by Lauren Vogel Weiss
The first woman ever inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame, Keiko Abe was honored at the PASIC '93 Awards Banquet in Columbus, Ohio. As the diminutive lady shyly approached the microphone to thank her peers, one could only contrast her manner with the confident way she approaches the marimba.
Abe began her acceptance speech with humility: "Perhaps it is better for me to think of this honor as a recognition of the possibilities of the marimba, and the many fine composers who have written such wonderful music for me to experience and share with audiences and other marimbists. I also accept this award in honor of the many women who have made great contributions for humanity through music."
Keiko Abe (pronounced KAY-ee-koh AH-beh) is one of the most well-known solo marimbists in the world. Her unique musical approach has enchanted audiences and students alike for over 30 years.
Abe's first encounter with a marimba took place in the early 1950s when Lawrence L. Lacour, an American missionary and professor at Oral Roberts University, brought four marimbas to Japan. "One day I was going by the morning ceremony when I saw the marimbas and heard the hymns that were being played," recalled Abe in a 1986 Modern Percussionist interview. "I was so taken by the sound that I forgot where my seat was! It was a different sound, so deep - especially the low sounds - and it made a strong impression."
Despite a minor detour studying medicine (to please her father), Abe quickly returned to her first love: music. She obtained an education degree and became a music teacher, only to realize that she really wanted to perform. Fate assisted her decision when she was called to sub in a studio session. Composer and arranger Isao Tomita was present, and they soon began a working relationship in the studio.
Following a decade of studio work and orchestral playing, Abe sought to broaden her horizons through the study of improvisation. "First I tried to copy artists like Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton," she explained, "but one day I realized that these were their voices, not mine. I decided that I needed to find out my own way - my music, my heart.
"I've always been concerned about making my own performance as rich and varied as possible," she continued. "I had to find a way to ensure 100% concentration during performances, and to achieve a creative space in my playing that transcends mere technique. I did not achieve that goal until I began to improvise, both alone and in ensemble. When improvising, you work with a presentiment of the sounds that are about to be created, and you place each phrase in relation to an intuitive and sensual conception of the musical structure. For this to be successful, you have to concentrate on each note as it comes, and each note must count."
She blends the music and her marimba with unique creative power, acute sensitivity, and virtuoso technique to produce the consummate concert experience. In addition to the large number of composers who are still dedicating compositions to her, she is well-known for her own marimba compositions. "Frogs" and "Michi" are two works that appear on countless student and professional recitals all over the world, and her recordings (on Denon and other labels) are in music stores and music libraries alike.
"The marimba is very special for me," Abe said as she accepted her Hall of Fame award. "I listen carefully to understand its many possibilities. I have great respect for the marimba. When I play, I have a great desire to find its expressive possibilities - knowing that at one time this most beautiful wood came from a living tree with its own history and experience. It is as if the marimba bar breathes like a living tree, and when I make music I want to breathe with it.
"With these deep feelings, it is very important for me to continue to commission new works and try to compose music which explores the expressive and emotional possibilities of the marimba to communicate to the listeners who come to my concerts. Whether the composition has a strict form or explores improvisational possibilities, whether it is tonal or atonal, whether it is slow and ambles or it is fast and direct, I hope the music of the marimba will always focus on real communication rather than technical virtuosity for its own sake."
Appreciative of the support of her husband and daughter, Abe shares this support by working with young marimbists at the Toho Gakuen College of Music in Tokyo, as well as with students all around the globe. Among her more famous pupils is Evelyn Glennie, an outstanding percussion soloist in her own right. "During 1986 I went to Japan to study with Keiko," remembers Glennie. "Her lessons were full of energy and full of space as well. There was time to think. We played together; we improvised together; our lessons were full of communication."
Keiko Abe's music is a source of inspiration for all musicians as she continues to conquer new territory for the marimba. From its primitive origins with all the limitations they imply, Abe has transformed the marimba into a complete concert instrument. Anyone hearing her play for the first time will be astonished by the modern marimba's wealth of nuances and the tremendous scope it can offer a musician. Abe possesses the essential qualities of a great musician - the seeming union of a player and instrument - and she achieves a perfect combination of virtuoso technique with an abundance of truly deep feelings, from tender introspection to passionate ardor coupled with great integrity.
"I share this honor," Ms. Abe concluded, "in celebration not only of the marimba, but also for music, musicians, and music teachers from around the world who create good conditions for better communication and understanding through the universal language of music."