Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Sakamoto Ryuichi at the Vic

Posted in Classical,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2010

Sakamoto Ryuichi played a stunningly beautiful one-man show earlier tonight at the Vic here in Chicago. It was mostly solo piano, although he used a number of electronic effects to add layers of complexity to the music.

The evening opened with an atmospheric number in which Sakamoto strummed directly on the strings inside the piano in accompaniment to a prerecorded quiet soundtrack–something like crickets chirping on a summer night. This was followed by “Hibari,” the first of three duet numbers. There were two pianos on stage, one played directly by Sakamoto, the other played indiirectly–often via prerecorded tracks, but sometimes it seemed as Sakamoto was feeding his own live playing into a kind of sequencer that immediately transferred the pattern to the second piano. “Hibari” is a hypnotic, captivating track from Sakamoto’s latest album, a fine instance of musical minimalism, and it worked wonderfully live.

The set also included a number of Sakamoto’s hits, all rendered solo on the piano — “Amore,” “A Flower is Not a Flower” (also a “virtual duet”), “The Last Emperor,” and (closing the main set) “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence.” Sakamoto is an expressive player: he brought a delicate touch to the numbers, highlighting the details of their musical texture in strikingly beautiful ways. The stage was sparse; there were constant images, mostly abstract, projected on the screen in back.

The audience didn’t quite know how to react to the show at first, and the first several songs were greeted with silence. It was finally after the fifth number (“Amore”) that people started clapping between songs. By the end of the encore, though, they knew what to do: give Sakamoto a rousing standing ovation. Sakamoto loosened up a bit on the three-song encore: he put his body into his playing more than he had in the main set, and it probably helped that the songs were some of his best-loved compositions.

We got to go backstage after the show and chat briefly with Sakamoto. He joked about all the incidental noise from inside and outside the theater. I asked him how conscious he was of, say, the sound of the El trains that rumbled the theater, and he replied that he certainly heard it, but like John Cage he thinks noise is music too.

I’d seen Sakamoto perform earlier this year with Yellow Magic Orchestra in a huge outdoor rock festival in Tokyo (where the set included a couple of the numbers that Sakamoto played in his Chicago gig: “Tibetan Dance” and “Thousand Knives”), and I asked him about the difference mentally for a performer in that sort of event versus the more intimate show he had just played. He said it was much more nerve-wracking to do a solo show: with more players on stage, there is a sense of safety in numbers, but when you’re out there alone, there’s no place to hide.

A few weeks ago, on his Twitter account, Sakamoto responded to a query from a fan, asking how the fan could become a great pianist like Sakamoto. His response: “Don’t practice!” The man, in other words, has a sense of humor on top of being a gifted composer and performer. He heads for the West Coast next; it’s a show well worth seeing if it comes to your town.

The full set list (from Sakamoto’s homepage)
1. glacier
2. improvisation
3. hibari
4. improvisation 2
5. amore
6. a flower is not a flower
7. tango
8. bibo no aozora
9. high heels
10. loneliness
11. the sheltering sky
12. the last emperor
13. merry christmas mr.lawrence

encore 1
14. tibetan dance
15. happy end
16. thousand knives

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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2010

My translation of a recent commentary by Wada Haruki on the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands territorial dispute between Japan and China has just appeared in the on-line Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Wada, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, is one of Japan’s leading historians of Korea and Japan-Korea relations.

Wada provides useful analysis of the recent flare-up that occurred after Japan seized a Chinese fishing boat off the coast of the islands. He then goes on to trace the tangled history of territorial claims to the islands, before concluding:

Given the present situation, haven’t we reached the point where we need to acknowledge the existence of this territorial dispute, where both sides should exchange and investigate in detail their respective claims? It is foolish for both sides to continue to assert “exclusive territorial rights” over these remote uninhabited islands. Extensive discussions should be held to determine how best to view the historical developments that led to the current situation. These should lead to proposals for a resolution to the dispute. Until then, both governments also need to discuss in realistic terms how the movement of fishing boats will be controlled in the interim. This is the sort of approach that is called for now.

There are three ongoing territorial disputes in Northeast Asia: the four islands of the Northern Territories [disputed between Russia and Japan], Dokdo/Takeshima [known in English as the Liancourt Rocks, disputed between Japan and South Korea], and the Senkaku Islands. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to gather scholars from Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Taiwan and the U.S. to engage in an overarching discussion that dealt with all of these disputes together? Above all, it is crucial to avoid having these burst into open conflict.

You can real Wada’s whole essay in English here (Japanese and Korean versions here).

Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus has run other recent essays on the territorial dispute, include pieces by Tanaka Sakai and Peter Lee.

The Current Reading List

Posted in Books by bourdaghs on the October 25th, 2010

Ernest Hemingway, The Torrents of Spring (1926). Written as a rather wicked caricature of the work of Sherwood Anderson, this early Hemingway had me pondering the ways in which his style borders on being a parody of itself: the more he makes fun of Anderson, the more he sounds like the mature Hemingway.

Tokunaga Sunao 徳永直, Taiyo no nai machi 『太陽のない街』 (The town with no sun, 1928). Classic proletarian literature novel that depicts an extended printing plant strike in a Tokyo slum. Crown Prince Hirohito makes an unlikely cameo appearance in the opening pages, and with the modernist, montage-like structure to the work, it has a very cinematic feel overall.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005). A quite readable popular history, with Gaddis determined to produce a version of the events of 1945-1989 that will appeal in particular to a younger audience that possesses no direct memories of the period. He strives to remain even-handed, yet there are some rather striking blind spots: Gaddis depicts the Cold War, for example, as America’s moment of emergence from naive isolationism to internationalism, which only works if you ignore things like the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii, etc.

Natsume Soseki, 夏目漱石 Mon 『門』 (The Gate, 1910). The core text for my current graduate seminar, which focuses on questions of Soseki’s relation to imperialism and to the concept of world literature. I’m fascinated by, among other things, the multiple economies that intersect in the work: we meet dogged salarymen, eager investors, crafty retailers, landlords, colonial adventurers, etc., all of them trying to make a living under the rapidly changing conditions of urban modernity.

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Remembering My Father

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 17th, 2010

We held the memorial service for my father yesterday afternoon in St. Paul at Dayton Ave. Presbyterian Church. That is the church my family attended when I was young. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon in Minnesota, and the whole service was touching and celebratory. Many old friends and family attended (more than we expected: we ran out of bulletins), and they told stories about the good my father did in his life. I was glad, in particular, that my children could learn about the work my dad did on behalf of the poor, the afflicted, the ostracized.

It’s a strange boast, perhaps, but I always liked that fact that my father was on a first-name basis with every panhandler in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He knew them not as cases (he was a social worker), but as human beings. He genuinely liked them and, perhaps even more remarkably, they liked him.

Here is what I said during yesterday’s service:

My dad always told a story about when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls when I was born in 1961. He had a keen interest in history, and his professors thought he had real potential to become a historian. One of them even offered to get him into graduate school with a full scholarship. But with a wife and a child, Dad felt he needed to go into something that was more likely to provide a stable income to support his family. He chose to major in sociology and launched into a career as a social worker that was devoted to helping people who needed a hand: ex-convicts, poor people, veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress. It was a life spent serving others.

He never forgot that he was a frustrated history professor, though. He always enjoyed reading history. And as for me, from about the age of five, when we were driving somewhere or out for a walk, I’d find myself being drilled with questions about history: could I name the presidents in order? Who was the first governor of Minnesota? Which American secretary of state bought Alaska from Russia? So I figured out from a pretty young age that I was supposed to grow up and become a history professor.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: I’m now a professor of Japanese literature and culture, and if you read my work you’ll see that I’m really a historian in disguise. This past summer, I finished writing a history of popular music in Japan, and I was planning to surprise my dad next year when the book is published, because it is dedicated to him. My dad is the one who opened my ears to the pleasures of listening to strange music. When I was a child, he brought home LPs for us to listen to that sounded nothing like the music they played on KDWB or WDGY. He brought home copies of Alan Lomax’s field recordings from the American south, the strange blues music of Taj Mahal, the folk songs of Buffy Sainte Marie. One of the lessons he taught me is not to be afraid of the world out there, that when you hear strange music, don’t run away: if you give it a chance, you might end up liking it. It was a lesson that set me up to write the book about music in Japan decades later.

So I didn’t fall too far from the tree: I became the history professor my dad wanted to be. My father did a better job of rebelling against his father: Wilfred Bourdaghs, my grandfather and Ron’s father, was a lifelong employee of Andersen Windows in Bayport, the town where my dad grew up. Wilfred was against Ron going to college in the first place. If Wilfred had any say in the matter, my dad would have spent his life working for Andersen’s. Dad figured out how to run away from home, though: shortly after graduating from high school he enlisted for a stint in the army, where he spent time stationed in Germany, one of the great adventures of his life. It got him where he wanted to be: far, far away from Andersen Windows.

Dad suffered some hard knocks in his life. He lost his mother to cancer when he was just nine years old. Later in life, when he was just beginning to enjoy what looked like it would be a very active retirement, full of skiing and golf, playing with his grandchildren, he suffered another tough blow: during surgery, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that impacted his memory and mobility. His last seven years were hard on him. His loss hurts us all, but we also feel a sense of relief today that he doesn’t have to struggle any longer against a body that had stopped cooperating with him.

I have to say a special word of gratitude to my stepmother, Donna. My sister and I both live away from Minnesota, and during these last years, when Dad needed constant help, Donna was the one who was there, every day. She has taught me much about devotion and what it means to be a caregiver, about not giving up even when the situation seems impossible. I am eternally grateful, Donna.

My dad was a wonderful, patient grandfather who so obviously loved my children, Walter and Sonia. When I talked to him on the phone, he just wanted to hear how they were doing. He also always wanted to know how my wife Satoko was doing. He didn’t have to ask about what I was doing. He already know what I was up to, because I had become the history professor he intended for me to become.

23 years ago, my dad spoke at the funeral of his own father—the man who wanted Dad to go to work at Andersen’s. I remember vividly the conclusion of my dad’s eulogy for my grandfather that day. He said, “My father was not a famous man or a wealthy man. But he was a good man and a responsible man. I believe that his whole life he never knowingly hurt another human being.”

My dad didn’t end up working at Andersen’s, like his father wanted him to. And he didn’t end up as a history professor, like he wanted to. But he did end up a good man and a responsible man, just like his father, and I too believe that my dad his whole life never knowingly hurt another human being.

Last Tuesday afternoon, as I was driving up to Minnesota from Chicago after hearing the news, I suddenly had the unmistakable sense that my dad was there in the car with me. I couldn’t see him, of course, but I could feel his presence strongly. He was happier and more content than I had seen him in many years. Dad, rest in peace. We will miss you, but you are in a better place now, and you should know that you made the world a better place.

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Ronald J. Bourdaghs (1937-2010)

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 15th, 2010

Bourdaghs, Ronald J. Age 73, of St. Paul, passed away suddenly on October 12. A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, he also served in the U.S. Army and the Minnesota National Guard. He graduated from Stillwater High School and the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, and held a masters degree in social work from the University of Minnesota. He spent his life serving others, working as a clinical social worker for the Veteran’s Administration, the Hennepin County Mental Health Center, and others. He was a co-founder of People Incorporated, a Minnesota nonprofit organization providing innovative mental health services to the community. A native of Bayport, MN, he was the son of Wilfred and Clara Bourdaghs, and stepson of Alice Bourdaghs. Ron loved to ski and golf, as well as to study history. He is survived by his loving wife, Donna G. Anderson; son Michael (Satoko); daughter, Jeannine (Hans Hoek); grandchildren, Walter and Sonia; brother, Lynn (De); and niece, Britta. A memorial service will be held Saturday, October 16, 2:00 P.M. at DAYTON AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 217 Mackubin Street, St. Paul. The family will greet visitors following the service. In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to People Incorporated or Doctors Without Borders. Bradshaw 678 South Snelling Avenue 651-698-3878

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