Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The End of April

(Disclaimer [and note to the censors]: All details included in this post have already appeared in newspapers.)

April means so many things both here in the Land of the Rising Sun and at Ye Olde Academy. It is the start of the fiscal year. It is the start of the school year. It is a time of quick growth and even quicker change.

It is the time when children make their entry into this sprawling garden of dreams and futures. When they arrive they are nervous and doe-eyed, their uniforms often ill-fitting and awkward. They are filled with uncertainty but also with hope. Just getting in was a monumental hurdle to surmount. Now that they are here, they have to figure out the new reality, and it isn't always as easy as their cram school notes. They often grope about as if in the dark, trying not to get lost in the sometimes-spooky maze of corridors and stairways. Their homeroom teachers soon become their most trusted guides, like beacons in the fog, giving them direction, helping them to understand that there is a Way of Things here as everywhere else, providing a welcome familiar face at least twice a day.

As the days go on, and the sakura start to blow away, the real experiences begin. Classes at Ye Olde Academy are nothing like what they've had before. All that moving around exposes them both to the beauty of the campus and its intimidating size (especially for rookies). The pace and the level of the lessons is sometimes more than they expect, and they soon learn they have to jump onto the moving train or else wind up being dragged along behind it. They learn that they have to get accustomed to the face of not just one teacher, but of several. It can be unsettling, but the homeroom teacher is always there again to reassure at the end of the day.

The older students also do their best to welcome their new schoolmates, making new friends, inviting new recruits into the various clubs, and, perhaps most significantly of all, helping them prepare for the Sports Festival.

The Sports Festival is particularly important. Most schools hold theirs later in the year, but at Ye Olde Academy it is always at the end of April. Thus it serves as the last initiation ceremony for the new 7th graders, finalizing their induction into the school. By training, preparing, and competing together with their seniors, the new students show their worthiness to be part of the team. As the month progresses, each week heralded by a new barrage of blooms, the intensity increases. As the preparation nears its completion, the training becomes both more organized and more intense. The excitement builds exponentially, and as the final week arrives, it becomes harder and harder to rein in the kids enough to get them to sit through a serious lesson. They can hear the sports ground calling to them, and they can't wait to get outside and practice with their new classmates again. They are eager to expend the energy they've built up during the day. Surrounded by anticipation and youthful exuberance, they find it harder even to sit and wait their turn. It is time to play. It is time to run.

Thus it was when the junior high students finished their classes on a warm, sunny Thursday and immediately headed out to the sports ground. The senior high students had one more period left to go, so those on the field waited for them impatiently. There were several teachers on duty at the time, but with several hundred anxious, excited bodies running around, it was impossible to keep track of them all.

No doubt no one saw the three 7th grade boys separate from the bulk of the students and chase each other in the shadows behind the stands. No one saw one of the boys, no doubt laughing with excitement, climb up the stairs to the flag platform in a vain attempt to shake his pursuers. As he backed up, facing his friends, no doubt the ledge behind him was the last thing on his mind. The distance he fell was 155cm (5 feet).

When the others saw and ran to him, he was still conscious and had no visible sign of injury. However, he was not responding to questions, so he was put on a spine board and an ambulance was called. Three different emergency hospitals said their ICUs weren't available and refused to accept him before, fully half an hour later, a fourth hospital reluctantly agreed to take him in as a last resort. A specialist was apparently brought in by helicopter. The prognosis was that the boy had a fractured skull and a contusion, but it didn't appear particularly serious. Two days later he was in a deep coma, and the doctors say it doesn't look good.

It is virtually impossible to anticipate something like this. It is even harder to try to prevent it from happening. Sometimes probability works against us. Sometimes freak accidents simply occur. The problem is that, when they do, people tend to lose all sense of reality. The soul-searching and the irrational accusations go into overdrive. The family, understandably pained by the situation (made even more complicated by existing issues of their own), goes manic and does its best to make things even more difficult. The news media drools as it digs in and shouts the name of our school and principal to the masses and trumpets to the world how negligently evil we are. People say, "Where were the teachers?" as if we could possibly see every student in every place at all times. People say, "Why didn't they take precautions against this?" as if we could foresee every possible incident with at least a 0.001 percent chance of occurrence and somehow prevent it. People say, "Why didn't they keep the students under control?" as if we had the ability or reason to take 500+ junior high students by the hand and lead them everywhere, even during their free times. Unfortunately, we are generally required to do the impossible, and when the impossible bites us, we're painfully reminded of how inadequate we are. What's even sadder is the fact that the brunt of the blame has to be borne by the kid's homeroom teacher, who had absolutely nothing to do with the incident whatsoever.

What's even worse is that I'm his assistant homeroom teacher. The loyalty and concern of the other students has been both touching and heartbreaking. I helped them fold a thousand (actually more than that) paper cranes, a Japanese "get well" tradition. They've still only just entered the school, and this has turned out to be a very rude welcome.

Mourning Lessons 1
The view in my classroom last Saturday. The first thousand paper cranes we completed were strung together in traditional fashion (seen hung on the blackboard). The remainder (on the floor at bottom left) were sorted and later placed into a bag.

There is no joy in Ye Olde Academy. The Sports Festival has been canceled. The flow has been disrupted. There is sorrow everywhere. April has been prematurely aborted.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another From the Muse

I've completed another tune.

It's another bit of experimenting and just plain fun. This time I wanted to try creating different parts of the tune in different places (i.e. on different computers at different times) and piecing it all together later. SynthFont and the various soundfonts I got off the internet (mainly from the Hammersound soundfont library but also from elsewhere) were definitely MVPs, as were Sibelius and Finale PrintMusic, for setting down the basics of this tune plus that fun "evolving break" in the middle. I then put it all together with Sonar and recorded the guitar, incidental keyboard, and vocal parts. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun to do.

I couldn't help noticing that it came out very 80s-ish. That wasn't intentional. I guess my upbringing can't help breaking through from time to time. As for the lyrics, the title and theme of the song came about because of the "evolving" instrumental break, but I thought it was good food for sarcastic thought.

(WARNING: Technical BS beyond this point.)

As always, the details of this song are on my Minstrel's Muse site, but in anticipation of comments I might get from certain people, I'll detail the guitar parts I used here.

Guitar Part I (rhythmic riffs, power chords, panned slightly left) - SG (bridge pickup, open D tuning). Hiwatt DR-101 amp model with preamp set low and mids slightly scooped. ZOOM 5000 Distortion and 5050 Choir pedals using a sound I used a lot back in the 90s...and still love!
Guitar Part II (clean strums, noisy phase power chords, panned slightly right) - Telecaster (neck pickup, standard tuning). '50s vintage Fender Deluxe amp model set at a modest volume with tone leaning toward treble. BOSS Super Phaser and Compressor/Sustainer used throughout, Metal Zone (British metalesque tone combination) added during intense parts.
Guitar Part III (ghostly wail) - Strat Special HSS (bridge pickup, standard tuning). Marshall JCM-800 model with the preamp throttled back, tone slightly middy. Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus pedal (tone combination a sort of hybrid of grunge and progressive rock) and RF-1 Reflector pedal (reverse reverb, level set 100% wet).
Guitar Solo - Strat Special HSS (neck pickup, standard tuning). Amp and pedals as above except that I set the Guv'nor to a more classic rock tone and use the Reflector's spring reverb. I also added a bit of delay later using Sonar.

No MIDI was used in the final mastering at all. The drum and synth parts are a combination of downloaded soundfonts as well as my Roland Sonic Cell and XP-60 keyboard synth. The vocal parts were recorded using my Audio-Technica powered condensor mike with reverb (and, on one track at least, chorus) added later using Sonar. The vocals were done using My Larynx (ML-1).

(End technical BS. Okay, carry on...)

Here is the song: "Intelligent Evolution". Please give it a listen and give me your comments.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Visit from the Kid's Homeroom Teacher

(WARNING: The following is satire)

My humble abode. Today is the day of the Home Conference (diminished 7th fanfare), when the child's homeroom teacher comes to meet the parent(s) at the start of the new school year to get acquainted and touch base.

(Doorbell rings)

Me: (Opens the door) Good afternoon Ms. Homeroom Teacher! (Bows deeply) It's an honor to meet you!
Ms. HT: Good afternoon! (Bows deeply) Forgive the intrusion!
Me: (Bows again) Forgive my troubling you when you're busy! (Places slippers by the step) Please come in!
Ms. HT: Thank you! (Steps up and into the slippers) By the way, your bow was ill-timed, and your intonation was sloppy.
Me: Uh...what...?
Ms. HT: If you're going to provide a suitable example for your child, you're going to have to be more attentive toward such things. Excuse me! (Steps past me...and right on my foot)
Me: YEOWCH!!!!
Ms. HT: (Sighs) Now look, Mr. Minstrel, I realize that, as a foreigner, you are an ignorant barbarian by default, and so I'm compelled to cut you a break, but here in Japan, when a guest steps on your foot, you do not say, "YEOWCH!!!!" You say, "Thank you very much," and then you politely ask to have your foot stepped on again!
Me: Really?
Ms. HT: (Sighs again, this time more impatiently)
Me: Um...thank you very much for stepping on my foot! Won't you be so kind as to do it again?
Ms. HT: Don't mind if I do! (Crunch)
Me: YEEEEOOOWthank you very much for stepping on my FOOOOOT! (arrrgh) Won't you have another go?
Ms. HT: No, it'll do. May I?
Me: By all means! (*whew*) Won't you have a
Ms. HT: I will once I've completed my inspection. Let's see... (Walks around looking at the furnishings with disapproval, runs finger along random surfaces)
Me: I can assure you that we...
Ms. HT: this...? (Looks closely at finger) Um HM! (Holds up finger) See this?
Me: What?
Ms. HT: Mr. Minstrel, this is most definitely what we Japanese refer to as a grain of dust!
Me: Oh, that! But it's only one...
Ms. HT: Irrelevant! (Sighs yet again, whips out little notebook and pen, begins writing) This is just not acceptable.
Me: Um...won't you sit down?
Ms. HT: (Slips notebook back into pocket) Alright, then. (Sits) Wait...this is black tea!
Me: Yes. Twinings Orange Pekoe, to be...
Ms. HT: You've brought an important guest into your house, and you don't even serve them green tea?
Ms. HT: You could have at least given me Earl Grey!
Me: Well...I...uh...could maybe if...
Ms. HT: Too late! (Pulls out notebook again, writes) Do you actually have any green tea? Or Earl Grey?
Me: I think so...over here in the cupboard... (Walks over to cupboard)
Ms. HT: Well, it looks like you have quite a selection of things in there! Is this your house or where Sony Plaza dumps its surplus inventory? (Chuckles, writes in notebook again) Oops, these cushions aren't properly aligned. (Writes some more)
Me: (Trying hard to retain composure) I do have Earl Grey. Would you like some?
Ms. HT: Are you trying to kiss up to me?
Me: Well, no, I was just...
Ms. HT: (Sighs, writes in notebook again) You just don't understand anything, do you? It doesn't matter, I'm not going to drink it anyway. I was just...hey, what's THAT? (Points with pen)
Me: What?
Ms. HT: That box! There! On the third shelf! What is it?
Me: What, this? It's...granola...
Me: "Zounds"?
Ms. HT: (Standing up) Mr. Minstrel, I have tried so very hard to be patient...
Me: Where did you learn "zounds"?
Ms. HT: (Scribbling furiously in notebook) I have given you as much slack as I could...
Me: That's like a Southern Baptist minister sort of word...or Southern Baptist lawyer...
Ms. HT: I even tried to ignore those curtains...that totally uncool shade of green, ugh...and that most definitely looks like an ABBA CD over there... (Shudders)
Me: Or something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something...
Me: (Nervous giggle) You said, "Zounds!"
Ms. HT: (Freezes with disbelief, then sighs and starts digging in her bag, shakes head) I'm very sorry, but you've left me no choice. (Pulls a rolled-up, paper object out of her bag)
Me: What?
Ms. HT: (Strides purposefully over to the wall. Unrolls the object to reveal it as a large sticker that says "SUCK" in big, silver, Gothic letters on a black background.) I'm afraid that I am obliged to declare... (Peels paper backing off sticker, sticks it on the wall) ...that until further notice, you officially suck!
Me: Excuse me?
Ms. HT: (Strides over to window, opens it) HEY, EVERYBODY, THE MOODY MINSTREL REALLY SUCKS!!!!!
The Entire Neighborhood: (Sound of windows and doors banging open en masse) YOU SUUUUUUCK!!! OH, GAAAAAAAAAWD!!!! YOU SUCK SO MUUUUUUUUCH!!!!! AAAAH!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! (Sound of windows and doors banging shut en masse)
Ms. HT: (Closes window nonchalantly) Anyway, where were we?
Me: (Totally deflated and melting into a puddle) When did the whole neighborhood turn into Sam Kinison?
Ms. HT: (Seating herself again) I'm here to talk about your kid, remember? You do have a kid in my class, don't you?
Me: Oh, yeah...right. Okay. My kid. (Seats himself heavily)'s...he doing?
Ms. HT: (Suddenly switches into effervescent mode) Oh, he's such a doll! Such a model student! He always tries so hard! Oh, I just love him!
Me: Really?
Ms. HT: Oh, my, yes! He's always so active! So energetic! Always on the go...
Me: Um...he's kind of fat and lazy...
Ms. HT: He always does so well on all his assignments and everything! He's just perfect!
Me: You gave him a C on his last check test...
Ms. HT: He obviously studies so hard!
Me: I can't get him to put his Nintendo DS down for more than ten seconds at a time...
Ms. HT: He's so determined! I can't believe his perseverence! He's such an inspiration!
Me: He's a coward! He cries if you look at him cross-eyed...
Ms. HT: And the other students know it, too! I can't believe how popular he is!
Me: He's come home crying every other day for the past three weeks because the other boys keep picking on him!
Ms. HT: Oh, come on! I'm sure it's all just a phase he's going through! Everything's fine! I just know it! Nothing to worry about! Everything's just hunky-dory wonderful!
Me: Hunky-dor...? Um, Ms. Homeroom Teacher, are you sure we're really talking about the same kid?
Ms. HT: (Giggles) Mr. Minstrel, I said there's nothing to worry about!
Me: But I can tell you he's been having all kinds of prob...
Ms. HT: (More giggles) Mr. Minstrel, are you trying to add to your suckage?
Me: M-meaning?
Ms. HT: (Leans forward) Everything's fine. It's all under control! Life goes on! (Giggles yet again) Was there anything else? If not... (Starts to gather self together)
Me: (Thinks) Wait a minute... (Bangs hands on table) Wait just a minute!
Ms. HT: Is there a problem?
Me: There could be!
Ms. HT: Ah, no, there he goes again! Tsk tsk! Mr. Minstrel, trust me! There's nothing to see here! Your son is fine! Everything is under control! Tra-la-la!
Me: No, it's NOT under control! He's NOT fine! There IS plenty to worry about! And you're NOT going to sweep it all under the rug!
Ms. HT: (Suddenly grimly serious) Mr. Minstrel, this is for your own good! I warn you, if you make an issue of this, it'll only make you suck even more in the eyes of the public!
Me: (Evil grin) No, I don't think so! Not this time! Aren't you forgetting something?
Ms. HT: What?
Me: In this society, if a kid goes bad, the parents are almost never held accountable.
Ms. HT: (Shakes head) Suck, suck, suck! You suck, Mr. Minstrel! You suck so much!
Me: No, Ms. Homeroom Teacher, YOU suck...or you will if my son winds up going bad.
Ms. HT: And you listen to ABBA...tch!
Me: As one teacher to another, I can assure you. I won't get any blame for it. You will. If my kid goes bad, everyone will be saying how much YOU suck. And you know it.
Ms. HT: (Sighs, shakes head) Well, as they say, that's life. (Stands) Anyway, I really must be going. I have to visit two more houses today. (Checks bag, counts remaining "SUCK" stickers)
Me: Well, thank you for coming! (Bows)
Ms. HT: (Bows in return) No, thank you! And if there's anything else, please don't hesitate to let me I can dodge the issue and try to blame it on you! And don't forget the Earl Grey next time!
Me: Of course! (Walks her to the door) I'm glad to know my kid is in such good hands!
Ms. HT: And so am I! (Bows again) Goodbye! (Turns to go) ABBA...gra-nola...chee!
Me: (Quickly slaps "SUCK" sticker on her back before shutting door)

Okay, back to reality: I actually met with both my kids' homeroom teachers today, and they were both really good people. I'm serious. We had really good chats, and I'm relieved to see that my kids seem to be in good hands. (However, judging by the intense preparation my wife made me go through beforehand, you'd think we really were expecting something like the drama above!)


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Music Is My Rife

...or at least my life tends to be rife with music...
...and stress...

And then there are teenagers...

My daughter spent the last few years saying she couldn't wait to get into junior high school so she could be in a real school band. To emphasize the point, she came to as many performances of the Ye Olde Academy music club as she could and even came with me to the school on occasion so she could help with music club activities. She participated actively in the few music-related events her elementary school offered. She practiced both the piano and the recorder intensely at home so as to get her musical ability up to par. When she finally took the entrance examination for Ye Olde Academy, she named our music club as one of her biggest reasons for wanting to enter the school. Even when she failed to get enrolled, she wasn't particularly disappointed; after all, the band program in the local public junior high school was in danger of being terminated due to lack of membership, so my daughter saw it as a personal mission to save it. She signed her name down on the recruitment roster for the band the day she first visited her new school. She then started pestering me to help train her on clarinet to get a head start, so I made some purchases and preparation toward that end. It was clear that she was both dedicated and very serious regarding her musical endeavors.

Imagine my surprise when I overheard her telling her friends (while she thought I wasn't there) that she had decided to join the handball club instead. A few days later I overheard her telling her mother the same thing (again, when she thought I wasn't there), and she freaked out when she realized I'd heard.

Her excuse? "But the girls in the sports clubs look so coooooool! Besides, a girl I hated in kindergarten joined the band!" Actually, it probably has more to do with the fact that her worst control freak friend (who has been nothing but trouble the past two years) has also joined the handball club, but whatever.

So I've wasted my time and money and now face the prospect of having my daughter going to the only junior high school in this part of the prefecture that has no band (mainly because she flaked out on it at the end, or so its director is currently saying)! NO PROBLEM!!!!!

If you want to know why I've been so testy lately, this is reason #1. Reason #2 has to do with circumstances at work that I probably shouldn't talk about. (Reason #3 was the meddlesome individual who showed up unannounced and uninvited a week before the Big Concert, listened to a rehearsal of the big encore number I'd arranged for the orchestra, had a look at the score, and then said, "Now, there are some parts here I'm going to have you rewrite. These just don't work musically." I might not have minded so much (since I had already listened to...and taken...others' advice in the matter) except that, after he stopped spewing all kinds of esoteric terminology and a few words of Italian in a vain attempt to impress me, the ideas that he gave were just plain daft. It was clear he was only looking at the individual measures without any thought about the tune as a whole. I got even more irritated when he showed up at the dress rehearsal with a couple of sheets of Finale score paper and said, "Here...I've rewritten the first part for you." Maestro Ogawa and I both politely declined...surprisingly enough considering I was only a few centimeters from throttling the guy.) 

I'd planned to get my daughter a learner-model clarinet for her upcoming birthday. Scrapping that, I got something for myself that was a whole lot cheaper. What did I get? Glad you asked!  I got a couple of new guitar effectors!

It was actually kind of an odd purchase.  Since late 2004 I've relied almost solely on my Line 6 PODxt for my guitar recording.  It includes emulations of not only a whole bunch of famous amp models, but also of a number of effector pedals.  (I actually own a couple of the pedals it includes, and the sound is quite authentic.)  My effector collection wound up collecting dust for the most part, sad and lonely in a case under my keyboard/studio racks.  I don't know why, but recently I started taking an interest in that collection again.  Maybe it was because I realized that I was getting close to the limits of what the POD's collection could do.  Maybe it was because I remembered some of the cool things I'd done with those pedals in the past and wondered what new things I could come up with paired with the POD's amps.  Maybe I just heard them whimpering and felt sorry for them.  Maybe it was because I had a look at the unbelievable mountain of effectors (and amps) Kevin Shields (one of my biggest guitar heroes besides Steve Morse, Alex Lifeson, Martin Barre, The Edge, Billy Gibbons, Glen Tipton/K.K. Downing, and Ace Frehley, not necessarily in that order) has been using in the recent comeback tours of My Bloody Valentine.

Most of my pedals are of BOSS (Roland) make.  BOSS pedals are best known for their wide selection and their reliability; it's said you could probably play baseball with one and it would still work (though I wouldn't recommend trying it).  When you buy a BOSS, you know there are probably effectors out there that are more capable, but you are getting at least a very good average that can't go wrong.  I was also lucky to get Zoom Distortion 5000 distortion and Zoom Choir 5050 reverb/chorus pedals, both of which are now rare and much sought-after collectors' items.  (I happened to grab them in a tiny CD/music shop in Itako because they were the only effectors they had in stock at the time!)  I also have a few pedals made by MXR, Ibanez, Yamaha, and a couple of obscure makers I can't recall.  So what did I get this time?  MARSHALL!

I was specifically looking for the Reflector (RF-1) reverb pedal based on some recommendations I'd read.  One of its features is a "reverse reverb" mode, which is unusual among reverb units.  Kevin Shields apparently uses reverse reverb a lot (mainly via a Yamaha reverb unit which is no longer made), and the Reflector is said to be the best way to get a sound like his.  Unfortunately, when I told the store what I wanted, the head clerk there told me he wasn't sure what I was talking about and therefore assumed it was no longer available.  Disappointed, I instead asked for Marshall's "Guv'nor" (GV-1) distortion pedal, which is also widely recommended.  As it turned out, when we looked at the catalog, not only was the Reflector available, but there was also a "Guv'nor Plus" (GV-2), and both were far, far cheaper than I'd expected.  I did the logical thing:  I ordered them both.  And now I've used both.

The Guvnor Plus is fun.  It's apparently designed to produce a sound similar to the JCM-2000 amp and even includes some of its special tone features.  All I know is that it can produce a nice, fat, hard-distorted sound which isn't quite as compressed as what tends to come out of the BOSS (MT-2) Metal Zone pedal (which I have, and which is still a good pedal).  In other words, there's a bit more tonal integrity.  To be fair to Boss, however, both pedals offer a wide range of tone colorings, and I prefer BOSS's switch.  (The Guvnor also weighs a ton even though it and the Boss pedal are about the same size!)  I can't say I've really run the pedal through its paces yet, however, so I can't yet give it a reliable judgment.

Speaking of reliability, next I'll talk about the Reflector.  I made the (stupid) mistake of looking at online user reviews after I'd already ordered it.  Professional reviewers have been unanimous in their praise of the Reflector, and rightly so.  It is a wonderful piece of equipment in terms of capability.  Reliability is another story.  There have been an awful lot of complaints about it suddenly malfunctioning or even conking out, sometimes after only a few days of use.  One guy apparently had his die on him completely after only an hour.  Whether it's a flaw in the digital programming or a mechanical failure of some kind, Marshall doesn't seem to be willing to acknowledge the problem.  People who have sent their ailing Reflectors back to the manufacturer have tended to get them right back again with a note saying, "We can find no evidence of a defect, so no repair or refund."  Well, I've used my Reflector, and it does sound excellent...but I ran into some problems very quickly.  The first time I practiced with it before recording a track I started getting telltale hints of digital distortion (a commonly-reported symptom of the malfunction), but when I dialed the level down and back up again it cleared up and worked fine.  A few days later I practiced and prepared to record another track, and the same thing happened.  This time I fixed it by quickly unplugging and re-plugging the input daisy chain cord.  It worked fine after that.  (Recently I've looked on online forums, and pros are generally recommending the same thing:  disconnecting and reconnecting the Reflector usually fixes it, which makes me wonder if maybe the problem is static buildup or something.)  The bottom line is that this is a wonderful piece of hardware for studio recording, but it would be problematic onstage.  Marshall would do well to try to figure out what's causing the problem and fix it before this becomes a blight on the company's reputation.  Besides, I really do like this thing, and I intend to use it!

Hopefully I'll have a new tune or two to share soon.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Springtime Stroll Around Ye Olde Academy

I decided to take a little walk...and photo shoot...around part of the campus before going home after work today. I'd like to share it with you!

YOA spring-09 a

YOA spring-09 b

The cherry blossoms are already falling off the trees, leaving a pink and white dusting on the ground.

YOA spring-09 c

YOA spring-09 e

People who have nothing to do with the school often come and hang out on this hill during cherry blossom season.

YOA spring-09 f

I don't know the story of the ring of pink around this particular tree, but it does catch the eye.

YOA spring-09 h

The walkway toward the junior high building is flanked and dusted with springtime color.

YOA spring-09 i

A nearby plum tree makes its statement in a magenta dialect.

YOA spring-09 k

Hold still, dammit!

YOA spring-09 m

Let me share our colorful campus life with you!

YOA spring-09 o

Looking from the junior high building toward the north gate and parking area.

YOA spring-09 p

Under a canopy of pink and white...

YOA spring-09 q

Heading back toward the administrative building...

YOA spring-09 s

The stairway down to the staff parking lot is dusted with fallen petals.

YOA spring-09 t

Time to go home! ( BLUE RAV4 was too dirty to photograph just now.)

Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Just Be-Costco!!!

It turns out that this year I have Saturday classes. Therefore, to make up for it, I'll have most Fridays off. Today was my first such Friday.

COSTCO TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have to say that it's nice going there in the morning on a weekday. For one thing, I can actually move! I can get where I'm going without losing all my human decency and resorting to shopping cart manslaughter. It had been a while, and I had a backlog of things I needed to get. Still, I hoped to keep my purchases down so I could save some money for another stop-off at Carrefour on the way home as well as a quick pop into my usual music shop so I could maybe get a Marshall effect pedal (or two) I'd been eyeballing. I'm also thinking of getting a new spring-weather suit since the few that I wear (usually only through the month of April, after which my on-the-job look grows gradually more casual).

Famous last words. I dumped a load at Costco and wound up bagging everything else (no pun intended). I just went straight home, had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch (Hey, it's a rare treat for me!), and went upstairs to my studio to play around a bit.

No new songs this time (yet), but I did rework a slightly old one. "Perspective", the first song I recorded using Sonar 7 and the Sonic Cell, definitely had a lot of flaws. I was fumbling around in the dark when I made it, and it showed. It came up by surprise recently when I was listening to iTunes in shuffle mode, and while I was listening I shook my head and said, "Nope!" The guitar work was fine, but the mix wasn't. The vocals just didn't sound good. And that shoddy drum part... I went back, fixed a glitch I'd made in the tempo and time ruler, remixed it, redid the reverb and delay on the main vocals, and made a whole new drum track (though I had the usual trouble getting it to dub to audio smoothly, something that seems to happen after a lot of audio tracks have been finished. I'm sure it's an issue with buffer settings, but even this imperfect result is a LOT better than the original!). I'm much happier with it now. Please give the revamped "Perspective" a listen and tell me what you think. (I took the old version off my hosting site, but if anyone really wants to hear it, let me know.)

Definitely a productive Friday, if I dare say so myself!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ye Olde Big Regular Concert 2009

Yesterday (April 4th) was the annual regular concert of the Ye Olde Academy music club. It was unusually late this year mainly because the regular performance venue, the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall, had just finished undergoing renovations. We were actually the first group to use the main hall after the construction was finished. The smell of paint and adhesive definitely took a bit of getting used to when we arrived to start the final rehearsals and preparations.

This year's event broke with tradition in other ways as well. Our usual soundman/stage manager, Mr. SKM, was away on business. Not only did we have to do without his services, but the decision was also made not to use our school's considerable stock of sound equipment (mainly because no one had the confidence to try to use it without Mr. SKM's expertise...something I'd consider to be a serious problem). Instead, sound equipment and management was outsourced for the first time in almost a decade, and we did it on a very tight budget. Stage management was left in the hands of a different music club director, in this case my American coworker Chuck. It was definitely a whole new ballgame, and it was a learning experience for everyone involved. The program order was also different from usual. Since at least the beginning of the 2000s the orchestra has always headlined the show, playing last and having the longest program. On the other hand, the concert and jazz bands always took turns playing first. This time the orchestra started the program, the concert band appeared in the middle, and the jazz band headlined for the first time ever. There were many reasons for this, but it was still kind of odd.

I won't bother going over all the details of preparation. Getting together an event like this, one that involves roughly a hundred students doing more than just playing their instruments onstage, is a complicated and time-consuming affair. It also tends to leave people with some very frayed nerves. Suffice to say it took a lot of energy and thought. It was a relief when the final bell was rung, the lights went up, and the show started.

The concert was kicked off by selected members of our brass and percussion sections marching onto the stage and performing Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man". It was directed by a 7th grade trombone player (who is also the tallest member of the music club). It was a powerful and dramatic start, but the trumpets, already worn down by overrehearsing (as usual), struggled with the really high notes. Still, the fact that they could hit those notes at all was a vast improvement over past years. The horns and trombones were spot on.

Next up was the orchestra, directed by Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. They started off with Chabrier's lovely España. Then they performed Copland's quirky El Salon Mexico. This was something of an off year for the orchestra (one of the reasons why they didn't headline this time), but they did a respectable job, mainly thanks to quality work by key players. As an ensemble, the string parts are currently dominated by inexperienced players and show it, but there was some quality solo work in the strings and winds alike.

The concert band was next, directed by Mr. Karatsu. The repertoire consisted of "original" concert band fare, Mr. Karatsu's specialty. The first was a tune called "Arcadia", by Japanese composer Hayato Hirose, which describes the life journey of a young boy. Second was three movements from the otherworldly "Starscapes", by Brian Balmages (with plenty of fun on the part of the light crew). The third and most dramatic, however, was an interesting if not disturbing work by Belgian composer Bart Picqueur called "De Bello Gallico", a multi-movement piece inspired by Julius Caesar's "Commentarii de Bello Gallico". It is anything but typical; one hears throbbing, martial rhythms, dissonant fanfares, jarring pulses, and exotic, bestial wailing. At its climax, those members of the music club not in the concert band (i.e. the string section) came onstage to join in a wild, bacchanalian dance singing about Rome's victory (in Latin) and drinking lots of beer (in Old German!) as a piccolo and Eb clarinet dueled in a bizarre, primitive-sounding frenzy over maddened drums. Then it all ended with a brilliantly discordant Roman fanfare. (All three works can be heard performed by the Osaka Municipal Symphonic Band on the CD New Wind Repertoire 2008.)

Then it was the turn of the Flying Eggheads jazz band. By now I was worried sick that the brass section was going to be totally blown out, but we still stood poised to perform one of the most ambitious sets ever by virtue of sheer length. We kicked off with an arrangement I made of the Ken Woodman tune "Mexican Flyer", and the brass sections relieved all my fears in the opening blast. We continued with bossa nova standard "BLUE Bossa" and the Afro-Caribbean hit "Afro BLUE" with lots of fine solo work and a strong showing by our percussion section. Then our main pianist, also this year's music club chairman (and first chair flautist), surprised me with an unannounced open solo before proceeding directly into "My Heart Will Go On", featuring some beautiful solo work rearranged from the original by the students themselves. This was followed by "Harlem Nocturne" featuring our baritone sax player. Now firmly in swing country, we proceeded into "Bewitched" and "A String of Pearls", with the latter breaking two 8th grade sax players into the world of improvisation. Then we ended it all with a frenzied, 2-part medley of "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Sing, Sing, Sing" that has become something of a Flying Eggheads tradition, particularly when a drummer is about to graduate. In this case, by FAR the best drummer the Eggheads have ever had (and we have been blessed with some good ones in the past eleven years) was giving the farewell performance I'd long dreaded hearing (because it meant her term with us was done). True to form, she stuck an open solo in the middle before starting "Sing, Sing, Sing", and she really had the audience going. The high point, however, was toward the end, when the lead alto saxophonist/Chief Egghead stood up to play her big solo. She walked over by the drummer, and the two of them did it together, tears in their eyes. When all was said and done, we offered my arrangement of "Hello, Dolly" (theme song of the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival) as an encore as all the graduating 11th grade members of the music club came out on the wings to dance their final bows.

But the show wasn't over yet. The biggest spectacle was the ENCORE.

Right after the music club chairman gave her farewell speech, I and some of the (graduating) 11th grade members of the Flying Eggheads came in one of the side entrances and marched into the middle of the audience playing a dixieland-style rendition of "It's All Over Now" (myself on clarinet) before marching out ad-libbing "Aloha Oe"...leaving the lead alto sax/Eggheads Captain alone in the middle. As the orchestra quickly set up on the darkened stage, Captain slowly walked down the aisle in the spotlight, all the while improvising around "Aloha Oe" at a steadily slower and sadder tempo. Finally, overcome with emotion, she choked up too much to play and stopped a few paces from the stairs. As the audience offered encouragement, she changed tack and upped the tempo, switching the playing style to a peppy bounce as the audience clapped along in time (which had stage manager Chuck tearing his hair, but I thought it was a brilliant move! Nice use of the moment by a student musician who has grown a lot!) . Once she had mounted the steps onto the stage, she downshifted back to slow and sad, ending on a beautifully moody note just as Mssr. Maestro Ogawa started the string ensemble playing "Italiana" (I don't recall the composer at the moment). And then...

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for a while may recall that, a few years ago, I made a special arrangment (of questionable legality) combining Sartori's "Time to Say Goodbye" with Ravel's "Bolero" for use as a music club encore. I made it so that almost all of the 11th grade members at the time had their own solo passages, i.e. each could say goodbye. It went over so well with students and audience alike that we played a slightly rearranged version the following year, as well. Unfortunately, last year's 11th graders voted it down, so the budding tradition wound up getting trampled into the mud...or so it seemed. This year an unexpected excuse came up to bring it back.

It's not often that we get a really good cellist in our ranks. This is probably the only time that we've had two. Unfortunately, the second chair one was never really used; despite her comparable ability, she spent the whole time in the shadows while the first chair player got all those solos. Well, Maestro Ogawa decided that this was the last chance to give the second chair cellist a crack at the spotlight. We did it by bringing back "Time to Say Goodbye-Lero", but with a completely rewritten beginning. In my original version it started out as a tradeoff between two saxophones with a harp accompaniment. I changed everything.

As soon as the string ensemble finished "Italiana", the lights dimmed down except for a spot on the second chair cellist, who started playing the famous Prelude from Bach's "1st Suite for Unaccompanied Cello"...and then immediately segued into the opening melody of "Time to Say Goodbye". Then a second spot came onto the first chair cellist, and it became a duet that ended with a glorious sweep of both bows topped off with a delicate harp arpeggio.

I've made many arrangements and even a few compositions for the music club, but of all of them I think I'm proudest of this. I'm even prouder of those two cellists for honoring my creation so much. The final performance was a bit rougher than rehearsal, probably because it finally hit both girls that they really were saying goodbye, but it was still f*****g beautiful (and I wish to GOD I could get away with posting a video of it here, but I know I'd get in trouble if I did). I stood backstage with my breath held almost throughout the cello intro, hoping I wouldn't start tearing up in front of the various alumni, guests, and staff gathered back there with me. I relaxed when the lone snare drum in the middle started the Bolero beat (albeit in 4/4 time) and none other than the chairman played the first solo on flute. After that it was all by the numbers, and they pulled it off without a hitch even with all the reddened faces and tears. The applause afterward was thunderous and even continued for a bit after Mssr. Ogawa's third curtain call and the PA announcement that it was all done. A damned fine way to say goodbye, if you ask me!

And thus the 2008-2009 school year finally comes to an end. We're losing a lot of power players, and it's going to be painful, but we've been given plenty of reasons for hope.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

And a New Fiscal/School Year Begins...

...on a very gra/ey and miserable day that quickly turned cold and blustery. At least I was able to get my shopping for my wife's birthday done.

Speaking of getting things done, I managed to submit two songs to that home recording contest last week, "Herald of the Dawn" and "Quite Enough". I also prepared a CD and forms to offer "Secret Identity", but I wasn't able to deliver it in time, so it'll have to wait till next year. I'm still happy to be able to participate in this.

Speaking of getting music done, I finished another tune today. The inspiration is probably a number of different things, but I felt like kicking out the stops and being a little more intense this time in any case. The song is called "Which Do You Fear". It was a lot of fun to make, and if I'd had a bit more time I'd probably submit this to the contest, too. Anyway, give it a listen and tell me what you think! (More info is available on my Minstrel's Muse site.)

Next on the agenda is the music club's big, annual concert this Saturday followed by the actual start of classes for the new school year next week.