Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Off The Scale

O-o-o-o-o-O!!!-kinawa, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain...

Er, wait a minute...

This year, as always, I was a supervisor for a couple of 9th graders writing research papers. One of them chose as his topic researching the reason why some songs become hits in Japan while others don't. I was picked to be his supervisor because I took care of a student doing exactly the same topic a couple of years ago. The student this year was far less motivated and far less diligent in his research, but he still arrived at the same result. Analyzing the melodies of pop tunes, and (at my recommendation) actually going so far as to count the number of times a given note occurred, he came to the conclusion that the more popular ones tended to conform to a traditional pentatonic scale.
(A penta-what???!!?)

A five-tone scale. Since ancient times, traditional Japanese music has been based on one of three five-tone scales. Perhaps the best known in the West is the major pentatonic scale, which could also be called the "Chinese scale" since it has long been the basis of Chinese traditional music, though it is used quite a bit in Japan, too. (It could also be called "the black keys of the piano" since it is...well, you figure it out!). Based on C, it would follow the pattern C - D - E - G - A (- C).

(major pentatonic scale)

There is also the minor pentatonic scale, which could appropriately be called the "Japanese scale" since it is mostly heard in Japanese traditional music. Based on C, it would follow the pattern C - D - Eb - G - Ab (- C).

(minor pentatonic scale)

There is actually one more, and that is the "Okinawan scale", so called because it forms the basis of the traditional music of Oklahoma. (Ha ha, fooled you!) It follows the pattern C - E - F - G - B (- C).

(Okinawan scale)

This scale will no doubt be completely unfamiliar to people who have never had any exposure to things Okinawan; I myself was totally unaware of its existence until I started spying on the 9th grade music elective classes at Ye Olde Academy. Every year Mssr. Maestro Ogawa has the students write compositions using the Okinawan scale which are then performed using a sort of belt-fed music box. (He doesn't tell his students that he has them use the Okinawan scale because the D and A on the music box are broken. Mum's the word!) As for me, after listening both to the students' works and the samples of Okinawan music used as examples, I came to feel that the Okinawan scale had a certain unique character, a sense that was naturally joyful and yet melancholy, a woven tapestry of happy sentiment and tearful longing ([Dieter]and I am now totally insane[/Dieter]), just like Okinawan music itself. And of course, I immediately decided that I wanted to write an Okinawan song of my own. I mean, only five hard could it be?

The answer, of course, is "VERY hard". I just got frustrated. It was easy for me to put myself into the mood of it, but the melodic ideas that came pouring forth from my muse just would NOT be constrained to the Okinawan scale. Try as I might, I couldn't shake my D habit (read "the fifth of the dominant"...and get a headache). After all kinds of false starts and failed attempts I finally said "fuggit" and composed a tune that was made in the spirit of Okinawan music even if it didn't obey the scale. (I also wound up not using Okinawan instrument voices, but oh well.) Once I liberated myself from the shackles of tradition I found it much easier to work, and I soon had the drum and main rhythm parts programmed using my 61-key Edirol controller on my desktop computer. It was a simple matter to import the MIDI file into Sonar on my studio laptop and start fleshing it out.

[Technical BS]
Except it wasn't. It had always worked well before, but this time my equipment suddenly decided not to cooperate. MIDI playback seemed to be working fine for the most part, but when I tried to convert the drum track from MIDI to audio it wouldn't run smoothly; it would be okay for maybe a few dozen measures, but then one measure would suddenly glitch. I tried monkeying around with all those various buffers and did a whole bunch of takes before I finally got one that I figured was as good as I was gonna get. But I still wasn't satisfied. The directions for the Sonic Cell recommend using the ASIO driver, but I'd always used WDM instead since I'd had better luck with it. I decided to try giving ASIO another shot, figuring I had nothing to lose, but it ran like a dog. I immediately went back to WDM, but when I did so Sonar apparently reconfigured its DMA settings for the Sonic Cell, and they didn't look right (but I didn't remember what they had been originally...and the manuals say strictly hands off!). After a lot of experimenting I managed to get an audio drum track that sounded a bit better, so I went ahead and converted all the other MIDI tracks...and got even more frustrated. Switching back to ASIO again and doing some mucking around, I finally got it playing properly...even better than before...but the whole feel and timing pulse were different, which meant redubbing the MIDI tracks would require redoing all the live tracks I'd finished, too. So I gave up and switched back over to WDM, and viola! (An instrument similar to but slightly larger than a violin.) (I meant to say "voila"!) Sonar automatically reconfigured the DMA settings again, and this time it apparently got them right, because suddenly it was working properly. Well, maybe not perfect, though. MIDI playback was working perfectly, but when I redubbed that damned drum track, while it never glitched, it seemed to be struggling with the tempo a little bit, hanging slightly behind the beat in a couple of places as if the drummer's cybermuscles were getting tired. It still sounded a lot better than before, so I went with it. [/Technical BS]

The lyrics were inspired by and based (loosely) on a speech I heard broadcast in part on TV some years ago. It was by an Okinawan high school student at an event protesting the continued use of Okinawa as the U.S. military's doormat main base of operations in the Pacific. There had just been an incident in which live shells fired during a training exercise landed on her high school campus, which was immediately adjacent to the firing range. Fortunately, the speech was in standard Japanese rather than Okinawan, which is so different it requires subtitles when shown on TV elsewhere in the country. What I heard went something like, "Give us back our peace! Give us back our security! Give us back our pride! For our future, give us back our land!" That at least gave me something to work from.

There has been a nasty chest and throat cold going around these days, and I haven't been immune. My voice has been consistently rough, so I decided to test my setup some more by recording a whole bunch of layered vocal tracks a la Abba or Enya (only male). I haven't fully gotten the hang of it, but it was still a lot of fun.

So now...I give you my latest musical spawn: "Give Us Back". At 33 tracks, most of them stereo, this is by far my most ambitious single song project to date (which means people probably aren't going to like it), and Sonar still had lots of power to spare even on my modest studio laptop...which I hope to replace soon with something a little more powerful and a lot less fascist. (More on my Minstrel's Muse site.)

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Just a Quick News Flash

I've been really lax in my posting, haven't I?  Still too distracted, still not inspired enough.  But actually, I've been working on a post that's still not quite finished.  I'll stick this in to cover the bases in the meantime.

The flu epidemic is getting worse in Japan.  There are currently two different types going around.  To make matters worse, the news reported yesterday that the city of Kashima (i.e. where I work) is one of the worst-hit areas of the country, enough that emergency preparations are already being made.  Although the number is finally starting to drop, up until last Monday as much as 4% of our senior high student body, nearly 15% of the 9th grade class, was down with confirmed flu.  The overwhelming majority was from the same homeroom, so the school wound up declaring that homeroom quarantined and barring all its students from coming for a week.  It's the first time anything like that has happened in the history of this school.

And now we have a report of a renewed bird flu scare in China.  Egad.

Everywhere we look we are seeing reminders to wash our hands often and, more importantly, to gargle.  Unfortunately, although there has been no public mention of this here (for obvious reasons), a recent study in Australia concluded that use of mouthwash with alcohol, such as Listerine, vastly increases the risk of oral cancer.  In other words, possibly damned if you do, possibly damned if you don't.

Maybe this would be a good time to use my accumulating paid vacation time and pop off to somewhere more isolated, such as Iceland.

Stay healthy, everyone!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Domino Effect

Friday the 16th was an unusual day at Ye Olde Academy. Since the next day was to be one of the various entrance exams, only morning classes were scheduled. The students had to clear the junior and senior high buildings by early afternoon so we could set everything up for the exams. It looked to be a fairly easy day, and it was a given that I'd be able to go home early for a change.

As it turned out, it was even easier, and I got to go home even earlier, than I'd expected. My son woke up in the morning looking languid and flushed and complaining of chills. We checked his temperature and found it to be 38.8 degrees Centigrade (101.8 Fahrenheit). A flu has been going around recently, and a couple of my son's classmates had already been down with it, so we feared the worst. I went ahead and called the school, explained the situation, and told them I'd be coming late. I then rushed to the Namegata General Hospital (the only "real" hospital in our area), made an appointment, and came back home to relax a bit while waiting.

My son and I wound up arriving a few minutes late for his appointment, found out that we'd been skipped, and were then made to wait for about two and a half hours before we could see a doctor. The doctor said it was too early to tell whether it was the flu or not, especially since my son wasn't showing any symptoms besides a fever and runny nose. We were given a one-day prescription, told to come back the next day if he got any worse, and sent on our way. I brought my son home and sent him straight to bed. It was already too late for my morning classes, so I just grabbed a kip, waited for others to come home, and then headed off to the school to take my turn at "day duty" (which actually meant taking a quick patrol of the campus and then locking up when everyone was gone).

On Saturday my son's fever was already pretty much gone, and he was raring to go. That was a good thing, because not only was I on duty at the school all day because of the entrance exams, but my daughter was also there taking the exam. (Yes, she's that age now.) My wife was also there so she could cart my daughter to and from the school. That just left my son with my father-in-law, who was out of the house doing whatever most of the day. He was fine, though, and by evening his fever was completely gone.

So naturally my daughter got sick on Sunday. Her bug seemed milder than my son's, since her temperature was hovering just a little over 37.3 degrees C (99 degrees F) all day. However, at night it shot up to 38.6 degrees C (101.5 degrees F). This morning (Monday) it got up to 39.4 C (102.9 F). My wife took her to the hospital, where the doctor prescribed her a whole pile of medicine. I was able to come home in the afternoon since there was a staff meeting to discuss the exam results; since my daughter was an examinee, rules forbade my being there. The problem is that her fever is still in the high 38s even now, meaning she'll be home sick tomorrow too. Since my wife took the day off today, I guess it's my turn. I'm sure my daughter isn't very happy right now, but at least I'm getting a couple of extra days off...with nothing to do!

Maybe it's just what the doctor ordered, a little off-time windfall...except for the fact that my schedule is now totally screwed up. I could also do without the flu right now, thank you!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Face the Music

Another day, another rant in the music office at Ye Olde Academy.  Mssr. Maestro and I (especially Mssr. Maestro) never seem to run out of music-related topics to fuss over, debate, argue, complain about, etc. as we enjoy the best coffee to be found on campus (something I've enjoyed seeing to personally the past several years).  Not surprisingly, a favorite subject (target?) of these rant sessions recently has been the Kashima Philharmonic.  Mssr. Maestro never seems to run out of reasons to complain about it even though he has officially severed all ties.  However, today something has come up that is far more disturbing.

When I first overheard Mssr. Maestro and our choral director talking about "Kamisu Daiku", I completely misunderstood.  The word "daiku" in Japanese normally means "carpenter".  The discussion was obviously about a concert of some kind, so I naturally wondered if it were perhaps a Japanese cover band of The Carpenters.  [Fudd]Noooo.[/Fudd]  It turned out that "daiku" in this case was really a combination of "dai" and "ku", words meaning "big/great" and "nine".  It's apparently the Japanese nickname for Beethoven's 9th Symphony.  

It seems that there is an annual tradition in Kamisu of hosting a performance of the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th sung by a mass choir open to anyone that wants to participate.  (Unfortunately, they only use piano accompaniment.)  It's an event which has apparently grown as more and more people have come to join in.  It has also attracted enough of a following that they are able to charge admission.

It all sounds well and good on paper (or HTML, whatever), but after hearing about this year's Kamisu Daiku concert, it sounded like someone had some seriously loose screws when planning the thing.  The problem was that the giant open choir had very little time to rehearse, so they ONLY intended to perform the 4th movement of the 9th.  Of course, that hardly amounts to a concert, especially one with an admission charge.  So what did the planners do?  They opened the show with two rock bands.  Yes, you read that right.  A piano-accompanied, classical choral performance opened by two (apparently very loud but not necessarily very good) rock bands.  Needless to say, a lot of people both on and off the stage were seriously upset.  Whoever organized the event basically insulted it.  

I like both peanut butter and sashimi, but I would never eat them together.  By the same token, loud rock music and classical choral music, while both quite enjoyable by themselves, have no business being lumped together under a single billing.  The people that paid the money to see the show, whether they came to see the bands or the "Daiku", were seriously ripped off.  That's bad enough.  The performers were also insulted, which is even worse.  However, the fact that the organizers obviously paid no attention whatsoever to the content of the performances, i.e. the music itself, is by far the worst, because it means that they were giving the music no value.  They were demeaning it.  Yes, I have a problem with that.

I also had a bit of a problem with Enya's appearance on a recent TV event.  Every year, as part of the New Year celebrations, one of the TV networks always hosts a "Red vs. White" competition, where various performing artists and TV stars group together into two teams (Red and White) and face off against each other.  It's a series of heats in which one representative from each team gives a performance, and then a panel of celebrity judges chooses which they liked best.  Sometimes a pretty bad performer can win his or her heat simply because the other team's representative is even worse (and believe me...some of those TV stars' attempts at singing are almost unbearable).  It's all a lot of fun to watch, and I usually enjoy it, but I was especially excited to hear that Enya would be appearing.  She has been among my favorites for over twenty years now, and seeing her perform live on TV sounded like the chance of a lifetime.  Except that she didn't.  They cut to a video of her being interviewed in a massive, old, castle-like building in the Irish countryside that was probably her home.  Then the performance started, also in the home.  Wearing her red "Amarantine" dress to represent the Red team, she stood behind a mike in front of a full string orchestra with harpist and proceeded to sing her all-time greatest hit, "Orinoco Flow".  However, as the string players madly plucked their instruments and the harpist danced through those fast passages, what we actually heard was the original recording, i.e. nothing but synthesizers!  Meanwhile, Enya herself looked a bit bored and bewildered, especially during the "badum badum (pause)" parts of the song.  To make matters worse, the song cut off in the middle, and she suddenly started "singing" a tune from her latest album, with her orchestra busily toiling away as we listened to the mostly-electronic studio recording.  Frankly, I was appalled.  I don't know if Enya herself was even aware that all she was doing was providing visuals for a CD performance, but as far as I'm concerned all those musicians were being insulted.  And considering her competition in that heat was actually on stage performing, I felt that the whole idea of the contest was being insulted and the music demeaned.

I know all too well that, in this day and age, music is taken for granted.  Unlike in earlier times, when it was either live or nothing (and definitely NOT Memorex), all we have to do is hit a button or switch, and there it is.  In the iPod age, music seems to be merely part of the atmosphere rather than the focus, i.e. no more significant than an air freshener.  In Japan of a thousand years ago, there were specific scales used depending on the season, the type of instrument you used carried all kinds of significance, and how you played said a lot about both your own character and the mood of the moment.  In other words, when it came to music, one didn't mess around!  In modern Japan, on the other hand, I've had the dubious honor of playing in and directing both a community band and a community orchestra, most of whose members never took it even a little bit seriously and were perfectly content to skip rehearsals, show up to the concert unprepared, turn in a mediocre performance, and get high on themselves for it.  In the interest of "having fun", they're perfectly willing to insult both the audience and the music itself.

Call me old-fashioned, if you will, but I wish people would value music a bit more, or at least stop treating it so cavalierly.

That student I hear practicing a barn-burner of a Mozart piano piece in the next room certainly isn't!

Monday, January 05, 2009

What I Didn't Do This Winter Vacation

So...what didn't I do during my winter vacation?

I didn't do nothing.

I don't mean that in the rough, vernacular sense of, "I didn't do nuthin'." It's a literal double negative. I didn't do nothing. And nothing was precisely what I'd needed and wanted to do most. There were actually a number of things I'd hoped to do during my oh-so-short break, and I wound up not being able to do most of them. Nothing topped that list.

Part of the problem is the fact that we are still a family in mourning. The death of my mother-in-law last summer means all celebrations are out for a full year. That especially means the New Year (though Western observances like Christmas are strangely immune, as I've mentioned before). As in most Asian countries, the New Year is the most significant event of the year here in the Land of the Rising Yen. There are all kinds of special activities, seasonal dishes, traditional practices, seasonal decoration, etc., just as there are for Christmas in Western countries. This year they were particularly conspicuous by their absence. We had our annual Christmas celebration, though it was a bit muted, and after that it was virtually business as usual except for the fact that we were off from work. Heck, we didn't even have the usual mountain of New Year cards. Logically, you'd think the lack of all those New Year preparations would make things easier. Quite the opposite.

The week leading up to New Year's Day is cleaning week. Just as there is Spring Cleaning in the West, there is New Year Cleaning here. Usually we have to weave it in with the extensive New Year preparations, which puts limits on how much can be done (especially when my MIL's health started taking a turn for the worse, because it meant we had even more to do). Not so this year. Except for the two days I spent in Tokyo for the All Japan Selected High School Orchestra Fest (well-meant fanfare with some squawks in the back), I was totally free and open, so my wife and I really socked it to our house. I mean we seriously socked it to it. As in we replaced several items of cheap, old, barely-usable furniture which was just in the way (which I then had an absolute blast dismantling and burning), sorted out the entire family's wardrobe, and threw out a ton of stuff. My wife scrubbed down the kitchen and everything in it while I waxed and polished every inch of the house and repaired (or replaced) a whole bunch of things that were loose, dangling, in danger of landing on hapless heads, etc.. Meanwhile, my son was busy (not) doing his winter homework, and my daughter was obsessively (not) studying up for the entrance exam of Ye Olde Academy. In other words, they were no help at all. It was just my wife and I, and we spent five full days, as in early morning till late at night, at it before we finally said, "Fuggit," and moved my father-in-law's house!

We took a bit of a break on January 2nd, but there was still plenty to do. There were still odds and ends of repairwork that needed doing, not to mention a bit of shopping. I also did some much-needed maintenance work on my computers and studio.

Fortunately, on the 3rd we only spent a little over half a day cleaning FIL's house, mainly because we got fed up with listening to his complaining. You see, he doesn't believe in house cleaning. He thinks it's a waste of time. All the time he and my MIL were living together in that house she never did more than a cursory vacuuming two or three times a month, which was why the place always looked terrible and smelled worse inside. However, when my MIL's health started leaving her bedridden last year, my family started doing housecleaning over there, and what we found was like a nightmare. There were massive accumulations of dust-bunnies, many of them clearly decades old. There were framed wall hangings whose glass plates were so covered with hardened dust and oil-stove grime as to be completely opaque. Then there was all that useless junk piled in every available space. Even with last summer's massive cleaning effort with the help of several relatives, we're still finding accumulations of dust and mold that look like they could shoot out tentacles and devour passers-by at any moment. We did our best to prevent such things. For all our effort, however, there was no gratitude whatsoever from FIL; on the contrary, he spent the whole time yelling at us to stop "wasting time" and do something more useful, like weed his garden. (The man simply can't handle people around him doing anything unless it's by his orders. He's that sort.)

That left just one more day, Sunday the 4th. And since it was a Sunday, that meant it was our regular housecleaning day. Never mind that we'd spent all day on the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st, and 1st cleaning. It was Sunday, so my wife insisted we clean house. At least we abbreviated the procedure to keep the afternoon free, but a good chunk of that afternoon wound up getting taken out when some well-meaning bastard soul brought over a massive chunk of slightly old (i.e. hardened), uncut mochi (pounded rice cake, a New Year delicacy), which we then had to saw apart...a monumental chore. After that my wife and I hopped in the car and went out on a very short "date" (i.e. shopping in Narita) while the kids stayed home to (not) study.we were back to work.

And on the 5th, today, we were back to work.

No, I didn't manage to do nothing. I didn't get new glasses, either. Nor did I get the cat "fixed". Nor did I wash my BLUE RAV4. Nor did I make those music sheets for the Flying Eggheads' bassist. Nor did I finish the three (now four) songs I'm currently working on. Nor did I finish weeding the front flowerbeds. Nor did I venture out to Tokyo, Yokohama, Makuhari Messe, or any of the other places I was hoping to visit. In other words, my checklist is sadly devoid of checks.

But at least the house is clean.

And now...a quick retrospective of the year 2008:

Best Moment: Having caricatures drawn of my whole family, including the in-laws, by a nationally reknowned caricature artist on the observation deck of Yokohama Landmark Tower. It was my mother-in-law's last trip anywhere, and the caricature of the two in-laws together is now a valuable treasure. I remember I opposed their joining us at first. I'm really glad I gave in.

Caricature kinen

(Runners up: Having a kid who never participates in any classes at all actually participate in my class. Performing at the Kashima Soccer Stadium and then watching my first pro soccer game there.)

Worst Moment: Witnessing the death of my mother-in-law.

Most Worthwhile Outing: The family trip to Yokohama mentioned above.
(Runners up: Climbing Mt. Tsukuba.)

Most Worthwhile Purchase: My Roland Sonic Cell together with Edirol/Cakewalk SONAR 7. It has completely changed my whole approach to composing, let alone recording.

(Runner up: The 14.4V power drill/driver I bought on impulse last summer. It was definitely a MVP during our New Year cleaning!)

Most Pointless Purchase: My wife's birthday present, yet another expensive handbag she'd requested...which turned out to be just a different-colored version of one she already had.

(Runner up: The handbag I gave her for our wedding anniversary...which was the "wrong size", so she rarely touches it.)

Most Amazing Present Received: The Roland/Edirol R-09HR wave/mp3 recorder my wife gave me for Christmas after misunderstanding my request. (I'd wanted something much simpler and cheaper, but no complaints from me!) This thing is awesome!

(Runner up: The box of cake mixes sent to me by Snabulus and Ladybug. Thanks again!)

Best News Moment for Japan: Knocking off the U.S.A. for the first time EVAR to win the Olympic gold in softball. The silver won in fencing, Japan's first medal ever in that sport, was nice, too.

(Runners up: A JSDF team from Japan being allowed into China to help with rescue efforts after the monstrous earthquake. (China has always fussed and spit every time anyone even suggests Japan's military participating in any kind of overseas activity. For them to allow it in their own country is a huge step forward in terms of relations between the two countries.) Gas prices dropping to lower than they were last year even though they virtually doubled during the summer.)

Worst News Moment for Japan: A state-of-the-art Aegis destroyer ramming a fishing boat in Tokyo Bay, killing its crew.

(Runners up: Electing a notorious right-winger prone to gaffes to the post of Prime Minister. Having almost all of Japan's top judo competitors wiped out in the preliminaries in the Olympics. All those tainted and/or mislabeled product scandals. (No, not all of those were from China! Not by a long shot!))

Biggest Hope for 2009: That our leaders will use their heads.

Biggest Worry for 2009: That our leaders won't use their heads.

But at least I have all of you to remind me that there are still lots of very good things in the world!

UPDATE: Here's a new track I just wrote and recorded, an on-the-spot, largely improvised acoustic number called "Live With You". I made it partly to test my new Roland/Edirol R-09HR digital recorder and partly because my blog friend Angele has been in poor spirits recently and seems to need some encouragement. More info on my Minstrel's Muse site.