Yoko Kanno’s Piano Me @ Otakon 20

A slightly less nerdy version of this post has appeared on Jtor, but this goes on…and on. With fewer images.


So at Otakon 2013 there was a concert from Yoko Kanno. 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 between info and stuff back in the 90s). By then she’s already gotten Escaflowne out there, and Bebop was just a couple years since. Let alone the stuff before Macross Plus from both games and anime.

Oh, I went to her big and awesome 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 doesn’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.

Speaking as a survivor of the BEST YOKO KANNO CONCERT EVER, 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…the same? I don’t know about you, but Tanabata Supersonic can still be intimate, even if I was in a room with like 18,000 people, inside the Saitama Super Arena.

I think there’s a lot to be said about Piano Me, however. It’s 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. Here are two forum threads at Otakon Boards talking about the set lists. As of this writing, Otakon has released the official set list, so that talk is kind of moot.

The promo video for the show kind of 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. We 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.

Kanno’s mannerism during Piano Me was very 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.

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 fifth(?) 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 pants legs. So from my seats (2nd row, right most section, 3rd seat from the left) I can see that the piano was just a black grand. Maybe a Yamaha. Actually I saw this during Chiaki Ishikawa’s set when I was right by the stage taking pictures. Oh, maybe I should go back a tad?

The concert hall is set up with the stage in the middle and about 4 columns of seats set up, each column fitting somewhere between 15-20 seats. The middle was this tech booth area with cameras set up, along with the horizontal walkway across the concert hall (also known as Hall D). There are two screens to the front, one left and the other right of the stage. Chiaki Ishikawa has a keyboardist and her solo voice to carry her 5-song set, the opener. It’s kind of cool, though she did not sing my favorite. Before Ishikawa’s set started, on stage was this drape-covered piano and a keyboard setup to the side of it. A single microphone on a stand sit alone at the center of the forward stage, with the piano behind it.

The drape, mic stand and keyboard set up was gone by the time Kanno hopped out, of course. There was a 15-minute break between the two acts.

At any rate, after Gravity, she went to each of the 4 legs of the piano and pulled up these 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 (there has to be a better phrase for this?) 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. Moe~!

It’s right around then I noticed the additional pedals by the piano pedals. Like 6 or 8 of them.

The modified piano with its raised lid became a projector. Seems like 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.

The background of the stage is also lit and colored, used for projection, all that jazz. 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). 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 (with a weird middle portion that I can’t ID) had this full-blast starfield and the stage was all colorful and what not, except the black parts (Kanno’s shadows, mainly).

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 play… I got so excited that I turned my Kingblade on, which only leads to admonishment from the guy next to me. I didn’t want to be a meiwaku so I turned it off–this is not Supersonic Tanabata after all, even if the lightstick waving would fit right in PIANO ME.

Yes, we were told to sing along when we know the song. Which means 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, read her lips. It’s kind of funny when she took some note at the chorus’s opening so everyone can go real loud, THE REAL FOLK BLUES. Well I mumbled the rest of the time, although I kind of remember the lyrics from way back when, having done some karaoke to it.

It is then I think PIANO ME should get fansubbed. Because, that’s what we do, right?

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 hiyoko. You know how it goes. This is kind of a small-time running joke from Kanno and only her supernerds probably 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, there was a track from GITS where the lower part of the piano displayed this EKG graph that moved to the music. She sang along to Monochrome with some synth backed voices. Very chill piece.

I believe after that there was some kind of medley again and at some point it turned into TRFB. Which you know from above. After that little song, she says 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. Mono no awareeeeeeee. Actually it’s kind of funny because of the precise light control, the two vocals we see only the piano lit, and it was dark everywhere else. Unless of course if you were right next to the stage. The video occupied the full piano-screen. It’s just live action footage and AFAIK there were no easter eggs.

From there, Kanno busts out Power of the Light and it is right around then my jaw actually drops fer reals, like. The Brain Powered piece is just one of my favorites from her, although this variety feels just like, something is up in the middle and I don’t know what. 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. USA USA USA.

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!

Except that isn’t exactly it. The full Otakon 20 Kanno experience also included an early-morning line-up for autograph tickets, various gnashing of teeth over concert passes, the aforementioned autograph sessions on Saturday and Friday, and generally geeking out with other Yoko Kanno nerds. Like this one chick who keeps on talking about how she’s been to Tanabata Supersonic. She’s done it more than wah, and that’s saying something. You can see her ebulliant nonsense even in the comments on this post.

Oh, there is an official set list. For the sake of repeating it–

Yoko Kanno piano me
2013.8.11@Otakon, Baltimore

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

Apollon Blue
Power of the Light

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

– encore2-
Star Spangled Banner

– encore3-
Tank! (reprise)

** Please do not put numbers before the song title.

That came straight from the Piano Me people.

Here’s a pull quote from Kanno made for the press–

piano meを通じて出会えたすべての皆さんに感謝します。」
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

Somewhere in the back of my mind is the image of Kanno sitting on the piano bench, making a heart shape with her hands, and a handful of people doing the same from the crowd while the rest are applauding. We were all standing, except for her, of course. The piano is raining hearts. And that’s basically what it is like.

It’s actually reminiscent of Kanno’s first Otakon show in 1999, where she hammered out a quick and dirty 20-minute piano solo set. We stood up and clapped too, but only maybe twice. A handful of people asked for encores. I guess Bebop wasn’t on Cartoon Network yet. This was when they would squeeze such a thing into the opening ceremony…

But this time, the crowd is into it 101%. And it was magical both ways.

Originally I wanted to write this concert up in light of the animusictourney, but it kind of became its own thing. The point here is that it’s really about context. In PIANO ME’s case, it’s also about the nature of interactive consumption for otaku, for fans, for live music. It’s the overlap of all three things that makes PIANO ME such an unique and unforgettable experience. We were both there to listen and to participate. We tuned into Yoko Channel. We sang and cheered and the byproduct is not a pretty DVD, but amazing memories that will last a long time. Feels, if you will.

Kanno loot

Well, thank you too, space cowgirl.

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