I studied the viola for about 7 years, starting at Nathan Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, first with Mr. Warren Shelton as conductor, then Marcus Tsutakawa at Garfield High School.
Initially, I wasn’t feeling terribly inclined to do anything in middle school, given the choice, but Mr. Shelton convinced me and my mother. I chose the viola since it seemed exotic, and though I found out fairly soon the parts weren’t the most interesting, it seemed to suit my personality and demeanor, which was to be as inconspicuous as possible.
As I played in orchestra, so grew my interest in classical music. But simultaneously, inspired by my father, stepfather, and friends, I developed a substantial interest in Asian culture, and in particular Japanese culture. I ended up taking Japanese class in high school and watched a fair bit of anime. It also so happened my orchestra conductor was Japanese, had ties to Japan, and brought a group of us in 1993 to Kobe to perform and tour in other parts of the country.
I think when it comes to Japanese composers, the most well know (popular) are those who score film. Ryuichi Sakamoto comes to mind as probably the most well known in the West.
For those who watch anime, outside of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (scored by Joe Hisaishi), nothing I came across at that time seemed very interesting. That is, until I came across a film scored by Yoko Kanno called Macross Plus. At first, I was confused as not only were the orchestral parts composed by her, but in fact was all the pop music, main theme (Myung’s theme, or ‘Voices’), computer music, and jazz pieces. I mean, it seems unusual that one person could do these different genres as well as record songs in English, French, Japanese, and a fictional language, as well as record in both the Czech Republic and Israel. (I’m guessing this was done to save money, alas.)
In 1996, attending Anime Expo, I was rooming with my friends at the time. At the convention, Michael, a friend of my best friend Jeremy at the time, had bought not just the official soundtrack music but something quizzically titled Macross Plus: For Fan’s Only. I found it quite unusual that a mere film would be released with multiple soundtracks and re-recordings of several tracks. In fact for this film, there were four soundtracks released, all which I eventually bought.
In 1997, I was accepted in an international program in Japan, and spent a year in Sendai. (Incidentally Yoko is from the same prefecture.) I had still an interest in anime and watched anime on television. Cowboy Bebop, scored by Yoko and probably her most famous work until then, incidentally began broadcast in 1998. I watched it on my television off the air, and I of course had to buy the album. (For just 26, 25 minute episodes and one movie, about 13 CDs of music were released. As well as two vinyl singles for DJs to remix.)
I also bought Yoko Kanno’s debut studio album Song to Fly, dubbing it to MiniDisc. I recall listening to it over and over again on my adventures in Japan. (What comes to mind, was the time I went on a extremely dark and stormy overnight ferry ride someplace, and the music was comforting.)
And after back in the US, I continued to buy her soundtrack albums, even buying soundtracks for anime I had not seen or had no interest in. I also fell in love with her most famous associated artist, Maaya Sakamoto. Maaya, a pop singer, had her first non-soundtrack albums written by Yoko Kanno, including the lyrics. To me, Yoko Kanno continued to be a big mystery: How could she write such a volume of music? In so many different genres? In a way which each piece is distinct, but matches well the flavor of the film or show, and also sounds like her own music? And song lyrics and (as it turned out) sing under a pseudonym?
If you take the most major Hollywood film composer, say John Williams, his music is fairly distinctive—Star Wars—he does write great dramatic, instantly memorable melodies and even clever minor pieces. But you would not find him writing for any sort of pop star, or jazz band would you? Writing lyrics? I’m not saying Yoko Kanno is a superior composer because of this one reason, it just is one of the characteristics that makes her distinctive as an all-encompassing musician.
I do admit that nostalgia for her makes me a bit biased, and liking much of what’s from anime makes my taste even more questionable. But my best friend Kevin Steffa (also with a similar musical background) fully agrees that she is the best composer today. I have yet to hear a contrary opinion to her agreed upon genius.
Though recently, I have read online past accusations that she sometimes plagiarizes (copies) other people’s music. You can find YouTube videos and come to your own conclusions. But personally, if you like a particular work of art, and make a work very similar and in ways superior, does that make you a plagiarist? Does all your music have to be 100% original to be acceptable? To me, most art is about appropriation. I don’t really believe if somebody comes up with a novel idea, it should end there: Novel ideals—novel musical ideas—usually come with room for improvement.
What bothers me a bit about this criticism is hearing that people weigh originality so highly. It seems the Japanese especially are hard on artists that ‘copy’, for example even ones who might trace photographed images in manga, like somehow that’s even scandalous. Japan lacks fair use law as well. Though hypocritically, the Japanese shamelessly incorporate foreign ideas and styles in everything. To be fair, U.S. copyright law (reflecting the electorate view) is insane as well: For how many years must copyright durations be extended? How come ‘Happy Birthday’ is not in the public domain? etc.
In any case, I highly encourage you to explore her work, which can be found fairly easily on YouTube by searching for ‘Yoko Kanno.’ Let me know if there’s something you like.