TOKYO — Pioneering pianist and composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who studied with John Cage and spearheaded Japanese advances in modern experimental music, has died. He was 89 years old.
Ichiyanagi, who was married to Yoko Ono before marrying John Lennon, died on Friday, according to the Kanagawa Arts Foundation, where Ichiyanagi had served as chief artistic director. The cause of death was not given.
“We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all those who loved him during his lifetime,” the foundation’s president, Kazumi Tamamura, said in a statement on Saturday.
Ichiyanagi studied at the Juilliard School in New York and became a pioneer, using free-spirited compositional techniques that left a lot to chance, incorporating not only traditional Japanese elements and instruments, but also electronic music.
He was known for his genre-defying collaborations, working with Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham, as well as innovative Japanese artists like architect Kisho Kurokawa and poet-playwright Shuji Terayama, as well as Ono, with whom he was married for several years from the mid-1950s.
“In my creation, I tried to let various elements, which have often been seen separately as contrast and opposite in music, coexist and permeate each other,” Ichiyanagi said in an artist statement.
Traditional Japanese music inspired and emboldened him, he said, because he was not preoccupied with the usual definitions of music as “temporal art” or what he called “divisions”, such as relative and absolute, or new and old.
Modern music was more about “substantial space, in order to restore the spiritual richness that music provides”, he said.
His music has traveled freely across influences and cultures, moving seamlessly from minimalist avant-garde to western opera.
Ichiyanagi has toured the world, premiering his compositions at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The National Theater of Japan also commissioned several works from him.
He has remained prolific over the years, producing the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra in 2013 and Piano Concerto No. 6 in 2016, which Ichiyanagi performed solo at a Tokyo festival.
Ichiyanagi has received numerous awards, including the Alexander Gretchaninov Prize from Juilliard, the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic and the Order of the Rising Sun, the Golden Rays with Rosette and the Purple Ribbon Medal from the Government Japanese.
Born in Kobe into a family of musicians, Ichiyanagi showed promise as a composer from an early age. He won a major competition in Japan before moving to the United States as a teenager, when such moves were still relatively rare in post-war Japan.
A private funeral is held with the family. A public ceremony in his honor is being prepared, hosted by his son, Japanese media said.