Yusuke Ishii playing the piano.

In Conversation with Yusuke Ishii

Interviewed by Gailė Vitas, Lithuanian Research Center, Musicology Archive

Last summer and for the past two months I have had the pleasure of working with Yusuke Ishii. He is Japanese, studying music in Lithuania. He speaks Lithuanian fluently. In addition to his academic work, Ishii has won various prizes in international music competitions. He has released three CDs of his performances, one of which features the works of  Lithuanian composer Vytautas Bacevičius.

Tell me about yourself and your family. Where were you born? Where and what did you study? How do you spend your free time?

I was born in Tokyo where I first studied music composition, and later in France I studied piano theory. In Germany I studied contemporary music performance. Upon returning to Japan I taught music in Tokyo.

I have a sister and my parents are still alive; I speak to them by phone from time to time. I am not married. Since I research/study what I like, I do not really separate work from free time, that is, I do not separate vocation from avocation.

Yusuke and Gailė Vitas at the Lithuanian Center in Chicago.

I enjoy gardening. Where I live in Lithuania my landlord kept a garden. He didn’t spend much time tending to the vegetables. So I decided to delve into gardening myself. I enjoy planting and eating cucumbers, many varieties of tomatoes, and topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke), which is known to be a very healthy food. The summer is short in Lithuania and so much depends on the climate. Even here in my Lemont apartment, where I am staying while I am working and researching at the Lithuanian Research Center, I have planted some arugula and onion. It is so satisfying to observe seeds sprout and roots spread and grow. I like the organic aspect of this and the natural order of everything in general.

Have you always been interested in music? Do you favor a particular musical genre?

Music is my primary passion. When I took piano lessons, I learned to play Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, but I wasn’t that attracted to the classic German tradition. Rather, I prefer modern French music. I became intrigued with Claude Debussy and the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Bacevičius (who lived in France for a time). Examples of some of my favorite pieces are “Clair de Lune” by Debussy, “Pavane pour une infante défunte” by Maurice Ravel, and “Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jesus” by Olivier Messiaen. My favorite compositions of Bacevičius (although it is very difficult to choose a favorite) would be “Three Poems for Piano, op. 5, 6, and 7.” As a pianist, I obviously enjoy piano repertoires.

Where did you study music and how and when did you end up in Lithuania?

Having completed my studies at Kunitachi College of Music in Japan, I went on to study music theory and composition at the National Conservatory in Paris. There I earned diplomas with emphasis on music performance – in music theory studies and vocal accompaniment. In 2012, I earned a Master of Music degree from the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt, Germany.

After my studies in Europe, I returned to Tokyo, and taught at the same college from which I graduated earlier. I taught Solfeggio, Music Theory, Composition Theory, and Music Sight-Reading. I taught for about six years and established a comfortable lifestyle for myself. I could have stayed there with a stable job until I retired. I don’t know; perhaps I was getting too comfortable. If I see the future and it is predictable and all laid out in front of me, I do not want that. I am a spontaneous person and do not like to plan too much ahead of time.

I often traveled with my family and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am not sure how it happened, but I decided to travel abroad again to study and while traveling through Europe, I arrived in Lithuania in 2019. Already being familiar with Bacevičius and his compositions, I couldn’t help but be curious and get acquainted with modern Lithuanian music. At the same time, there was already a kind of intuition that was taking place. I somehow knew that I would like to stay and study music in Lithuania. The atmosphere felt just right.

Being somewhat realistic I decided that I needed to earn an academic degree in musicology so that it would be easier to get a job. Lie­tuvos Muzikos ir Teatro Akademija (Lithuanian Music and Theater Academy) accepted me. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit and the quarantine in Lithuania was very strict. While I managed to complete my studies and earned my Masters in Musicology in 2021, I did so with practically no live contact or interaction with people.

I connected with Dr. Darius Kučinskas and am now enrolled at Kauno Technologijos Universitetas (Kaunas University of Technology), working on my Doctorate in Musicology.

Our community is fascinated and gratified that you have taken an interest in Lithuanian music. Coming from your unique cultural perspective, what cultural differences did you observe between Lithuanians in Lithuania and American Lithuanians?

I believe that Lithuanians are still psychologically affected by the Soviet occupation. This is so notwithstanding that Lithuania has reestablished its independence 30 years ago. Perhaps that is why Lithuanians value their history and culture as highly as they do. But perhaps they value it to the exclusion of broader or more global perspectives, making their perspective too narrow?  For example, Lithuanian music was traditionally researched only by Lithuanian musicologists. I do not know what I can bring into Lithuanian musicology, but perhaps as someone from another country, I could bring in a wider or different perspective which may broaden/enrich Lithuanians’ own cultural understanding.

How do Lithuania’s Lithuanians and American Lithuanians differ? This is a difficult question. One observation I will offer is that I feel more accepted by American Lithuanians. Lithuanians in Lithuania don’t let foreigners in as easily. An example of this would be with the language. They speak with “outsiders” in English and speak with their own in Lithuanian. This immediately delineates who belongs in which group. The language factor among American Lithuanians is in a gray zone because they speak both languages with each other already…

It seems to me that in Lithuania, being Lithuanian is more a matter of citizenship. In America, being Lithuanian is more a cultural matter. The perspective of what makes one Lithuanian is very different. If you are a foreigner living in Lithuania, you will stay a foreigner; it doesn’t matter how many years you have lived in the country. In America, that doesn’t seem to matter; you are accepted and treated equally no matter what your nationality is. Perhaps this is because everyone is so different and has such varied backgrounds to begin with. Another interesting variation: I have observed that in France you are forced to speak French in order to live there and be accepted. Once you learn the language, you are treated equally as a native Frenchman. Language seems to be the best integrative factor or unifying method.

Why did you decide to study Lithuanian diaspora composers? What specific areas of research are you focusing on? What is your dissertation thesis?

I wouldn’t be studying their music if it was already popular and well-known. For a number of reasons, Lithuanian émigré music is not fully appreciated. I believe it deserves greater attention in the broader musical communituy. In the beginning I was initially attracted to the music of Vytautas Bacevičius and Jeronimas Kačinskas, and later, as I delved into Lithuanian music, did it become clear that the music that attracted me the most was written by Lithuanian diaspora composers.

My thesis will be addressing the spectrum of Lithuanian emigré music of the latter half of the 20th century.

How did you end up at The Lithuanian Research Center? What have you done here? What have you learned here?

Before I arrived in Lithuania, I did not realize that it was a nation whose people were scattered throughout the world. After learning that the composers I was interested in, lived mostly in the United States, I wanted to come here myself. I believe that the music of these composers was affected – whether consciously or unconsciously – by living in this country.

Yusuke working in the Musicology Archive at the Lithuanian Research Center.

Now in my mind there are two Lithuanias: Lithuania of Europe and the Lithuania in America or émigré Lithuania.

The modern music of Lithuanian émigrés differs from that of the Lithuanians in Lithuania. Since I am interested in 20th century music, I assume this difference was created by the influences that the Soviet occupation had on the people. People’s creativity seemed greatly affected.

I found examples of Lithuanian émigré music at the Lithuanian Literature and Art Archives (Lietuvos Literatūros ir Meno Archyvas) and Lithuanian Theater, Music, and Cinema Museum (Lietuvos Teatro, Muzikos ir Kino Muziejus), but this was not enough. It became obvious that there was émigré music left in America and that I would have to travel there to find it. Besides, I wanted to come to America and feel its atmosphere, experience the places that these émigré composers lived, feel the effects that the country had on them and their works. I read in a number of books about the largest Lithuanian archive outside of Lithuania, i.e., the Lithuanian Research Center. It contained many collections, including a large musicology archive establilshed by professor Juozas Žilevičius over a hundred years ago. In July of 2022 I came and researched for several weeks as much as I could, but it was not enough to absorb all that I wanted and needed to, so I arranged for a return visit. I have been working at the Lithuanian Research Center for several months now, updating the archives of Lithuanian composers. Thus I have been able to get acquainted with even more Lithuanian émigré composers.

I want to understand how modern 20th century Lithuanian music developed. In that modernism is a reaction to traditionalism, the question is: when these Lithuanians emigrated to America, what were the traditions and how did they change? There can be no concept of modern without the context or understanding the original and traditional foundation. Specifically, I am intrigued with and have been studying the music of Vytautas Bacevičius, Jeronimas Kačinskas, Jonas Gaidelis, and Jonas Švedas. Currently, I am open to incorporating additional composers into my studies.

How will you utilize your ongoing research?

I am not certain where my research will lead me. At present, it is more important for me that I follow that which interests me. As I am doing this, I believe that the future development will unfold naturally.

Do you plan to return to Japan? What are your long-term plans?

Currently I am not making any long-term plans. My parents’ generation would ask “What is your goal? What are your plans? You must set out your goal.” Sometimes goals help us grow, but not always. Who could have predicted the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or Fukushima’s nuclear disaster? I think in today’s world it is not practical to set long-term plans as so much is in flux.

On the other hand, when I was at the Lithuanian Research Center last summer, I really wanted to return, so I made it happen. When someone has a true desire, he is simply led by it and does not have to mentally set goals; life unfolds organically. Most often our instincts affect us, empower us more than our rational mind. I allow myself to be led by life organically, by passion and instinct, and so I choose not to set any long-term plans.

My current passion is the study of Lithuanian émigré music and with the help of the archives at the Lithuanian Research Center I hope to achieve my goal. I am now following this passion.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day with (from left) Dr. Indrė Antanaitis-Jacobs, Yusuke Ishii, Dr. Darius Kučinskas, and LRC volunteers Liuda Flores, Dr. Ramunė Račkauskas, and Marytė Utz.