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Two retiring UH music professors’ work will be celebrated
They are two parts to the same song, a dynamic duo whose forte covered forte to piano and everything between, a pair of locally born and bred talents who have entertained and enlightened audiences in Hawaii for decades — for the most part, without saying a word.
Byron Yasui and Takeo Kudo are at the end of their careers as professors of music theory and composition at University of Hawaii-Manoa. Yasui retired this summer, and Kudo leaves at the end of this semester. Their careers will be celebrated next week at a Contemporary Music Ensemble concert that will feature their works.
Between them, they have been involved in everything from jazz and pop to serious, symphonic music. As composers, they have been at the forefront of the fusion of the Eastern and Western music traditions, which has become a specialty of the UH music department.
“Both were innovative in curriculum development, administrative duties and above all, excellent teachers,” said Laurence Paxton, chair of the department.
BYRON YASUI AND TAKEO KUDO
The UH Contemporary Music Ensemble performs works by two retiring music professors
Where: Orvis Auditorium, 2411 Dole St., UH-Manoa lower campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
YASUI’S MUSICALLY inclined parents started him on trumpet, but it was his brother’s ukulele playing that captured his imagination. “It was my life — from morning ’til night,” he said. “It paid off years later when, in 1998, I was asked to perform for the Ukulele Hall of Fame masters concert tour.”
It paid off in other ways too, infusing his fingers with an innate ability to find notes on a string. He joined the Air National Guard after graduating from St. Louis School and was asked to play string bass in a band — an instrument with strings four times longer than an uke’s, a different tuning and range, and no frets.
“First thing I ask: How do you hold this thing?” Yasui recalled. “Then it was ‘How do you play this thing?’ ”
But after a few notes were demonstrated to him, Yasui was able to hit them flawlessly, amazing the band. That propelled him to a long and diverse career as a bassist, constantly learning the instrument on the fly. He played with jazz musician Ernie Washington after only a year on bass and then the Honolulu Symphony, despite “knowing nothing about (classical) music.”
A self-taught classical guitarist, Yasui has struck up a partnership with virtuoso Carlos Barbosa-Lima, performing together when the Brazilian visits here.
With a doctorate from Northwestern University, Yasui has written jazz and pop tunes but prefers to write “classical art music.”
“We’re writing for art’s sake, not for the commercial purposes,” he said. “Our stuff may not sell, but we’re furthering the art, finding new means of expression.”
“You can play it safe and write something that sounds like Mozart or someone else, but they mastered it, they perfected it. It’s for us to do what Mozart did but in a modern language.”
Kudo also started his career on trumpet, at the Palama Settlement, where he was sent to “keep me out of trouble.” He wanted to study saxophone, but didn’t know what it was called and accepted the trumpet because it wasn’t a “dorky instrument.” “I thought I’d play this until I found out the name of that other instrument,” he said.
His talent, however, landed him in first chair of the McKinley High School band and led him to the UH music department then to Indiana University’s graduate music program, one of the best in the country.
“I had no idea of the size or the stature of that school,” he said. After an audition with 81 other trumpet players, he was one of 10 selected for the university symphony.
After graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force to play for its band, where he did some arranging. That led to a position arranging music for the Air Force band and to composition.
“It was 1969, I sold my trumpet, and I haven’t touched it since,” he said.
He returned to UH to study ethnomusicology and has since then devoted much of his efforts toward Asian music, “since I was always being asked about it,” learning and composing for instruments like the shakuhachi. His first major composition for shakuhachi and Western instruments was well-received and requested many times “to my great surprise,” he said.
Though Kudo is hesitant to generalize about Western vs. Eastern music, he said that Asian music is “more infused with nature” in that it favors different timbres and variations in tone.
He has no regrets about muting his trumpet. “I was always in front of people playing the solos,” he said. “I just did not enjoy that.”
“People like me, I’m not a performer. I don’t have the heart and the emotional makeup for it. So for me, I find that I am perfectly satisfied having composed the music.”
—Steven Mark / firstname.lastname@example.org