music prodigy turns rogue


Ritsu Katsumata


Ritsu KatsumataWhile prodigy violinist Ritsu Katsumata is no longer performing full-time, she continues to make sure that the importance of art is cherished in her city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not just music, either: film, visual art, dancing, and even cooking are all part of the mix.

“Art is a very important part of life and community, and it’s important for children and adults to be encouraged to express their creativity through the arts,” stated Katsumata. “Whether its music or writing, or drama, or sports, art is a way of expressing emotions and thought, and a way of communicating. A musical phrase, a poem, or a picture can express something that translates universally from person-to-person.”

Katsumata learned about the value of art very early in her life. She found interest in the violin after an instructor visited her class. She began playing at age 10 and was an instant standout among her peers. She began winning various competitions and being enlisted to perform at recitals around the country.

Ritsu Katsumata pursued her musical career through college, where she performed full-time. She enjoyed playing her music, but ten years after her career had begun, she saw the restrictions of performing as a classical craft when she entered a Bach competition. Ritsu played a selection from the legendary classical musician and got surprising reactions from the judges. “Two of the three judges gave me nines on a scale of one to 10, and the third judge gave me a zero. A competitor who made seven, seven, seven-which is kind of mediocre-beat me and got into the finals. They gave us a little write-up, and that third judge said I played it at the wrong tempo,” Katsumata said. “This man had such a rigid definition of what was right and wrong in music. That was my eye-opener. I wasn’t trying to play it ‘right;’ I was self-expressing. I was playing what was inside me, and the notes were a vehicle.”

Once those limitations were recognized and the feeling of being burned out from playing for so long caught up with her, Katsumata quit playing. After graduating college she accepted a surprise job offer at an advertising agency in New York. She didn’t revisit music until years later, when she met her husband. He saw programs of her old performances and urged her to rekindle her musical flames, and she agreed on one condition: her playing now would be on her own terms.

Ritsu KatsumataKatsumata began to write her own music, and she purchased a Marshall stack – an amplifier-to plug her violin into and manipulate her sounds. She entered a Jimi Hendrix Guitar Competition in Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival and made it all the way to the finals, where she was then disqualified for playing the wrong instrument. Still, the stage was set – she formed a rock-based power trio, and went on to play at Carnegie Hall and CGBG, a legendary NYC club known as the Home of Underground Rock.

After beginnings of solely playing others’ classical music, she now creates her own amalgams of classical, rock, heavy metal, and more. She cites a recent composition that builds off of Bob Marley riffs to re-tell a Japanese Buddha story.

Ritsu Katsumata“It’s completely freeing. Music is my medium, but I think that whatever it is that feels comfortable for anybody, you know that it’s your medium when you feel that you’ve really taken everything out of you in that medium,” Katsumata insists. “Whether it’s a splattered painting or musical phrase, I can definitely express more through my instrument than any other medium.”

These days, Katsumata maintains a full-time job as a multimedia designer because she prefers to keep her art and her job separate. But she’s still very active in the West Michigan arts community. Artistically, she still composes her own material, sits in with artist friends, and scores films. What’s more impressive is her work for other artists..She helps them find paid gigs, and she serves on the board of directors for the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA), where she helps organize events and volunteers.

Katsumata also organizes ‘disturbances,’ which she describes as interdisciplinary, multimedia jam sessions. Filmmakers, musicians, dancers, poets, sculptors, painters, and other artists all come together to share experiences and vibe with each other. “During our first disturbance, there were about 12 of us, and some of us had never even met before, but by the end of the night, we were all playing together,” Katsumata remembers. “That unspoken vibe of self-expression turns into something tangible; we all feel it, and we’re all in sync to it.”

“Where people find differences, I’m trying to find similarities,” concluded Katsumata.

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