • Nov. 24, 2023

Rasa Murauskaitė-Juškienė

Yusuke Ishii was born and started music studies in Tokyo. After studying in Paris, the Japanese composer and pianist has been living in Lithuania since the end of 2019, researching local music and speaking fluent Lithuanian. A vinyl record of works by Vytautas Bacevičius recorded by Yusuke Ishii and released by the Music Information Centre Lithuania will soon be available – the composer was discovered by chance during Ishii’s first visit to Lithuania. What attracted him so much to the work of this interwar modernist? What links does he find in Vytautas Bacevičius’ works with composers worldwide? Does he miss the buzz of big cities while living here in Lithuania?

Yusuke, let's start with some history – how did you end up in Lithuania?

I would have to talk for hours to tell you everything, but I will try to keep it short. I discovered Lithuanian music by accident. I used to like to travel a lot. Once, my sister and I were travelling through the Baltic States, starting from Estonia and ending in Lithuania. Lithuania left the biggest impression on me, and during that trip I discovered the music of Vytautas Bacevičius.

How did that happen?

When I travel, I like looking for new, unheard works by composers. I used to do that before: I would go somewhere and look for sheet music stores or music information centres. I have been disappointed many times because not all works are worthy of attention. But I did the same thing when I came to Lithuania – I found the MIC and, by chance, Vytautas Bacevičius.

Let's rewind the tape to even earlier times, to life before Lithuania. How did your career develop?

I graduated from composition studies in Tokyo a long time ago. Then I went to Paris, where my career began, so to speak. There I studied piano, accompaniment, and many other musical things. I started to get into performing contemporary music, even winning prizes in competitions. So you could say that my career is more linked to Paris than Tokyo.

Tokyo and Paris are huge cities. Isn't it a little too quiet here in Lithuania?

At least once a year I go back to Japan, where there is a lot of noise and movement. But I get tired of the pace of big cities – that was the case in both Paris and Tokyo. Before I came to Lithuania, I lived in big cities all the time – there was also Frankfurt. Yes, Vilnius is not a very big city, which gives me peace of mind. I like it, and I like living close to nature.

Let's go back to Vytautas Bacevičius. You mentioned you got to know his music during your first stay in Lithuania. What did you hear in his music that made you so interested?

First of all, in my opinion, Bacevičius’ music is exceptional in the context of Lithuanian music. After the war, neo-romantic, then minimalist tendencies were dominant here. But his music is different from all of them. There is no folk element in it. I like that.

What links do you find in Bacevičius’ works with composers worldwide?

I'm very fond of the mysticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was characteristic of Alexander Scriabin as well as the French mystic composers of the early 20th century, or post-war composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Edgar Varese. I think that Bacevičius continues in his music that line of mysticism from the early 20th century, which is very close to me.

Are his works technically difficult to perform?

Of course, these are not Ligeti etudes, the textures are complex. Since Bacevičius used to play himself – improvising and then composing – I don't feel any discomfort when playing. Everything fits naturally in the hands, despite the thick textures. Performing the music of Vytautas Bacevičius requires both manual and mental work.

In the concert, which also presents your recording of Bacevičius’ works, you are presenting music by Japanese composers alongside his. How do these two different musical traditions come together?

I have to say right away that there are no direct links. However, Bacevičius was very fascinated by the work of Messiaen. In the same way, the French mystic was admired by Toru Takemitsu, who was greatly influenced by him. In general, French modernism had a strong influence on Japanese post-war composers, as well as on Vytautas Bacevičius. The other Japanese composer included in the programme, Joji Yuasa, was not such a great admirer of Messiaen but was very fond of the music of Edgar Varese. Yuasa did not like emotionality in music – in his opinion, emotion does not exist in music at all. Varese spoke very similarly about music, calling music ‘sound chemistry’. Varese, in slightly different aspects, also influenced Bacevičius. I was interested in comparing his music with that of Japanese composers. We'll see how it goes.

Apart from Vytautas Bacevičius, what other Lithuanian composers have you discovered and liked?

My PhD is about Lithuanian composers of the diaspora in the United States. Some time ago, I was interested in Jeronimas Kačinskas, who was also an emigrant, living at a similar time as Bacevičius. Recently, I also discovered the music of Jonas Švedas, but I would like to emphasise that it is not the music of the one who lived in Lithuania but the other one who lived in America. The two are very often confused. Jonas Švedas wrote quality music, but for some reason he remained completely unknown. I would like to present his music more in the future. In general, in my opinion, Lithuanian music deserves more attention.


YUSUKE ISHII (piano, Japan)
2023-11-29 19:00
ORGANUM Concert Hall, Savanorių pr. 1, Vilnius

Concert programme:
Vytautas Bacevičius. Prelude No. 1
Kishio Hirao. Sonata for Piano Part II
Vytautas Bacevičius. Mystical Poem Op. 6
Toru Takemitsu. Les yeux clos (Eyes Closed)
Vytautas Bacevičius. Sad Song Op. 56
Joji Yuasa. Cosmos Haptic II - Transfiguration
Vytautas Bacevičius. The Sixth Word Op. 72

Concert hosted by Rasa Murauskaitė-Juškienė

The concert is organised by the Lithuanian Music Information Centre and ORGANUM Concert Hall.
Partners: Embassy of Japan in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Composers' Union. Financed by the Lithuanian Council of Culture