Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 29, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VIII: The Fairer Sax

I finally drove through Kamisu for the first time since the Great Tohoku Quake. Although the debris has long since been cleaned up and some repairs carried out, it's still easy to tell where the tsunami came through...and where the sandy soil suffered the worst liquefaction. There's one area of The Strip on Route 124 which used to have some of my favorite restaurants. Now it looks like a ghost town that suffered a Lovecraftian horror; buildings, signs, and poles lean at crazy angles, the sidewalks are full of strange bulges, and the whole, 4-lane boulevard is banked. Going through it can send one's sense of balance into a tailspin. They'll probably have to tear everything down and start over.

The reason I went through the avenue of destruction was that I was invited to a jam session. Actually, it was a rehearsal. The Kashima Jazz Friends, originally known as the Kashima Seaside Jazz Friends, is an open-participation jazz ensemble that was founded together with the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival (now simply "Kashima Jazz") in 2003. It was intended to be a jazz counterpart to the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra with the same stated objective, i.e. to help raise the cultural level of Kashima so that it won't only be known as a "sports city". From the start it was an unwieldy but good-natured alliance of pro and amateur musicians. However, though I'd worked with them closely every year to help carry out the Kashima Jazz event, I'd never been a member of the group, and I'd never joined them in a regular performance. I was told that they'd assumed I was too busy. They were probably right, but this year they finally invited me to join them, and I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, my schedule kept me from attending their rehearsals in January and February, and the Great Quake wiped out all activity in the month of March. Then it was announced that they'd be doing a rather hastily organized performance as part of a local charity event for earthquake relief. The evening of April 27th was scheduled as the one and only rehearsal. I was invited, and so I made the time. However, since the usual Kashima Jazz Friends practice venue was still out of commission, we had to use an alternative venue down in Kamisu; hence the journey down through the tsunami ghost town.

I arrived there not knowing quite what to expect. There were some faces I recognized and others I didn't. I was told that at least two of them were professionals if not more. It was also made clear from the start that I was to be treated almost as a sort of guest celebrity, i.e. I was given lots of feature spots. That got the nerves going; I was asked to play tenor sax and flute, neither of which I'd touched in ages. In fact, it had been a very long time since I'd done any kind of jazz performance except as director. I was well aware that I had a reputation that had probably long since become more myth than reality, but now I was faced with the prospect of dashing it.

They didn't waste any time throwing me into it, either. They started right off with the piece that had me on flute with a switch to a sax solo in the middle. Naturally, they insisted on miking the flute, no faking it. I played it as best I could, promising to practice more later. (Actually, the biggest problem was probably playing in tune.) I had no changes written for the sax solo, so I winged it by ear. It was fun, but I still felt rusty as hell. The rehearsal continued for a few more tunes, including a couple that I sang, and then I noticed something. The wind players consisted of a whole bunch of saxes (all but one alto not counting myself) and one trumpet. All of them but one were men my age or older. The one exception, a younger female alto saxophonist, was clearly the leader and by far the most aggressive and competent musician of the lot. She definitely had some solid jazz performance chops, which told me that I needed to get my act together or else. However, she was very civil and totally cool about the whole thing, helping me to follow the group's long-standing arrangements once the initial jitters had faded. There was one tune in which we had back-to-back solos, and that got me thinking...

During a break, the founder of the group, a professional jazz drummer and totally interesting guy, got behind the drum set and invited me to do an improv jam. My heart immediately landed in my stomach; it had been too long since I'd done anything of the sort, and I couldn't conjure up any jazz tune I could play on tenor sax with any real degree of confidence. The alto sax woman immediately jumped in, and she and the (pro) pianist played a tune I'd never heard in my life. Embarrassed, I took the plunge and started in on a tune of my own afterward, specifically "Harlem Nocturne", but I'd only ever played it on alto sax, not tenor, and not long after the piano and drums picked it up, I totally lost it and started foundering all over the place. I improved around it when I could, but after a while the pianist mercifully brought it to an end.

We were debating what to do next when a key member, the guitarist, finally decided to show up. He wanted us to go through some tunes we'd already practiced, which was good for me, anyway. It also got me thinking again...and when we came to the tune where I played a back-to-back solo with the alto sax woman, I decided to go for it and asked if she'd be interested in trading 8's and 4's. She was most definitely game.

"This is going to be fun," she said impishly.
"And I fully expect to get my ass kicked," I replied, "but that's fine."

So, without telling anybody else what we were up to, we traded 8 bar solos followed by 4 bars, stretching it out (while the rhythm section competently followed, and the other wind players looked confused and squinted their eyes at the music sheets), and finally closing it by doing the last 2 bars together. Yes, I got my ass kicked, but she was very cool about it. We did our best to play off each other, and she even playfully mimicked my style(?) toward the end, so it was easy for me to come in onto it to close it.

Sometimes getting your ass kicked is good, because it gives you motivation to try harder. The performance is in a week. Time to practice...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VII: The (Not So) Big Regular Concert

The music club at Ye Olde Academy always holds its teiki ensoukai (定期演奏会 - regular concert) in either late March or at the beginning of April, capping off the school year with an event that culminates the efforts and progress of the previous 12 months. It is also the last hurrah and farewell for the retiring 11th graders. (12th graders don't participate in the music club.) Needless to say, it's a very important affair, possibly even the high point of the entire year.

It's also an enormous undertaking. At over a hundred members, the music club is the largest extracurricular club at Ye Olde Academy. It is also subdivided into a number of different ensembles. Both the students and the directors hold themselves to a high standard...and won't settle for "normal". Therefore, the regular concert is usually more than two hours' worth of carefully staged entertainment, complete with professional sound and lighting, held at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall. Promotion leading up to the concert is also active and professional (and expensive); most years we play to a nearly-packed if not packed house.

We were just over a week before the Big Regular Concert, well into the final approach, when the Great Tohoku Earthquake struck. When the faculty and students at Ye Olde Academy stood half-traumatized out on the piloti and watched part of the auditorium roof collapse during that first, massive aftershock, I had a terrible feeling that the concert was crumbling along with it. After that, everything just stopped. We were too tied up just with getting the school back into functioning order and keeping the lifelines open. All thought of the concert simply vanished, and it wasn't until we arrived at the date that we said, "Hey, wasn't it supposed to be today?" By then it just didn't matter.

But we weren't going to give up. We'd already put far too much time, effort, and money into the Big Regular Concert to let it go just like that. Moreover, the retiring 11th graders (by then officially 12th graders) had been a very significant group including many power players, among them some of the best brass players we've ever had. It seemed a shame to dump them off without a proper farewell. However, simply rescheduling the concert wasn't that simple:
  1. The Kashima Workers' Culture Hall was being used to house disaster refugees and wouldn't be available for at least another month or two. All the other concert halls in the region were either occupied the same way or closed down due to damage.
  2. The school auditorium would be a possible (albeit limited) alternative in a normal situation, but it was located in the school building that had suffered the worst damage and was in pretty bad shape itself.
  3. Even if the auditorium could be used, there was still the continuing danger of aftershocks.
  4. We still weren't sure how long it would take before transportation lines, to say nothing of communication lines, could be restored to some areas. That would make it difficult to get the members together.
  5. A considerable amount of time had passed with no rehearsing whatsoever. It was uncertain whether the students would even be in any shape to perform.
In the end, once the new school year started limping into motion, we discussed the issue with the administrators, did some begging, and made a whole lot of compromises. We were granted permission to hold a massively scaled-down concert event in the school auditorium after repairs were complete. The whole idea seemed nuts, but it was very much better than nothing.

Plans were made, a date was set, and preparations began in earnest for the Not So Big Regular Concert. The original two-and-a-half-hour program was snipped and compressed down to about a single hour. A number of planned stage sets, costumes, dance routines, and even a couple of ensemble performances were abandoned. We also made do with the sound and lighting gear that was already in the school auditorium, i.e. bare-bones simple, and put students in charge of working it. Mindful of the lack of available seating, we decided not to promote the event except by word of mouth through the club members. We used the fancy program guides we'd already had printed up for the original event, but added inserts showing the actual, abridged emergency evacuation instructions in case another big quake happened!

Preparations and rehearsals were jammed into any slot of time we could get, which wasn't a lot (since new school year functions kept getting in the way). There were lots of sudden schedule changes. After a couple weeks of isolation and uncertainty, it was like the kids had suddenly been thrown into a fast river and told to swim. There was a lot of frustration, and it was all we could do to keep morale up. To make matters worse, at least one rehearsal was interrupted by a strong aftershock that made the auditorium ceiling buckle and led us to evacuate outside. Still, it was clear that the kids really did want to do it, so we did our best to pull off a miracle.

And so it was that in the afternoon of April 17th, 2011, the Not So Big Regular Concert opened in in the scarred auditorium of Ye Olde Academy to a surprisingly packed house. It started off with the concert band playing a single tune, a Latin-style number called "El Camino Real". Next up was the Flying Eggheads Jazz Big Band, with me at the helm. We kicked off with the Cab Calloway standard "Minnie the Moocher", which I'd rearranged to make it more like the version sung in the Blues Brothers movie...complete with me leading the call and response singing with a little help from the rest of the music club! After that we closed with a jazz band arrangement of "Mambo" from West Side Story and then played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" as an encore. I can't say that the Eggheads were in their top form (which wasn't really their fault), but they still did a fine job and closed out the year with style, camp, and energy. Next up was the orchestra, which played selections from the "Coppelia" ballet composed by Léo Delibes. That was followed by a performance put together by the retiring 11th (now 12th, actually) grade members themselves playing a fun Japanese tune I'd never heard before. And finally...time to say goodbye.

Actually, the entire music club formed a "grand orchestra" to perform my personal (and probably not entirely legal...though I'd argue it qualifies as fair use) arrangement combining "Time to Say Goodbye" with Ravel's "Bolero". I've done quite a bit of arranging for the music club, especially this year, but this is still what I consider my proudest achievement. I first made it in 2005 to showcase our departing 11th graders. We've done it three more times since then, including this year, and each time I've changed it to reflect the 11th graders saying farewell that year. This time was by far the most profound alteration. Last year's version started out with a cello duet that I still believe is the most moving we've ever done. This year's was based on that one, but with two cellos and a viola (with one cello part scaled way down out of consideration for ability level). It then segued into a brass ensemble, a new experiment featuring those historically significant (and now sadly gone) brass players, and it turned out even more beautifully than I imagined (thankfully, since a brass ensemble I made for them last year kind of sucked). Then the scales were balanced by a baritone sax solo accompanied by the 11th grade woodwinds (a bit heavy in the clarinets, but lovely). Then the usual Bolero-but-in-4/4 beat started, and the piece proceeded as it has every time...with one monumental exception. In answer to what seemed like an insane request from the director, I modified it so that in the middle, after a dramatic build-up, it suddenly modulated into Bolero's original key and changed to the original 3/4 time so that our departing (and exceptionally talented) 1st trombone player could play the original, chop-busting Bolero solo! (It was a little rough, but I've heard highly-paid pros brick that damned thing!) Frankly, I didn't think I could possibly make it work, but it did. I'm even more amazed that I was somehow able to switch it back to the "Time to Say Goodbye" key and 4/4 beat again so it could build to the finale without sounding frightfully stupid. It actually worked. Overall, although I still love last year's outstanding cello duet opening, this year's version was probably the most dramatic overall that we've done to date.

The whole concert was just over an hour long and dirt simple. It seemed crazy, but the audience appeared to be quite satisfied. The donation box we set up in cooperation with a local quake aid charity took in over $500, too. Most importantly, the departing 12th graders seemed genuinely relieved not to have been lost in the shuffle. They deserved a grand send-off; after all, they are leaving us something of a hamstrung group that will probably have to be in maintenance mode for a while. We had to have our usual farewell party in a different venue, too. (The one we originally booked is still under repair.) It didn't matter. Even in an old, yellowed ceremony hall with a musty smell and creaky equipment, emotions were charged. We managed to end the year properly, and the kids appreciated it.

Now this looks to be an interesting year...though I'm not sure if that's good or not.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VI: The Cycle Goes On

Spring came late this year, but it came nonetheless. Neither the ravages of the Great Tohoku Quake of 2011 nor the fallout (literal as well as figurative) left in its wake could stop the cycle of life.

yoa spring 2011 a
The famous cherry blossom canopy framing the road into Ye Olde Academy usually appears just in time to herald the new school year and welcome the new students. This year it came just a little too late.

yoa spring 2011 c
The delicate beauty of the sakura blossoms normally forms a welcome contrast to the brown-tinted, pollen-belching sugi trees [*ACHOO* sniff...] that ring the campus. Now the short-lived blooms seem pale yet defiant, standing against the gray of a troubled month, reminding us that things may not be the same, but at least life is going on.

yoa spring 2011 e
Look one way, and you see the visual song of life, almost forgetting that scars of the quake are still there right behind you.

yoa spring 2011 f
Even now, only a short drive away, there are still neighborhoods without working sewers or running water. There are still roads that are shattered ruins. There are countless roofs whose wounds are covered with blue tarps. There are still store shelves standing bare of certain products. The nearby beaches are still covered with tsunami debris and oil that is likely radioactive. The news from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is like a pendulum bouncing between hope and despair. Aftershocks continue to shake us several times a day, and seismologists warn another big one could hit at any time. And yet here, in the middle of it all, nature tells us that we have only to take what we have and keep going.

yoa spring 2011 g
The new school year got off to a weird start, but at least it started. Preparations for the annual Sports Festival in late April got disrupted, but they are progressing nonetheless. We were forced to cancel our Big Regular Concert in late March so that refugees could stay in the performance hall, but we're going to have a scaled-down performance tomorrow in our own school auditorium...a performance that will come complete with emergency evacuation instructions, but a performance nonetheless. We move on a path that is less secure, less certain than usual, but we are moving forward.

yoa spring 2011 i
We're told that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is now officially on par with Chernobyl. People fear the rain. They fear the sky. But if you look up, you see that things aren't as ugly as you might believe. The radiation contamination is still largely local, and is far less dangerous than what Chernobyl belched out. Actually, farm produce in many parts of Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures that were banned from sale a few weeks ago have been retested recently and found safe. The worst danger may already be over.

yoa spring 2011 k
Instead of cowering, we should be moving ahead and upward. Damage can be fixed (like this stairway, which was damaged by the quake and blocked off, but is now open again). Instead of crying over our losses, we should be counting our blessings.

The healing will take a long time, but it has to move forward. Life will go on.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. V: Beyond the Hills

Life in Namegata, where I live, and in Kashima, where I work, seems to have returned to normal. As I've mentioned before, both areas benefited from the fact that they mostly stand atop granite hills. Namegata was without electricity and phones for only three full days after the Great Quake. Central Kashima never lost its power, and its phones were back online within a day. Both cities had their running water and sewer services restored within five days. Damage to roads and buildings in both cities was minor. Of course, we had to deal with the shortages of gasoline and certain staple food items, but we dealt with it, and life went on.

Now, three weeks after the Great Quake, all the regular businesses and services in Namegata and Kashima are up and running. I and my family are able to go about our normal lives more or less the same way we did a month ago. The routines are back in place. Everyday things are taken for granted as before.

And yet, even now, everything changes once you come down from the hills.

I tried to make a routine trip over to the little Apita shopping center in Inashiki City a few days ago, and reality hit me square in the face again. Route 51, the main boulevard linking southeast Ibaraki Prefecture with Mito (Ibaraki's capital) and Chiba City, was suddenly filled with dips (I mean besides the usual idiot drivers) and ruptures. I turned off onto one of the side streets leading into Apita and was shocked to find myself driving on mud and rocks; the road, along with almost all the smaller streets in the area, was just plain was half of Apita's parking lot. The shopping center itself was closed. I tried again yesterday and found half of it open (including my favorite little import goods shop, thank goodness!).

An even worse scene of devastation greeted me when my kids' juku (cram school) finally reopened in the Hinode district of the city of Itako. I don't think I saw a street there that didn't look like giant hands had pried it apart. Some had pavement that had shattered as if it were glass. Not surprisingly, several roads were blocked off. A lot of areas had subsided as the soft ground, set on reclaimed marshland, had liquefied and flowed away. Almost all the poles were leaning, as were some of the buildings. Some areas were reportedly still without water weeks after the quake.

The city of Kamisu, just downhill from Kashima, got it even worse. As I've mentioned before, it sits on a giant sandbar. Not only did it get shaken apart, but parts of it took the brunt of the tsunami. The scenes of devastation are nothing like those still seen on TV from further north, but it's still sad. As for me, I've had no reason to go that way, so I've been staying away on purpose, but my friend Pandabonium has posted pics and videos from Kamisu on his blog.

We should never forget how fortunate we really are to have been safe atop our hills.

Even so, there are little changes here and there that remind us life is still not fully back to normal. Most businesses are closing early, and those that stay open after dark are keeping their outdoor signs and parking lot lights turned off to ease the burden on the damaged power grid. Certain food items continue to be scarce, many of which we never really thought about much until they vanished, such as spinach and parsley (banned from sale because of radioactive contamination). Milk is available now, but many of our most familiar types are still gone (also banned from sale due to contamination). Although I'm not a smoker by habit, it's still strange to see normally packed cigarette shelves standing empty and the ubiquitous cigarette vending machines switched off (as tobacco has also been banned from certain areas due to contamination). Many if not most stores are limiting purchases of bottled drinks (PET bottle rationing). Moreover, certain popular drinks, such as Coca Cola, have suddenly vanished with no explanation given. (On the other hand, Dr. Pepper seems to have suddenly become more abundant than before.) So while life in general seems to be back to normal, a lot of our usual comforts are either still missing or have taken on a strange, new form.

Radiation? Last I heard, we were still in the nanosievert range, i.e. no health risk. They say the biggest problem now is intensely radioactive water leaking out of the reactors into the tunnels under the buildings at Fukushima No. 1. They hope to stop it from getting into the ocean. They've also said that another nuclear plant up there, No. 2, has been steaming a bit. Whatever.

This is reality, Ted. It's what we live with. And at least I was able to get this year's tunes submitted to the Torycon all-Japan amateur recording contest.

(I'll try to add some pics to this post once I get some usable ones available.)