Kimiko Ishizaka




Composer and pianist Kimiko Ishizaka is best known for her project, the Open Goldberg Variations, which used fan support from crowdfunding to create a copyright-free version of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Her composing is inspired by both her classical training and her passion for jazz. Her collaboration album with singer Christina Jones, in which Kimiko composed 8 songs, is coming out in July 2021, and is her first contribution to the R&B/Soul genre.



What does music mean to you personally?

Music has always been a central part of my life. It’s where I go whenever I need to express something important, or solve a big problem. I can go there in my mind while taking a walk, or in my practice room with the piano.

But music also makes bonds with the important people in my life. Whether it was sitting on my mother’s lap while she pushed my small fingers into the keys to show me how to play my first songs, performing with my two brothers as a part of the Ishizaka Trio, or later in the recording in the studio with my husband, producing my solo albums, music has been a defining force in bringing me closer to the people in my life.

Most recently, in the case of the songs on my album You Were My Compass, I actually used the songs to help save my marriage. I sang them to my husband to express to him how important it was for me that we keep going, and that helped us overcome a crisis.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

When you listen to music, it should stir deep emotions and wild fantasies in your heart and imagination. And when you write music, you need to access some magical place beyond understanding where good ideas come from, and let your fantasy run free to take what you find to it’s greatest form. But mostly, if you break it down by the minute, music is mostly hard work. Focused, concentrated, repeated, consistent hard work.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

I never had the chance to find out what all of my talents might have been, since music forcibly consumed the lion’s share of my time from an early age. However, when I dated a mathematician, I did Maths with him, and liked it. I’m also fond of studying language. In my free time I create things, like my own backpack designs, which I then sew and craft to perfection. One thing that my childhood didn’t offer, but I reclaimed as an adult, is athleticism. I took time off from playing concerts and doing competitions to focus on powerlifting and weightlifting, and competed at the national level in both. I would also love to design and test consumer products. Out of all the things I use in my daily life, I’m always keenly aware of how good I think that product is, and why. I have a clear vision for what they could do to make it better. Someone should pay me a lot of money for those insights!

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future?

I worry about the future, but not because of the age of classical audiences. I’ve observed the classical audience being old for the last 40 years. If the old people from the 80‘s were the only audience for classical music, the audience would all be in heaven by now. Yet somehow, there are still people coming to concerts. The part of the future I worry about is the ecological health of the planet. Carbon pollution, loss of habitat and biodiversity, access to clean water, and general preservation of the natural world are all important issues to me. I’m fearful that we’re heading for rough times due to not taking better care of our resources.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

We live in a time when people listen to whatever music speaks to them because all music is easily and immediately available on streaming platforms like YouTube and Spotify. The typical mode for listening to music is under headphones while multitasking. This is wonderful, and people born today will not ever be able to accurately imagine how people used to discover new music in the age of LPs, cassettes, and CDs, let alone what it was like before recording technologies. Yet live performances of music of all genres is on the rise, because people still enjoy going to a concert. There are more ways than ever to find venues to play in, and channels to reach audiences who want to hear you. But it takes hard work, if you want to perform live. Only a small set of artists, classical or otherwise, will get the luxury of 360-degree management deals where all they have to do is show up and play. Most people will have to make major investments in developing their audience, creating demand for their performances, and tending to the enormous logistical and financial aspects of performing live. I have decided to focus on composing and creating studio recordings precisely because the difficulties of live performing are so great that I don’t want to spend my energy pursuing that. I’m happy to play concerts if people want me to – and please call if you have a concert for me to perform – but I don’t spend energy looking for those opportunities.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

Musicians always need to be creative. The only difference is that today, with the Internet, there are more opportunities for more types of creativity, and more potential rewards for someone who has a great idea. You can go from idea to international fame in a matter of hours. But while this is certainly an enabling factor, it also means that the other billions of people who have the Internet can also get their ideas out there. So your idea has to be really good, and be at the right place at the right time. For me, creativity is a combination of accessing the magical place where ideas come from, and then doing the hard work to bring them to fruition. Creativity alone isn’t enough for anything good to come about. You need creativity, hard work, and a highly rarified and discerning aesthetic, too. One thing that today’s musicians definitely have to think about is how to get themselves noticed. Making good music isn’t enough to get heard and have fans. You have to put yourself out there and be a personality for them.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

Music education is important, and should be promoted heavily by parents, schools, communities, and governments. Music education should strive to give young people the basic building blocks of music making, including reading music, some mastery over the voice and/or an instrument, an awareness of basic theoretical constructs like chords and scales, and a general awareness of how music was created and enjoyed at various times in the past. For example, it’s interesting to challenge a young person to imagine what music was like before it could be recorded. If someone was making music, you’d really pay attention. No multitasking! No background music! Depending on your social status, you might not have gotten another chance to hear music played for weeks or more. And you might never hear that particular piece again. Imagine how you would laser focus your attention on the performer if you didn’t know when you might hear music the next time? Or, imagine what it was like in the past when playing music as a family was a common activity. What relationship would you have to music then? Finally, listening to classical music in its natural habitat – in concert halls or in rooms with good, reverberant acoustics – is important education for young people. It makes sense then, later, when you hear classical music recordings, why there is so much echo and everything sounds so far away. Most modern music is recorded with close microphones or generated electrically to begin with. Everything sounds so close and immediate. This is especially great with headphones, as it sounds like you’re right there with the musicians. I think that it is shocking to go from modern recordings of pop / jazz / EDM, which are close and immediate, to recordings of orchestras in huge halls which always sound so reverberant and far away. Aside from the actual music, Classical Music sounds less compelling from a recording point of view, unless you can imagine what a concert hall looks like from the inside. Getting young people into those orchestra halls for them to make the connection with their eyes and ears between the big hall and the reverberation is vital if they are to ever understand and like classical recordings.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

Composing pieces always has a purpose for me. I completed the Art of the Fugue because I didn’t want to play it if it didn’t have an ending. I composed the pieces on New Me! because I was learning jazz harmonies. The other pieces I‘ve composed since then also have deep, emotional roots, and they express specific things for specific reasons. This purpose-driven approach to composition means that my work is guided by the necessity. If I want to express a specific thing, sometimes to a specific person, then the music has to convey that. This is, for me at least, is the best way to create the conditions for good ideas to come.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Sure! Listen to lots of music. Of all kinds. Find what you like, and don’t worry about anything else. Your relationship to music is your own, and the only purpose that music needs to have is to bring you joy (or make you sad, or make you dance, or soothe your rage, or put you in a mood… whatever =) In classical music you get structure, complexity, and truly beautiful expression. You get the best that humanity had to offer over the past 400 years. If you don’t get into it right away, keep trying. It’s worth it. There’s not just “Classical Music” - there are many different genres, instruments, and forms of pieces that get lumped together into the term “Classical Music”. Don’t like a Mozart opera? Try a Mahler symphony. Can’t get into Palestrina? Try Stravinsky. Is Wagner too nationalistic for you? Go back to Bach. Find people who are wildly enthusiastic about certain composers or pieces and ask them what they hear and what they like, when they listen. See live performances. Try to play your favorite pieces on an instrument.

Do you think about the audience when composing?

I ask myself if the music fulfills its destiny, and if I like it. I (mostly) don’t know who the audience is going to be when I write, so no, I don’t think about them much.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I’ve just spent a year collaborating with an amazing singer named Christina Jones, and she has recorded 8 songs that I wrote to help save my marriage. These songs were the only thing that I could do to reach my husband when we were in a big crisis. When I sang them for him, that’s when we started to mend things and move forward together again. Christina has recorded them so beautifully, and we’re releasing some singles now, but the full album comes out in July. The song which you have played, “Water under our bridge”, is actually inspired by one of the songs on this album, “Beautiful Bridge”, which came before “Water under our bridge”. In “Beautiful Bridge”, there is a line that goes:

In the past between our hearts, there used to be a bridge. Sadness couldn’t last, because no broken heart stayed alone.

The counterpoint from “Water under our bridge” quotes that. I put that in there specifically as a coded message for my husband. Until now, he was the only person who had ever heard “Beautiful Bridge”, after all, so only he could hear how such a hopeful song had been turned into such a sad piano piece. It worked, too. When we recorded it, we were living separately, and we got together just to make the recording. We were in the studio, me at the piano, crying, him in the recording booth, crying, and the poor recording engineer must have really wondered what all the emotion was about.