My grandmother’s favorite piece of music in the world was a Japanese song called Kōjō no Tsuki. I heard her for the first time when I was a teenager and I immediately understood why she loved her so much; it is a nostalgic piece of haunting beauty that contains an infinite amount of soul and poetry.
I have always associated it with the memories of my grandmother; when she heard me play it at home or in my hotel room while I was on tour, it always made her cry – and when I hear it now, I find it hard not to cry too.
The song’s title translates to “Moonlight over the Ruined Castle,” and it is inspired by a view of the ruins of Oka Castle on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island.
In the 16th century, during feudal times of Japan, it was to be one of the most impressive castles in all of Japan, and the song evokes memories of the holidays enjoyed by samurai and shoguns, all drinking and partying. within the castle walls.
Now the castle sits in despair, seeing nothing but the moonlight beaming over the ruins as their one constant companion.
That moonlight has remained the same through the centuries, and the song makes it seem like time has essentially emptied the castle of its life. It was written in 1901, long after the feudal era ended, by a brilliant 21-year-old composer named Rentarō Taki – who died just two years after writing the play.
As far as I know, I am the first person to play Kōjō no Tsuki on the violin. I had it arranged in 1993 by the Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa, then I adapted it myself to my style of playing.
I find it incredibly ripe for expression: technically it’s not at all difficult for me to play, but the challenge is figuring out how you want to express yourself each time. Every time I play it I give it a different shade.
Over 20 years later, I had another traditional Japanese song adapted for the violin: Edo Lullaby, one of the most famous cradle songs in the country. My mom sang it while holding me baby, so all my life it’s been a part of my soul.
I finally had it arranged by Polish composer Jakub Ciupiński for my latest album, Mirror in Mirror. He gave a fascinating electronic touch to this traditional song, especially since the electronica often has a sharp sound, while this piece has a sad and melancholy quality.
Japanese songs are almost always in a minor key and leave you feeling not exactly happy but meditative.
I think all Japanese music in general has a singing quality. If you can hear that singing quality and be able to just lean over the notes, I think you’re halfway to playing these songs. Remember, the violin is your voice – just like a singer, you breathe the story, you breathe the notes.
Secondly, I always look for the story behind every artwork because it helps everything to come from the heart if there is a colorful story attached to it. I really think of the lyrics – Edo Lullaby talks about a mother telling her baby that her babysitter is gone for the night and left him a rattle and a flute to play with – while hoping he will fall asleep soon .
I used to spend all my summers in Japan and am still fascinated by the country and its people. It’s a place where I feel very comfortable and I like to immerse myself in its culture.
In my opinion, “Moonlight over the Ruined Castle” sounds like the most delicious Japanese sake I have ever tasted, and would definitely order one if I had the chance!
Anne Akiko Meyers performs Kōjō no Tsuki at Stradfest on March 24.
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTIAN LLOYD