• [ Thumbnail ] Music Reaching Beyond Time #2

Music Reaching Beyond Time #2

Planting the Seeds of Music in Forests

January 25, 2023

This might come as a surprise, but when it comes to enjoying music, much of that experience comes from trees. Wood from trees can be found not only in musical instruments such as pianos, violins, and guitars, but also in audio equipment like speakers and even soundproof rooms. Wood is without a doubt a vital resource for enjoying sound and music.

Yamaha also relies on procuring the finest wood when manufacturing its products. However, recent years have seen a continuing decline in timber resources due to problems such as climate change and excessive logging. Not only that, timber that is suitable for processing and has the aesthetic and acoustic properties desirable for instruments is rare to begin with, so there is increased concern for the sustainability of these resources in instrument production.

To continue making top-quality instruments and audio equipment, it will be crucial to conserve the forests that provide the materials. This sense of urgency has led to the establishment of the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project, where Yamaha has joined forces with local communities to promote the sustainable forestry of high-quality timber.

Since its inception in 2015, Yamaha has been working in Tanzania to manage, survey, and plant African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon, commonly known as Grenadilla) — a species native to the country that is used around the world for woodwind instruments such as clarinets and oboes. Another activity was established in 2016 in Hokkaido, Japan, which is home to forests of Sakhalin spruce (Picea glehnii, commonly known as Akaezomatsu) — a material treasured for piano soundboards.

Looking Ahead to the Next Few Centuries

[ Thumbnail ] Kazushi Nakai, who oversees the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project
Kazushi Nakai, who oversees the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project

“The world will run out of timber resources for instruments. We’ve known this for a long time, which is part of the reason why we've been developing alternative materials. But there’s something special about real wood that is difficult to generate technically. I want to ensure that future generations can also appreciate that,” says Kazushi Nakai, who leads the OTONOMORI Project. He became concerned about the depletion of natural African blackwood through his duties in wood technologies and material procurement, which led him to embark on the mission of cultivating forests in Tanzania with the locals. Meanwhile, Kitami Mokuzai Co., Ltd., another Yamaha Group company in Hokkaido, led the way in establishing the goal of making pianos using existing locally planted forests of Sakhalin spruce, and these activities came to fruition as the OTONOMORI Project in 2022.

Nakai majored in Forest Science at university, and he developed a passion for working with wood. He grew up learning the violin and always enjoyed playing music, so it was a natural decision for him to join Yamaha. He works in research and development to achieve sustainable forests that strengthen the local forestry industry, provide employment opportunities, and offer a positive impact on the global environment in terms of sustainable timber procurement.

[ Thumbnail ] Nakai surveying a forest in Takinoue town, Hokkaido
Nakai surveying a forest in Takinoue town, Hokkaido

Nakai says that what sets the OTONOMORI Project apart from regular resource procurement is the timeframe. “Normally, the most important thing with procurement is getting all the required materials by the agreed deadline. But with this project, the big question is whether we can keep using the resources into the next decades and centuries. Once a Sakhalin spruce tree is planted, it takes at least 100-150 years before it can be harvested and used to make pianos. This probably seems daunting when you compare it with typical business timeframes.” Nakai is determined that that is the reason why they must start now.

Nurturing Forests by Nurturing Future Generations

In addition to forestry work, another major pillar of the OTONOMORI Project is “mokuiku” (wood use education). These are activities that teach children and adults about trees, forests, and the world environment through interacting with wood and wooden products.

When it comes to cultivating forests, partnerships with local communities surrounding the forests are critical. Another priority is to educate future generations so they can preserve the values of forests into the next century and beyond. To this extent, Yamaha is spreading awareness of the significance of the project and holds wood-related workshops to help people feel closer to nature.

“Most people are not aware that many instruments are made with wood. I often get surprised looks when I tell people that pianos are crafted from trees. When I’m introducing the project to people in the community, I try to emphasize that connection between instruments and wood,” says Haruka Kaigai, who drives “mokuiku” activities in the OTONOMORI Project.

[ Thumbnail ] Haruka Kaigai, who organizes “mokuiku” (wood use education) as part of the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project
Haruka Kaigai, who organizes “mokuiku” (wood use education) as part of the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project

Kaigai’s close relationship with music started in junior high school when she took up the trumpet. Although her major was in International Relations, she continued to play throughout university, and even brought her trumpet with her when she went to study abroad in the US for a year. She then threw herself into a local wind orchestra, where she was unfamiliar with both the language and culture.

“At first, I didn’t even really understand English, but I felt connected with the other members when we performed well together. Playing alongside local musicians of various generations and nationalities taught me that music has the power to bring people together.” This experience persuaded Kaigai to seek a job that would connect her with lots of people through music, and this ultimately led her to Yamaha.

Since joining the company, Kaigai has traveled around the world procuring timber. Her current duties include planning and managing events in the town of Engaru, Hokkaido, to inform people in the community about why Yamaha is planting Sakhalin spruce and nurturing forests along with Kitami Mokuzai and local administrative agencies. In addition to the annual Sakhalin spruce planting event held every fall, Kaigai also organizes events which target local children like castanet-making workshops.

“Each castanet has its own personality, even if they’re from the same tree species. They all look different and produce unique tones. I hope that through the activity of creating a castanet and playing this familiar instrument, the participants will be able to picture the future of the forests that Yamaha is growing together with their communities.”

[ Thumbnail ] Yamaha is uniting with local communities to nurture forests. Instrument-making activities are designed to teach children about instruments made of wood.
Yamaha is uniting with local communities to nurture forests. Instrument-making activities are designed to teach children about instruments made of wood.

A Step in the Right Direction for 100 Years Down the Road

Given that it will take more than 100 years for the planted seedlings to turn into timber resources, the OTONOMORI Project is still in its infancy. It will take decades to accomplish the goal of making instruments with timber grown in the forests. Still, Nakai says he already feels a stronger bond with the society thanks to this project.

The local people of Hokkaido were enthusiastic about having instruments made using the Sakhalin spruce trees that were planted extensively after reclamation. Yamaha is now cooperating with local companies and governments to create the “forests of sound,” engaging in forest management activities such as thinning trees and cutting branches for a sustainable supply of the finest Sakhalin spruce. “Even though OTONOMORI is a Yamaha initiative, I believe that designing a sustainable forestry system will benefit local communities and ultimately our country, which is facing challenges in the forestry industry.”

[ Thumbnail ] Yamaha Group employees cutting branches during a “pruning” event — the extra effort of eliminating branches close to the ground enhances the quality of future timber
Yamaha Group employees cutting branches during a “pruning” event — the extra effort of eliminating branches close to the ground enhances the quality of future timber

Nakai’s personal ambition in this project is to establish a model for achieving sustainable forestry. Meanwhile, Kaigai is motivated to expand “mokuiku” activities to convey the wonders of the forest and the natural environment. An instrument manufacturer happened to be the perfect place for them to fulfill their passion for conserving and advocating for forests.

Yamaha is full of people breaking new ground with the vision of a better future. Nakai and Kaigai spoke about passing the baton across many generations, sharing another common quality with Tsuge, the designer of Real Sound Viewing featured in the first article of this three-part series. Stay tuned for the third part, which will explore the Key that connects these two stories.

(Interview date: September 2022)

Nakai is a Doctor of Agricultural Science, Ph.D., belonging to the Musical Instruments and Audio Products Production Unit. He joined Yamaha Corporation in 2009 having completed a Master’s degree in Forest Science. After working in materials development for instruments, he set up the OTONOMORI Project (Forest of Sound), an initiative designed to cultivate forests which are a resource for instruments.

Kaigai is a member of the Brand Marketing Department, Marketing Division, and the OTONOMORI (Forest of Sound) Project. She decided to pursue a job in music after majoring in International Relations at university and studying abroad, where she witnessed music bringing people together. Having joined Yamaha Corporation in 2017, she now oversees “mokuiku” (wood use education) in the OTONOMORI Project and works to create a bridge between the project and society.

*Bio as of the time of the interview

Three-Part Series: Music Reaching Beyond Time