The universe is making music all the time

Road Atlas: Sophie Hutchings

leave a comment »

Sydney-based composer and pianist Sophie Hutchings recently toured Japan for the first time where she recorded her impressions and thoughts on her voyage which included performances in Tokyo, Nara and Kobe. The trip also featured musical guests including the sublime talents of guitar/violin duo Ryan Francesconi and Mirabai Peart as well as the Japanese artists Ikebana and Casio Tones. Hutchings’ piano based compositions are both personal and mysterious, all at once. It is divine instrumental music where the ethereal layers of sound shares an unspoken connection with the listener. Her two stunning studio albums, ‘Becalmed’ (2010) and ‘Night Sky’ (2012), confirm Hutchings as one of the most talented and inspiring of modern composers making music today. 

Words: Sophie Hutchings 



From gritty chicken gizzards, octopus balls, and crab’s brains to melt in your mouth sushi.

When stage fright in a public toilet becomes a thing of the past thanks to an automatic soundscape of running streams.

Where rubbish bins sometimes don’t exist but all is somehow immaculate.

Where getting naked for a natural osen soak is a must.

Flashing neon lights, a raving warren of streets, golden story book rural thatched roofed villages……

Welcome to Japan.


Shinjuku Station is one of the busiest train stations in the world, and when it’s near midnight it’s easy to become lost in the pandemonium. Finally we surface and meet the bright battle of neon lights. We’re hungry and it’s late, but the local Seven Eleven surprisingly serves its purpose; and satisfyingly so. We’re not talking greasy fries or hot dogs so preserved they’d survive WWIII. We’re talking fresh bento boxes and more. I get my first sushi fix here and discover the best snack ever – onigiri – a rice ball type hit wrapped tightly in seaweed, with a lucky dip treat embedded in the centre be it tofu, tuna, pickled kombu or whatever else and for approximately $1.50 it soon became a staple when hungry.


First Tokyo Show with Ryan Francesconi and Mirabai Peart

Eastern Tokyo is a largely residential and industrial area with very few tourist attractions. This only spurs the local experience. We make our way through a warren of streets luckily with the help of our friend Masami the Jedi behind Impartmaint.

Typically Japanese – you enter a nondescript building and head down a steep timber stair case to find yourself in the basement gallery of Nanahari. A casual vibe, and a mood set by some earthy 60’s Zaire traditional spinning on vinyl, plus a bit of Don Cherry amongst others. There’s a little upright sitting in the corner waiting for me; I thought Japan was full of Yamaha’s. This is an old masculine Kawaii.


It’s my first time in Japan, I’m not really sure what to expect but I’m told everyone is ridiculously respectful and polite. It’s true, but they’re not just ridiculously respectful and polite – they’re cute, funny and a bunch of individual groovers. Everyone sat attentively – huddled on little timber stools, lounges with some cosily packed up the stair case.

Ryan Francesconi and Mirabai Peart (partners and band mates in Joanna Newsom’s line-up) play a beautiful set. Watching Ryan and Mirabai weave in and out of each other’s musical movements is pretty special, with a fresh yet oldish nostalgic sound stemming from their fusion of Balkan/Bulgarian classical come folk compositions….


I catch up with the Charismatic Yas who has booked most of this tour. We all mingle and I write down a long list of the music that’s been spinning tonight.

Back on the train and following the bright neon lights and sky scraper buildings, Yas weaves us through the tiny ramshackle alleyways of the Golden Gai district navigating us back to wherever it was we came from. Streets almost wide enough for a single person to pass through, an area of tiny shanty-style bars and clubs where musicians, artists and the like gather. It’s a great little hub for food and drinks in a very rustic Japanese style atmosphere. Our first taste of Tokyo is good indeed!


Bullet trains and central Honshu:

We are heading for ‘nowhere’.

Tastefully minimalistic in style – walls covered in creative offerings and records from all around the world for sale – ‘nowhere’ is the perfect name for this tiny iconic venue as it literally feels like no – where. Surrounded by steep mountains and endless fields that embrace a deep bay.

We arrive at the small city of Toyama (in the northern centre of Japan). I meet the very charming venue owner Eiichi Yasukawa and his wife Aiko. Eiichi not only designed and built the furniture but is also seriously the finest chef in Japan, not to mention the possessor of a ridiculously copious music collection.


Eiichi starts out as your typically shy, polite and extremely accommodating Japanese host. However by the end of the night he’s dancing around the tables laughing and spoiling the dinner guests with his modern Japanese delicacies: morohay – a smoky tasting morsel of whisked up egg white, seaweed and goodness knows what else that you somehow have to manage to scoop up with chop sticks. The texture resembles things I’d rather not say… however it’s surprisingly tasty! Tofu okra salad, Japanese style beef pockets, radish and pickle green bean salad, jelly infused with an orange and milk coffee base…and on it goes. With such a generous supply of food and drinks, our ‘lost in translation’ zone doesn’t seem to matter. By now our dining conversation is led by weighty and animated role play.

Winding up the evening all sleepy and full bellied, with the heat of the summer’s day rising and the cold air sinking from the Toyama Mountains, a cracking thunder-storm hits. A beautiful and dramatic spectacle in light. Toyamas closing act for the evening…


NARA: City of Deers

We drop off our backpacks at Naramachi guest house. It’s an old restored calligraphy house and with the now familiar scent of bamboo and incense I’m feeling at home already. The rooms kind of remind me of an old wooden doll palace.

Nara is a place full of hungry deers and little historic treasures awash with long narrow lanes. Former residential merchant buildings and warehouses have been preserved, and now run as cute little vintage boutiques, shops and cafes. On one of these many narrow lanes you will find cafe taken; a small gallery cafe with a quarter of it  taken up by a beautiful Yamaha grand piano I am to tinkle on. With rustic timber floors, a beautiful piano packed into a cute space and everyone tucked in around me; It made for a cosy loungeroom atmosphere.

We spend the next day walking through Kasuga woods, playfully fighting off the deers, temple hopping, grabbing another rice ball hit and then finally jumping on our next bullet train to Kobe.



Wedged in between the coast and the mountains lays Kobe’s cosmopolitan port city. We meet the Ikebana girls at the nearby train station who I’m doing a couple of the Japan shows with. Ikebana (meaning flower arrangement) are a local duo from Tokyo consisting of Maki and En. They create dreamlike minimalist shoe-gaze guitar tones  over atmospheric drones and sweet distant  vocal harmonies  injecting a calm somnolent mood in the best kind of way.


Our group makes its way up the hill-side, there nestled at the top overlooking the sea is the beautiful Guggenheim house. One of the appealing things about Kobe is its unique historical, colourful array of European style architecture. Apparently this dates back to the large community of expatriates who arrived in the early 1940’s so its style stands out.


I’m slow to admit that my rice ball hits are getting a bit dreary so I could do with a  good cake hit! Thankfully Guggenheim House is run by  a half Belgian, half Japanese gent named Ali . Upon arrival we are welcomed with rich heavy Belgian cake goodness for afternoon tea before sound check. I’m a satisfied guest…

Playing at Guggenheim house is like playing in a big old ballroom and the audience as usual are an attentive delight. Ikebana  play a beautiful set alongside the quirky opening electronica outfit called Casio Tones. Casio Tones are a concoction of six artists playing musical chairs over continual keyboards, loops and beats. I could only describe it as walking into a video parlour; but instead picture people playing musical instruments instead of games. Very entertaining stuff.


I feel at home, there’s a relaxing vibe crashing out here. Almost an elegant “Great Gatsby” feel combined  with a family friendly, hippy commune-like element. The back-end of the property is occupied with full-time dwellers who all hang out together pursuing all things creative. After the show we all mingle over santori highballs and we become like family.

We spend the next day taking the cable car for a fine view of Kobe city, pottering about the funky area of West Tor and meeting up with our new-found friends who run spacemoth. Spacemoth is located in a cool old hospital building that now houses several clothing and music themed boutiques.

This place certainly lives up to its cosmopolitan reputation.


Back to Tokyo

Being based in the sweet little neighbourhood of Shimokitizawa this time around is a bit of a treat. It acts as a rewarding breather if you’re overwhelmed by Tokyo’s more hectic suburbs. Only three stops from the fun and bustling Shibuya – it’s the Japanese Greenwich Village with a laid back vibe full of funky cafes, vintage clothing stores, second-hand record stores, live music venues and groovy little bars and restaurants often arrayed with a mural type graffitied shop front..


The Last show is held here in Shimokita at the enchanting old Fujimigaoka Church. The church is often used for concerts and also affords a neat little view of Mt Fuji. I’m performing again with my newfound friends Maki and En of Ikebana. Playing at an old church always feels totally natural thanks to their naturally lush acoustics. To top off the evening Yas (who is as nutty and fun as the mad hatter) has booked a bunch of us into one of the local Izakaya – the Japanese version of a good pub all-you-can-eat-and-drink style eatery. Huge platters of sashimi salad, whole grilled fish, agedashi-dofu (deep fried tofu in a dashi broth) and the list goes on! Plenty of Asahi or Kirin beers go down nicely in the heat…


With plenty to do in Tokyo other highlights were the tranquil parks, six-seater bars and a long headphone session at Tower Records.


There’s often a notion of rigidity and conservatism attached to Japanese society.  However its music and art scene is definitely a unique quirky hub all of its own, with the most polite and appreciative audiences you could ever ask for.

Thanks to Yas, Masami and my travel buddies Reuben, Charles and Nicolette as well as all those involved with the shows for making this a fun and memorable trip.

Go go gai daiski des!



‘Night Sky’ and ‘Becalmed’ by Sophie Hutchings are out now on the Preservation label.



To read our other articles featuring Sophie Hutchings: Sophie’s current inspirations here; an interview about the making of ‘Night Sky’ here


Written by admin

October 29, 2013 at 11:27 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: