Eiko Azuma: Kobe’s classical musician

Eiko Azuma

Eiko Azuma

“My time in London has been so fast. I love this kind of world, full of artists and musicians. It’s the best kind of place,” says Islington-based Eiko Azuma, a classical violinist and composer with a penchant for the musical arts. She teaches young children in creative workshops and dabbles in performance, both on the stage and on the trains. Earlier this year she donned a jubilant indigo outfit for the ELL launch party alongside Nino Amoroso and performance collective Akleriah.

After spending time in Gambia studying the secrets of their musicianship in 2009, she returned to demonstrate her creative capacity to engage with stark experimental music and choreographed movement at the People Show in early July this year.

Eiko was born and raised in the culturally rich Nara Prefecture in Japan famed for its park full of roaming deer, where she picked up the violin at the age of three. “I’ve been playing the violin on and off for 12 years now. Sometimes I feel like doing something not related to music, since I started playing without any real thoughts because of my parents’ encouragement.” Her relationship with music was ambiguous, given her strict academic beginnings.

“I always thought Western classical was for violin, which was my only world. Music was a lot like studying for me, and not really for enjoying, which was a very big issue,” she says. “Going to lots of lessons, studying for exams and waiting for the results, it was quite scary. I couldn’t really enjoy music before I came here.”

With the benefit of hindsight Eiko admits she took her music studies “too seriously”, driven by the desire to achieve high grades. “I used to be very strict about it all. The weird thing is…I know it’s stupid, but I thought I shouldn’t listen to other music at all, which sometimes happens in academic study. I followed that route, again without any thought,” she laughs. “There are few opportunities to approach music the way people do in London. I didn’t know how to communicate with people through music. I didn’t know that such a thing was possible.”

Her perception of music changed forever after a Guildhall representative visited her Kobe College two years ago. “Coming to London was a sort of accident. The representative held a workshop with us to create music. He would gather all of our ideas and chords, and then we would all make songs out of it. It was a kind of miracle,” says Eiko. “I didn’t think that was possible to do. I found myself thinking I can create music in this world, in this way. It was a big changing point for me.”

Eiko in ensemble group Sezeneum

Inspired by her creative musical experience, she travelled to London and took a Master’s in Leadership at Guildhall. “I’m able to work with people from many backgrounds. Dancers, drummers, visual artists…They all have different ways of expressing their art. We try to learn each other’s language by exchanging ideas, bringing them together, and then creating something new. It’s always exciting.”

Taking this collaborative energy a step further, Eiko worked on a year-long project with visual art students from the Royal College of Arts. “Our theme this year was a ‘thrill house’. We talked about what makes a thrill house a thrill house. It’s quite unusual, with many hidden stories. We then decided on which room to work on. Some chose the kitchen, the dining room, even the bathroom,” says Eiko, who chose to do the attic. “It’s full of old, dusty things, and locked away memories.”

“In my group there were three artists and a composer. We had to find how we can develop our ideas musically and visually. We needed to think all the time about each other and how we can use our very different voices,” she says. “We had to find moments of connection together or it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t troublesome, but it was challenging to understand their language.”

Eiko has strong interests in how people can understand each other with different tools of expressions and languages, a concept she explored for her final performance show. “I wanted to have a language for myself other than music, so I worked with a dancer. They have a similar working process to musicians, so it was somewhat easier for me. They can respond to music quickly, so we developed music in harmony and melted into each other’s roles quite smoothly,” says Eiko, who put on an impressive show by intertwining with a dancer between three mirrors backed by ambient soundscapes and somber piano.

Sezeneum – Rain

“It makes me think about how important it is for us, in order to be very good musicians, to connect with other people. I always try to find the answer of what the role of a musician is in a community,” she says. Guildhall has been running the ‘Connecting Communities’ project for 25 years, hosting creative workshops and courses for youths in nearby East London boroughs.

“For me, a musician can be a player, an educator, a collaborator. The latter is the best one to be for me, since a musician is not just a teacher. We need to be taught by others as well. We should try and keep our hearts and minds open and listen to other ideas from different people, not just sticking to our own ways and ideas.”

“Being here has taught me that music is one of the languages of myself. Not my entire language, but just one of them. Once we try, we can find other languages to express ourselves. I’ve got to know what else is out there besides music that I can use as one of my languages.”

The young children she works with are a constant reminder that she has much to learn. “They are always surprising and sometimes quite random,” laughs Eiko. “I encourage them to come up with musical ideas. After collecting everyone’s pieces, we would make one large composition and perform it on-stage. I love encouraging them to be creative.”

In Japan, there are few opportunities to engage in such creative workshops; the creative industry is a low priority for the government. “I want to be a window for the people at my college when I return this year. I want to lead their eyes to somewhere different, and share what I’ve learned here with them,” she says. “My dream is to foster a community where everyone can get together and learn from each other. Perhaps some kind of creative practice, even though I know it would take ages. I think it would be worth it.”

Eiko is returning to Kobe College to complete her first Master’s in Classical Composition. Stay tuned for a review of an album by her music ensemble, Sezeneum.

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