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Otakon '13: Yoko Kanno and PIANO ME - JAPANATOR







Otakon '13: Yoko Kanno and PIANO ME photo
Otakon '13: Yoko Kanno and PIANO ME

3:00 PM on 08.15.2013

A unforgettable wedding of otaku and music


Otakon 2013 wrapped up with a big bang--a concert from Yoko Kanno, a home coming of sorts as she visited Otakon over a decade ago for the first time. In order to get into the concert, over the weekend the attendees had to line up for these clear-plastic concert passes that were not only great souvenirs but also goes to show how much this concert means to everyone involved.

On August 11th, 2013, Hall D of the Baltimore Convention Center transported from a very humid Baltimore full of cosplayers into a weird and alien world. Read about my experiences going through space and time with master composer, conductor, producer, pianist and performer Yoko Kanno, as she PIANO ME from here to the high nines.

I'm going to just talk about it from my abused, biased point of view as a Kanno fan over the years. Just a little intro, I started tracking this chick from Macross Plus, but that wasn't until 1998 or about (given the large time lag it takes for things to make it across the pond back in the '90s). By then she's already gotten Escaflowne out there, and Cowboy Bebop was just a couple years away, let alone the stuff before Macross Plus from both games and anime.

I was fortunate (and motivated enough) to attend her biggest show in 2009, Cho-jiku Tanabata Supersonic. It was at the Saitama Super Arena, which held about 18,000 or 16,000 people, I don't remember exactly (the hall has configurable sized seating). Yoko Kanno didn't really do concerts, so that was a huge deal--not to mention it combines, for the first (and probably final) time, many of her collaborators in the '00s, such as the Warsaw Philharmonic and the Seatbelts. And given various issues this was an one-time only live that will probably never hit DVD or Blu-ray.

Now, what is Piano Me? From Otakon 20's Sunday concert page:

Otakon's Sunday Concert features the world premiere performance of Yoko Kanno's presentation new project, "PIANO ME", at Otakon. For this concert, the simple intimacy of one performer with one instrument will be enhanced by experimental live visuals that respond to her performance.

Our Sunday show with Yoko Kanno is aiming for a different vibe, reminding us that beauty and wonder can come from the power of something as simple as timeless music performed live on a single piano. It's a statement that no matter how big and crazy Otakon can feel, we can still create those special, intimate moments where an amazing artist can connect directly with fans and make magic happen.

Compared to Tanabata Supersonic, Piano Me is going to the same place but using a different instrument. It's like walking down Broadway with a marching band or by your lonesome self. You still get to Harold Square from Time Square, but the feeling is about the same? This is given that Tanabata Supersonic can still be intimate, even if I was in a room with like 18,000 people, inside the Saitama Super Arena. Having just ~2000 in the audience might help a bit.

I think there is still a lot to be said about Piano Me, however. It was about 40 minutes, and it featured a lot more than just a woman and a piano--there's about a whole short movie's worth of visual effects going on, plus accompanying synthesized audio and pre-recorded backing tracks. What's weird is that I think you will have to be a real Kanno freak to get a complete tracklist down. She played both medleys and full songs, and it's tough to pick out what the medleys were consisted of,  because it's all jammed in there good. Thankfully Otakon was able to obtain an "official" set list, so you can check that at the end of this article.

The promo video for PIANO ME gives you the idea what it's like--reinvented piano arrangements of Kanno classics played seamlessly into each other. Other than a handful of songs, it's just sets of medleys. There weren't many breaks. Kanno took a break right after Gravity so she can put on the pant...legs... of the piano, setting up the grand piano as a projector screen. Yes, it wore leggings.

Kanno's mannerism during the show was noteworthy. Well, cute doesn't begin to cut it. Here we have this girlish-behaving but "man she's just like Ed" kind of a woman on stage, who hops to the piano and kicked off her shoes to begin the show. It really endeared the fans just that much more so seeing her out there.

Actually, the producer came on stage first to welcome Kanno, and gave an explanation of how Piano Me would work. Rather than tell you what he said, here's a quote from the Otakon guest relations guy for backstory:

When we met with Kannos' team in March, they showed us test footage of the projection technology and we talked about options -- but at that time they had misunderstood the scale of Hall D. We straightened that out and they continued to work on the show that way.  Their *ORIGINAL* proposal (end of 2012) was a full orchestral performance with a symphony -- something that I would love to do one day, maybe, but something well out of our budget and honestly, it's been done. Their second proposal was this new experimental a/v interactive show they had been playing with. It would showcase Kanno at her best (just her and a piano), but had a playful and interactive aspect that made it perfect for the vibe we were going for.  Thus we became the premiere for PIANO ME

Back to the show: so the set begins with Tank--or wait, there was some kind of standing ovation to get the show on the road. She hops to her piano, shoes, etc. Now, Tank.

The song is well known but in that energetic frenzy, the piece melts into the next after another round of applause (standing ovation #2...well I lost track after like 5 of these, but almost all of them were). The second and third pieces were definitely medleys, as with the fourth which seamlessly ends with Gravity (which is probably the sixth piece, or the end of the 3rd piece, however you want to count it).

So yes, then she hopped around the grand piano to pull up the legs. The piano was just a black grand. Maybe a Yamaha. 

At any rate, after Gravity, she went to each of the 4 legs of the piano and pulled up these white, foam-looking fabric and buttoned them to the undersides of the piano. The piano itself is covered with the same material. In addition of pulling up the pant legs she opened up the lid--it's hilarious because it doesn't seem like she could, so the producer guy came out to help her. It was moe.

It's right around then I noticed the additional pedals by the piano pedals. There were 6 or 8 of them.

The modified piano with its raised lid became a projector screen. It was as if there are just 2 different projectors, one is angled in a way so that the visual looks "flat" when projected on the slanted surface of the open lid, and a second projector covered the vertically flat part of the piano's body beneath that.

The background of the stage is also lit and colored. For what it's worth, Kanno's outfit--short black pantaloons with a tux-like one-piece top in white, and cat ears (see trailer video)--served also as a reflector at times. There's this white pipe coming out of the piano bench (also wrapped in the same material as the piano) which I assume is some kind of cable that's covered.

The white parts of the stage served as the screen for various pieces. The last song before the two encores, Power of the Light, had this full-blast starfield and the stage was all colorful and what not, except for the shadows from Kanno's form. It looked more amazing on the screens projecting the concert stage than how it looked in person on stage, which is kind of unusual but unavoidable given the angle of how everything has to be.

Did I mention we sang along to Gravity? When I heard the intro chords my back shivered and knew immediately. It's that kind of a feeling. We were told to sing along when we know the song, which also meant we all tried to sing The Real Folk Blues to mild success. There were enough people who remember the song up towards the front so I can follow along. Alternatively, we read her lips. It's kind of funny when she took that ever slight pause at the chorus's opening so everyone can go real loud, at the same time, sing "THE REAL FOLK BLUES." 

The first song that made use of the projector setup naturally came right after Gravity, and it's some Escaflowne melody. The projector showed a couple yellow balls in the form of the moon that turns into a chick (hiyoko). You know how it goes. This is kind of a small-time running joke from Kanno and only her super nerds would get it. I'm not even sure if it's funny or what. Well, anyway, it's a little skit to the music, much like a couple of the songs from Tanabata Supersonic.

After the chicken act, there was a track from Ghost in the Shell where the lower part of the piano displayed some EKG graph-like lines that moved to the music. She sang along to Monochrome with some synth backed voices. It's a very chill piece.

The next songs all kind of blend together for me. The piano slash projector screen rained hearts, balls, and all kinds of magic, each to the sound of the piano. I did notice that some non-Kanno stuff creeped in there, like a cover of Someday My Prince Will Come.

At some point it turned into The Real Folk Blues. Which you know from above. After that little song, Kanno said something to the extent that this is the last song--well, that's darn short if it was! Thankfully it wasn't.

The next piece is a full video project where we see the journey of this plastic bag played to Wo Qui Non Coin, complete with vocals. Actually it's kind of funny because of the precise light control, during the two vocals song we see only the piano lit, and it was dark everywhere else on stage. The video occupied the full piano-screen, and it was some blurry live action footage featuring an abandoned plastic bag.

From there, Kanno busts out Power of the Light and it is right around then my jaw actually drops for real. The Brain Powered piece is just one of my favorites from her, although this version of the song feels both familiar and strange, with its modified bridge part. As referenced above, there are these star-like lights on stage, full blast.

When that was done she ran off. The audience did the "encore" call like a classical music concert with ceaseless clapping. Kanno returns...only to play the big surprise hit of the afternoon: The Star Spangled Banner. The audience stood and saluted America in this strange and surreal moment.

Of course, we sang along to that one.

Clapping, ovations, calls, bows and waves, she plopped down for an encore of Tank (just like the first one but even faster). And that was it!

Set list (we were told to not number the set list--probably to avoid confusion):

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

Fanelia
Monochrome
Apollon Blue
Rakuen
Power of the Light

-encore1-
Someday My Prince Will Come
The Real Folk Blues
Wo Qui Non Coin

- encore2-
Star Spangled Banner

- encore3-
Tank! (reprise)

To wrap it up, here's a quote from Yoko Kanno about the show

 

Japanese Version:
「私をステージの上で一人にしないでくれてありがとう。一緒に音楽できてうれしかった。待っていてくれた方、この機会をくださった方、piano meを通じて出会えたすべての皆さんに感謝します。」
English translation:
Thank you for not leaving me by myself on the stage. I was very happy we could make music together. To the people who were waiting for me, to the people who gave me this opportunity, to everyone I met through "piano me", Thank you!
- YOKO KANNO

Big thanks to Otakon Press for making this article much easier to write!

Lastly, Piano Me is taking song requests and they can be contacted through twitter. You can read about it on their website. It's not sure what the plan is for Piano Me, but it does look like more shows are possible in the future.






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