Yoko Kanno at Otakon 2013: “PIANO ME”

kanno01

When Yoko Kanno was announced as a musical guest for Otakon 2013 a few months ago, I knew immediately that I had to go. Yoko Kanno debuted her new concert PIANO ME at Otakon. It consists of her playing piano solos alone on the stage, without any instrument or vocal backing. Yoko Kanno is easily my favorite anime composer — her spectacular body of work include the soundtracks for Cowboy BebopMacross FrontierWolf’s RainGenesis of AquarionGhost in the Shell, and countless other incredible soundtracks that have created a huge mark in anime music.

The attendees were quite knowledgeable about just who was in the building; the line twisted through the corridors of the Baltimore Convention Center for more than four hours before seating began. The performance opened with a short set by Chiaki Ishikawa. The set was more or less unremarkable save for a decent performance of “Uninstall”, which is probably her most famous song. Ishikawa was visibly out of her element: forgetting lyrics and going off key a handful of times. She was getting more and more comfortable with the environment towards the end of her set. The visuals seemed like Windows Media Player visualizations on the screens, which came off particularly tacky.

Overall, Ishikawa was fine; her set did a good job of getting everyone in the mood. The fellow sitting next to me quipped how it must be such a waste flying all the way from Japan to perform for a mere twenty minutes, and I would have to agree.

Yoko Kanno’s set began with a piano rendition of “Tank!”, the timeless Cowboy Bebop opening theme. I could hardly believe that I was fortunate enough to really be sitting here, in this concert hall where Yoko Kanno is performing alone on her piano. She encouraged the audience to cheer and sing along to their favorite songs, and the crowd was dutifully electric for this classic.

“Innocent Green” from Macross Frontier followed two songs later, and I was overjoyed when she started playing the first few bars. “Innocent Green” is one of my favorite examples of Yoko Kanno’s work — a track busting with energy, yet so mellow and soothing. The original composition is a repeating piano melody slowly building into a climax where it is joined by stringed instruments. It was incredibly cool to see the piece performed on piano alone. Yoko Kanno was able to create the intensity of the climax with beauty and grace, demonstrating her formidable skill with the instrument.

“Resonance of the Earth” from Earth Maiden Arjuna was next. The fast pace and bold chords of this track was reminiscent of “Tank!” at the beginning of the set. This was then contrasted by “Gravity” from Wolf’s Rain, a slow ballad that the more knowledgeable members of the crowd started singing along to.

We were not even halfway through and I was having a great time already. This is already worth the trip to Maryland.

After perhaps the fourth standing ovation already, the lights dimmed for “Fanelia”, from Escaflowne. This was the beginning of the visual art gimmick that would become central to the concert. A projector shined an animation directly onto the piano, which along with Yoko Kanno and the rest of the stage was completely dark. The projection was quite dynamic, showing an animation of a little chick walking around to the tune of the song.

piano2

The effect really began to make an impression on me on the next song, “Monochrome” from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The projector created an EKG effect flowing to the left from the keyboard across the piano. The visual effect was absolutely beautiful and poignant to the song. I was further amazed at how well Yoko Kanno took a song with so many synthetic components and made it work so well with a piano. Different kinds of projections accompanied the next two songs, “Apollon Blue” (Sakamichi no Apollon), “Rakuen” (Wolf’s Rain), and “Power of the Light” (Brain Powerd).

I have long thought Brain Powerd to be quite the obscure anime only really known to Yoko Kanno fans. The anime was mediocre, but featured a fantastic dream pairing of Yoko Kanno and KOKIA. KOKIA sang a beautiful ending theme while Yoko Kanno composed one of her best soundtracks. From the audience reaction to “Power of the Light”, you would think Brain Powerd was as ubiquitous as Neon Genesis Evangelion. The crowd was absolutely ecstatic.

After another long standing ovation, Yoko Kanno began her encore with more Sakamichi no Apollon, this time “Someday My Prince Will Come”. The audience had an impressive sing-along to “The Real Folk Blues” and then “Wo Qui Non Coin” from Cowboy Bebop.

piano3

After an entire minute of standing ovation followed the most unexpected entry in the set list. Yoko Kanno opened her second encore with “The Star Spangled Banner”, to which we dutifully rose, put our hands on our hearts, and sang along as proud Americans (“The Star Spangled Banner” originated in Baltimore). Two thousand people belting out our national anthem played by Yoko Kanno of all people was a surreal yet unforgettable experience I never would have imagined happening. Yet there I was, in that crowd listening to my favorite anime composer in the flesh. By the time she finished with one more encore of “Tank!”, everyone in the room was so incredibly energized.

PIANO ME was nothing like I imagined. It was far more than a piano concert; it was an experience. It was visual art as much as a musical performance. It was evident that the concert was meticulously planned, with the projection setup and stage preparation and poignant set list. Yoko Kanno has no less ability to work a crowd with her grand piano than the most energetic of pop idols. And the fans were incredible. They stood for countless standing ovations, one after another, and sang along to whatever songs they could recognize. They stood in hours of lines, cheered their hearts out, and left with an unimaginably deeper understanding of Yoko Kanno and her works. PIANO ME was worth every cent I spent to get to Otakon 2013. It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

piano5

 

 

Complete set list:

Tank!
Nomad Soul
Katarina
Innocent Green
Resonance of the earth
Gravity  ~Baltimore special medley

Fanelia
Monochrome
Apollon Blue
Rakuen
Power of the Light

Someday My Prince Will Come
The Real Folk Blues
Wo Qui Non Coin

Star Spangled Banner

Tank! (reprise)

Leave a Reply

Gravatar enabled.