If opportunity doesn’t knock, so the saying goes, build a door. When Kuniko Kato’s emerging career as a pianist was derailed by her small hands, she switched to percussion and the doors flew open.
So did her mind. Suddenly there lay before her a cacophony of instruments on which to unleash her passion and creativity; timpani, snare, bass and steel drums as well as new keyboards in the shape of xylophones and marimbas. The possibilities for composition and experimentation seemed endless.
While initially dubious that percussion could offer the same rich palette of sound as a piano, Kato was soon convinced that she had made the right decision. “My hands were so small there were pieces I couldn’t play on the piano, so when I moved to percussion suddenly the repertoire was huge,” she says. With renewed vigour, she went on to study music firstly in Tokyo and then at the Rotterdam Conservatorium in the Netherlands, where she graduated with its highest honour (summa cum laude), making her the first percussionist to do so in its history. Now she is an international virtuoso, almost famous enough to go by a single name, applying her distinctive percussive treatments to the likes of Bach, Steve Reich and the Estonian composer Arvo Part.
Reich, she acknowledges, is a “kind of god” to percussionists and his 1971 four-part work, Drumming, has become her party piece; she will premiere it in Australia later this month. As a musician based in Europe performing with various ensembles and orchestras she was used to playing Reich’s catalogue but was frustrated that there was no repertoire for solo percussion. So after moving to Nashville in the US, she decided to record a solo version of Drumming; which is no mean feat. Considered one of the most important works in the minimalist canon, it was originally scored for 12 musicians; nine to hit things and three to sing, blow or whistle. Kato took on the whole lot in marathon recording and dubbing sessions spread over six months, plus a few more so she could edit, mix and adapt it for live solo work.