What’s in Akira’s Head?

There were three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, two horns, and six woodwind instruments (among the six, the two players held two positions including the saxophone). Inside the glassy room, there was a drum seat on one corner, the piano, electric guitar and bass guitar on the right-hand corner, and other percussion instruments such as timpani and xylophone on the left-hand corner. Because of the studio’s limited capacity, 14 string players and a harpist had to stand by outside the studio. They would later take their turns and do the recording.

Perhaps, you are wondering why these musicians were gathered like this and what this recording was about. Was this for Disneyland’s shows or Nihon Gekijo’s revues?
Neither. It was a typical recording scene of the Shiki Theatre Company during the period of Japan’s high economic growth. This particular recording was made for a children’s musical called “Nissei Classic Stories,” and top-notch musicians were asked to perform. The company intended to complete the recording of about 24 new songs produced by Kunihiko Suzuki in two days, about 20 hours in total.

I was surprised that they asked a young musician like me, who just turned 21 years old, to do the orchestration for all of the songs. This was the first job that came directly from Shiki after I gained their trust for having contributed to the success of “Evita,” their previous show. I felt as though I was rising rapidly in the world, going from success to success. I thought that I was having a head start, already standing along the starting line as a full-fledged arranger!

I was given only three weeks to work on the orchestration while they continued to make changes. I received frequent phone calls from people at the practice room whenever they decided to cut or add something. I happened to live very close to Shiki, but I would have run out of time if I allowed them to drag me around to pubs to get some drinks after the practice. It was amazing how these people could go on without sleep. A staff member of the directing team subdivided his day into two parts, and he managed to grab two hours’ sleep a part… They were crazy! What was even crazier was that they asked me to produce substantial amount of grandiose orchestration under these crazy circumstances.

The primary mission for me, who had just stopped being a music student and was not exactly fledging yet as a professional musician, was to meet the deadline. I wrote music, often half asleep, occasionally hearing voices from above the sky. In hindsight, I was doing a sloppy job…

Days of sleep deprivation continued after we had begun working in the studio. We had so much work to do like dubbing or mixing. There was always someone napping on the couch. “Wow, this is music making in the real world!” I thought. All seemed exciting and fascinating to me, and I enjoy every minute of this gig. I could have bragged about every aspect of it!

On Day Three in the studio, we were immersed in dubbing. Mr. Jun Fukamachi, Japan’s top synthesizer player, brought an amazing instrument, and I was deeply fascinated by it. At that time, the synthesizer had limited usability, and you could generate only one note no matter how many keys you simultaneously hit. However, Mr. Fukamachi’s state-of-the-art synthesizer could generate eight notes at once. The downside was that it took up so much space. The tuning room was overflowing with all kinds of machines. It took at least an hour until they finished having all of the machines connected with cables and tuned. After all, it was like operating eight synthesizers on one keyboard. Its sense of depth was amazing. It was so deep that I felt no need to use any other musical instruments.

Having an orchestra of 35 performers plus a synthesizer that was equivalent of eight keyboards combined, we managed to craft the score that was so dense that people in Broadway or Hollywood would recognize its profoundness. On the fourth day, when the work was almost done, a phone call came from Mr. Keita Asari, the director. According to Meg, the theatre company’s rehearsal pianist, who also did music-related administrative work, Mr. Asari didn’t like the song I arranged that was intended to use for the most important scene of the show. He said quote, unquote, “the instrumental is too loud so that I can’t hear the lyrics, and that would disturb the minds of the actors.”
Alas, Mr. Asari was absolutely right! In the end, Hollywood-esque orchestral sound was replaced with the director’s favorite “Meg’s piano solo.”

In hindsight, I really ended up doing a sloppy job. What happened was that I overused all of the instruments in an attempt to gain recognition for the music I crafted. Since it was my very first gig, I was trying too hard to make a good impression. But at the end of the day, I left there with the score filled with notes and the tape: the final take of the piano solo.

Well, misfortunes never come singly. On the last day of the recording, Mr. Fukamachi and I exchanged a few words in the lobby. He had just finished packing his instrument.
“Your arrangement is boring. It’s nothing but a model student’s work. There is no creative flash of originality in your music making. Why don’t you exert the untrammeled expression of your artistic impulses? You shouldn’t worry about what other people think. You know, I don’t care if you don’t like me,” Mr. Fukamachi said.
I stood aghast. I left the studio before I figured out what to say.

I was a secret admirer of Mr. Fukamachi, who, too, quit Geidai, the music school I went and quit. He founded a “Music Club” while studying musical composition at the school. And he submitted a letter of withdrawal to the president three days before graduation. In a sense, he is a legendary figure. Because I greatly admired his sensitive musicality, I was dumbfounded by his words. His words were stuck in my head until three years later when I saw him again in another studio.
“Akira, I remember what I told you last time, but I like your arrangement this time. It was good,” Mr. Fukamachi said.

I recall his words: Creative flash of originality in one’s music making. In other words, I was expected to exert my own artistic creativity in writing music for my client because that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing as a composer. When I stood along the starting line, my professional life had already begun. At that moment, I began my adventure of self-discovery. And the adventure/training in the pursuit of my true self still continues.

When I was in high school, I became a full-fledged fan of Shiki Theatre Company. My first encounter with the troupe came when an acquaintance of mine took me to the theater where I saw “Chorus Line” and “West Side Story.” It was their first showing of “Chorus Line,” which had debuted in the United States not so long before its opening in Japan. As for “West Side Story,” it was their second showing. In both shows, they used recorded music.

I still remember vividly how big an impact Shiki made on me. I was amazed, surprised, and shocked to a great extent. I had never known that Japan boasted such an outstanding musical team. Before I saw the Shiki’s performances, I had adamantly believed that Japanese musicians wouldn’t be able to perform the West Side Story’s music and that Japanese actors wouldn’t be able to dance or sing. I proved myself wrong. I was deeply impressed and inspired by their performances. I left the theater with an autograph of Osami Ino, a friend of my father’s, who performed on stage. When I got home, I wanted to share this exciting musical experience with my mother, who was a fan of George Chakiris, but I had a hard time explaining what I just saw. She gave me a doubtful look as I spoke highly of the Japanese musicals

Indeed, their performances were truly professional and high-level, unlike their unassuming poster that I saw at a train station in one of Tokyo’s suburban areas. They succeeded to reproduce the legendary dance scene of “West Side Story,” where three members of the Sharks raised their legs to a Y-shape angle. Perhaps, they even lifted their legs higher than Chakiris did.

What I found most amazing about the musicals was the orchestral performances. I looked at the list of the musicians in the program, but I could only recognize a few names. What’s more, the fact that all of the musicians were Japanese was even more astounding. Evidently, there are countless musicians in this country who are extremely talented! This was a new and overwhelming finding to me. I felt powerless. I became awed by the fact that there is such a large pool of talented musicians in Japan. This musical team could perfectly reproduce the masterpiece by Leonard Bernstein, the music I had adored since I was a kid in primary school. The musicians performed the complicated music with ease, and they were all Japanese. That was amazing!

Luckily, I was living in Sangubashi at that time, where Shiki Theatre Company had its base. Their practice room was located in an alley, off from the main shopping street that stretches from the train station. It happened to be on my way to go to school. After I saw the musicals, my “school-commuting alley” became a road to paradise.

Bernardo, Tony, and Maria are here.
Over there, I can see the balcony of Manhattan!

And I occasionally heard the sound of the piano.

Oh, I wish I could play that music from West Side Story for you because I know the piece. I know how fantastic it is! I have been listening to the music every day since I was little. I can play it from memory. Let me join your team, please!

I indulged in fantasies to the full every morning as I walked by the practice room on my way to school. One day, I whistled the melody, the Jets’ look-out whistle, in front of the practice room. I only did this once, and I made sure that there was nobody around. It was like a little kid doing “Ultraman” pose (*Ultraman is a Japanese superhero) hoping that he could indeed transform himself into Ultraman. You know, children are entitled to day-dream. Just in case you are wondering, no one came out of the balcony at my look-out whistle…

Three years had passed since then. I think that it was around the time I finally got into the music school when funerals were conducted one after another at Shiki Theater Company. I pulled out some newspapers, looked for the obituaries, and learned that two icons of the theatre had passed away. One was Kaoru Kanamori, a great stage artist, and another was Fubuki Koshiji, legendary actress. I wondered if I could offer any help, but I was just a music student, who didn’t belong to their world of fame. So, I watched over the place from a distance, as one of their neighbors. It isn’t hard to imagine that many people were shedding tears of sorrow in the “balcony” that day.

It was right after I turned in an assignment and my freshman year was about to end, when I received a phone call. I don’t know if it was because my long-held passion struck a chord with them, or they acted out of “community friendship” (because we were neighbors…) someone from Shiki contacted me. It was Morihisa Shibuya, the music director of Shiki, who later became my mentor.
“Mr. Kentaro Haneda told me about you. We’re launching a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I’m wondering if you could help us. Would you like to do orchestral arrangements?” he asked. Mr. Haneda, a composer and a pianist, was my father’s best friend, who was overjoyed when he heard the news that I was finally accepted by Tokyo University of the Arts. I learned that Mr. Haneda was working on the arrangements of “Evita” for Shiki. It totally came out of the blue, but at the same time, it was a long-awaited offer.
“Yes, of course. I’ll be there in two minutes.” I put on my shoes again, which I just took off minutes ago when I got home, and rushed to the Shiki’s practice room. Two minutes later, I found myself getting my foot in the door at the practice room: my dream job. Glancing down from the balcony, Sangubashi looked particularly beautiful, and I couldn’t help embracing the connection.

A few months later, I left school without hesitation. Yes, I had invested so much time and effort to get into the school, but I didn’t think twice before quitting.

The wind of London feels cold, and so does the spirit of its people, who seem to be aloof and do things at their own pace. For example, if there is an Asian young man, who appears to be lost holding a map on one hand, Londoners would most unlikely ask if he needs help.

One day during my visit to London, I went for a walk and found the art exhibit by art students. As soon as I stepped inside, I saw what looked like a sliced cow in an acryl container hanging from the ceiling. “OK, this is a form of artistic expression,” I thought.
On the other corner, I saw one of those large cabinets that you can typically find inside a chemist or a clinic. It was full of medicine just as usual. “OK, this, too, is a form of artistic expression…” I felt sad and challenged at the same time when I looked at the show’s title “The Sensation.” It sounded as though they were asking me to leave if I didn’t get it. NEVER MIND. I’M IN LONDON WHERE PEOPLE DO THINGS THEIR WAY. I SHOULD FOLLOW SUITE. Londoners don’t bother to worry about being likable. They don’t care if you would like them or not. No one seems to be friendly enough to approach you with a big welcoming smile saying “Hi, which one did you like the most? Tell me about it!” This is the first impression that I formed on London, the unfamiliar city.

I don’t get so excited about being in a foreign country —big cities in particular. I found myself disliking the dusty air of New York during my first visit to the city 20 years ago. I don’t like big cities probably because I grew up in a big city. My purpose of visiting other cultures is to see things that are foreign as well as to discover new things, to which I have never access.

I have been to London three times, and all of the visits were job-related. On the first trip, I was there for the recording of “Japanese Lyrical Songs” by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Its performance was indescribably beautiful, but it sounded inexplicably dry. I felt it lacked something, and I wondered if it was because of my orchestration.

My second opportunity came when I needed to visit the national theater called Barbican Center to see the performance of “Shintokumaru,” for which I composed music. This is an outstanding theater, where you can acknowledge all kinds of efforts that were made for the benefit of performing arts. The most jaw-dropping equipment was its audio system. The theater was still in a process of undergoing the test, but a middle-aged man, who was in charge of the sound system, gave me a detailed explanation. There was a controller, which looked like a remote controller of an air conditioner, hanging on the wall of the orchestra pit. To be precise, the controller looked more like one of those switches that are attached to massage devices. Anyway, on the controller, there were five buttons: straight play, musical, opera, ballet, and cancel (although I’m not sure about the fifth button). When I pushed the musical button, I immediately felt a subtle change in the theater’s sound. Changes in the reverberating sound became more noticeable as I moved toward to the right. At this theater, the sound level is adjusted according to the type of performances.

As I learned more about its efforts, I became even more impressed with the theater’s commitment to provide its audiences with the best possible environment to enjoy performing arts. The vantage point of the audience is seriously taken into account, the sound quality is well thought out, and visitor flows are easy to identify. Not only is the inclusive design incorporated into all aspects of the theater, the sound of the words uttered by actors is also adjustable. You cannot screw things up here. In other words, success depends on the quality of the play. Again, I sensed the implicitly intimidating attitude of Britons. I felt challenged as if I were asked to try it out. This I thought was their way of saying “Welcome!”

Now, let me talk again about the theater’s sound system. Simply put, it’s an electrical device. I came to surmise that microphones were installed somewhere to catch air sounds, and that they skillfully played them over numerous speakers that were buried in all directions. I understood the concept, and I understood their loyalty, but I was awed by their commitment to put it into execution. I have talked to many people in the Japanese theater industry about this, but no one showed enthusiasm. None of the theaters in Japan has the capacity to incorporate the British concept. That sound system is a unique product with a long history and culture of Great Britain, a nation of theaters and performances, which allowed commoners to access music that had been monopolized by French and German aristocrats

It seemed to us that all of the “Shintokumaru” shows we presented in London went well, and that our audiences were fascinated. However, according to the reviews that appeared in newspapers, critics mercilessly picked apart my music. I still feel chagrined thinking about these reviews. I wish that someday my music would be acclaimed highly by critics around the globe although I don’t think it worthwhile to be driven by such ambition. I don’t necessarily want to be a Straight-A student. Going my way is the only option.

During my third visit to London, I went to Museum of London. Unlike the British Museum, it’s a small museum. I did visit the British Museum, where I was overwhelmed by its gigantic size and ended up leaving without seeing much. I felt too uncomfortable there. But I liked Museum of London. On the fourth floor, there was an exhibit featuring the history of London since the Stone Age. There was also an exhibit that focused on the history of the British royal family. The two exhibits combined showed the physical changes of “Londoners” throughout the history, from the Stone Age to the birth of the royal family. Londoners of the Stone Age were, like Peking man, hairy. In the next picture, which was slightly more civilized, they were holding tools that were made of wood or rock. They were in a leather skirt hanging around the lower hip, but there was nothing to cover the upper half of the body. The hair looked slightly blond. As I proceeded to the next picture, I anticipated that it would be the one depicting the scene in which primitive Londoners prepared meals using fire during the time equivalent to Japan’s Jomon or Yayoi period. In fact, they stood in a perfectly erect posture, and their hair was as thick as a lion’s mane. And they were wearing angular metal armor. I said to myself: Wait a minute. Is this really armor? Without doubt, it was iron armor, and it looked heavy. They were holding an iron-headed spear with the right hand, and an iron shield with the left hand. However, they were still walking barefoot, and that looked cold. It must have been freezing to wear iron armor over the naked body. I understood that iron has a very long history of use in this city. Perhaps, the heaviness and the coldness that I had felt about the city and its people were somehow linked to the history of iron. Am I going too far?

I haven’t had a chance to revisit London since then, but our ties are not coming to an end. I only saw a very small part of it, so my view remains lopsided. I didn’t spend enough time to communicate with people in London so that I could understand their true feelings. I haven’t had a chance to return the favor to the Beatles, who inspired me. When I was a teenager, my life revolved around their music.

I have a feeling that there will be a new chapter in my life in which our ties are deepened. I can’t wait to turn the page.

One of the 14 movements of “The Carnival of Animals,” a suite by Saint-Saëns, is titled “Pianists.” Others include “Royal March of the Lion,” “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods,” “Kangaroos,” “Hens and Roosters” (this movement revolves around pecking), and “Aquarium.” The pianist stands out among the ‘animals.’ This movement is overwhelmingly boring among the great pieces that are full of wit, because it sounds like one of those pianistic fingering exercises composed by Hanon or Czerny. Therefore, it is almost always performed as though some unskilled pianist is earnestly practicing his or her scales. In other words, a virtuoso with magnificent technique theatrically pretends to be a bad pianist. It gradually gears up with a growing tempo and seamlessly turns into the next movement, “Fossils.”
Every time I hear this suite, I cannot help feeling that there is something wrong about the interpretation of “Pianists.” They all play the same way, but this cookie-cutter interpretation by mimicking an unskilled pianist doesn’t seem right.

Saint-Saëns is apparently a sarcastic guy. The Symphony No.3, the greatest work of the last years of his life, is full of cynicism. It requires a full-size orchestra of about 90 musicians, as well as the pipe organ and a four-handed performance on the piano. Looking at two pianists unassumingly sitting next to each other by a gigantic orchestra makes you laugh. Besides, they play a minuscule role in the music. They can only be heard for the duration of nine bars. Just to fulfill such a small part, the orchestra must hire two pianists, in addition to an organist. In my opinion, it appears to display Saint-Saëns’ bitter sarcasm on Western civilization, in which people can obtain anything they desire to have. This is exactly the theme of the magnificent symphony. His candid pronouncement makes the piece be one of the greatest modern symphonies. Therefore, it seems most unlikely that masochistic and cynical composer like Saint-Saëns portrayed the pianist merely as one of the characters that appear in the Carnival.
Here’s my assumption: The pianist is the symbol of human beings, all mankind. Pianists (=we) single-mindedly continue to move forward believing in the power of technologies and machines while mechanized civilization gradually accelerates with an increasing speed. When the velocity of such vortex reaches its peak, the composer, who can foresee the future, chuckles to himself.
Those critics and musicologists, who make a biased judgment that “Fossils” of “The Carnival of Animals” symbolize the ammonite, lack the ability to imagine. “Fossils” could be us, the musician who performs this piece, or the listener who enjoys the piece.
It is certain that “The Carnival of Animals,” which was crafted by Saint-Saëns the master hand, is a formidable piece of music that transcends time of space. He foresaw our fate and the future of the world and the universe.
“The Swan,” the tearful symbol of beauty, follows “Fossils,” and the symphony turns into “Finale.”

It has been something like 12 years since I began to work with Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra on pops concerts. The orchestra does two pops concerts a year (one in spring and another in fall), and many members of the audience are repeaters. I acknowledge the gravity of my responsibility as the conductor and music arranger, but people in Osaka are easy and fun to work with. The orchestra’s adviser and staff are light-hearted, and the members of the orchestra openly express their enthusiasm if they like my ideas. Commemorating our 10th concert in the fifth year, I selected the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude,” and I decided to do it again fiver year later. It marked our 20th concert, so we called it “Hey Ni-Jude for Happy 10th anniversary!” It was a pun. In Japanese, “Ni” means twenty, “ju” means ten, and “do” means a number of times. With the three words combined, “Ni-Jude” makes a pun for “twenty times” in Japanese… Because it was a celebration, I had a train of ideas such as using the pipe organ and having a chorus of 100 singers. The preparation wasn’t easy, but I found this work to be very exciting and enjoyable.

As many of you probably know, the Beatles’ songs are credited to “Lennon-McCartney.” When I started listening to the Beatles and became fascinated by their music, I jumped to a wrong conclusion that the lyrics were written by John Lennon and the music by Paul McCartney. Setting up a music band myself, I came to realize that the division of labor in music making isn’t so easy. I wondered how they actually collaborated. Did they work in a perfect harmony so that John crafted this particular phrase and Paul wrote that word?
It is said that the two men worked completely independent of each other. In fact, the Beatles’ songs can be divided broadly into two types. In one type of songs, John is the vocal. These songs are implicit and somewhat rebellious while revealing that the writer actually hates to be alone. They are written by John. On the other hand, Paul wrote songs that are lyrical. He talks about mundane things, but he does it in a refined way of writing. In this type of songs, Paul is the vocal, so you can easily tell that he wrote these songs.
As a teenage musician whose interests revolve around the sound, I empathized deeply with the songs by Paul McCartney. I thought that “Hey Jude” was without doubt the world’s best piece of music.

For some reason, “Hey Jude” is hardly ever used in music shows nowadays. Because the song is too personal that it doesn’t sound cool if it is sung by someone else.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad…”
This is what the song is all about??? I guess I didn’t really understand the lyrics when I was younger. Put it this way, “Hey Jude” is so unique and outstanding because there is no song like this… But I don’t get it. Who is this guy, Jude? I can’t believe that I was so into this private song when I was in my teens.

There is one song that is a combination of the music of Paul, a go-getter, and that of John, an introvert. There might be more than one, but the only song I know that has such trait is “I’ve got a feeling.” It is from the album “Let it be” and is also one of the songs on the movie “Let it be.” Paul wrote the A melody, and John did the B melody. The elements were later joined.

When I was in the sixth grade in elementary school, “I’ve got a feeling” was my favorite song. It might be true that this is the most extravagant way of enjoying the Beatles songs.

This essay was written in 2007.

In order to get into the composition department of Geidai (an abbreviation for Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku whose English name is Tokyo University of the Arts), candidates must go through rigorous exams. In particular, the composition segment lasts hours. If you aren’t familiar with how music-making is done and happen to have a chance to observe the exam, you would have difficulty figuring out what this is about. In a lecture hall, there are about 100 young men and women seated at continuous tilted desks. They are engrossed in musical composition without using the piano. No one is allowed to touch the Steinway that sits there with a black over on. Outside the hall, crows caw as they hop around the adjacent building. The vast area surrounding the university is called “Ueno no Mori” (mori means forest in Japanese).

The exam starts at 9:00 a.m., and the lecture hall remains silent until it is over. As I said, the candidates are not allowed to use musical instruments of any kind to test their phrases during the exam. It is simply because the school cannot provide each applicant with a sound-proof room and the piano, I guess…
Amid the silence, certain sounds occur as the candidates continue to scribble: pen scratching on paper, drawing a double-bar line with a ruler, filling in the ovals of eight notes, and writing sharps and flats. Whatever else that can be heard in the room is the sound of somebody’s sneezing of blowing his or her nose. They just continue to work silently. They don’t even hum. In fact, humming is impossible because what they are required to craft is not a mellow tune. What echoes inside the brains of every one of a hundred would-be composers is a solemn sonata. There are 100 pieces of music that are all different. Their choices of instruments also vary.

The candidates are required to complete an instrumental piece based on a given motif. Everyone works on the same 2-bar motif, and their time limit is nine hours. Yes, it’s NINE HOURS, not 90 minutes, therefore, they have to undergo grueling “mental gymnastics.” I had experienced this exam three times. At the third attempt, I finally passed it and was permitted to enter the school. I remember having felt a sense of absurdity about the image of a soundless exam taken by a hundred would-be composers. Despite the fact that I myself was one of the participants, I could not help feeling that it was absolutely hilarious. I was even tempted to secretly take photographs and sell them to tabloid magazines that would enjoy sarcasm.

During the lunch time, speaking is strictly prohibited. It could be that humming, too, is prohibited during the exam, but I just can’t remember. If a candidate wants to go to bathroom, he or she must go alone and be accompanied by an proctor, who will be there to make certain that no interaction takes place between the candidates. While the scratching sound of a pen on paper lingers on until the evening, the cawing of crows fades as it becomes darker outside. They disappear into the twilight sky.

At 7:00 p.m., the proctor declares the end of the exam saying “Your time is up.” At the cue, the candidates almost simultaneously utter a sigh or a weary voice “ah…!” Then, they arrange the scores, remove eraser dust, and call it a day. A hundred prodigies, who come from all over the country, exit the lecture hall and walk off to the Ueno Forest.

I hear that the process of the entrance exam of Geidai’s composition department remains the same.

Through a thick soundproof door, sounds of piano playing were intermittently leaking. Notes were indistinct, but the sounds of them were solemn. I peered inside through the door’s window and saw a room surrounded with mirror walls and wooden bars. Near the entrance, there were a try full of pine resin and a cloth for wiping toe shoes. It was a ballet exercise room, a minimal space for artistic creation.

The room was in the basement of the New National Theatre, located in the metropolitan district of Tokyo. A month before the show “Paquita,” the ballet company was doing choreography the day I was there. Directed by the non-Japanese choreographer, the corps de ballet was practicing their part. The ballet pianist was a Japanese woman. I understood that the leaking sounds of piano playing came from this lady, playing for the production. I wondered if the grand piano was a Steinway or a Kawai. To me, it sounded like a Kawai piano.

Decades ago, I worked for a famous Japanese ballet company as its staff pianist, and the piano of the studio was a worn-out upright Kawai. On every single day, I kept forcefully hitting the keys for dozens of dancers who were doing jumps. There were two classes in the morning, two other classes in the evening. Dancers practiced jumps with one leg: first with the left leg, and then with the right leg… No wonder why the piano was so worn out. One day, an old ballet pianist came from the United Kingdom to play for the company. We called him “Grandpa Allison.” The old man played the old piano as if he were citing a poem, which was beautiful, sweet, and even a little heartbreaking at the same time. I could feel his sense of humor throughout his piano playing. At that moment, I thought to myself: “This is my calling.”

At the New National Theatre, I was impressed with its subterranean rehearsal facilities that are remarkably favorable for dancers and musicians. Across the large ballet exercise room that I saw, there was an opera exercise room. When I walked by the opera room, I saw a man, who appeared European. He could be the maestro. On this rehearsal floor, there are more exercise rooms: three large studios, two midsized rooms that are big enough for theater exercises, six or seven small studios. At the end of the floor, there is a room for orchestral rehearsals. I could not believe that a dream rehearsal venue like this really exists in Japan. It is indeed a dream place for literally producing dreams. In one room, stagehands were making the scenery. Some dancers were getting a massage.
I was proud that “The Little Prince,” our musical production, was there along with productions of other art forms. We were making a musical in a room that was located between a ballet production and an opera production. The creative work transcends genre.

In each room, creators and artists were trying to see the invisible, which they constantly struggle to see, relaying on their ears. This way, the invisible time becomes the “visible time,” conjuring up picturesque music. I believe that dreamy stages will continue to come out at these dreamy venues.

Did you ever know that Jennifer Lopez had appeared on the sage of a Japanese musical?
I doubt that you do. Only one out of 10,000 people knows it. Those who share the knowledge are limited to the people in the production for “Synchronicity,” a special musical presented by International Garden and Greenery Exposition, Osaka, in 1990. In fact, Ms. Lopez was part of the ensemble. This Japanese musical is one of her early professional experiences during the time when she was still unknown. I think that she had stayed in Japan for about two months (Tokyo and Osaka, combined), doing rehearsals and shows.

When she returned to Japan in 2005 for promotion of her film, Ms. Lopez sang “Beautiful World,” a song from “Synchronicity,” at the press conference. She added that it was the only Japanese song that she knew. Believe it or not, I am the composer of the song. The lyric is written by Tetsuo Takahira.

Synchronicity was produced at the height of the economic bubble. During that time, we had the luxury of frequently travelling to the United States to recruit American choreographers as well as to audition and then hire American dancers and singers. The same was true with the production of Synchronicity. Ms. Lopez didn’t play the heroin’s role; she was one of the dancers in the ensemble. We hired her without knowing that she would later make a movie star. In fact, there was no solo part for Ms. Lopez. She was just one of many performers. Therefore, I have no recollection of her presence. Not only that, I have never seen any movies that she is in.

Here is the conversation that I had with Mr. Takahira, who told me about the press conference.
“Akria, did you know that Jennifer Lopez sang that song at the press conference the other day? I heard that she sang in Japanese.”
I didn’t show any reaction. My silence puzzled him.
“Didn’t you know that Jennifer Lopez was with the Expo musical as one of the performers? Don’t you remember the women with big beautiful eyes? That was Jennifer Lopez!”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Akira, you don’t know Jennifer Lopez the Hollywood icon?”

As he pointed out correctly, I didn’t know who Jennifer Lopez was. Overwhelmed by the influx of information, I had limited the types of channels that my antenna could receive. Therefore, I never had a chance to know anything about Jennifer Lopez. I also admit that I lack knowledge of Japanese artists. In fact, I didn’t know Hiroyuki Takami until I worked with him on “Clarimonde,” a brand new musical. I didn’t know how popular he is, what a great singer he is.

Actually, my wife is even more aloof. Here is the conversation that we had the other day.
“I will be working tomorrow at Budokan all day,” she said.
(Note: Budokan is an arena for martial arts, but is also used for live concerts of big artists.)
“Who is doing the concert?”
“Well, let me see… You know that group…they are getting very popular… Gosh, I don’t remember the name. It’s an unusual name, Skip or something like that?”
“You mean, SMAP?”

Perhaps, we are swimming along the flow that is not the mainstream. I never make music that is intended to be a hit song. But, I am not satisfied either. I have been doing musicals for more than 25 years. I have worked long enough to be able to hit a home run. My ultimate goal is to create a song that is loved by many people in the world.

Note: “The Only Flower in the World” is SMAP’s biggest hit.

When I hit on an idea, I sometimes feel as though I hear someone whispering into my ear. It makes me realize that I am making music with the help of many pioneers of music; their pearls of wisdom help me craft tunes.
Some say that it is a divine voice while others say that it is one’s inner voice. In my opinion, they are the same thing.

Sometimes, I find myself indulging in self-complacency while writing music.
“This note is a bit too high for the horn, but it sounds really cool. People will definitely give me credit for my sophisticated note choice. Ladies will think that I’m amazing. Wow. That will be awesome!”
Other times, I get one note after another, like a chain reaction. For example, I hear a good tune for the horn. It naturally occurs to me. I then figure out what works best for the clarinet. The two notes sound good together, creating a nice harmony. In a situation like this, I am definitely hearing a divine voice. I hear a bunch of music pioneers uttering it for me in sotto voce.

Dear readers. Please don’t label me an occult musician. Let me explain my reasoning.
Having seen a number of musical auditions, I acknowledge that there is a stark contrast between performers who are classically trained and those who are not: dancers who pay attention to every single part of their bodies including the tip of all fingers vs. dancers who don’t, singers with a good ear who can feel the music at a deeper level and skillfully adjust to the accompaniment vs. who cannot. Good singers are confident and committed to the piece of music they are singing. At the same time, they can enjoy what they are doing. There is something graceful about the performances of classically trained artists. You cannot achieve this level of refinement one day and night. Regardless of genre or origin of art, such refinement has to be granted by divine grace. In other words, you cannot acquire artistic grace all by yourself. You need to refer to the great wisdom of pioneers.

In any form of art that has developed under academicism, there is the “road” pioneered by a great number of those who went before: dancing in Kabuki, pas in ballet, vocalization in vocal music, sophisticated technique of instrument playing, counterpoint, the law of harmony, and the art of composition. There are numerous roads that had been journeyed and cultivated by countless of pioneers who constantly pursued and practiced, trying to find the one only way. I believe that the same is true with tea ceremony and calligraphy.

You can “shake hands” with those who had devoted themselves to exploring the possibility of art. For hundreds of years, art has continued to evolve. If you are a little intimidated and reluctant to firmly shake hands with those pioneers, why don’t you try to “touch” them?
Honoring the souls and wisdom of pioneers is just like honoring ancestors. The same holds true for jazz and gospel, the kinds of music that has little to do with academicism. You cannot sing or dance without knowing the root or history of what you are performing. You cannot play jazz without being grateful to Louis Armstrong!

Leonard Bernstein, one of the greatest music pioneers, died in 1990. When I learned of his death, I secretly grinned. “The great artist, whom I have admired as a god, rose up to heaven indeed,” I said to myself, “Please come and talk to me. I would appreciate it any time. Please whisper a tune into my ear. I will make a note of it.”

Here I am, waiting to hear a divine voice. I have my “antenna” stretched so that I should be able to catch the amazing grace. Some people may call me an overly romantic guy or an occult musician, who is under an illusion, but I don’t care. I know that I am not mistaken. Grace as in amazing grace also means dignity—divine grace that I mentioned earlier when I was talking about artistic refinement.

How much difference is there between the two—the moon they see in Egypt and the moon we see in Japan? To see it with my own eyes, I went to Egypt on the spur of the moment. This little adventure took place some time ago, when I was still in my early 30s.

I’m not sure if I should say that it was disappointing or that it turned out to be just as what I had expected, but the moon that I saw from the hotel room in Giza didn’t look any different. In fact, it felt very much like Japan, conjuring up the traditional image of the full moon with the silhouette of a rabbit over plume grasses.
In addition to this “discovery,” I learned a lot from this lone travel. I became aware of the things that I had never considered before.

On the third day in Cairo, I returned to the pyramids without a guide. This time, I wanted to focus on feeling the megalithic tombs, solely relying on my senses. In other words, I didn’t go back there to take another look at the historical remains in order to deepen my knowledge and understanding of them. I just wanted to experience and feel the pyramids with an open mind.
I was impressed with the Grand Gallery of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, but my favorite was the Third Pyramid (I forgot who was buried in three…). Unlike the other two, it was a smaller pyramid. In its burial chamber, I meditated for a little while. It was cozy, and the air didn’t feel that stale. But, the moment I stepped out of the pyramid, I was brought back to the reality—the Egypt in the 1990s. The guy with a camel approached me from behind. “Camel-back riding. 10 dollars for 30 minutes!”
From a different direction, a kid came and tenaciously tried to sell papyrus.
“It’s only a dollar. Take any piece you like. Want more discount? OK, how about a dollar for 10 pieces?”
What the heck is this bargain?

Since I arrived at the Cairo Airport, I had been bombarded with all kinds of sales pitches—perfume, gold, silk, papyrus, whatever you name it—as if the venders were waging a heated campaign spearheaded by the leaders of the city or the entire nation. They share a motto: We offer you a good price!
This is a common thing that you encounter at any sightseeing spot, but when you are traveling alone, you have to deal with a swarm of persistent venders all by yourself. It was exhausting…(but I got used to it by the 10th day).
I was tempted to gather the vendors and asked: You guys are people of Egypt, the nation with great history, right? Are you really descendants of those with profound wisdom who created these amazing monuments?
On second thought, I realized that I was mistaken. We don’t know exactly when the pyramids were built because Ancient Egypt and its dynasties were discontinued at some point in history. In other words, those Egyptians, who were soliciting in front of me, were not necessarily descendants of Ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids. Maybe they weren’t. Silly me. What an ignorant Asian traveler I was!

When the sun begins to set, you will hear the Koran recitation through loudspeakers. It takes place at the same hour, every day, and the voice is earsplitting.
“Here comes again,” I thought, knowing that there was absolutely nowhere in Giza that I could keep myself away from the loud prayer.
Before the visit, I used to think that the Koran recitation is a symbolic “sound” of Egypt, but I realized that we, the ignorant visitors, audaciously misunderstood something. We should remind ourselves of the fact that the Koran is only a thousand and a few hundred years old.

I’m not saying that I didn’t like the Koran. In fact, the sound of it has a solemn echo. I can understand how important the Koran is for the Muslims. The sacred book presents profound values, and it is irreplaceable. However, I experienced an “uncomfortable feeling” when I heard the Koran recitation and saw the pyramids at the same time. You don’t get this kind of feeling—feeling that something is out of place—until you actually visit the place to sense it. The pyramids and Islam are not related. If some street musicians are performing before the Giant Buddha, no one would think that they are playing the music of Kamakura period (1192-1333). But the pyramids and the Koran together, on the other hand, can be misleading. They are unrelated, but somehow the two are a good match.

What kind of “sound” or “music” was there to echo around the Pyramids of Giza about 5,000 years ago? Like the moon over the desert, which has remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, the gigantic pyramids looked as though they were smiling at me.

If you have ever had a musical experience, you know the joy of it. Creating harmony is exhilarating.

According to Hiroshi Miyagawa, a great composer and my late father, a family can be likened to the harmony of do-mi-so. Do is the father, so is the mother, mi is the child. And there is la. Some fathers are tempted to slip away from their wives and have an affair. La is the lover. While he persuasively described the effectiveness of the do-mi-so harmony, my father intended to playfully emphasize that la is a very important note.

So is the note that is most resonant with do, and it is sublime, profound, and perfect. When so is voiced in a lower key, it sounds as though someone is chanting sutra. But, it can be dull, too. Its tone sometimes becomes offensive and serious.
In Japan, there is a saying “Children are a clamp,” which means that children save a marriage, being a nexus between husband and wife. This is exactly what mi does between do and so. The two notes sound sweet together, just like husband and wife break out naturally into a smile and become cheerful when they are with their children.

For amateur orchestras, brass bands in particular, harmonizing the instruments is their immediate goal. I hear that they work really hard trying to achieve perfect harmony, making adjustments in 1/2 to 1/4 of a hertz, or in cents. However, their harmony is not a product of their rigorous musical quest. It is made possible by sharing joys and sorrows of collaboration. In a sense, they are a “family.” Even if it is in precise unison, the superficial harmony does not convey a true sense of harmony. The ultimate goal of creating harmony is seeking peace. It requires building relationships among members of a “family.” We cannot find ourselves in good harmony unless we look at each other like a real family and nourish bonds among ourselves.

Having a family is a great joy. People love their families from the bottom of their heart. Parents do whatever it takes to protect their children, and children think of their parents, hoping that they are in good shape.
I would like you to imagine starting a family with your colleagues or fellow members of the group by making music together. When two people that are strangers to each other strike notes, do and mi, they begin to walk together toward peace. They begin to make a difference in the world.
Music transcends cultural, racial, religious, or geographical boundaries. I believe that music contributes to breaking down these barriers. In fact, I have witnessed the making of a “family” that transcends boundaries. One example is the concert that took place on February 13, 2005, in Hamamatsu, a city known as a manufacturing hub for musical instruments. More than 120 amateur musicians participated in the concert to play “Space Battleship Yamato,” and Hiroshi Miyagawa, who made this music, was the conductor. The majority of the ad-hoc orchestra’s members came from various makers of music instruments including Yamaha and Kawai. For example, a trombone player was a tuner at Yamaha, a flutist came from Kawai, and a viola player was with Roland. In business, their companies compete against each other, but they became a “family” through music making.

I hope that someday musicians will win the Nobel Peace prize. I’ve been waiting for the day to come.

I’ve got this dream and it keeps me away
When it comes true, I’ll go back there someday
Furusato: lyric by Tatsuyuki Takano, Music by Teiichi Okano, 1914
Translation (My Home Country) by Greg Irwin

Embracing this phrase, hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers died on the battlefield, so far away from home.

The song “Furusato” conjures up the souls of those who endured the hellish agony of war. Furusato means one’s native soil. In the lyric of this song, it refers to the Japanese landscapes: fields, highlands, mountains, and ridges.
There is little doubt that Furusato was sung silently or audibly by those men, who were drafted and dispatched to foreign soil. Perhaps, they hummed while lying inside the army tent. They might have reminisced about their hometowns and sung Furusato to themselves while marching. The sublime melody, which resembles a hymn, must have evoked feelings of warmth regardless of location. It must have crossed their mind even at the commencement of assault, amid the roar of bursting shells.

Furusato was made in 1914 as a shoka, a song that was authorized by the education ministry for children to learn to sing in school. People in Japan have continued to cherish and are deeply attached to this song. At the same time, it has generated various renditions. In my opinion, the song has the gravity and depth that are similar to those of gospel or Dixieland, styles of music that were born during American slavery. It is this disparate musical force that sets Furusato apart from Japanese military songs of 1930’s and 40s.

Teiichi Okano, the composer of this song, learned to play the organ at the church where he was baptized. The melody he wrote for Furusato does not contain pathos, transience, or any other elements that are distinctive of Japanese songs. Instead, his outstanding mastery of the Western musical scale was demonstrated. I can hardly believe that the music was crafted by a Japanese composer.
When we croon the lyric written by Tatsuyuki Takano, we are touched by a feeling of being forgiven—something that is elevated and divine other than a firm resolve to fulfill one’s dream, which is the embodying of the Japanese spirit. Through this melody, we can feel the repose of souls other than the regret of those who died before they had the opportunity to attain their ambition.
But, we are all human. Singing a psalm to himself in the face of death at his duty seems impossible…

The song is so heroic and beautiful, yet tragic. This makes me wonder if music during wartime was expected to play this brutal role.
The ultimate absurdity of war inevitably deprived the soldiers of their sanity while making them feel a deep sense of remorse. When they were thinking of their furusato, which made them who they were, they were aware that their enemies, too, were thinking of their families, friends, and hometowns. War, which is the opposite of music, is the most absurd thing among “non-arts.”

From time to time, I must stop and think about the responsibility that I have as a composer. I should re-define the role of music through reviewing the beautiful melody of Furusato. This is the only thing I can do for the soldiers, who lost their lives on the foreign soil. Their dreams never came true. Their outcries were never heard. I can only pray wishing their souls to rest in peace.

IArt proves its value when the appreciator’s imagination is evoked.
Imagination revolves around the listeners.
We all know that imagination plays a key role in all forms of art (performing art or visual art), but we often confuse it with fancy. Today, I’d like to focus on the proper use of imagination.

Even though the composer fully explores his or her imagination to craft a piece of music that carries a story, and critics and commentators endorse such efforts, the music will be weak and powerless if it is made out of complacency or if it is too shallow and superficial. It rather forces the composer’s imaginative world on listeners.

I believe that imagination, or the ability to spontaneously imagine things, is a source of inspiration and sensation that brings tears to people’s eyes. Empathy is evoked only through imagination. In a nutshell, imagination lies at the heart of any kind of artistic activity. The question is how to use imagination, and I’d like to say out loud that art proves its value when the appreciator’s imagination is evoked.

Let me tell you about the conversation I had the other day with my 28-year-old manager, who was born in 1975. When he began to listen to music, compact discs were already dominant. He had never experienced vinyl records (LP) until I had him sit by the record player to take a listen.
“What do you think? It feels great, doesn’t it?”
“It does, indeed.”
“It’s different, isn’t it?”
“It is, indeed.”
“It directly touches your heart, doesn’t it?”
“It does, indeed.”
“It makes you feel emotional, doesn’t it?”
“It does, indeed.”

I know it sounds like a leading question or hypnotism, but the young man looked impressed and excited. His cheeks were slightly flushed.

As you may know, the analog sound on LPs is more or less “distorted,” because it is created as a diamond needle scratches the surface. If “distorted” is an exaggeration, it may be better to describe it as being “rough” or “coarse.” Anyway, in the “distorted” sound quality, one can feel a strong but inexplicable presence of something or a sense of reality.
On the other hand, the digital sound on compact discs doesn’t have such effect. In fact, it almost perfectly reproduces voices and instruments, but that is exactly what makes it sound phony.

In my opinion, the difference between the two lies in imagination. CDs neatly deliver information that is accurate, but that is all they do. By contrast, LPs require the listeners’ ability to imagine. As the needle touches a vinyl record making some noise as it captures a tiny particle or scratch on its surface, their imagination will be “switched on.” They will immerse themselves in the music itself instead of chunks of tonal information. The listeners whose right brain and five senses are now activated will continue to imagine as they listen to slightly “distorted” or “coarse” sound all along. They will be moved and even overwhelmed. Their body temperature will go up. They will grow tearful. CDs have none of these effects.

Imagination is something that people use voluntarily. You are free to add your personal interpretation or storytelling to the music, but before you do so, you should ask yourself a question: Am I recognizing the listeners’ need and ability to imagine things?
From time to time, musicians like me must reflect on our attitude toward imagination. We have to stay humble.

This essay was written in 2004.

Do you know how the term key is used in music?
For example, the singer would say “It’s too high for me. Please change the key down by a half step.”
In other words, the key indicates the tonality of a piece. At least, this was how I had long understood the key. So, when I heard an amateur singer, who misunderstood that key refers to vocal range, saying “My key is high,” or “This won’t work on my key,” I found this ignorant remark amusing.
Key signature consists of sharps or flats, therefore the key tells us if a musical piece is higher or lower, but it doesn’t refer to the range of a performer’s voice or instrument. Again, this was how I understood the key.

However, it turned out that I was the one who was ignorant.
The other day, my oldest daughter, who goes to a solfège class, asked me if I knew what clef means.
“Daddy, clef as in G-clef and F-clef is a French word. Do you know what clef originally means in French?”
I told my daughter that I had no clue.
“Clef means key. Daddy, you didn’t know that?”
No, I didn’t until my daughter told me about it although I first heard the term clef when I started college.

The five-line stave becomes hard to read when the range is above or below a certain level, and multiple ledger lines are inserted. While two staves are used to indicate music for an instrument with a wide range such as the piano, a single stave is used in most cases. If the voice of an instrument is high, a stave with G-clef is used. If it is low, a stave with F-clef is used. In addition, there are a few more clefs that indicate tessituras, such as tenor clef and alto clef. Freshmen of a music college learn to read and write scores with these clefs. The professor I had for this class called it “clef reading.” That is why I ended up believing that clefs are the indicators of voice ranges or tessituras and that keys (the indicators of tonality) and clefs are two different things. At the time, I didn’t know that the two had the same meaning…

Clefs were originally prepared for singers. There are clefs for baritone, mezzo-soprano, bass, and soprano in addition to alto and tenor. What was made to indicate tessituras of singers is the clef or the key, therefore it is not wrong to say “My key is high,” or “My key is naturally low.” In fact, their argument was reasonable while my understanding was incorrect.
Needless to say, the general use of the term key by professional musicians like me is also correct. It is just that the term key has more room for implication than I knew.

Choshi kigo, a Japanese term for the key signature (or the clef), is interesting, too, because it makes us think of some playing method of the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese traditional instrument. They say “hon choshi” (base tuning), “ni agari” (the pitch of the second string is raised), or “san sagari” (the pitch of the third string is lowered).
What if the shamisen master says, “My key is ‘hon chochi. What is yours?’”
He or she may be right after all.

This essay was written in 2004.

Do you recall the music that was played at the climax of the awards ceremony of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France? Not only did France host the matches, but they also became champions. However, it wasn’t a song by a French singer or a music made by a French composer. It was a totally unexpected piece. When the music filled the stadium echoed with fireworks, a question came to my mind: Why does it have to be Star Wars? I didn’t get it. I was flabbergasted by the banality in music selection, which I thought revealed a lack of sensibility among the organizers.
They used the soundtrack of “Star Wars,” which was crafted by John Williams, an American composer. In other words, it was the theme-music of a Hollywood war movie that was created more than 20 years before the World Cup. What made the French people want to play this music at the culmination of a big celebration, where they could show their national pride?
After a while, I came to realize that their choice of music implied their will to promote peace. When I thought I finally understood their intention, I got goose bumps. If I interpreted it correctly, the music was intended to express their opinion that sports would be substitutes for war in the 21st century.
Nations compete against each other on a soccer field. Their “warriors” are high-profile players who are literally super stars. In a sense, the World Cup games are indeed wars between stars. They are bloodless wars in peace. I thought this was the message that the organizers wanted to deliver to the audience. I was deeply impressed by their daring and unhesitating decision to pick a theme-music of a Hollywood war movie to celebrate the world’s biggest soccer event. It shows that there are stark differences in attitudes and philosophy between the French and the Japanese.
A message one can put into a piece of music doesn’t necessarily have to be an abstract one. It can be as simple, plain, and daring as this. I envy the French people for their attitudes toward music as well as their trust in the intangible power of music. Although it was a bit twisted, their decision to use the Star Wars music in the World Cup was the spirit of French culture.
Come to think of it, I remember a theory on the origin of football. They say football came from a combative activity that involved kicking a severed head of an enemy’s king…