Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, February 28, 2009

First a Scream, Then a Rumble

Earthquakes are a part of life here in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Tremors at least strong enough to cause lamps to sway and bookshelves to rattle happen several times a year, maybe even a couple of times a month.  You do get used to it, but never completely.  When the shaking starts, everything stops.

What's interesting is that, after you've experienced so many small quakes, you begin to recognize the telltale signs just before they occur.  Usually there is a sort of vibration, a strange feeling of thickness in the air, even a hint of a droning sound at the extreme low end of the audible spectrum, just before that first jolt hits.  It's usually enough that everyone looks at each other and says, "Ah, jishin da," [Ah, it's an earthquake] a second or two before it starts.

But last night was weird.

I was sitting at my computer busily Superpoking (i.e. annoying) people when I suddenly started hearing an awful, nerve-wracking wail.  I thought perhaps it was the creak of a rusty truck door being opened out on the nearby street, but it went on for at least a couple of seconds and seemed to be coming from every direction at once.  Then came the familiar vibration and thickness in the air.  When the shaking started, the keening took a sharp turn upward in pitch and then cut off with an eerie snap.  Luckily, it was only a very minor tremor, not enough to move much of anything.

What in the world was that sound?  Was it the aluminum sheeting on the neighbors' shed offering a harmonic complaint in response to the vibration?  Was it the siding on our house doing the same thing?  Was it a standing vibration temporarily induced in the steel reinforcing girders in our roof?  Or was it the living rock crying out in agony as it was bent to the breaking point?  I'll never know.  But it's too bad I didn't get a recording of it.  It had possibilities!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heralding the Dawn

You know, it just keeps getting harder and harder to find or even make the time to work in my studio, but here's my latest offering. I intend to use it as the opener for my next homegrown album. I'm also considering it as a possible candidate for my entry into that contest I mentioned earlier.

The tune is called Herald of the Dawn. I was in the mood to do an upbeat, guitar-driven piece, and that's what it is. I mean, there is nothing but (lots of) guitars, bass, drums, and "vocals". (I thought about putting a sax solo in the middle, but recording in the middle of the night led me to decide to stick with guitar.) I actually pieced it together out of two separate, incomplete song ideas that seemed to segue well into each other. I originally intended to write lyrics for it, but I was feeling very uninspired. Besides, I think the hummed chorus I finally put in works better, anyway.

The drum track worked very well with none of the problems I encountered with "Give Us Back". I think the chief difference was that I made it directly using Sonar (with quantized real-time recording supplemented with some step programming) instead of importing a generic MIDI file. I consider it a valuable lesson learned, though it could hamper the creative process a little.

(More info can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.)

Give it a listen and tell me what you think. Is this a viable contest entry, or should I go with something else? (So far the "most likely candidates" list includes "Sign Sonata", "Secret Identity", "Beyanam", and "Wakannai!", with "Live With You" and "Erweina" as runners up. I'm really hoping for some feedback...and I don't mean of the amp variety!).

Thursday, February 19, 2009


It all started when I noticed that Safari, the browser I use on my work laptop, was starting to act goofy. When I typed text for any length of time it would suddenly start running really slowly even when the Windows Task Manager said I was using hardly any of my available processor power and memory and the hard drive was quiet. The last straw was when it unexpectedly froze up on me twice in one day, both times when I was halfway through a new Wikipedia entry (i.e. all of it lost). Something was definitely up.

Mindful of Snabulus' recent infection troubles, I did a full virus scan, which came up clean, but that was also something of a dilemma. All computers connected to the LAN at work are obliged to use Trend Microsystem's Virus Buster, installed from and controlled by the server. (When I first connected to the network and registered, it automatically uninstalled AVG on my machine before inserting itself.) The problem was that Snabulus discovered that Virus Buster, for all its size, expense, and hype, proved the least effective when tested along with several other virus scanners on his impacted machine. Since it is a well-known product, it seems to be easily defeated by virus writers. That led me to take a cue from Snabulus' experience and try something different. I proceeded to download and install a free virus scanner available on the internet. (I won't say which one since it's a work rather than home computer, i.e. I'm not really supposed to use it.) I then ran an initial scan, and voila!

Two Trojan horse viruses found on my C drive, both of a lesser-known type that has mainly been seen in Japan and Germany.

I'm totally puzzled as to how they got there. Since it's my work laptop, I don't really websurf with it, sticking mainly to certain, trusted sites. The only e-mail messages I've accessed with it have come from people and locations I know well, and the only attachments I'm aware of were all official documents (and it has been a long time since the last one arrived). The only other possibility I can think of was that it arrived via an infected flash drive, since I had to use a couple to check students' work. At any rate, something got on my machine and downloaded things into it that I didn't want.

The free virus scanner removed the files without any problem. There also don't seem to be any suspicious entries in my running processes list. I haven't yet looked at my registry, so I don't know what evils might be lurking there. I hope that the problem is solved, but I can't be sure. How can I deal with a problem when I don't know how it got there in the first place? Especially when this particular virus is a bit more obscure and thus doesn't have much information available? At any rate, Safari is working properly now, and I've noticed that Virus Buster has gone back to conducting lengthy scans on bootup, something I'm surprised I didn't notice wasn't happening. (Maybe I was just happy that bootup time had been magically reduced to under fifteen minutes and therefore didn't look a gift horse in the mouth. My bad, I guess.)

Curiouser and curiouser.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


(With apologies to Phil Collins and everyone else...)

February 14th was anything but an ordinary Saturday, and not only because it was Valentine's Day. The string orchestra from Ye Olde Academy had its last "away concert" of the current, very active school year, performing two sets at the Cheerio Shopping Mall in downtown Kashima. Although Mssr. Maestro Ogawa conducted the performance, I went along as well, partly because I was driving a school van and partly because I was part of the performance. I played Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance" and the Glenn Miller favorite "Moonlight Serenade" on clarinet with the orchestra backing, and I played "My Funny Valentine" on alto saxophone with only piano accompaniment.

The last number was the most fun. I was really able to open up and fill that high-ceilinged central plaza with sound...with plenty of all-natural (and NOT gated) reverb.

Anyway, once both sets were done and all the final hauling and handling complete, I loaded up in my BLUE RAV4 for the trip home and immediately got a call on my cell phone. My daughter reported that Mrs. Minstrel was busy and going to be late for dinner. That in itself was cringe-worthy news, because it meant I had to try to feed my father-in-law. You'd think that would be ridiculously simple, since he insists we have the same damned thing every [expletive] breakfast and dinner. The problem is that he is also so [expletive] picky, i.e. everything has to be prepared a certain way or we have to sit and listen to him complain for half an hour (if he doesn't give up and eat something else). It turned out that he had already made things a whole lot easier; he was in a celebratory mood for some reason and wanted us to go out for kaiten sushi. Specifically, he wanted to go to a shop called Sushiro (and I'm not talking about the famous shop of the same name in Saskatoon).

Kaiten (回転 literally "moving in a circle" or "revolving") sushi is an interesting Japanese phenomenon. It is a type of restaurant in which chefs place plates with various types of sushi on a circular conveyor belt. The customers simply take what they want as it comes by. Customers also have the option of ordering specific dishes if they like. Payment is determined by the number and color of the plates. It's quick, it's convenient, and it's an excellent way to deal with a high-volume clientele.

Sushiro, however, has taken the concept to a whole new level. It is a chain originating in Osaka, and its claim to fame is that it offers a high-quality product at an amazingly low price. Moreover, since it charges the same price per plate regardless of the type of sushi, it is even quicker and easier (and cheaper) than your ordinary kaiten sushi restaurant. Not surprisingly, it has been VERY successful. I had only been to the nearest Sushiro restaurant once before, with Mssr. Maestro Ogawa (who has an uncanny knack for tracking down things that are cheap yet excellent), and it was rather busy even though it was between the lunch and dinner rushes. On every other occasion when I'd tried to go there the waiting area was so jam-packed that I'd given up. Needless to say, since it was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I wasn't feeling very optimistic, but we decided to go for it anyway.

It turned out that it wasn't so bad. We only had a fifteen-minute wait. That still gave me plenty of time to watch and marvel at the action before we got our table. Check-in is all computerized (as is their entire inventory management); you tap a touch-screen, enter your number and preferences, and get a numbered ticket. You get called as soon as a table is ready. A team of hardened staff hustle about at a frantic pace, cleaning and prepping tables, ushering people in, tallying bills, and ringing up payment, all with smiles on their faces. Meanwhile, in the back, a sizable kitchen squad keeps three conveyor belts constantly stocked with an amazing variety of sushi and other things. And if the mobile smorgasbord somehow isn't enough, one can call in an order using a computerized network, and the specified dish arrives labeled on the conveyor belt.

(This is an off-the-shelf YouTube video of a Sushiro restaurant, not my own. The 白色 (white) label is the color code for the table, so that specially-ordered items on the conveyor belt can be identified.)

My father-in-law was amazed. He has long been a fan of kaiten sushi (on those occasions when he's willing to pay for it), but he had never seen anything like Sushiro. The sheer scale of the place in terms of customer volume and size of the operation were unlike anything he'd ever experienced. Add to that the fact that such a wonderful and varied menu was available at a price that was almost unthinkably low, and you have something that to him seemed almost like an extra layer of heaven. He repeatedly wondered aloud how they were ever able to make enough profit to stay in business, but then we answered the question quite clearly ourselves. When we finally declared ourselves finished (among groans and belches), and I pushed the "check, please" button, we all had mountains of empty plates in front of us. We'd probably eaten more than we ever had at any other kaiten sushi place. Needless to say, the bill was NOT low. It didn't matter, though. We were all satisfied. And as for my father-in-law, he was happier than I'd seen him in ages.

I guess it was a worthwhile Valentine's Day for a change. Besides, this year I actually got chocolate from some of the girls in the string orchestra. :-)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tagged to the Wall

I've been tagged again! This time the culprit is Pandabonium. The tag is simple enough; I'm supposed to go to my photo archive, look in the fourth folder, post the fourth photo in it, and talk about it. I'm also supposed to tag four more hapless sods victims.

Panda-B himself was lucky; his own #4 of #4 was a wonderful shot from Kashima Shrine, one that was good enough to be chosen for a magazine cover. Coincidentally, mine is also from Kashima Shrine. It's an awful shot, one for which I take no responsibility, but it does bring back a lot of memories:

1999 Shichigosan Mao

You can see the date on the side of the image. It was November of 1999. My daughter is in a beautiful, red kimono that she received from her great grandmother (who is still alive and kicking at 98). We had dressed her up and taken her to Kashima Shrine because it was the Shichigosan (literally 7-5-3) festival, and she was three years old. The bag she is holding says "thousand year candy", i.e. candy received in hope of a long life.

My son was in attendance, too. He's the bulge in my wife's gut. He was born about a month later.

And what a sight I am! I still wear that coat sometimes, but look how skinny I was in those days! (I actually lost about fourteen kilograms [31 lbs.] between April of 1999 and March of 2000 on account of stress and depression. But what's really amazing is that I was still a bit heavier than I was when I first arrived in Japan. I was almost a human pencil then!) I replaced those glasses with my current pair about two months later, and now I'm coincidentally planning on getting new ones. I remember I really liked those shoes; I don't remember the make, but they were comfortable and, most importantly, were easy to get on and off...a necessity here in the Land of the Frequently-Shed Footwear. I wore them out rather quickly. Those Levi's were the only pair of jeans I had at the time, underscoring how much my lifestyle had changed since coming to Japan. (In the States jeans were about the only kind of pants I ever wore.) I wound up wearing them out, too.

My wife still looks pretty much the same. She still likes those Laura Ashley print dresses, too. My daughter does NOT look the same. She'll be entering junior high in a couple of months, and she looks like a young teen. It's hard to believe she was ever that small and babyish. Where DOES the time go? (Okay, now that I've gotten that cliche &%#$ out of the way...)

Okay, let's see...I tag Happysurfer, Pink Panther, Dewkid, and Swinebread.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Meaning Behind the Bangs

Well, yet another dream has come true since my relocating to the Land of the Rising Sun:

I finally got to conduct Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture".

Sure, it was only a rehearsal rather than a performance, and the Kashima Philharmonic is only just starting out on the thing (read "with a little imagination the tune is almost recognizable"), but it's still a dream I've had since I was really little. It was exciting enough finally to get a chance to play the tune, but to pick up the baton and try to shape the thing into an image that has been in my mind for almost all of my life is, well...amazing!

What's even more amazing is that I managed to keep my tears in my head and thus didn't embarrass myself.

Yes, it's a pretty shameful thing for a heterosexual adult male to admit, but there are certain musical works that tend to seize hold of my midbrain, yank it out of my tenuous control, and leave me with soggy cheeks. Depending on the tune and the circumstances under which I hear it, sometimes my throat even catches, leaving me unable to speak. It's something I've had to deal with for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I'm not really sure why a particular tune moves me so much. In the case of the "1812 Overture", however, I think I have a pretty good idea.

Tchaikovsky himself toured the U.S.A. with a Russian orchestra in 1891. The "1812 Overture" was a featured tune in his program. Hearing the piece for the first time, the Americans had little if any idea of its significance or what it commemorated; all they knew was that it was a really cool musical extravaganza with lots of pops, bangs, and screaming fanfares. In other words, it went straight to the American heart. It was an American favorite from that time onward. Its place in American culture was elevated even further in the late 1930s when orchestras began performing it as a festival piece. By the mid to late 20th century it had become a regular fixture of American culture. Irony of ironies, since the Reagan 80s, the height of the Cold War, it has been a regular tradition of American Independance Day celebrations. In other words, in a span of a century, the "1812 Overture" went from a piece written for a Russian historical commemoration to an officially adopted part of Americana.

And yet most Americans still have little if any idea what the tune really means. Ask them, and if they don't simply shrug their shoulders or dismiss it with a curt, "Who cares," you're liable to hear something about the war between the U.S. and Britain that took place in 1812. Those with a bit more savvy might mention Napoleon, but there's a good chance they'll say it's about the Battle of Waterloo. Most will probably only look at you funny if you mention the name "Borodino" or even "Moscow". To them it is an American tune; written by a Russian composer (if they even know that), perhaps, but still an American tune.

Thus it was when, a chronically music-loving, little boy from the Oregon Coast fell totally in love with the "1812 Overture". He requested it so often, and, when he was old enough to operate the record player himself, played it so often that the record wound up scratched into oblivion. His mother then bought another one, a different (and more famous) version directed by a Russian conductor. When he heard that version he was surprised; it was so much deeper, more heartfelt, even melancholy...not quite the wild bang and brass fest he expected. Then he read the detailed description of the work on the back of the album cover. And when he did, he wept bitterly. (And I'm starting to get teary-eyed at the memory, damn it all! I really wish my midbrain came with an off switch!)

The "1812 Overture" begins with a Russian church hymn, the title of which is traditionally translated as "God Preserve Thy People". In the most common version it is played by a chorus of violas and cellos, but many if not most Russian conductors prefer to use a choir with a pipe organ coming in later instead of the usual woodwind flourishes. It is hauntingly beautiful, and when sung by a Russian choir it sounds particularly melancholy. It is, in fact, a solemn prayer for deliverance. (There is a very good reason for this, as I'll explain later.) Then, still at a slow largo tempo, the orchestra comes in with a bang followed by a high tension piece. Napolean has invaded Russia, and he is driving his foes before him like a bulldozer. The Russian people are in grave danger.

The 1812 theme then comes in out of nowhere. The Russian Army, under General Kutuzov, is preparing to make a brave stand on the Plains of Borodino. They know they are facing long odds, but there is a strong feeling of excitement and anticipation. This is soon followed by a high-tension fugue threaded around the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, which gains in prominence as it goes. Napoleon is on the move, and nothing can stop him.

Cut to a strangely serene melody. It's like a film or TV program in which the scene has just cut to Moscow, where life is going on as usual. The War is still far away. However, the Russian folk dance that starts up a little later has an air of anxiety. The people know that Napoleon is coming. They know that only General Kutuzov and his forces stand between them and total defeat. Then the fugue comes back even tenser than before, and when the serene melody and folk dance are reprised they, too, sound far more filled with stress and uncertainty than before. Napoleon is drawing nearer. The people are filled with fear.

Then we hear La Marseillaise. Napoleon has arrived. He draws nearer, nearer, inexorably nearer, until, when La Marseillaise finally sounds in an aggressively triumphant fanfare answered with cannon fire, he engages General Kutuzov on the Plains of Borodino.

Even by modern standards, it was a horribly brutal battle. Over a hundred thousand men lost their lives. The Russian Army made a valiant stand, but Napoleon hit them with everything he had, and victory began to seem well nigh impossible. It was then that General Kutuzov made a painful yet critical decision. He sounded the retreat and fell back to Moscow, leading the French forces in behind him.

Napoleon's apparent victory shows in the music as it takes a triumphant turn. But then, suddenly, there begins a long series of falling eighth notes that just goes on and on and on, slowing and building as it does. It has a double meaning. It is the sound of Moscow burning. Even as the French march victorious into the city, they find only an inferno. The Russians themselves have put it to the torch. (Strangely, in an NHK [Japanese state broadcasting] documentary I once watched, they claimed the French burned Moscow in order to drive out Kutuzov's army, but if so, it was Napoleon's biggest strategic blunder ever. Every other historical source I've seen says the Russians did it themselves, which makes a lot more sense.) For the French it is a grave disaster. They used all their strength on the Plains of Borodino, and they are exhausted and empty of supplies. Moreover, the brutal Russian winter is fast approaching. They need Moscow, but it has been reduced to ashes. Napoleon's victory has turned into crisis, and there is nothing for him to do but sound the retreat. The French tide, inexorable until now, quickly recedes.

And from the ruins of Moscow comes a great cry, not of sorrow, but of rejoicing. The solemn hymn heard at the beginning, "God Preserve Thy People", is reprised, but now it is a rousing hymn of triumph. Meanwhile, bells are clanging. They are church bells, pealing with joy from the scorched stone steeples...all that is left of the once-great city! The people of Moscow are dancing and celebrating amongst the charred rubble that was once their homes, their livelihoods, everything.

It all ends with the 1812 theme coming back at full throttle, superimposed over what was the Russian National Anthem in Tchaikovsky's day (but not in 1812. Russia didn't yet have a national anthem then). The Russian reinforcements have finally arrived, and they are hounding the tattered remnants of the French Army all the way back to Poland...from which they later proceeded to ultimate defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British.

So the next time you listen to the "1812 Overture", think about what it really means. This is NOT a tune about rockets' red glare or bombs bursting in air. It describes how the Russian people turned a military defeat into a patriotic victory. They won, not with cannons and bayonets, but with sacrifice. They were willing to give everything they had in defense of their country, and in so doing they sent a hitherto unstoppable conqueror limping home with his tail between his legs. That, my friends, is true patriotism, and it is indeed a force to be reckoned with. It is also something to be celebrated not only with joy, but also with sorrow and prayer. Remember that if you will.

Meanwhile, I'll play and/or conduct the piece to the best of my ability...and try to keep my tears in my head.

For your listening pleasure, here is Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Yes, We Con!

Remember those really "artsy" pictures of Obama with one-word captions like "HOPE" or "CHANGE" on them? Well, now there's a website that lets you make your own. I know...this was a bit predictable, but...what can I say? I is what I are!

Thanks to Snabulus for the heads up!