Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

In the Dark and in the Light

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the April 23rd, 2010

Mark Swed of the LA Times writes of an interesting recent experiment in classical music performance: a string quartet performed in a pitch black space. Composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet instructs the performers to play in utter darkness, and the JACK Quartet did its best to comply this past Monday, mobilizing ushers with night-vision goggles and fire marshals for safety. They even required all audience members to sign a release form prior to the concert.

How did it go? Swed’s description:

I found that the quartet profoundly dismantled my sense of linear time. Time seemed so slow at points that I could space out without missing anything. When the JACK got a bit rambunctious – the score calls for players to invite each other to join in or reject certain musical strategies and there is even room for competition – a listener could feel part of the exciting action. Ultimately, though, each of us, in this pitch-black, was alone, in our personal experiences yet acutely conscious of neighbors. I heard no coughs and only minimal shuffling.

I neglected to mention it here previously, but a week ago I attended the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s final concert of the year at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. The evening opened with a fierce rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Thomas Zehemair on violin and conducting. One reviewer describes Zehemair’s performance as “audacious”; my companion thought it mostly annoying. I found it striking and dramatic: I’ve never seen a violinist perform a cadenza, for example, as a kind of funereal dialogue with the timpanist.

The second half of the program opened with Ernst Krenek’s Symphonic Elegy for Strings, op. 105, which Zehemair announced from the stage was created while the composer was temporarily on the faculty of Hamline University in St. Paul. The Krenek piece was written as an elegy for Anton Webern, whose Symphony, Op. 21, came next. The evening closed out with a rather perfunctory performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, not bad but lacking the passion that had fired up the Beethoven.

All in all, it was a good, if not spectacular, evening at the symphony. Perhaps they should have tried killing the lights.

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Maybe it was All Just a North Korean Plot?

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the April 22nd, 2010

Tokyo newspapers are reporting that former yokozuna Asashoryu, who retired in disgrace earlier this year after winning the January sumo tournament, was part of an official Mongolian delegation that visited Pyongyang earlier this week. Huh?

Full story here (Japanese-language only).

Then again, I’ve just discovered that Wikipedia has a length entry on “Mongolia-North Korea Relations.” I quote:

Unofficially, North Korean visitors show significant interest in studying Mongolia’s economic reforms; according to the Mongolian side, North Koreans see them as non-threatening because they are a fellow non-Western country and went through similar experiences under communism. Mongolia’s efforts to introduce free-market capitalism to North Korea also have a component of self-interest. The Trans-Siberian Railway, an essential link in the potential continuous rail transit route from South Korea to Europe, passes through Mongolia; North Korean economic liberalisation which allowed South Korean shipping to pass through its borders would remove the major stumbling block to such a route, providing economic benefits for Mongolia.

You learn something new everyday….

[Updated on May 16, 2010 to replace broken links]

Race and Baseball

Posted in baseball,Current Events by bourdaghs on the April 16th, 2010

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson day in the Major Leagues, which always gives rise to commentaries — some more thoughtful than others, some more original than others — on the current state of race and racism in baseball. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is quoted in this morning’s Tribune giving a characteristically idiosyncratic interpretation of Robinson’s significance:

“A lot of people have to thank him. We made a lot of money because this guy had the guts to cross the barrier and do what he did.”

Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Orlando Hudson has stirred up a hornets’ nest (well, more accurately, he made a fairly mild statement which the media did its best to use as a stick to prod a swarm of angry hornets) by pointing to the continuing relevance of race in Major League hiring decisions. It’s not the superstars that are the issue here: they get contracts no matter what their skin color. It’s the marginal players, the bench-warming pinch hitters and bottom-of-the-bullpen pitchers, where you can most clearly see this.

The most intelligent response I’ve seen to Hudson’s remarks so far comes from the terrific blogger “Twins Geek” (John Bonnes), who writes:

It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like [Jeremy] Dye and [Gary] Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.

Check out Bonnes’ whole post here — it’s well worth your while.

This all brings back to mind the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject: former major leaguer John Poff’s remarkable essay, “Donnie Moore: A Racial Memoir.” Originally published in 1995 in Elysian Fields Quarterly (Vol. 14, No. 1; ordering information here), Poff’s memoir provides a remarkably frank, self-reflective account of how for a ballplayer in the 1970s “the consciousness of race pervaded everything in a baseball locker room.”

If you played with or against black ballplayers, you became friends possibly and you might share concerns, values, dope, and yet in all your conversations there was the ongoing subliminal buzz–you’re black, you’re black, you’re black.

Written in the wake of Donnie Moore’s tragic death in 1989 (Moore shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself), Poff gives us a powerful, honest reflection, including of the ways that players of all ethnicities use racism as a tool for acquiring a competitive edge. The impact of racial stereotypes in sports is in fact incredibly complicated and, as both Bonnes and Poff note, we won’t get anywhere in understanding it if people aren’t allowed to raise the issue.

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The Current Reading List

Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Music by bourdaghs on the April 12th, 2010

Oe Kenzaburo, Suishi (Death by water, 2009). The latest novel by the Nobel laureate, this one partakes of his characteristic vein of imaginatively rewriting the reality of his own life into a mythic dreamscape. An aging novelist becomes involved with an experimental theater company who have been staging dramatizations of his work. They meet together at the novelist’s ancestral “home in the woods” in Shikoku where the novelist intends to at last complete a long-abandoned novel (Suishi shosetsu) on his father’s death, based on records that have been kept in a suitcase since his mother’s death ten years earlier. In doing so, he hopes to heal wounds opened by his earlier fictional version of his father’s demise, published as Mizukara waga namida o nuguitamau hi (The day he himself shall wipe my tears away, the title of a novella Oe actually published in 1972). The suitcase, however, turns out to be empty, leading to a bout of depression and new tensions within the novelist’s family. The theatrical company goes on to create a performance based on Natsume Soseki’s 1914 Kokoro, using the figure of Sensei in that novel to call into question the ethics of the protagonist. I’m now a little more than halfway through this complex meditation on death, literature, and history, and after Oe’s visit to Chicago last month, I keep hearing his voice in my head as I read the prose silently.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1966). One of those classic studies I’ve somehow avoided reading up until now. I’ve been invited to write an article for a special journal issue in Japan on “the sense of ending” in modern literature, and this seemed a good place to start organizing my thoughts on the topic. Kermode explores the various ways we map our place in the world through our imaginations of what the end of history will look like and how this becomes a basic structural element in the literary and non-literary fictions that we live by.

Endo Toshiaki, The YMO Complex: Take Me to Techno’s Limit (2003). An intelligent interpretive survey of the postmodern music and semiotics of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the most important and popular Japanese rock band of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sasaki Atsushi, Nippon no shiso (Japan’s thought, 2009). An engaging, personal survey of how the world of Japanese theory and criticism has transformed from the New Academic poststructuralism of the 1980s (represented by such figures as Asada Akira and Nakazawa Shin’ichi) to the contemporary world of anti-academic subcultural studies (e.g., Azuma Hiroki). Sasaki focuses not so much on the content of “thought” as on the shifting modes of its performance.

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The Golden Cups Live

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the April 12th, 2010

The Golden Cups were one of the most powerful and influential of the “Group Sounds” bands that emerged in Japan during the late 1960s. Formed in 1966, they learned their chops as the house band at Golden Cup, a bar for U.S. soldiers in Yokohama. They came of age playing American R&B and garage rock standards before one of the toughest crowds you can imagine: U.S. GI’s on R&R breaks from the Vietnam War mixed with local teenagers from the hardscrabble neighborhoods that surrounded the American bases.

The band made their recording debut in late 1967, scoring major hits with such original numbers as “Nagai kami no shojo” (The girl with long hair) and “Ai suru kimi ni” (To you whom I love), while their albums also featured their wild takes on recent hit songs from the U.S. and U.K. Here’s one of my favorites: their psychedelic freak-out version of “Hey Joe,” featuring Eddie Ban’s stinging lead guitar, Mamoru Manu’s thrash-style drumming, and Louis-Louis Kabe’s supple bass:

By around 1970, Group Sounds as a genre was played out, but the Cups had enough credibility to allow them to survive in the world of 1970s rock. They went through a number of personnel changes, but the basic core remained intact through early 1972. They played their last gigs in Okinawa, appropriately enough given their roots in military base town culture. The members would continue to be active in a variety of bands–keyboardist Mickey Yoshino, for example, formed the influential 1970s band Godiego. There were also a number of Cups reunions over the years, most notably a gig in 2004 that formed the centerpiece of a documentary film, The Golden Cups: One More Time (trailer here). It’s particular fortunate that that documentary was made then, because it captured the band’s lead singer Dave Hirao just before his tragic death in 2008.

The surviving members of the band are carrying on today, both together and in their own bands. Yesterday afternoon, I had the great pleasure of seeing them perform at the 7th Avenue livehouse in Yokohama, not too far from the site of the original Golden Cup bar. It was very much a family affair, with the audience packed with friends and long-time fans. They played a terrific, fun set. It opened with “Got My Mojo Working” and included a number of Chicago R&B classics, such as Paul Butterfield’s “Born in Chicago.” Mickey Yoshino took lead vocals for a soulful rendition of “Whiter Shade of Pale,” part of the Cups’ repertoire since the 1960s. Mamoru Manu shared lead vocals with Eddie Ban on several numbers, including the band’s first two hit singles. The set closed with a high energy rendition of Them’s “Gloria,” complete with an enthusiastic audience sing-along on the harmony.

I had the chance to go backstage and meet the band, because we’re making arrangements to show The Golden Cups: One More Time at a conference at the University of Chicago in late May (details here; more updates coming soon). We’re also hoping that some of the band members will be able to join us in person for that event. If yesterday’s show was any indication, it will be an enormously fun event.

I leave you with video that makes me both sad and happy: the Cups (including Dave Hirao) performing their early hits with none other than the great Imawano Kiyoshiro. Unbelievably, both Dave and Kiyoshiro are gone now, but I hope the Cups keep rocking for many years to come.

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Inoue Hisashi and the Shifting of the Tides

Posted in Current Events,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the April 10th, 2010

Greetings from Tokyo, where I arrived Friday for a short research trip. A few cherry blossoms hung on long enough for me to be able to enjoy them, though they are now fast disappearing from the landscape.

The newspapers here are reporting the death of the great novelist and playwright Inoue Hisashi. He was 75 and had been battling cancer for some time. Raised in an orphanage in Sendai, Inoue first attracted attention in the early 1970s with his brilliant, often funny and often sharply critical, fiction. He liked to employ nonstandard forms of writing: he invented, for example, a fictional language for his 1981 masterpiece Kirikirijin. From the 1980s his focus shifted to writing primarily for the stage. Just last year he staged a successful dramatization of the life and work of proletarian literature writer Kobayashi Takiji.

Inoue was also a prominent public intellectual. He lent his voice and pen to a number of worthy causes–most notably the efforts to save Article 9, the no-war clause of the Japanese constitution. On that note, the Yomiuri newspaper is by coincidence also reporting on one of Inoue’s most important legacies. Given the newspaper’s strong bias toward changing Article 9, its coverage of the issue has to be taken with a grain or two of salt. But today’s Daily Yomiuri describes what seems to be a significant change over the past year in Japanese public opinion on the issue:

Thirty-two percent of people surveyed felt Article 9–the constitutional clause renouncing the right to wage war–should be amended as it hampers the country’s ability to deal with related issues because of how the article is interpreted. This number, too, was lower than 38 percent in last year’s survey.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of respondents said related issues–such as the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces on international peacekeeping operations–should be dealt with through the conventional interpretation of Article 9. In the previous survey, 33 percent felt this way.

The big story, in other words, is a large shift in public sentiment toward keeping Article 9 in its present form. Last year 52% supported and 36% opposed constitutional revision, while this year the figures were 43% and 42% respectively. Of course, the headline to the Daily Yomiuri story chooses a different angle: “Poll: Public split over amending Constitution / Over 70% think govt should discuss issue.” (The headline on the original Japanese-language version of the article does a better job of conveying the story, I think).

Of the nine prominent intellectuals who in 2004 launched the citizens’ movement to save Article 9, only six are still with us today. But as the story above shows, their efforts are bearing fruit. I’ll resist the temptation here to use the cherry blossom metaphor, although it seems quite apt.

In his lecture at the University of Chicago last month, Oe Kenzaburo noted that there are now more than 700 local chapters affiliated with the movement across Japan. To paraphrase another playwright, the good Inoue Hisashi did lives on after him. Rest in peace.

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This and That: Science and Technology Edition

Posted in baseball,Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the April 5th, 2010

We enjoyed a quiet Easter. I managed to get to church — but cheated, in that my “worship service” consisted of the Art Hoyle Quintet performance at Hyde Park Union Church, sponsored by the always wonderful Jazz Sundays series organized by the Hyde Park Jazz Society.

Some interesting science and technology news that’s caught my eye lately:

The lunatic notion that genetic codes found in nature can be patented is finally facing skeptical court scrutiny, the New York Times reported last week. For the sake of culture and scholarship, we really need to curb the voracious appetite for infinitely expanding intellectual property claims, and this seems a modest step in the right direction.

Are the problems faced by scientists trying to gear up the Large Haldron Collider actually the work of a Terminator sent from the future in a desperate attempt to head off an unwelcome scientific development? The possibility has been suggested in a series of recent scientific papers, Time magazine reports.

Finally, a whole slew of new technological devices and digital scientific analytical techniques are being applied to baseball. The conclusion from statistical crunching of multi-angle digitized tracking of pitches over the course of an entire season? That good pitchers paint the corners, while bad ones hang it over the plate. Now they’re turning their attention to batters and defenders and will not doubt reach many revolutionary hypotheses, such as declaring that batters should try to hit the ball with the sweet spot of the bat and that fielders should try to catch the ball with both hands. Ah, the marvels of science.

In the meanwhile, play ball! The Twins kick off their season tonight in Anaheim.

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Gilberto Gil at Symphony Center

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the April 3rd, 2010

Legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil performed an intimate, touching concert for a couple thousand of his best friends last night at Symphony Center here in Chicago. Performing an all-acoustic set accompanied by his son Bem Gil on guitar (and occasionally tambourine) and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum (whom I know mainly from his previous work with Sakamoto Ryuichi), he gave us an uplifting evening of gently inspiring music–including several audience sing-alongs in Portuguese. The Brazilian contingent was out in force.

Dressed entirely in white, Gil played a couple of what he called “family songs.” “Das Duas Uma” (“From Two, One”) was composed last year for his daughter’s wedding. She was the last of his five daughters to get married, Gil announced, and the only one to ask him to compose a song for the occasion. He thought and thought about what he should say to the bride and groom on this momentous occasion, and what he came up with was, “good luck!” The second, “Quatro Coisas” (“Four Things”), was a love song for his wife of thirty years, the theme of which he announced as “no escape!”

I particularly like Gil’s revolutionary late 1960s recordings with Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso, so a highlight of the show for me was an elegant rendition of “Panis Et Circenses.” Gil’s long-standing interest in the Beatles surfaced at one point, when he slipped a musical quotation from “Penny Lane” into the coda for one of the songs. Also memorable were “Nightingale” and “Não Tenho Medo da Morte,” the latter performed by Gil alone on the stage, tapping out the rhythm on the body of his guitar and barely touching the strings.

All in all a lovely evening, one that magically coincided with the arrival of spring in Chicago. Here’s video from earlier dates in the current tour:

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