Somebody told me that Takashi Asahina, a deceased legendary conductor, often made the second violins and violas (in other words, the strings that play non-melodic lines) perform in a slow yet thorough manner during the rehearsals, with an intension to let them understand the profoundness of music crafted by great masters such as Beethoven or Brahms: Every single note was thoughtfully crafted to deliver an emotional intensity. Asahina believed that by repeating this process and understanding the perfection of the piece, members of the orchestra would be able to listen more attentively to other parts and “sing” the melody with confidence. Just like a great architecture, there are no unnecessary or excessive elements in the music by a great master. Actually, this resembles the way the composer “digests” music, and it’s certainly different from how the conductor, who plays a traffic officer’s role, helps his orchestra members to discern components of the music. As a matter of fact, Asahina’s mentor was Emmanuel Metter, a Ukrainian conductor, who sought asylum in Harbin and later moved to Japan.
Ryoichi Hattori, too, devoted himself to studying music under Metter while he lived in Osaka. In my opinion, his music is permeated with his deep respect for the traditions of Western music. Let’s take “Tokyo no Yane no Shita” for example. Its melody is beautiful, but Hattori’s music making isn’t that simple. I can hear beautiful harmonies and a countermelody as well because I studied harmonics and counterpoint as Hattori did. In other words, it’s a treasurable melody that makes all performers—not only the ones who “sing” the lead melody, but also the ones who play the inner parts, such as second violins, violas, and basses—happy. There is a general public perception that Hattori is a melody writer, but that doesn’t suffice the representation of his music. Hattori was an outstanding arranger. In this regard, he was a genuinely great composer, who knew how to craft music.
The same holds true for Shinpei Nakayama, a legendary writer of children’s songs. While the melody he wrote in 1923 for “Habu no Minato” is entirely Japanese, its piano accompaniment reminds me of Schubert’s lieder. There is no doubt that Japanese composers of that time—Nakayama and his contemporaries—earnestly adored music and that they let their musical senses help harmonize the souls of West and East.
Most of Hattori’s scores that are available today are in the form of a songbook, in which you can only see the melody, but “Tokyo no Yane no Shita” might have included a piano accompaniment when it was composed. Hattori was performing a cool and sophisticated piano accompaniment as he was crafting it. There is no doubt about that.
Someday, I’d like to visit Takayuki Hattori’s house to learn more about Ryoichi, his grandfather.
Whenever I have an opportunity to work on pieces of Hattori’s music, I feel the strong energy. It feels as though his music transcended time to be resurrected in my heart. It’s definitely not about feeing nostalgia. Whether it’s a popular song or a boogie, Hattori’s music radiates energy, the one that is only granted to a refined composition. I was truly amazed when I found out that “Yamadera no Osho-san” (its literal translation is a monk of a village temple) is the most notable work of Hatto’s fledging days. For a long time, I had simply regarded the song as one of the children’s songs. When I listened to the original recording, I was even more amazed. It was a great jazz chorus that reminded me of the Four Freshmen. There was a line that goes “dug-a-jig-dug-a-jig…” and I wondered if Hattori meant it to be a chant. It does sound like chanting, but it’s more like scat singing like “Diga Diga Doo.” I wonder if Hattori was inspired by Duke Ellington, a Jazz legend, who was fully flourishing in the United States at that time. Hattori specified that “Yamadera no Osho-san” is a jazz chorus. I’m confident that he took inspiration from scats used in Duke Ellington’s music such as “I don’t mean a thing.”
Duke Ellington, too, stands as a Titan of modern music. “Sir” Duke Ellington, as people called him, also shared the same beliefs as Beethoven and Brahms: weaving music organically by bringing out the qualities of individual players and their instruments in a skillful manner. Now you can see why it’s wrong to say that “Yamadera no Osho-san” carries a jazzy feel. Hattori understood their spirits and values, followed in their footsteps, mastered the art of their music making, and then crafted jazz music on his own term.
The main melody of the song goes up and down like this ╱╲ while the accompanying bass goes like this╲╱. This demonstrates the first step toward helping create an organic piece. Even for the singers of inner parts, this melody is so pleasant to sing, and the bass players are overjoyed to play this jazz chord progression. From the listeners’ point of view, the melody carries a sense of nostalgia while mimicking a feel of chanting. I believe that all of these elements make this song a superlative masterpiece.
“I just translated the voice coming from the sky. That’s all,” Hattori once said. I think that he underestimated himself, but his comment represents his deep respect for the traditions of music making as well as for the forerunners’ legacy.
I only met him once, and it was more than twenty years ago when I ran into him backstage of the Mielparque Hall in Shiba, Tokyo. I should say that Hattori struck me as an affable but elegant man of early old age…but I can’t lie. Honestly speaking, Hattori, a man of small build, had distinct demeanor. There was something nonchalant and easygoing about him. As I reminisce of this brief encounter, I see a Titan of Showa’s music.
Source: “Tokyo no Yane no Shita –My Life With Music” Hattori Ryoichi, Victor Music Entertainment, 2003
“Mr. Miyagawa, your music is too pleasant. If we were going to let the curtain open
with this piece of music, I would have to let rotten eggplants fall from the ceiling of the
theater,” said Yukio Ninagawa, the director of “Shintokumaru.” The play was written by
Shuji Terayama, a legendary playwright. A more cutting remark came from Mr. Takeo
Hori, chairman of casting agency HoriPro, who was the producer of this play. “Mr.
Miyagawa, your music sounds as though someone is chanting a series of sutras. We
want a signature song like ‘Memory’ from ‘Cats.’ You know what I mean?” said Mr.
I had nothing to lose. I had to admit that I wasn’t good enough for the job of creating
music for this very difficult play of Terayama’s. My knowledge and know-how that I
had gained from my previous experiences as a theater musician didn’t help at all. We
were anxious about the outcome because the show’s opening was only a month away. Is
it going to be a great show? Will our audience be moved? Or, is this going to end up
being an experiment, which can be an equivalent of a criminal act…?
I had to move on because I had only a month to do the work, and that meant having to
compose music in the exercise room of Saitama Arts Theater, together with the director,
actors as well as all members of the staff, while they were practicing. It was like doing
Shintokumaru, a musical play, was originally presented as part of the repertoire of Tenjo
Sakiji, a theater troupe led by Terayama. I felt enormous pressure when I was asked to
remake its music. I was being wary and defensive, but I felt encouraged and stimulated
by the boldness of both Mr. Ninagawa and the staff. “My directing plan is … blank.
Sorry, guys. Until yesterday, I kept thinking over many possibilities, but I realized that
we need a truly extraordinary plan to tackle this challenge. So, I decided to go with a
clean slate,” said Mr. Ninagawa, on Day One of the practice sessions. “Let’s make a
great flop!” His words made me feel that I finally met a strong “father” figure. I had
never experienced this feeling in the theater production. His remark became a catalyst
for changes in my mindset: I became more positive and stopped worrying about failure.
Recalling his words, I still feel grateful.
For the month that followed, I continued to identify myself completely with
Shintokumaru, the leading character of the play, helped by my narcissism.
Shintokumaru wanders around the village out of his enduring love for his dead mother.
When I was commuting to the theater, I needed to take three trains. I had to walk
through the bustle of Shinjuku, heading toward the opposite direction of the flow of
commuters. From a vantage point of somewhere high above, I looked like
Shintokumaru at the opening scene that goes with “Prologue: Theme Music of
It was a good thing that I had to commute a long distance to Saitama. One of the trains
that I used was a small local line called “Tamaden,” and its old green cars came from
the late 1960s. The dusty darkened green conjured up some nostalgic vision of my
earliest recollection. And I heard a tune: a song about enduring love for a mother—the
music that would go with the scene where Shintokumaru buys a “hole” through which
he can travel anywhere, from a mask vender. Next, he falls into the hell.
The birth of “The Formation of a Family” was equally dramatic. It was made for the
scene where Shintokumaru and his father buy a new mother and brought her home. At
the director’s cue “Now, begin to walk. Go!” a dozen of crew members swiftly moved
the wagon. They continued to assemble the stage set (a house) near the actors who were
slowly walking around. Watching this thrilling maneuver, I spontaneously began to play
the piano—another moment of improvisation.
The climax of the play comes with a scene with a straw effigy.* Shintokumaru goes
blind, cursed by his step mother, but he recovers his eyesight in the next scene. Here
comes that famous line: “Mother, please become pregnant with me again!”
*In Japan, straw effigies have been used for putting a curse on someone that one abhors. The person
who is being cursed experiences a great pain as the curser sticks pins into the effigy.
I think that Terayama was having fun when he was writing these scenes. Shintokumaru,
too, would enjoy being watched by the audience. Therefore, I decided to create
melodramatic music that had a feel of naniwa-bushi, which revolves around warm
human relationships. I was going over the top, making music at my own discretion. As I
crafted one piece, I became mentally stronger. Without feeling distracted or burnt out, I
stayed focused until the end. The dreamlike month went by so quickly.
What we saw on the opening day was something entirely unfamiliar. There were sutras,
eggplants and “Memory” in it. I learned that intelligence comes later, running to catch
up with feelings. Making you tearful, our Shintokumaru turned out to be a play that is
bizarre and straightforward at the same time.
At the party afterwards, Mr. Sumio Yoshii, the stage lighting specialist, gave me an
interesting comment. “Akira, I look forward to listening to your first symphony.”
I had never received a compliment that is as witty as this one.
The article was published on the March issue of Subaru in 2002.
It was sunny in Osaka area on October 24, 1997. The day came at last. The 2-year project was about to make its debut. The 45-minute show was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m., sharp. It was formally named as “the special event after the opening ceremony of the 52nd National Sports Festival of Japan Autumn Tournament.”
The heart of the opening ceremony was the parade of athletes, which would be viewed by His Majesty the Emperor. The whole thing was meticulously planned, literally minute by minute, second by second. After the parade, the Emperor would leave the stadium, ride in his car, and be transported to the hotel. To us, “the special event after the opening ceremony” appeared to mean “the special event after His Majesty the Emperor departs.” We wished if the Emperor would stay not only because we would have liked him to enjoy our show. It was expected that the spectators would become inattentive and noisy after the Emperor, the biggest star of the day, was gone.
We had a surprising opener in store, which was intended to shake up the distracted audience, but the procedure was subject to the weather condition. We were lucky enough that it didn’t rain, but the opener required some adjustments according to the wind velocity.
Here is what our intended scenario aimed to do: A large screen indicates the countdown. At count zero, a skydiver wearing a costume of Moppy the mascot throws himself down from the helicopter, which is hovering at 800 meters above the ground. A keyboardist in a special costume plays a contemplative music impromptu while Moppy continues to descend aiming to land the designated spot in the track field of the stadium. The parachute slowly circulates for three to five minutes as he comes down. Depending on the wind direction, the parachute is visible for some audience members while it remains hidden behind the stretched roof. But it gradually emerges and reveals its odd figure. “Look! What’s that?” “It’s Moppy!” The keyboardist raises the level of the musical intensity and closes the opener with a powerful note as Moppy finally sets foot on the ground. At this timing, fireworks go off, and the show begins.
The estimated duration of the flight was between three and five minutes, but the winds affect the speed of descent. A strong wind results in a nosedive-like vertical flight toward the landing point. In other words, it was impossible to estimate how long the parachute would stay in the air. Therefore, we needed to perform the opening music live.
The music director of the show was going to play the keyboardist’s role. Yes, I was the one. Because the wind velocity up in the air was surprisingly strong that day, chances of doing the skydive performance remained fifty-fifty until 10 minutes before the time to begin the show. We knew that we would let ourselves down by canceling the surprise, but we also knew that impromptu music-making for an uncertain duration would be a herculean task (because the music must end nicely at the right timing, which is unforeseeable!). I was getting jittery…
At 10 minutes before the show-time, the stage director received the green light from the helicopter 800 meters high up in the sky.
“Mr. Miyagawa, they are getting ready to go.”
(I see. They are going to do it after all.)
“The estimated duration of a parachute descending is three minutes.”
(OK, so I’m going to start the music with this chord and then use that motif.)
“Sir, please proceed to the stage.”
(Hey, I just realized that I’m pretty cool!)
I was about to appear on the central stage built on the track field of the stadium, which can hold 50, 000 spectators at maximum. I was wearing a white costume, which was made to blend in with the stage entirely decorated in pure white. I was getting excited about monopolizing the attention of 50,000 people.
The keyboard (synthesizer) on the stage was armed with special sound effects, which we recorded in a music studio in Osaka the previous day. It was programmed to generate rousing sound when I hit the lowest key of A. Cheered by a group of people—synthesizer programmer, music-production staff, the producer, Mr. Araki (my manager), and the stage direction team—, I proceeded to the stage. I sat before the keyboard, and the count-down started just as planned. The audience was psyched up already (only by seeing me taking a seat?), so I breathed to put all other thoughts out of my mind and concentrate. Things started to go smoothly.
Next moment, an unexpected thing caught my eye. Moppy on a large parachute was getting to reach the target, a huge coda sign marked on the center of the filed. While watching it falling down, I was trying to find answers to my questions. This self-talk was running like slow-motion playback.
“Wow, the parachute looks bigger when seen from a short distance.”
“My three minutes aren’t gone yet, are they? I haven’t played any music at all.”
“Is this the Moppy that we were expecting to see?”
“Nobody mentioned that there was another Moppy. Isn’t that so?”
Next moment, what seemed like slow motion images returned to normal, and I found myself striking the lowest key of the keyboard. The skydiver landed as the rousing sound exploded.
I was debating myself about what to do next: Should I laugh, or should I cry? As the music director of the show, I had no other choice but to remain unruffled. I stood up and walked back the same way in a dignified manner. The fireworks went off, and the show began. I ended up being kicked out of my show while “M-1 Moppy Dance,” the music that I composed was being played. I was devastated and wanted to go home immediately.
In the backstage, I saw the same gang who sent me off to the stage. They were standing at attention, looking alert. (I figured that they couldn’t run away in a minute). Perhaps, they were looking for the words to solace my shattered pride. “Sorry!” they uttered at once. I wondered if this was part of a TV show in which I was tricked and my reaction was recorded on a hidden camera.
Later, I was relieved to know that my brief appearance on the stage was not broadcast. My family happened to learn of a nationwide live broadcast of the ceremony, and they (my wife and children as well as my mother) were sitting in front of the TV, anxiously waiting for my show to begin. But the live ended almost immediately after His Majesty the Emperor left. My mother was so angry that she thought of calling NHK, the TV station, to complain (Thank God, she didn’t!). We ended up going to a sushi restaurant that night, so she didn’t fuss over it any further.
Apart from the “accident” relating to the parachute descent in the beginning, the show ran successfully and the music was reviewed favorably. Back in my greenroom, I received an explanation of the expedited skydive. According to their account, the skydiver chose the timing at his discretion and took off a few minutes earlier than originally scheduled. Because of the strong winds, he had to descend almost vertically.
After the show, I was introduced to the guy who did the skydiving jump. Mr. Skydiver was still excited about the flight, which took place more than an hour before. He told me that skydiving in a mascot costume aiming to land the designated area required a do-or-die spirit.
“I did it with desperate courage,” Mr. Skydiver said. Through a firm handshake, I felt the thrill that was experienced by the man who walked a fine line between life and death. I hesitated to tell my part of the story, so I just walked off.
In a nutshell, the highest point of the gigantic project, which was launched two years before the event, became the “skydive with desperate courage.” However, there was another thing that surprised me: the scene where “the man of the future world” appeared. This segment was choreographed by the ladies, whom I talked about in the previous essay (vol.3).
I wanted to find out the things that they were so obsessive about, so I was peering at the dancers on the stage. The music began, and a woman of the future world grandiosely emerged from the central gate, wearing a flamboyant costume that reminded me of Hibari Misora, Japan’s legendary diva. When she appeared on the stage in the glare of the lime light, I realized that it was one of those ladies! She, too, was the star of the show. I immediately understood why she was overly obsessed about the subtle differences between the demo and the recording. It was the very music for her entrance on the stage. Then I realized one thing: I wasn’t the one who played a leading role in this event. The athletes in the parade, the staff from the governor’s office, thousands of dancers, as well as 50,000 spectators, are the real stars.
I concluded that the National Sports Festival of Japan is a big sports day under the auspices of His Majesty the Emperor.
I wondered if the struggles and efforts by a composer from Tokyo were appreciated among people in Osaka…
Saturated with bittersweet aftertaste, I left Osaka.
Since then, I have kept opera and parachute at arm’s length.
This essay appeared on JCAA JOURNAL in December, 1997.
It was evidently clear that pre-recorded music made more sense than live performance for the massive-scale project whose altered tittle was “The Grand Revue—Dreams of Namihaya.” With the help of our music producer, I elaborated and pushed the recording plans. Aiming to capture 50, 000 spectators in the stadium by a fast-paced show, a variety of forms of music was used, such as programing, ragtime, and modern music as well as wadaiko, the Japanese traditional drums.
The duration of the show was exactly 45 minutes, and that means I had to compose music that would go on non-stop for 45 minutes. We spent two weeks on orchestration. Compared to my regular pace of work, it was much faster and very intense, but I managed to get the job done within a tight time frame thanks to the demo that I had previously made by myself. The demo turned out to be very helpful because it was in fact a pretty accurate blueprint for the orchestration despite the fact that I recorded it at home using my synthesizer, which was not fully equipped. Acted out of consideration for dancers and performers, I did my best to make it sound like a real orchestra. Unfortunately, this “almost real” demo had the reverse effect. But I wasn’t aware of the pitfall and its troublesome consequences at the time.
As I mentioned it in the previous essay, the piano scores and the demo were made available about 18 months prior to the show. In other words, literally thousands of dancers and performers (let alone dozens of groups and organizations that they belonged to) had been awaiting the demo. Some were high school students, and others were amateur dancers, who belonged to dance schools. While their lifestyles and motivations varied, people would gather to perform together in the show. Some would participate in the performance by 1,000 tap dancers, and others would become part of the “Team of Renjishi”(inspired by kabuki, Japanese traditional performing art).
In a metaphorical sense, it looked like a huge family project. The head of the “family” was, of course, the director, who was based in Tokyo. He roughly designed the dance and then provided directions to the heads of the branch families, who were the presidents and managers of dance schools or high school teachers in charge of physical education. These people were responsible for choreographing their segments of the show. This process was intended to encourage collaboration among the local people in order to generate some local feels that represent their culture and traditions.
The complete versions of choreography would be then shared by the members of their “extended families.” These people were the dancers and performers of the show, who would invest their time, efforts and emotions in rigorous practices for a year. Some groups might ask their dancers to thoroughly study the music score so that they would be able to react correctly when the instructor said “Bar #X, Beat #Y.” Other groups could be more laid back, so their instructors would provide directions verbally. Some other groups could be overly detail-oriented, so the instructors would micro-manage their dancers by saying “move your second joint of your right toe exactly at X second of Y minute.”
Ways to count the rhythm varied, but they had one thing in common: the demo. In theory, they should all be able to perform together in a perfectly synchronized manner because they were trained to move in accordance with the demo.
By the way, the demo that I made with my “synthesizer that is not fully equipped” was a self-recorded music tape. Following my instincts, I was just crafting music on the Clavinova piano, a keyboard that I had at home. The demo was good enough to allow people to capture the feelings of the music, but the tempo was fluctuating (However I’d like to emphasize the fact that the music was far from being simple. You cannot have a metronome tick all of the time). That is exactly where the challenge lay. We soon realized that we were facing a taxing job: The recorded music for the show had to synchronize with the demo! Its tempo and inflections needed to be reproduced precisely… How on earth could we make it? It had to be exactly 45 minute long, and the orchestra consisted of 44 musicians –a large-scale project for recording in the studio.
My initial plan was to make “click guides” by perfectly reproducing the changes in tempo and pitch. Our synthesizer operator would make painstaking adjustments and pre-record the beats: the clicks produced by a “nuanced and fluctuating” metronome. The orchestra would play along with the clicks.
We executed the plan in vain. It didn’t pan out because the orchestra couldn’t perform well. Even if the clicks were nuanced (unlike the regular metrical clicks), the musicians were having a hard time expressing the music and adjusting to the clicks simultaneously.
The truth is that you have to tune in to your inner self while making music.
We confirmed this obvious fact and ended up incorporating an old-fashioned and orthodox procedure: rehearsing extensively in the recording studio, starting to record after all of the musicians completely mastered the tempo and nuance. It took us 20 hours before we finished recording the 45-munite music. It was time-consuming, but I was happy with the result, which was actually quite good. The same amount of time was invested in remixing. It was then sent to the editing operator. He burned the midnight oil in order to meet the deadline. And we made it! It was exactly three months before the show. But I had a hunch that something ominous was about to happen…
About two weeks later, when I was feeling relieved and happy that the 2-year project was finally done, the brouhaha surfaced. It began with a phone call. I was getting ready to move on to the next gig when the department of the National Sports Festival of Japan at Osaka Prefectural Government called.
“Um…, Mr. Miyagawa, I hate to say this, but a choreographer (footnote by Miyagawa: one of the heads of the “branch families”) is saying she can’t dance with the recorded music because it’s not the same as the demo. I really appreciate your hard work, so I feel bad about asking you a favor, but could you please talk to her? I’m coming to Tokyo next week to accompany her,” a female officer said.
“You don’t have to come all the way to Tokyo to see me. Perhaps, the lady and I can discuss over the phone about the specific phrases that she was experiencing difficulties with.”
“Um…, Mr. Miyagawa, there are more than a couple of phrases that are in question. Actually, she said that there are dozens. So, I suspect that it will be very difficult to talk about them over the phone.”
I was astounded.
A week later, the female officer brought two middle-aged choreographers to my office. According to the officer, both ladies were the presidents of the dance schools that are fairly well-known in Osaka, and in fact they were wearing showy outfits.
I decided to start a conversation with a safe remark.
“So, you’ve been working with a group of amateurs. It must be really hard work choreographing non-professionals,” I said, beating around the bush to find out what they had in mind. We continued to have a harmless chat for about five minutes, and then I finally said as I looked down at my scores.
“Well then, I’m going to play the tape from the beginning. Please let me know when you hear the parts in question.”
Mr. Ito, our recording engineer, whom I considered as a comrade, started the DAT (Digital Audio Tape). When it became slightly audible after a brief moment of silence, both of the ladies cued, “Right there! Please stop the tape!”
One lady said, “Ta-ti ti here is not ‘ta-ti ti,’ but it’s supposed to be ‘ta-ti ti.’”
Mr. Ito and I became speechless being at a loss.
“I’m saying this ‘ta-ti ti’ in the demo was, you know, ‘ta-ti ti.’ Do you see what I’m saying?”
We had no idea what she was talking about, but like a psychotherapist does for his or her patient, I deliberately uttered non-offensive words.
“Madam, if I understood you correctly, you are saying that you cannot dance with “ta-ti ti’ and that it should be more like ‘ta-ti ti?’” I asked diplomatically.
“Exactly. Let’s take a listen to the demo. Yes, right there, it’s more clearly ‘ta-ti ti.’ Do you hear the difference? This ‘ta-ti ti’ is a bit more…,” she continued to talk mumbo-jumbo while we remained speechless.
During the 2-hour meeting, I was able to decipher only a few of their hocus-pocus. I had no clue what other “ta-ti ti” or “la-la-la li-li” meant. I told myself to listen to the ladies with patience, but I was getting irritated.
“It’s your job as a choreographer to get excited about and appreciate the subtle differences of the notes!”
Likewise, the two ladies didn’t get it. They, too, became speechless.
Here is my take: They had listened to the demo too much. After having been absorbed in the music day and night for a year, their ears became too sensitive so that they could distinguish small things, such as infinitesimal differences between “ta-ti ti” and “ta-ti ti.” As far as this music is concerned, I can safely say that I, the composer of the music, was an amateur and the two ladies were the experts. Actually, it was a great honor for me. The music, which I crafted as I was intuitively playing the keyboard while my wife was putting the laundry outside and the kids were running around, was shared among thousands of people. And those people carefully listened to it zillions of times! We should never underestimate the listening skills of non-musicians.
During the meeting with the two dance ladies that evening, I tried to talk them around a little bit, but most of the time I soothed their feelings and made many apologies until I finally showed them to the door.
We reworked a couple of phrases in which I could decipher the hocus-pocus of the dance ladies. We made the modifications as ostentatious as possible so that anyone could notice them. In addition, we meticulously tracked down the entire music again.
Several days later, we heard good news: The new tape made thousands of ladies in Osaka very happy.
This essay appeared on JCAA JOURNAL in December, 1997.
Once you agree to work on a big project like the National Sports Festival of Japan, you, the composer, will almost always have to accept one condition: The music must be ready 12 to 18 months before the event.
Let me talk about the gut-wrenching experience that I had while working on the music production for the World City Tokyo Expo, which had been scheduled to take place in 1996 but was cancelled. The tragedy occurred about a year before I took up a gig for the Namihaya Sports Festival.
I was producing the music for “Time Traveller” sponsored by Fuyo Group, one of the major conglomerates back then that included a large commercial bank and trading company. The show consisted of computer graphic arts and holography.
Given the lead time of computer graphic arts, the producer asked me to finish the music a year before the ceremony. Therefore, music making and scenario writing were concurrently proceeding. I crafted the music little by little according to the scenario that was in progress. The scenario was then slightly modified according to the music I wrote. After we repeated the procedure for several weeks, the work was finished. We were relieved to have the demo ready 12 months prior to the event, as we promised. About a week later, the Tokyo gubernatorial election campaign was started.
I voted for Mr. Yukio Aoshima without calculating my self-interest or being politically-oriented. It never occurred to me that politics could directly affect my work. It’s true that I was quite ignorant, but I thought I could count on him. Mr. Aoshima seemed much more promising than the other candidates. As he articulated in his manifesto, he cancelled the expo. As a result, I only got a half of the money. It was like getting disembarked from a recently-launched ship in the middle of the itinerary. But I wasn’t the one who was most devastated. Those were the CG director and his team of artists who had invested creative efforts and brainwork to produce the art works for the show. They must have been feeling as though they were abruptly disconnected when they were about to launch the actual production. They suffered an enormous psychological pain, and some were too traumatized to go back to work.
We fully devoted ourselves to this project and went through a lot until we got the green light from the client. We were a team of committed professionals—the director who made a passionate speech at the conference room at the bank’s headquarters, the scenario writer, people from the ad agency, and many others including myself. Our dream and efforts went to pieces.
The National Sports Festival of Japan is an annual competition that takes place at a different venue, rotating among the prefectures, so it seemed least likely to be cancelled. The single possibility of that would be a bad weather. However, I still had to adhere to the common practice: music making comes first.
Actually, I had a hunch that something ominous would happen. And oddly enough, things began to look onerous when the piano score and the demo were made ready. In fact, it was the beginning of the hassle. Soon afterwards, astounding fact was revealed. The Grand Opera—Dreams of Namihaya, was not an opera per se.
Honestly speaking, I was aware of the misunderstanding (or the misuse of the term opera, to me more precise) because the first draft of the scenario was remotely operatic. It looked more like a plot for a revue. I recall whispering into my manager’s ear at the first meeting. “Hey, ain’t I supposed to make music for an opera? This isn’t one.” This changed my mood completely because I was overly excited about my debut as an opera composer.
Let me use the ship metaphor again to describe my feelings at the time. I felt as though I had embarked on a wrong ship. I thought it would take me to the operatic adventure, but its true destination turned out to be a revue.
But I began to perk up because entertainment is my playing field. In fact, I enjoyed every minute of the music making, and the collaboration among the director, writer, music producer and me, was proceeding quite smoothly, despite the fact that I had to rewrite many times until I made everyone happy.
If the Osaka Prefectural Government already discovered the truth at this phase of the project, we didn’t have to go through a nightmare, which came six months later.
When it happened, I was at a brand new stadium for a preliminary presentation, where the revue called “Grand Opera” was played by actors and dancers along with a music demo. Despite the fact that it was smaller in scale and only a few costumes were made available, more than 1,000 people participated in the demonstration. It looked like the show was panning out as planned, meeting the expectations of our production team. We were relieved and became confident that we would somehow be able to make the show’s debut in the year to come.
But our relief and confidence were swept away at a meeting of the board of trustees that afternoon when some “authority” threw in their opinion and criticism.
“This is not an opera. To call it an opera, you need an aria. A beautiful area is a must,” they claimed. Their comment got on my nerve, and I exploded.
“This is, without doubt, a revue show. Adding an aria doesn’t make it an opera. We’ve already done this much. What the hell are you thinking you are doing at this point, you the ‘authority’ people?” I felt as though a stream of blood was spurting from my nose.
The staff in the governor’s office was just a group of amateurs when it comes to musical shows despite the fact that their name cards say “performing team, ceremony division, department of the National Sports Festival of Japan.” That is exactly why they invited experts including dancers, critics, academics, to sit in the board. We later learned that those “authority” people suggested doing an opera outdoors. They should have been aware of its extraordinary scale. It was obviously too big. And the problem was that they rushed to get started before having identified the fundamental differences in goals and interests among so many people that were involved in the project. Before we knew what was happening, the definition of “Grand Opera” was altered. It came to mean “grand scale, mind-blowing.”
I have to remind you that there are thousands of other stakeholders, such as dancers, performers, musicians and the likes, were impatiently waiting.
The brouhaha, which revolved around the mismatch between the title and the contents, was resolved by our compromising proposal to change the title from “The Grand Opera—Dreams of Namihaya” to “The Grand Revue—Dreams of Namihaya. In hindsight, I realized that we had created a situation which was embarrassing for the governor and his staff.
I think that there is no difference between the young and the old. We all make mistakes and learn from them. In particular, a big event like this is full of topsy-turvies. Do I sound condescending?
Without doubt, people in our civilized society take responsibilities, which seem to be too heavy a burden for one person to carry. But in most cases, it should not be a big deal if we are willing to make a fool of ourselves. In my opinion, it is possible that the things behind the enormous issues such as wars, nuclear weapons, and politics stated with a sense of shame that some individual happened to feel.
When it comes to a huge problem, it’s best to disgrace yourself and everyone involved at an earlier phase. This is the very lesson that I have learned from this experience. I hope that I would be given another operatic opportunity in the future…
This essay appeared on JCAA JOURNAL in December, 1997.
In the summer of 1995, I was offered a gig to craft music for an opera, a plum gig for a composer like me, who works in the entertainment industry. My manager said that “The Grand Opera—Dreams of Namihaya” would be performed by 500 musicians (orchestras and brass bands combined), 1,000 singers, 1,000 amateur dancers, and 2,000 high school students (as part of the performance group), as well as 50 mascots. He also said the show would take place in 1997 at a brand-new stadium that could hold 50,000 people, and it would be the highlight of the opening ceremony of the National Sports Festival of Japan Autumn Tournament in Namihaya, Osaka. It all sounded surreal, so I was listening with a grain of salt. How much of this job offer would be true? I needed to see the producer in person.
It turned out to be true that they were planning to do a large-scale show and that a new stadium was being under construction. He also told me that special divisions and teams, which were dedicated to this event, were already formed inside the Osaka Prefectural Government. Surprisingly enough, they started planning the show in 1993, just for the one-day ceremony (and the athletic tournaments would last only a week).
The producer’s long title on his name card was a proof: music producer, performing team, ceremony division, department of the National Sports Festival of Japan, Osaka Prefectural Government. What an overstated title! It looked like a long procession. One thing the producer didn’t know then was that the contents of the opera would later wreak havoc…
On the way to the meeting, I was weighing the impact of this job offer on the way to the meeting while I was riding a mama-chari, one of those bicycles with a basket attached in front, which is perfect for grocery shopping but not at all suitable for a professional meeting of this significance.
People asked me to produce music for a grand opera. I am going to take up this job over the head of experts who adore opera and rigorously study it twenty-four-seven!
I showed up to the meeting in jeans and a T-shirt. With hindsight, I should at least have worn a pair of socks. I looked totally uncool…
You may be wondering how much I knew about opera at the time. I could be less ignorant. When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to appreciate it. The voicing of opera singers sounded like a shriek to me. I confess that I used to find it nerve-racking and laughable. So, opera was a whole new world to me. I balked a bit at taking up the offer as I thought about dozens of composers out there who are better qualified and itching to do this kind of job. At the same time, I was enraptured because my specialty was theater music, musicals in particular. I felt as though I was given an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I finally landed on an opera gig!”
Looking back my musical career, I felt privileged. Something stirred deep inside of me.
My life has revolved around music ever since I can remember. In high school, I formed a music band, and I was an all-rounder, playing multiple roles: a writer, musician, and producer. In fact, the very first piece of work that I did for the band was neither a song nor lyric. It was a scenario for what looked like a radio show (hypothetical). Because our repertoire was limited to only one song, “El Condor Pasa,” we had to do the “talking” in order to make it work. Along the song, which was the pivot of the show, we narrated our stories: how we got started, how we coped with each other and so on. We also incorporated some fiction, so we needed a screenplay and sound effect. We ended up recording the show into a cassette tape. We were totally complacent with our “debut album.”
During the second year in junior high school, I made many pieces of music—my original creation for our band. But in those “songs,” episodes were frequently inserted between the vocals. In fact, the instrumental parts were vamps (repeating the same phrase), and we played a little skit between the vamps.
Here is how we did our show:
“We’re gonna ride a space ship,” a vocal sings, and then there is a vamp.
“We detected an enemy ship. Five degrees to the port side. Wave missiles are ready. Fire!”
One of us turns a guitar amp upside down. BANG!!!
Back to the vocal. The second verse begins.
I was more interested in the process of music making and its effect, other than music itself. It was a natural consequence that making music for shows and musicals became my profession. So, I said to myself: Don’t flinch, believe in yourself. I was destined to do this gig. Ever since I produced those little shows in high school, I have been on the road to becoming an opera writer. I guess I will be good at it.
I was overly excited about what appeared to be a dream job. But I did not know yet that I would soon encounter an impasse (or I should call it a topsy-turvy), and that it was only the beginning.
What was awaiting us? How did we deal with all the contretemps until “Grand Opera—Dreams of Namihaya” was debuted?
To be continued…
This essay appeared on JCAA JOURNAL in December, 1997.