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Star pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa finds herself trafficking with ghosts in advance of Music on Main’s Winter Solstice concerts

Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa by S.D. Holman
Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa is a regular at Music on Main's Winter Solstice concerts. Photo by S.D. Holman

Celebrated Vancouver pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa has been collaborating with composer Rodney Sharman for 22 years. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that trustees of the McGrane-Pearson Endowment Fund commissioned Sharman for a solo piano piece about Iwaasa’s relationship with her mother.

“Once she moved to Vancouver, she came to everything I did, without fail,” Iwaasa tells Pancouver over Zoom. “And they thought it would be nice to have a piece to mark that, so they asked Rodney.”

Sadly, her mother Inger died a few months later. So, it then it became a memorial, entitled “Known and Unknown”.

Iwaasa will perform it at Music on Main’s Music for the Winter Solstice, which takes place at Heritage Hall (3102 Main Street) in Vancouver on December 14 and 15.

According to Inger’s obituary, she was a teacher with a keen interest in radical Biblical scholarship and Jungian psychology.

“She did talk about my growing up, my maturing, and my moving out in terms of individuation,” Iwaasa acknowledges. “She was fascinated with this idea of the collective unconscious and also in alchemy as a metaphor for transformation. That was one of the things that I actually got most excited about.”

Iwaasa says that like many of Sharman’s works, “Known and Unknown” is a transcription. In this case, it’s of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 82—one of her mother’s favourite pieces. The German phrase associated with this music, Ish habe genug, roughly translates into “I’ve reached my fruition” or “I’ve had everything I need.”

Video: Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa discusses Rodney Sharman’s “Opera Transcriptions”.

Oscillating notes create unusual effect

In Sharman’s new composition, Iwaasa devotes tremendous care to the entire length of the notes.

“Pianists are notorious for paying attention only to the beginning of notes,” she says. “The hammer hits the string and then the string vibrates and keeps on going until we lift the key up or the pedal up. We can’t often really do much with the note other than let it decay.”

“Known and Unknown”, on the other hand, is all about when the notes stop. That’s because Sharman has written it with chords that enter and exit in an oscillating manner. It creates an effect unlike anything that Iwaasa has encountered.

“When Rodney sent it to me, he said ‘I don’t think I’ve seen this done anywhere in piano.’ I have not seen it done anywhere in piano, either,” he says.

She calls this a “profound idea” in a memorial composition.

“Having this close autobiographical connection to a piece—where it’s written very specifically for me about someone who I love very much—brings me into the piece in a deeper way,” she declares. “It’s one thing to try to explain what’s happening in words. It’s another thing to experience it.”

Iwaasa says that she has performed at nearly every one of the Music on Main Winter Solstice concerts since 2013. She credits the artistic director, David Pay, for creating “almost a ritual space”.

He accomplishes this by always starting with the same “Solstice Carol” by the Wyrd Sisters and including other familiar touchstones, such as Alfredo Santa Ana’s “A Short Song for the Longest Night of the Year” and Caroline Shaw’s “Winter Carol”, often with different instruments and different players.

Watch Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa perform Rodney Sharman’s “Wounded (in memoriam Claude Vivier” (stage direction by David Bloom).

Past Wrongs, Future Choices

The performance of “Known and Unknown” comes at a meaningful point in Iwaasa’s life. As an artist in residence with the Past Wrongs, Future Choices project at the University of Victoria, she’s been digging deeply into her family history.

When reached over Zoom, she’s just returned from the Cumberland and Royston areas in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. Her father and grandfather, both Japanese Canadians, lived near these resource communities before the Second World War.

After the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, her father warned other Japanese Canadians that the government was going to round them up. He based this prediction on what he had read about the French-speaking Acadians. During the Seven Years’ War, British colonists expelled them from what are now the Maritime provinces and the state of Maine.

“The people in his community said ‘There’s way too many of us; there’s no way this can happen,’ ” Iwaasa says. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s happened before and it’s inevitable that it will happen again.’ ”

Her grandfather’s brother had a farm in Raymond, Alberta, so the family packed their bags and decided to move before any order came down from the government.

“They got themselves on a train and they were in Vancouver on the night the curfew was announced,” Iwaasa reveals. “Their train left after dark, so they had to smuggle themselves to the train station and pray that they would not be apprehended.”

Photo courtesy of Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, 1994069-3-18.
Interned Japanese Canadians were initialy housed in this building at Hastings Park. Photo courtesy of Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, 1994069-3-18.

Trafficking with ghosts

They made it to Alberta, narrowly escaping the fate of 22,000 other Japanese Canadians in B.C. who were sent to interment camps in B.C. or to work as farm labourers on the Prairies in 1942.

“A story I always grew up with was thanks to my father’s prescience, they were lucky,” Iwaasa says. “At the same time, just a few weeks after they moved, his beloved sister committed suicide.

“Those stories were not talked about as one story; they were talked about as two different things,” she continues.

Only as an adult did she think that there was a “causal connection”.

Past Wrongs, Future Choices is an international research project looking at how communities of people of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) were uprooted and interned in many allied countries during the Second World War.

“I knew about the incarcerations and the displacements in the United States but I didn’t know that it had taken place in other places,” Iwaasa says. “I mean it’s a ripple effect because in Brazil and Peru, a lot of that was in response to U.S. pressure. And in places like India and Malaysia, it was the British who could also put pressure on the governments there to contain, specifically, people of Japanese origin.

“I’m learning a lot and spending a lot of my time trafficking with ghosts,” she continues. “It’s been asking myself, ‘Really, where is the line between intergenerational trauma and being haunted?’ ”

New questions about identity

She’s also discovering how things that had previously seemed mysterious about her father now make far more sense. It’s also led her to think more about having an “interdependent identity”.

“I think we’re encouraged in our culture to try to think of our identity as very self-contained and clearly defined,” Iwaasa says.

However, she’s now questioning that idea. She also believes that to be really effective as a musician, there’s value in thinking of one’s identity as being “porous”.

“The word conspiracy means to breathe together,” Iwaasa points out. “And so, as chamber musicians, in many ways, we’re co-conspirators. We’re coming together in that way. That’s one of the ways—a shared breath.

“When we breathe, that is one of the ways in which we interact with our environment,” she adds. “We take it in and we give something back to it. And it’s made me think that’s one of the things that may be at work when we do chamber music.”

Music on Main presents Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall on Wednesday (December 14) and Thursday (December 15). For more information, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.