Hayato Sumino plays Ravel on the piano. (Taku Hosokawa)
If Hayato Sumino was just a classical pianist, then reaching the third round of the prestigious 18th International Chopin Competition would be enough for him to rest on his laurels.
But Sumino, 26, is more at the age where he is on the cutting edge of technology and has his own YouTube channel under the name Caten.
Although he didn’t win the Chopin Competition in October, Sumino’s unique background has made him stand out among the world’s top pianists.
His published musical arrangements across all genres have garnered around 900,000 subscribers on YouTube.
While training as a classical pianist, Sumino was also trained in the latest music information processing technologies and artificial intelligence at a research institute in Paris.
Upon returning to Japan from the Chopin Competition, Sumino’s first concert was a lecture and performance at a school in Kobe.
He played Chopin classics such as ‘Minute Waltz’ and entertained junior and senior high school students with an improvised medley of songs such as ‘Castle in the Sky’ and ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’. at their request.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Sumino reflected on his eventful 2021 and talked about the future.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
Question: You are involved in all genres such as classical music, jazz and pop. Yet you do not belong to any category. You have an extremely original presence. Have you ever felt lonely or tired in exchange for this kind of freedom?
Sumino: In fact, I had never thought that the path I had traveled was “not ordinary” until the Chopin competition. But it became obvious after the competition.
People often say that I live “off the beaten track”. But I just use my common sense and move between different worlds. A life that can live in different worlds is absolutely more interesting, isn’t it?
Q: Thinking back to the Chopin Competition, what kind of experience was that?
Sumino: It was a continuous conflict. Especially since I made various music other than classical music, elements that should not be mixed could have mixed with my music without knowing it, I wondered. I didn’t know if I should really play Chopin here. Various thoughts came to my mind, I was very scared and became completely nervous.
But, at the same time, I’m a person who tries to make music that can be born because there are no barriers. So I felt that I wanted to show my music on a big stage which was the Chopin competition.
Q: Why did you want to attend the University of Tokyo and not a more traditional music conservatory?
Sumino: Because there were a lot of things at the University of Tokyo that I wanted to do too. Because I loved math as much as music.
But I certainly felt a subtle sense of distance from well-mannered classical music. I got caught up in hard rock when I was in middle and high school and arranged (some songs), played a piano, and posted them on a video site. I was afraid that the piano would become just a hobby for me. But more than that, I couldn’t imagine myself going to a music conservatory and practicing all day and doing nothing else.
Q: How did you manage to play the piano and study at the same time?
Sumino: I have often been asked this. But in fact, I never tried to do both well. I just focused on each of them accordingly from moment to moment. As a result, I am who I am today.
When I want to play the piano, I play the piano all the time. There are times when I just do research. I forget about time and stick to it until the end as long as I want. I never thought about efficiency. Suffice to say that it is a key to winning on both counts.
Q: During your graduate studies, you went to study at the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in France, which is at the forefront of contemporary music.
Sumino: I belonged to a laboratory that dealt with general artificial intelligence. At the time, AI was equivalent to image recognition, and no one but me was studying sound. Then my teacher advised me to go to IRCAM if I was interested in sound. At the time, I didn’t know anything about IRCAM, as if it was an institution organized by Pierre Boulez under the sponsorship of the French government and it was there that Ichiro Nodaira studied.
Q: You participated in a piano competition in Japan in August of the same year just before leaving to study abroad.
Sumino: I felt horribly hopeless about my future at the time. I was doing an internship in an entrepreneurial company while having a job in mind. I entered the contest as one of those options. Then I unexpectedly won the grand prize. At that time, a life as a pianist became realistic for me for the first time. It was a big turning point.
Q: It looks like you’ve been busy with Instagram live streaming and concerts and haven’t taken a day off.
Sumino: Indeed. A busy state only consumes me and that’s the worst part. So I consciously received contributions from the world outside the music. Recently, I was greatly inspired by “Nihonbunkashikan” by Ango Sakaguchi.
Ango’s sensibility that beauty is not something to be consciously created is truly poignant to me at this time. I think he was clearly verbalizing the “beauty” I myself felt towards Chopin – in other words, the beauty felt towards something that is not altered at all.
Q: Hayato Sumino and Caten. Is there a difference between the two?
Sumino: It’s not like I consciously use the two differently. I am someone who always wants to keep a balance. When I get too serious, I think I should act a little weird. When I play too much, I think I should get a little more serious. When I’m biased by one, the other me comes out. Two contradictory opinions arise in me, and an action to neutralize them arises spontaneously. Hayato Sumino and Caten. Especially since there are these two, I think I can pursue my originality while keeping a balance in me.