Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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!


  • I thought you might like to see a documentary in progress that involves the Daiku in Japan, a wonderfully wacky phenomenon.

    All best,

    k candaele
    venice, ca

    By Blogger Kerry, at 11:13 AM  

  • Kerry
    That's fantastic! I can't wait to see how the project pans out! Thanks very much for the link!

    ...and for dropping by.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:29 PM  

  • First of all, I've been a big admirer of Enya's music for years. Did she lose her nerve? (It happens!) Did she plan to do a live performance and her agent said absolutely not, or worse, did the director accept a video feed and then dub the studio recording over it for his/her own purposes without her permission? Maybe she didn't want to bother with it in the first place and so deliberately snubbed the event. I can think of excuses for her, but ultimately, she has enough power as a performer that I think she could have either gone for it or not, and that there really is no excuse for this. I'm sure she has enough money to fly to a tv set and spend an hour before going on a shopping trip or whatever. Or just said no. And if she couldn't say no and didn't want to do it? How about some artistic integrity and making the best of the situation? Hmm?

    This in contrast to a benefit concert, where the performers want to be there, want to do well, want to represent their instructor, and all for a good cause. I hope the concert goes off well. If it doesn't, it won't be for lack of trying, and it won't be canned, and it won't have a rock band to start it off, and an orchestra to finish, thank you very much.

    By Blogger Kami, at 4:29 PM  

  • Face the music I shall!!

    By Blogger Leon Basin, at 5:38 PM  

  • Kami
    The performance certainly looked legit; if not, they went to an awful lot of trouble for appearances. The room they were in looked like a studio or small performance hall. There were mikes set up for the orchestra and harp as well as Enya's vocal mike. I also seem to remember catching a glimpse of a sound console. Everyone was certainly getting into it! And yet the sound was a dub of the original recording.

    Then again, it's hard to imagine Enya doing a live, solo performance of "Orinoco Flow". In the original version her voice is dubbed in over 80 times to create that layered "choir" sound. To recreate that she'd have to use either backing tapes, a vocoder, or a guest chorus. On the other hand, the other song she did, a track off the album And Winter Came (a nice addition to my Christmas collection!), could've been done as a live solo number.

    I've heard that Enya does do live performances, but only on occasion. She has stubbornly avoided touring (leading to an American businessman coining the term "enyanomics", i.e. making it big without really trying). There are also only certain numbers in her live repertoire.

    Too bad she didn't do "Let It Be" or "Water Shows the Hidden Heart" rather than dubbed.

    Leon Basin
    Please do, and more power to you! Keep on writin'!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:03 PM  

  • Shhh, don't tell Yngwie Malmsteen those two things don't mix or he will get depressed and down a bunch of PB & sashimi sandwiches.

    I loved Enya for years, but a combination of her not changing her style much and my employer having a terrible sounding "on hold" sound system with her music for years finally burned me out. I can still listen to it, but I like other stuff better now. (McKennitt, McMahon, and so forth)

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:11 AM  

  • I appreciate your statement about having fun at any cost (to others, to your audience, to the value of the music, etc.). What a shame, really.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 5:45 AM  

  • I ditto Snabby...Enya's music didn't grow w/me...I like very few songs..very far between listenings.

    I found her lack of live performance disturbing...basically seems like a studio creation (a la Milli Vanilli?).

    Hmmm Rock 'n' Roll & Classical music concert?

    Only Queen...with good ol' Freddie Mercury could have pulled it off...

    By Blogger ladybug, at 6:22 AM  

  • Snabudon and Ladybug
    It's one thing to combine rock and classical. I think artists such as Emerson Lake & Palmer/Powell, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Deep Purple did it quite effectively. It's quite another to bill a purely classical concert event and then stick in a couple of local rock (punk?) bands as the opening acts.

    As for Enya, I once had a similar conversation with an American exchange student here regarding The Smashing Pumpkins. It's all a matter of "familiarity breeds contempt", especially if something gets overplayed to death. I don't listen to American radio (and answering machines here tend to play cute little melodies), so there's no chance of my getting sick of them unless I overplay them myself.

    Enya is basically a studio artist, but I don't think the Milli Vanilli analogy is either accurate or appropriate. Milli Vanilli was an out and out fraud, i.e. sticking someone's face to someone else's performance without telling anyone, like they did at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Enya's music is all a collaboration of herself doing all the playing and singing (and most of the composing), Ricky Ryan doing the production (and some of the composing), and Roma Ryan writing the lyrics. It has been that way since Enya (Eithne) first broke from her family's band (Clannad) and went solo in the mid 80s. Her early work was simpler in some ways and more experimental, but she found her breakthrough using that heavily layered vocal sound (as I said, around 80 vocal tracks on Orinoco Flow), so she has stuck with that formula.

    I probably like her Amarantine album best simply because it was a bit less formula and a bit more experimental than she had been.

    But that's just my opinion. I won't try to force it on anyone.

    The area where I live seems to be notorious for that, too. Both the local community band and the local community orchestra are plagued by a very apathetic, "As long as we just do it, it's enough," attitude. Even the guest conductor we hired for the orchestra couldn't quite deal with it. There seems to be a chronic inability to take things seriously or make any real effort toward a goal here.

    I'm not at all against having fun (quite the opposite, really!), but I don't consider a half-assed botch of a performance fun!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:15 AM  

  • Enya with a live orchestra overdubbed with electronic music. That's just ... weird.

    Going to a classical concert only to spend the first part being bashed over the head with rock music. That's just ... weird.

    In my 11th grade computer class we used to tap away at our keyboards with Enya or Yanni in the background. I rarely returned to them in the years since, but I have sampled a little of her sister Moira Brennan who seems a little less full of herself, not being the New Age icon her sister is.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:04 AM  

  • Listen to Metallica with the San Fransisco PhilHarmonic Orchestra.

    It will sound good the first time through, but at a second glance, the SFPHO shows signs of strain in keeping up. Also, it seemed more like filler than counter point composition.

    Clearly the idea of combining classical and rock needs some form of context. I have some other albums where classical music played by rock musicians sounds quite good. But to combine two completely unassociated venues like you say can't work.

    As far as values and music, one who clearly loves and lives music twenty four hours a day is rarely going to be satisfied by young people who will probably at most play their instrument through the end of high school, maybe college, and then will put it aside for the daily grind to never pick it up again.

    As for my self, I am musically undisciplined, have a poor memory for remembering notes, and I don't practice enough to get better. Mostly, this restriction comes about because my living conditions do not permit me to crank my primary instrument.

    I will say that when I play, even by myself, I get a subtle euphoria.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 8:46 AM  

  • Olivia
    Ah, Yanni!

    Interestingly enough, Clannad, the band fronted by Moire (also written "Moya") Brennan and consisting mainly of family members (including, briefly, Enya/Eithne), is generally credited as being the first group/artist to bring Irish music into the mainstream, though people often (mistakenly) think it was Enya who did it. Some of the stuff Clannad did once they decided to shrug off their "strictly folk" image and experiment a little is pretty cool. I would personally recommend their Ring and Legend albums.

    There is a big difference between people who did music in their school days and then dropped it and the point of my post, which is that music isn't being treated with respect. The community band and orchestra I've worked with here both consist mainly of people who want to continue with the instruments they learned in their school days. The problem is that so many of them do it in such a half-assed manner, i.e. they think it's enough just to show up at the performance (but not the rehearsals), blat through the tunes not knowing or caring what they're doing, sound like utter crap, and then say, "Cool, we did it!" Frankly, I'd almost rather they dropped their instruments!

    I saw the video of Metallica with the orchestra. I thought it was an interesting idea but was a bit mystified as to the point of it. As for you, why don't you shut up and play your guitar? (smile on)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:00 AM  

  • In fact, I think Moira did some Christian crossover because that's how I discovered her. On a very nice compilation with collaborating singers and musicians that was aimed at those needing comfort and encouragement. CD was called Streams and the song was "Don't Give Up".

    Funny, I've never seen it spelled Moya before. maybe she changed it because people were having trouble between the pronunciation and the spelling.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 1:40 PM  

  • Olivia
    As far as I know, her name was spelled "Moya" mainly in promotions and album covers aimed at the American audience. By the same token, as I've mentioned, Enya's name is actually spelled "Eithne", but it's a given that no one outside of Ireland would be able to read that properly.

    I've never heard of Streams. Maybe I should try looking it up.

    What do you think of other female Celtic artists such as Loreena McKennitt or the Celtic Woman collaboration?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:58 PM  

  • Enya is also a favorite so it's sad to hear about her attitude. Strange, I think.

    I'd have to say that I feel the same about musicians. Seems so many only care about money... seemed so different years ago.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 9:11 PM  

  • Meh, not that keen on the whole Celtic trend, though I do like a bit of authentic stuff.

    It's funny though, it was the Streams CD where I first heard of her, and her name was Moire on there, along with the pronunciation.

    The thing that annoys me about Gaelic is I used to sing along with the carols and they only say half the word and swallow the rest so they always left me behind. Why can't it be phonetic in English like all the other non-Romance languages are?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:37 AM  

  • Olivia
    Part of the problem with Gaelic spelling is that a lot of the vowels are there simply to separate the main vowel from the preceding or following consonant and aren't read, much like the "u" in "guitar" or "build". There are also consonant combinations that used to be pronounced at one time but now are not (e.g. "mh"). There is also a very big difference between the Irish spoken in different parts of the country. In Dubliner dialect the words are pronounced more like they're spelled and have a clearer, more percussive sound. In Cork and Derry, where Eithne/Enya and Moire/Moya are from, sounds are glossed, aspirated, eclipsed, and/or clipped to the point that no one else (except, ironically, Gaelic-speaking Scots) can understand them.

    Actually, I've noticed there are a lot of similarities between French and Gaelic, and I don't just mean insane spelling rules. They are the only two Western European languages that use the "zh" sound spelled with a "j", e.g. in French "bonjour" and Irish/Scots "je-an" (pronounced like French "Jean" in most of Ireland and Scotland, although in Dublin it's apparently pronounced "kay-on" by the few Dubliners that speak Irish!). There are also a number of shared words, such as "garcon", which means "boy" in both French and Gaelic, though the pronunciation is apparently a little different.

    In other words, there is a clear linguistic relationship between French and Gaelic in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, though the grammar is completely different. If you look at history and anthropology, there is a very good reason for this. The Celts used to be in Central Europe...till they were shoved out by a combination of the Germanic tribes and the Romans. Those Celts that stayed behind in what is now France wound up being absorbed into the Roman Empire, so their native Gaelic and Latin wound up getting mixed. Presto! The French language!

    Makes sense, dunnit?

    Cead mi faille! And get me a whiskey!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:23 PM  

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