Interview with Violinist Erika Mitsui

As the two-year anniversary of the disaster approaches,  Japan Society presents “Nocturne: Reemergence through Music,” a concert exploring the impact and aftermath of the tsunami.  Arts Initiative student staffer Caroline Chen CC’15 sat down with Erika Mitsui, a sophomore in the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange program, to talk about her experience as a violinist and her involvement in the upcoming concert at Japan Society.

So I hear you are performing at Japan Society in March, tell me more about the event!

Erika_Mitsui_Picture_File-1I’m going to be playing on a violin that was constructed from wood that was found in a disaster area. The violin is really special because the tsunami swept so much away. Some people only had left their cell phones and clothes that they were wearing at the time of
the tsunami. They don’t have anything personal that can be a sign of their memories. The wood from the violin comes from beams in the houses that were found after the tsunami. If you think about it, these beams are basically a piece of their family memories. So the violin is a bridge to before and after the tsunami. Because it’s an instrument and I’ll be playing music through it, it’s a way of bringing those memories to life. On the back of the violin is a picture of a tree. There used to be famous pine forest in Rikuzentakata, one of the villages most hard hit. Only one of the pine trees was left standing so it’s a symbol to remember.

How is it different playing on a violin that is also an art object?


(copyright nippon violin)

I haven’t touched it yet since I’m getting it in two weeks. The violin is part of a project; [the violin maker Muneyuki Nakazawa] wants a thousand violinists to play it. There are violinists before me who have played it and being able to join that line of violinists is really exciting.

How did you receive the opportunity to participate in this event?

I know the person who made the violin and he told me about this great project. I really wanted to find something through music to contribute so that people remember this event. So many people in the reconstruction phase are still trying to rebuild their lives.

What kind of music will you be performing?

I’ll be playing Bach, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. They represent a whole spectrum of human experience. The composers are from different periods of musical history. They each have a distinctive take and I hope I can bring that out and be able to look at the human emotion. I think playing this particular violin will really change my thoughts on that since there’s so much memory and experience in it. So seeing how I can grow from that is something I’m really interested in.

How do you think music as a medium has its individual advantages in voicing different sentiments?

Music has a “universal language” aspect to it. People who listen don’t have to think about understanding the words. If you’re just there and you hear the sound and you accept it, there is no right or wrong way to interpret that sound. As a performer, it’s really special because you can communicate to people from any culture. They might not necessarily come from the same background, but it’s a special medium where you can communicate to them as long as they’re willing to listening.

How did you get started playing violin?

When I was two years old one of my friends was four and she had a Suzuki recital. Her family invited me to come over and watch. My parents said I went up after the recital and said “Erika will play violin!” My parents were skeptical and I kept asking for a violin for a year. They finally started me on lessons and it was from my own volition. I’ve gone to several music schools, I went to Juilliard Pre-College Division and now I’m in the college division.

How do you prepare for concerts?

I practice a lot. I listen to a lot of CDs. I look at the different editions of it. Different editions bring out different articulations. The editors have different takes on the compositions. For each composer I like to listen to pieces by that composer, not just the one that I’m working on. Each composer has his or her own kind of language. I really like to immerse myself in that language and see how it grows on me. Especially for me, interpretation doesn’t grow overnight. You sort of have to live with the piece. Ideas don’t come consciously. It’s always predictable and unpredictable through playing and practicing. Each concert is also different  from a practice room where you’re alone. People are coming to listen and that kind of tension and emotional energy that you feel on stage is completely different from when you’re practicing. And you might get ideas right on stage. It also has to do with the other performers on stage.  Violinists play with piano a lot so you have two performers with living and breathing instruments. My pianist might do something that’s really interesting that I want to respond to on stage and it comes spontaneously. And to a certain extent you don’t want it to be planned, because there’s something special about that spontaneity.

Any final thoughts?

I’m really interested in being able to bring different disciplines and mediums together, literature and art, literature and music. When merging an artifact with music, I’m really excited to explore what that means. Especially because the violin is material, it’s meant to exist longer than I will live, so I’m able to play a part in a long tradition.

Erika will be performing in the concert, “Nocturne: Reemergence Through Music” on March 11, on a violin crafted by master violin maker Muneyuki Nakazawa made from driftwood found in the aftermath of the 3/11 Japanese tsunami. The concert will also feature the work of visual artist and pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit the Japan Society website.

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