Unlikely as it might seem, the Japanese jazz scene has for decades and decades produced some of the finest players in the world, from traditionalists to experimentalists and everything in-between. One might say the same about other jazz-inclined countries (those of northern Europe, for instance, having developed particularly robust scenes), but those countries have to do without enlivenment by “only in Japan” moments like the one we have above: jazz pianist Yōsuke Yamashita, acclaimed on both sides of the Pacific, playing piano on the beach — a piano on fire on the beach, to be precise.
This wasn’t even the first time he’d done it. In 1973, famed graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu asked Yamashita to appear in his short film burning piano, playing the titular instrument. Watching it again 35 years later, Yamashita wrote, “Seeing myself engaged in that extraordinary performance, I felt this wave of emotion that was like, ‘What was that?’
In one sense, I had performed as an ‘object’ in a Kiyoshi Awazu artwork. In another, however, I had perhaps experienced a form of artistic expression that no one before me had ever experienced before, as the result of a situation that could only have happened at that time. ‘What was that?’ There was only one way I could reconfirm this for myself—by doing it one more time.”
The opportunity arose at the behest of Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, who staged Burning Piano 2008. You can read the event’s program as a PDF, which contains Yamashita’s reflections leading up to the event. It also contains remarks from an Awazu Design Room representative who witnessed the original burning piano shoot, a local piano dealer (who assures us that long after the piano “began to appear in Japanese homes in the era of high-level economic growth,” some “must be destroyed amid reluctant feelings”), and the mayor of Shika Town, on whose Masuhogaura Beach Yamashita donned his silver protective suit and played a funeral requiem on the flaming instrument until it could produce not a sound more.
“I did not think I was risking my life,” Yamashita later said, “but I was almost suffocating from the smoke that was continuously getting into my eyes and nose. I had decided to keep on playing until the piano stopped making sounds, so though I did not mean it, but it ended up having a life-or-death battle between the piano and myself.” Dedicated jazz players know what it means to suffer for their art, as do all the participants in the age-old intensive Japanese conception of mastery, but who would have guessed that those cultures would intersect so… combustibly?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.