STORIES

(Series)Art Appreciation with Issey Ogata

(About this series)

Giving free rein to his creative imagination, Issey Ogata joins us to appreciate a selection of artwork by people with disabilities and invite viewers into the unique worlds of his stories. As he sets his wild imagination free to “fire” the artistic can(n)on, he breaks down barriers to show us that we can take a freer approach to art appreciation.

vol.01“Miracle on Elm Tree Road”

(About this story)
Our story begins as an elderly pianist picks up three pages of sheet music lying fallen in a Russian park.

(Date updated)19 January, 2021

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 30 October, 2019.

CREDIT

[Photograph (Portraits)]  HIRANO Taro

[Edit & Text]  OKADA Kaya

[Hair & Makeup]  KUBO Mariko

[Photograph (Works)]  KIOKU Keizo

Co-starring

ITO Mineo(1964-)

Ito was born in 1964 and lives in Fukushima Prefecture. He has Down’s syndrome. The recurring element in his works is his own full name. He was taught to write by his father, and could already write his name in hiragana characters before he went to elementary school. After his father’s passing in 2003, Ito encountered documents to be signed and declared his intention to write. After practicing writing his name in kanji characters and putting his training into action, he kept up the habit. Whenever he had a free moment, he would write on clothes packaging and candy wrappers that his mother had set aside for him. As soon as he begins to write, his focus narrows to the exclusion of everything else, and he takes his time to meticulously write one character after another.
“ITO MINEO” 245×190mm / Ballpoint pen on white cardboard / 2003-2008 / Collection of The Nippon Foundation

My first thought when I saw this piece was that it must be sheet music. When I looked more closely, I realized that it’s actually someone’s name, but let’s not get too hung up on that. Let’s embrace my first-glance impressions.

 

For sheet music, it’s a little unusual—rather than the ups and down you might expect, it’s a monotonous and fairly repetitive melody, isn’t it? Just look at the low notes all clustered together, while the high notes pound out at the same interval.

 

Our setting is a certain park in Russia. The season is autumn. And here we find an elderly, almost blind pianist. His name? Something-something-vich. He comes to this park on his afternoon walk and sits down to rest on a bench. And as he does, he catches sight of these three sheets of paper that look like sheet music lying right in front of him.

 

Because he can barely see any more, every composition he plays—whether it’s Brahms or Tchaikovsky—he plays from memory. This is how he can still play, despite being unable to see. As a result, he rarely even picks up a piece of sheet music these days, but with something that looks like a score right in front of him, he takes it up for a look. Yet it blurs before his eyes and he can’t see it clearly.

“ITO MINEO” 245×190mm / Ballpoint pen on white cardboard / 2003-2008 / Collection of The Nippon Foundation

Nevertheless, something about it calls out to him, so he takes it home, sets it up in front of the piano, and, managing to read it somehow or other, plays. Then, wanting to memorize it, he practices it over and over. Yet no matter how many times he plays it, he feels that something is missing.

 

He is an incredibly famous pianist in Russia. He lives in a quiet, upscale residential area, in a house on “Elm Tree Road,” named for the elms lining the street. The residential area continues across the street, and a diplomat and his family have moved in there. This family across the street has a daughter. As a diplomat’s daughter, she barely settles at one school before it’s time to transfer again, and she has no time to make friends. She’s lonely, but she’s learning to play the flute, and this flute is her friend. She has no idea whether she’s any good or not, but when she blows into her flute and listens to the sounds it makes, she feels calm.

 

One day, she hears the sound of a piano from the house across the street. The musician is, of course, our elderly pianist. She listens carefully, but she’s left feeling somehow unsatisfied. There’s nothing wrong with it, but she finds herself wondering, ”isn’t it missing a central melody?” That’s how she ends up taking matters into her own hands and playing along on her flute, trying out different melodies. Quietly, listening carefully. Day after day, she keeps it up. And as she does, the melody gradually takes shape, while the elderly pianist continues to play and play until he succeeds in memorizing the score.

 

However, the elderly pianist is hard of hearing, so he can’t hear the sound of her flute. The girl can hear the piano, but her flute overpowers it as soon as she begins to play and she can’t hear how the two sound in combination. It is the passersby on Elm Tree Road who are perfectly positioned to listen to both. With the flute coming from the right, the piano from the left, they can listen to the music from both sides.

 

Word of this beautiful music spreads immediately. It may not cause a huge sensation, but it slips into little chats here and there: “Oh that’s right, when you walk that way, you can usually hear some lovely music, right?“ “That’s new, isn’t it?”

 

The girl was having fun every day. ”Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep this up until we perfected it?” she thought. Yet in no time at all, her diplomat father is sent to a new country and she has to move. The elderly pianist knows nothing about any of this, however, and simply continues to play his own part alone after she’s gone. “You can’t hear that beautiful music any more, can you?” the people who live on Elm Tree Road say regretfully to one another.

 

Did he ever make up for that “something missing” that he had sensed? I’m afraid it’s unlikely. Perhaps the knowledge that it would work if he added a certain melody was somewhere within him, too, but after all, you know, he’s a serious musician who graduated from a national music school, so he can only play what the sheet music tells him to.

“ITO MINEO” 264×199mm / Ballpoint pen on white cardboard / 2003-2008 / Collection of The Nippon Foundation
Looking at this piece again after letting my imagination go wild, I see the crowd of low notes, a thumping bassline repeating da-dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dumlike a series of semiquavers. When you look to the upper section, the high notes beat out a regular ding-ding-ding-dingrhythm like a railroad crossing, adding a hint of something that puts you on the alert. You could say that it’s an unsettling sound, but I think her flute playing, running counter to this, was therefore probably a beautiful, painfully bittersweet melody.

The sound of these two strands coming together could only be heard by the people who lived on Elm Tree Road. And so goes the tale of Russia’s phantom musical masterpiece.

“ITO MINEO” 245×190mm / Ballpoint pen on white cardboard / 2003-2008 / Collection of The Nippon Foundation

Issey Ogata’s Wildly Imaginative Art Appreciation Techniques Part 1

As actor, playwright, and director of his one-man show, Mr. Issey brings new worlds to life every day. We asked him for tips on having fun with the power of unfettered imagination.

How do we bridge the “gap” to approach the treasure?

When we’re coming up with ideas, whether for a story or for a novel, I suspect that many of us think as though we’re talking to someone. When a child—or anyone else—is making up a story, they tell their story in such a way as to grab their audience’s interest, checking back to see if they’re paying attention. Of course, if we want people to listen, we have to be excited about our stories ourselves, but I think we have this kind of hypothetical audience in mind when we’re doing our thinking.

 

The secret to my creative flights of imagination is to keep the “treasure” at arm’s length. For instance, let’s take a piece of sheet music—isn’t it more interesting if you can’t see it clearly? I’m more fascinated by the things I can’t reach than the things I can see properly. It’s all over when you take the treasure in your hands, so maybe it’s about being unable to easily grasp it and enjoying that distance.

 

So I feel like I enjoy thinking “what angle should I approach this treasure from?” or “how should I keep my distance from this treasure?” I mean, doesn’t it become more precious the further you retreat from it? Could it be that the first step is not the existence of the “treasure,” but that the “treasure” comes into being only after an initial act of “retreat”?

 

When an object goes somewhere, there’s necessarily a gap. But this is not a punishing gap, it’s a fun gap. The very act of bridging that gap gives rise to emotion: sadness, amusement, hilarity, tragedy. Perhaps the further you get across the gap like this, the more the treasure sparkles. If it’s perfect from the very beginning, isn’t it all over? Maybe there’s also part of me that just doesn’t want to let it end.

 


PROFILE

Issey OGATA

(Profile of Issey OGATA)

Born in Fukuoka in 1952, Ogata began his career in theater in 1971. With a foot on every stage—from his one-man plays to movies, TV shows, radio, voiceovers, commercials, and more—he has won widespread acclaim.

(Sites related to Issey OGATA)