Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Music: The Gathering pt. III

Well, I finally managed to finish one of the new tunes I've been working on for the past month or so. It's an instrumental called "What I Would Have Said". I hope you'll forgive me for making such a happy-sounding piece, but I thought a change of pace from the anger-vibe of the last song seemed like a good idea. Enjoy!

More info on my Minstrel's Muse site.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Music: The Gathering pt. II

Part One - Torekon, Cont'd
Well, I got the judge score & comment sheet for my tune, "Per'anai". It was a different judge from the one who took care of "Glowing Zone" (Links to both tunes below), and he seemed stricter. The score was less than that for "Glowing Zone", which was disappointing, but it was still better than what I got for my submissions last year. The judge didn't pull any punches with his comments, but he made some very detailed suggestions, which I appreciated. What I really found interesting was his recommendation to study the works of Joseph-Maurice Ravel (composer of "Bolero") for ideas on how to make my harmonic progression more interesting. (For the record, I have used "Bolero" as the basis for a tune I arranged for the orchestra, so I guess I've done that to some degree. Still a very interesting suggestion, though!) On the other hand, I was baffled by the judge's remark that my "simulated sax sound" didn't really fit the mood of the piece. (For the record, I used a real saxophone!!!) He went on to say that the tone of the sax over a minor triad progression made the tune sound too much like Japanese enka music. I can see where he's coming from with that, but I guess it's all a matter of taste.

Still, between "Glowing Zone" and "Per'anai", my results this year were a bit better than last year. I also learned some things. Better luck next time!

Part Two - Getting My Phil
Well, it seems that the repertoire for the next Kashima Philharmonic concert has been decided, at least for the time being. It includes:
  • The first movement of Beethoven's 6th symphony, "Pastorale",
  • Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks",
  • The second movement from Haydn's 101st symphony, known as "The Clock",
  • Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
They're also doing a relatively modern brass fanfare I've never heard of and a strings-only piece I haven't yet identified.

"Pastorale" is musically challenging in the clarinet part, but I'm not too worried about it. "Music for the Royal Fireworks" is a Baroque-era tune (i.e. no clarinets), so it's not my problem. "The Clock" requires discipline, but it isn't difficult.

Then there's that Dukas monstrosity...

I've always loved "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", and I even conducted it when the Ye Olde Academy orchestra did it, but it's nasty on the performers. It requires a lot of playing power in terms of endurance, control, and technique. The clarinet part quickly goes from occasional, percussive pops to flying all over the place at breakneck speed. I realize we've really only just started working on it, but I'm seriously worried. Especially with the recurring nerve problems I have with my left hand plus stiffness in my fingers on both hands, I have no confidence that I'll be able to do this. My fingers just won't move that way at that speed, especially over and over again in quick succession. I probably need new hands and a cerebellum upgrade to pull this one off. I'm more than happy to have a challenge like this to try to tackle, but...will I be able to do this in the end? Right now I have serious misgivings.

Then again, I expressed similar misgivings with the joint-breaking clarinet parts in the 1812 Overture and later with Smetana's "Vltava" ("Moldau"), and I did manage to pull those tunes off. I guess we'll see.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Music: The Gathering

Part One - Returning Favors
The Ibaraki Symphony Orchestra (Ibaraki Koukyou Gakudan- 茨城交響楽団) is the longest-running and best-known amateur orchestra in Ibaraki Prefecture. Considering a large percentage of its members are actually music teachers, it almost might as well be professional, though no salaries are earned. (On the contrary, as with the Kashima Philharmonic, the members have to pay to participate.) They are currently celebrating their 50th anniversary with a series of concerts all over the prefecture sponsored by Toyota.

(But it's the only pic I could find!)

Ever since the foundation of the Kashima Philharmonic exactly ten years ago, the Ibaraki Symphony has been very supportive. They have lent us members to help fill our gaps and cover our weak spots in almost every single performance to date. In recognition of that, the Ibaraki Symphony asked us to sit in with them for part of their concert in Kashima. I volunteered to participate even though it was on a Saturday, which meant taking a day off from work. Incidentally, I was the only Kashima Philharmonic member there that was asked to play a principal part, i.e. I played 1st clarinet.

The piece we were to perform together was "Finlandia", no doubt chosen because the Kashima Philharmonic had performed it (with Ibaraki Symphony guest members) at its concert the month before. We had only one chance to rehearse, which was the morning of the concert. It was mostly no problem, though those of us from the Kashima group weren't used to the Ibaraki Symphony conductor's style. While our own conductor tends to keep his form simple and straightforward out of consideration for our low average level of ability, the Ibaraki Symphony conductor did no such thing; he directs quite passionately with a deep regard for musical expression. It only took a couple of tries for us to get the hang of it, though, so our joint rehearsal lasted less than half an hour. The performance itself went without any trouble, and it felt great to be able to play with such an experienced and capable group.

The little reception we had after the concert was great, too. Most of the Ibaraki Symphony members were very laid back, likable people, and we hit it off really well. Of course, the fact that it turned out that I knew a number of them - mainly because they were parents of current or former students of mine - made the socializing thing even easier. It was a day well spent, and I hope to get another opportunity like it someday.

Part Two - Gorgonzola
Italian food seems to be a recent trend, and a number of Italian restaurants have opened in the Kashima area since the mid twains. Thus far I've only been able to visit a few of them, and almost every time it was a school-related outing. Ironically, the one Italian restaurant I never seemed to be able to make it to was the one that seemed to be most popular among the faculty of Ye Olde Academy...not to mention the fact that its owner, a jazz musician, had been trying very hard through various channels to get me to come. Finally, on the day of the Ibaraki Symphony concert, my father-in-law (motto: "If I didn't eat it yesterday, I won't eat it today") left town for the weekend. That was a perfect opportunity, so I loaded up the family in the BLUE RAV4 and went in search of the fabled (and very persistent) restaurant.

It wasn't a big place, and it was in a rather remote location, but it wasn't hard to find. It was colorful and yet had a very home-style atmosphere. Getting into the tiny parking lot was a little tricky, but soon we were at a table poring over the menu.

I'd heard that the place was well known for its handmade, oven-baked pizza, so that's what we decided to try. Most such small Italian restaurants tend to make only individual-sized pizzas of around seven to eight inches in diameter, so that's what we assumed they would be. Each of us ordered something different. When the "fungi" (mixed mushroom) pizza my wife ordered arrived first, our eyes just about popped out of our heads; it was more than a foot in diameter. We ended up splitting it while worrying whether or not we'd be able to finish all four pies! Once we'd polished off the (wonderful!) fungi pizza, my daughter's came next. That's when things got interesting. You see, my daughter had ordered a "quattro", which had four different kinds of cheese...including Gorgonzola. I LOVE Gorgonzola, and both my kids seem to like it, too. Unfortunately, my wife has trouble tolerating strong-smelling cheese of any kind. Blue cheeses in particular (e.g. Danish bleu, Stilton, Roquefort, or Gorgonzola) can make her ill even an hour after they've been put away. Her face turned a very interesting shade of yuck when the pizza arrived, and she did her best to keep her nose as far away as possible without being impolite.

The waitress and chef both came and apologized, and the chef demonstrated some dough-tossing for my kids, but while my wife was in a bad way, the other three of us were more than happy with the "quattro", which was totally yummy (if you like cheese).

Fortunately, the next pizza that came was my anchovy and olive pie, which was fragrant enough to knock out the Gorgonzola. My wife gratefully tore into it and felt much better. This was followed up by the Parma ham pizza my son ordered. Full as we were, we happily polished it off, too. After that, the chef came out to talk music with me for a bit, and then he gave me an extended invitation to come and play there...or to come and sit in on one of the sessions they have there from time to time.

Time to scrape off the rust from the chops...

(Gorgonzola!!!!!!!!! Pic from the Italian site "Foodelicious". It certainly is!!!)

Part Three - Speaking of Rust
I entered two of my songs, "Glowing Zone" and "Per'anai", in the all-Japan amateur recording contest (Torekon) sponsored by the Shimamura Music chain. For a number of reasons, the two tunes got submitted at different places: "Glowing Zone" was turned in at the Narita Aeon Shimamura, and "Per'anai" went to the new Tsuchiura Aeon one.

Last year I offered "Herald of the Dawn" and "Quite Enough". Neither won an award, obviously, but while "Quite Enough" got politely ripped apart, "Herald of the Dawn" actually got a good score and very encouraging comments. I kept in mind what I was told then when I made this year's submissions.

I didn't get any awards this time either (at least on the national far as I know), but "Glowing Zone" got an even higher score and even more encouraging comments than last year. (Heck, I even got a request as for what kind of music to try next time!) I haven't seen the results for "Per'anai" yet, but I got a call last night saying the score sheet had come in. I'll probably go and pick it up in a couple of days. I can't wait to see what the judges gave me!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Scenes We Like to Have Seen

Part One: In the Country
The Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble received a surprise invitation to perform at a cultural festival. It was held in one of those cities recently stitched together out of multiple rural villages during the Prime Minister Koizumi era. Although we'd participated in prefectural music events at that concert hall before, it was the first time we'd ever been invited directly by the local government. It was obvious from the start that the people in charge had never done anything like it before; they weren't familiar with the business of bringing in an act from outside, and there was a lot of confusion. Still, changing from villagers to city dwellers hadn't robbed them of one iota of their country hospitality, and they were all very kind to us. The relaxed, informal nature of it all, even in the presence of some of their top officials, was also kind of refreshing.

It wasn't a bad concert hall at all, especially considering its remote location.

We were asked to play two sets, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. We hadn't had much time to prepare a program at all. The band is relatively strong this year, so I was able to push the kids a little bit. Even so, the best we could do (without compromising anything) was five tunes, with the addition of me performing a solo number in the middle and gabbing a lot in between. That was enough to fill just under half an hour. It was sad that we couldn't do any more than that, but everyone seemed very appreciative.

The 1200-seat hall was fairly full when we played the first set. It was mostly empty during the second one, but the audience was no less hospitable. We were told that a lot of people had come because they had read about us in the newspaper before. (The Ibaraki Shinbun, our prefecture's local paper, ran a feature on the music department of Ye Olde Academy not so long ago.) A warm atmosphere always helps a performance, and the kids gave a very good accounting of themselves. They also seemed to be having a lot of fun even despite all the frustrating mix-ups at the start. They came away exhausted but feeling very good about it.

One of the high points, as far as I was concerned, was the group of ladies that came backstage while we were eating our supermarket box-lunches and gave us bowls of homemade pickles, apparently of a type that's a longtime local specialty in that area. I was a bit worried about how the kids would react, considering the backgrounds they tend to come from, but they tore into the pickles eagerly and thanked the ladies very politely. I guess kindness and hospitality still go a long way, even in this insensitive age.

Part Two: In the Gym
Yesterday the 7th grade had its first inter-class competition. This time it was what they call "dodge ball". (Japanese "dodge ball" is more like what we called "prison ball" in my school days. Our own "dodge ball" was a little different.) There are five classes, and the boys and girls had separate competitions. I was asked to be one of the supervisors for the girls' matches.

The girls of Room Four started a custom of forming into a circle and giving a group holler before a match. When they did it the first time, their homeroom teacher was on the scene, so she helped get them together. The second time, however, something interesting happened. One of the girls with a bit more initiative started trying to gather her classmates together. They were pressed for time, so they wound up forming the circle in a bit of a mad rush. Unfortunately, when they quickly closed ranks and gave the holler, the slowest and shyest girl in their class wound up being left out. She just stood off to the side with a look of resignation on her face. After the holler was done and the circle split up, however, one of the other girls immediately ran over to the shy girl and gave her a big hug. Other girls came by and gave her pats of reassurance while the hug was still in process. Then they called her over to join the class for the match. In the end, no one was left out.

Part Three: In the Classroom
My 9th grade classes last year were definitely something of an ordeal. It was a notorious, problem-filled bunch. As a combined whole (with many notable individual exceptions), they were noisy, they were rowdy, they were sometimes as caustic as they were quick in the expression of their opinions, they were stubborn, they tended to do things in a half-assed manner, and they basically wore me out physically and psychologically. Still, for the most part, the kids were friendly. Even more importantly, they were communicative. If I asked a question, I damned well got an answer, even if it was something like, "How should I know?"

Cut to my 9th grade classes this year. This bunch has a very good reputation. Since their 7th grade year, they've been described as quiet, attentive, serious, earnest, and easy to work with. Actually, I'd be more inclined to describe them as "f***ing frosty". Not only are these kids quiet, they just don't respond. I ask a student a question, or ask one to read or do something, and the overwhelming majority of the time the person I called on just sits there mute. No reaction. I ask another student to help him or her. No reaction. I give the students something to work on, and when I walk around to help them, it seems like more than half the time my existence isn't even acknowledged. Even simple greetings before and after class quite often invoke no reaction at all, not even an acknowledging glance. The bookwork and quizzes get done without any trouble, but otherwise there seems to be an uncanny lack of common sense, let alone basic manners, in this so-called "earnest class".

I guess "earnestness" isn't everything.
I can also say that I'm really starting to miss last year's noisy, troublesome gang.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Here we go again. I swear; Japan seems to go through Prime Ministers faster than most people go through rolls of toilet paper. Yukio Hatoyama, the historically significant, first-ever Democrat Prime Minister of this country, has decided to throw in the towel only about 8 months into his term. That means the Democrat-led coalition government has to scramble to choose a new PM and reshuffle the cabinet before the oh-so-misnamed Liberal Democratic Party (which is actually a loose confederation of conservative corporate oligarchs) manages to pull off a political coup.

"That does it! I'm off!"

Of course, with the public as disillusioned with the Democratic Party of Japan as they have become, the coalition starting to fragment, and the LDP newly emboldened after their humiliating ejection last year (and sharpening their collective claws), we may see yet another sudden switching of polarity sometime soon.

For myself, I have to say I'm not altogether surprised. Despite my being a left-leaning centrist or moderate with no love of the LDP, I had a feeling the DPJ victory was doomed from the start. Make no mistake; I fully agree with the core philosophy of the DPJ, and their manifesto, for the most part, is awesome. Unfortunately, as with many if not most activist-minded political parties, their agenda included a lot of goals that were clearly the same shade of rose as the glasses they were all wearing (i.e. "not bloody likely"). They made a lot of really brilliant promises that went over well with the general public but not basic logic.

Not that they didn't TRY to keep their promises. They certainly followed through with their noble plan to eliminate government pork...even if it meant suddenly terminating multi-million-dollar projects that were already more than half finished (i.e. leaving a mess that would probably cost as much to clean up as it would to finish). They terminated all (strictly non-combat) Self-Defense Force participation in Coalition military activities, as they said they would. There were also revisions in various public services such as education in keeping with their manifesto.

However, there were also some colossal blunders. The promise to eliminate all highway tolls wound up mutating into a "simplified" toll system that actually made rates MORE expensive for a lot of commuters. The promise to make public senior high school (i.e. non-compulsory) education free instead became what appears to be an income-based subsidy system that is a complicated mess. The promise to remove the US military's Futenma air station from Okinawa and relocate it elsewhere in if not outside of the country ran smack into a brick wall (i.e. nobody else wanted it). There was also the promise to reduce taxes which transformed into the DPJ-led administration discussing increasing the sales tax (VAT) without telling the public. Needless to say, confidence in the Democrat government, not to mention its popularity, shrank quicker than a bulimic's waistline.

Hatoyama himself had no end of trouble. As if his showing up at a barbecue party for foreign leaders while wearing an M.C. Hammer shirt didn't give the media enough fodder to guffaw about, there was both his unwillingness to break from scandal-plagued DPJ powerhouse Ichiro Ozawa and certain questionable financial activities of his own. Eventually, his flip-flopping on the Okinawa base issue (read "caving to Obama") caused the Social Democrats to break from the coalition. That pretty much did him in; even if his name weren't mud within his own party, the LDP was already readying a no-confidence measure against him. His options were basically quit or be squashed like a bug.

And so now we have a new Prime Minister. With the LDP loading for bear, he may not last long, but at least his name is easy to remember: