Improvised Music from Japan / Yumiko Tanaka


Gidayu-Shamisen Player

Yumiko Tanaka was born in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture.

While a student majoring in musicology at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, Tanaka was attracted to the timbre of the gidayu-shamisen (also known as the futozao, or thick-necked, shamisen), which accompanies gidayu-bushi in Bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater.

In 1979 she began studying gidayu recitation with female gidayu recitation artist Komanosuke Takemoto (a Living National Treasure), and the following year became a Bunraku disciple of the late gidayu-shamisen master Kinshi Nozawa (who was also a Living National Treasure). She has been performing traditional gidayu music under the name Yumi Tsuruzawa.

Since her debut, Tanaka has been very active as a shamisen and vocal musician, not only in the world of traditional Japanese music, but also in contemporary music, free jazz, new music, dance, theater, etc.

Tanaka has a Master's degree in musicology from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. In 1991 she was awarded the Minister of Education's Art Encouragement Prize for Newcomers for the year 1990. In 1999 she received the Committee's Special Prize at the 68th Japan Music Competition. She is an associate professor at Hyogo University of Teacher Education, lecturing on Japanese music history and teaching shamisen and koto to both undergraduate and graduate students.

Outstanding Performance Activities

  1. In the Traditional Arts

    Tanaka made her first appearance on the female gidayu stage in 1981, at Ueno Honmoku-tei, under the stage name Kinsuzu Nozawa. She changed her stage name to Yumi Tsuruzawa in 1987. Between 1981 and 1997 she played gidayu shamisen accompaniment to recitation by her teacher, Komanosuke Takemoto, at many concerts of traditional Japanese music.

  2. On the Japanese Contemporary Music Scene

    In 1982 Tanaka joined the traditional Japanese instrumental ensemble Pro Musica Nipponia, which plays both contemporary and traditional music.

    In 1985 she performed as shamisen soloist with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in the opera "Joruri," commissioned from composer Minoru Miki by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

    Since 1988 Tanaka has been a member of the ensemble that performs the opera "Sonezaki-shinju," composed by Yoshiro Irino. She took part in the ensemble's performances in Syria in 1993, in Russia in 2003, and in Korea and Tokyo (at the New National Theatre) in 2005.

    In 1991 she performed as shamisen soloist, accompanied by the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra, in Minoru Miki's work "Jo no Kyoku." The performances were held at Suntory Hall in Japan and at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

    As a member of Pro Musica Nipponia, Tanaka traveled to Korea and Belgium (Europalia 89 Japan) in 1989, to Australia (Adelaide Festival 1994) and the United States (New York Philharmonic concert series) in '94, and to Turkey, Oman, and Iran (tour organized by the Japan Foundation) in '98.

    In 1993 she gave a solo recital in Tokyo, performing her own works as well as new works commissioned from three contemporary composers.

    Since 1999 composer Yuji Takahashi has produced a group called Ito, which uses Japanese traditional instruments and aims to make music that is free from traditional schools and genres. As a member of this group Tanaka has performed contemporary music at Tokyo Summer Festival '99, organized by the Arion-Edo Foundation, at the Kyoto Performing Arts Center performance experimentation series in 2005, etc.

    In 1999 Tanaka was awarded the Committee's Special Prize at the 68th Japan Music Competition for her performance in the Composing Section.

  3. On the Jazz Scene

    Since 1990 Tanaka has been performing with jazz musicians such as guitarist Kazumi Watanabe, saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, percussionist Kiyohiko Semba, and violinist Asuka Kaneko. She also played shamisen as a member of the Asian Fantasy Orchestra (led by Kazumi Watanabe) tour of southeast Asia, organized by the Japan Foundation.

  4. On the New Music Scene

    Since 1994 Tanaka has been performing with turntable and guitar player Otomo Yoshihide, guitarists Uchihashi Kazuhisa and Elliott Sharp, drummers Samm Bennett and David Moss, electronics musician Carl Stone, sax player Ned Rothenberg, and others.

    In '94 and '97 she participated in the Tokyo version of John Zorn's Cobra, which was performed entirely by Japanese musicians. A CD was released in '95.

    Tanaka first performed with Otomo Yoshihide's band Ground-Zero in August 1995, and she was a member of the band from '96 until it disbanded in May '97. In that month she toured with Ground-Zero in Italy, Serbia, Austria, Scotland, and England. She also played solo in a number of festivals, including the Angelica Festival in Bologne, the Ring Ring Festival in Belgrade, and the LMC Festival in London.

    In 1995 Tanaka formed the musical duo Kitchen Drinkers with Mikako Mihashi. The duo are still active and perform many styles of music, from traditional Japanese to ethnic to pop, transforming each style with their original interpretations.

    Also in '95, Tanaka performed in the conducted improvisation project Butch Morris's Conduction, which Morris conducted in Tokyo. In '98 she traveled to the U.S. with eight other Japanese musicians, including the late Motoharu Yoshizawa (bass), to perform in Morris's Conduction: Japan Skyscraper project.

    Since 2003 she has been participating in a project with Carl Stone and Chinese pipa player Min-Xiofen. They have performed at the Transonic Festival in Berlin, Interaktion Tanz Musik in Stuttgart, and the Strasbourg Museum in France.

    In 2005 Tanaka toured with guitar player Ivar Grydeland in Norway and Sweden; and with Poing (Frode Haltli, Rolf-Erik Nystrom, and Hakon Thelin), at the Ultima Festival in Oslo, performed contemporary music pieces composed by Sachiyo Tsurumi.

  5. With Dancers

    In 1996 Tanaka played shamisen with Japanese Butoh company Tomoe Shizune & Hakutobo at the multimedia collaboration event at Japan IBM. In 2001 she performed with the French contemporary dancer Olivia Grandville and her company at the Kyoto Art Center workshop organized by the Japan-France Dance Project executive committee; in 2003, with German contemporary dancer Isabelle Schad and others at Interaction Tanz Musik in Stuttgart; and in '04 and '05, with Japanese contemporary dancer Masayuki Sumi in Kobe.

  6. In Theater

    In 1992 Tanaka joined the band of Kroemon, a musical for children produced by Shiki Theatre Company.

    In 1999 she composed, sang, and played shamisen, kokyu, and taisho-koto for the new theater piece Das Verlobungsfest im Feenreiche, directed by Ulrike Ottinger, at Steirischer Herbst 99 in Graz.

    During the period 2000-2004 Tanaka acted, sang, and played shamisen, kokyu, and taisho-koto in the musical play "Hashirigaki," directed by Heiner Goebbels. With the play she toured in Switzerland, Italy (Romaeuropa Festival), Germany, France, Russia (International Chekhov Theatre Festival), Singapore (Singapore Art Festival), Scotland (Edinburgh International Festival), England, Turkey (Istabul Theatre Festival), the United States (Swisspeaks Festival), Hong Kong (New Vision Arts Festival), England, Belgium and Australia (Sydney Festival).

    In November 2004 she composed music for and performed in a new theater piece commissioned from Basil Twist by the Japan Society in New York City. In 2005 the production won a New York Innovative Theater Award and a New York Dance and Performance ("Bessie") Award.

Last updated: May 24, 2006