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Playing the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute with a history dating back to 7th-century Japan, Ko Umezaki '91 shared the Carnegie Hall stage with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in May. The thought of performing with a world-renowned virtuoso at such a famous musical venue made him nervous, Umezaki admits.

“Playing the shakuhachi requires some very subtle control of breathing, and that becomes very difficult when your entire body is shaking,” he says. “I have had more comfortable moments in my life!”

Umezaki will return to more familiar territory when he performs a duet for shakuhachi and Japanese percussion at the Williams Center for the Arts Monday, Sept. 23, with Larry Stockton, professor and head of music. Also performing in the concert will be guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman, Alan and Wendy Pesky Artists-in-Residence for 2002-2003.

The Carnegie Hall performance was part of the Silk Road Project, a series of concerts and lectures relating to the cultures of trade routes that joined the East to the West from 200 B.C. to 1,500 A.D. Launched in August 2001, the project is set to conclude in June next year. Umezaki plays a piece for shakuhachi and cello written by Japanese composer Michio Mamiya and occasionally does improvisations with Iranian and Azerbaijani ney (flute) players. His first performance was in the project's opening at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in northern Germany. (His mother hails from the Danish side of the region.). In late June and early July, Umezaki played at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., where he presented his own work with shakuhachi and electronics.

“I tend to have about three different archetypes of pieces for shakuhachi and technology that I'm reworking constantly,” he says. “I'm not sure if it's because computer technology lends itself to continuous refinement (unlike writing notes on a music staff in ink), or because some say that it's more important to get to know one piece in the shakuhachi repertoire very well than all the pieces half-heartedly, or because I'm simply lazy. I think it's probably a combination of the three.”

For the first time, the Folklife Festival focused on one theme: the Silk Road ( The festival featured over 300 musicians, actors, artisans, and others, showcasing the traditions of the countries along the Silk Road, from Japan to Italy.

“I believe education can play such a big part in understanding a world where information about other cultures and people is rapidly available and growing,” says Umezaki. “This year's Folklife Festival provided a great opportunity to help make sense of all this information by presenting ways to hear, see, touch, and taste these different cultures, which can add a certain amount of intimacy and depth to knowledge that we get from the media and Internet about so-called ‘different' cultures. This event has been a real highlight of my involvement with Silk Road Project.”

Through his own two-person business, Healthy Boys, Umezaki also is developing software for the Broadway musical market. He is fulfilling contracts for software that can be used to rehearse songs.

“The idea is that when you rent music from the company that owns the rights to a musical, you can also get this software as an option,” he explains. “It's a really simplified version of a MIDI sequencer program that allows you to play back any piece in the musical and listen to all the parts together or individually and sing on top of it. There are some similar technologies we are working on that are much more elaborate. However, it's a small operation and currently we're in Montreal just cracking these technologies out.”

After graduating college, Umezaki worked as a junk bond analyst at Nomura Securities in New York. He earned a master's in electro-acoustic music at Dartmouth College in 1993. Since January 2000, he has been teaching music technology in the theory department within the music faculty at McGill University in Toronto.

At Lafayette, Umezaki majored in computer science, but took many music classes as well. He says he was fortunate that one area of expertise for Stockton is Japanese traditional music, while William Melin, professor of music, has strong interests in electronic music.

“It was a perfect mix for me. When I applied, I was not aware that Larry was an expert in Japanese music and when I received a letter from him about this, I was very excited about the possibility of studying at Lafayette,” he recalls. “In my freshman year, I took a course with Bill Melin in electronic music, and it was he who encouraged me to mix the shakuhachi with electronics.”

The professors' guidance motivated Umezaki to develop his interest in combining the ancient instrument with contemporary technologies in graduate school. “It's probably because of this work in mixed musical traditions that I got the job with the Silk Road Project,” he adds.

Umezaki spent “a lot of time” in rock and jazz bands and the Jazz Ensemble at Lafayette, primarily playing electric guitar. He also took part in weekly student-run performance nights in the basement of Hogg Hall, which included music, poetry, and art.

“There were nights when it was packed,” he says. “There also were nights when the performers were the only audience members.”

Lafayette's small size “really left open a lot of room to perform and do some experimental things,” says Umezaki.

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles