Isogashii Desu Yo!
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March/April, 1999


Sakura! Cherry blossoms are everywhere! They don't have much of a smell, but my are they ever pink! And when the wind blows, they fill the air and cover the ground like pink "snow"!

I started writing this on March 5th, but immediately got so overwhelmed with activity that I had to stop. Before I could pick it back up I left Japan for a little touring. I attended and participated in the SoundCulture '99 Festival in Auckland NZ, where I got to hang out with some old SoundCulture friends including Ed Osborne and Trimpin (both of whom had wonderful installations on exhibit). I then returned to Tokyo for one day (in order not to violate the stipulation in my grant that says I can't leave Japan for more then 10 consecutive days!) and then flew to the US. I performed for a young-girls' conference at Mills College, briefly touched base with some SF friends (my visit included a delicious dinner cooked by Donald Swearingen and eaten by Miya Masaoka, myself, and my sister Beverly Z) (hee hee!), and then flew to NYC. In New York, I had a wonderful time playing a Bang On A Can concert at Alice Tulley Hall in Lincoln Center with the "Allstars" and Meredith Monk. The house was sold out, and I could see Merce Cunninghan sitting in the second row! In addition to my and Meredith's pieces, the Allstars played works by Julia Wolfe, Steve Martland, and Gavin Bryars ("Jesus' Blood…" for which they tried to get Tom Waits, but he wasn't available!). At the end, I had the honor of joining everyone for an encore of one of Meredith's "Panda Chants". Now I'm back in Tokyo (just in time for profuse pinkness), and seriously jet-lagged, but I thought it was about time I put the finishing touches on this letter and got it off to you! So here it is! (By the way, if you want the illustrated version- including a photo of the famed "Let's Kiosk"- or if you'd like to read the previous letters, go to ).


It's been over a month since I've troubled you with news of my cavorting in Japan. Busy busy busy! Suddenly my calendar has started to resemble my old SF daybook to which I was such a slave. I guess it's my pattern. Empty squares on a calendar are like a void waiting to be filled. In my hands, it's only a matter of time before such pages become filled with one amorphous mass of illegible pencil marks. This week (March 5th, when I began writing this) for example:

Lunch with Naoko-san to plan my Lecture/Demo at International House, three Nihongo (Japanese Language) lessons, acupuncture appointment, attend traditional Japanese singing lesson, pick up airline tickets, dinner with Misako-san (Visual Brains' Sister in Law) and visit the TV production studio where her husband works, Butoh workshop at Kazuo Ohno's studio in Yokohama, cook a western (Californina Cuisine) dinner for my French neighbors, go to Kobe to see an exhibit that includes the works of several Japanese computer artists as well as that of Carl Stone. Busy Busy Busy! I guess I'm happier that way.


What a day! I attended an amazing singing lesson. I had asked my friend Chikako about her Japanese vocal studies, and she invited me to sit in on a lesson. The sensei (who Chikako had described to me as a "Grande Dame" of Japanese Kabuki-style singing) was a very old lady who accompanied the lesson on shamisen (Japanese 3-stringed instrument). When we entered the tatami room, we found her kneeling in the corner making us tea. I was a bit stunned by her presence. She was nearly a century old, and she was so tiny! Clad in a full kimono with obi, she sat on her feet bent over the teapot and cups and welcomed us warmly. Then after only a few sips of tea, she summoned Chikako over to a little wooden music stand (which was built low to the floor like everything else in the room), and she seated herself behind an opposing music stand and began tuning the shamisen. Chikako plugged in and started her little Sony DATman, and then placed a book of vellum-like paper filled with hand-written kanji on the stand. She handed me a photo-copy of it and pointed to where they were to start. Then I looked on and listened in amazement as a deep, bassy, guttural voice issued forth from the tiny old sensei's mouth. Chikako, who I had heard just last week sing a concert of French art songs&endash; Debussey, Faure, Poulenc&endash; carefully followed her in an equally deep but more clear voice. Slowly they moved through the material, making gradual glissandos up into higher registers, muttering and squeaking out certain phrases and sustaining and then abruptly finishing others. One song repeated the same text a number of times, and I found that, with the help of furigana (small Japanese phonetic characters written above or next to the kanji), I could follow along at least part of the time. I even tried quietly to join in on one or two "choruses" but was too timid to try and imitate their timbres. After the lesson was finished, I haltingly asked questions in my broken Japanese. Sensei showed me some shamisen strings, which are made of wound silk. She also showed me the pancake turner-like pick and explained that they were once made of ivory, but now they are plastic. She thanked me for coming and invited me to come again. I definitely will.

After the lesson, I went out for coffee with Chikako-san. We ordered caffe au lait at a little chain coffee place called "Doutour" where the coffee is actually quite good and not too expensive. I also ordered a little German sausage on a baguette (cheaper than the coffee) and then we talked. But here's the interesting part: My Japanese is still not at all fluent, and Chikako's English is even less proficient. I met her when I attended her concert of chansons (in a Buddhist temple!) and had noticed that her French diction was perfect, so when I approached her afterwards to talk, I asked if she spoke French. It turns out her French is very good (much better then mine, in fact), and my French is much better than my Japanese. So, Chikako and I communicate with one another in French. There's just something so droll about the two of us sitting around in Tokyo chattering away in French&endash; me frequently pausing and interjecting "um, hmm, let me see, uh, but, er- mais…" and she interjecting "hai, eto, eh, so-o, aaso-o, hai, er, eh- oui!" It's really quite funny, and it also makes me crazy after weeks and weeks struggling to speak and think in Japanese to suddenly switch to French. So there we sat in this Tokyo café&endash; a Nihonjin and an Americajin speaking to each other in French when a Chinese woman approached us. She overheard that we weren't speaking Japanese and thought perhaps we could speak English. She spoke no Japanese and needed directions. She wanted to know if there were any fashion wholesalers in the area. Of course, I didn't know the neighborhood, and Chikako doesn't speak English. So now you've got a woman with a Chinese accent speaking English to me, me translating to a Japanese woman in French, the Japanese woman explaining in French peppered with Japanese, and the American woman relaying the information back to the Chinese woman in English! (All this while drinking café au lait and eating a German sausage.) It felt somehow suitable for a Monty Python sketch.


The day after my visit to Chikako's voice lesson, I had another rather remarkable day. I attended a workshop at Kazuo Ohno's studio in Yokohama. Not only is Ohno still alive and well, but he is still dancing and giving workshops. People come from all over to attend them.

As is often true with addresses in Japan, it is difficult to give directions to Ohno-sensei's studio, so one of his assistants came to meet people at the station. When I got there, there was already a little bevvy of people who were obviously dancers waiting just outside the ticket gate. They called me over because they sensed I was there for the same reason they were. They turned out to be members of a touring Dance/Theatre company from the Netherlands. I suddenly became concerned thinking there would be nothing but professional dancers, and I might be self-conscious.

When we got there, Ohno's assistant put on a record of Chopin and Ohno asked everyone to dance. I, like several others sat on the sides because the studio seemed small for so many bodies. Then, when the music stopped, he said (with his assistant translating) that people danced too much with the same tempo. "Why don't you change your tempo?" He then said "I have a bad back, but I will try to demonstrate." This statement was followed by the most poetic, willowy, dreamlike performance you could imagine, after which he said, "Now you try". This time, I decided it would be a waste to come all that way and only watch, so I got up with the rest and began to move. A very strange thing happened next. Ohno gestured in my direction and said "now You. Please dance a solo." I kept looking at all the dancers around and behind me until everyone began to tell me that he was addressing me. Again, the lush Chopin record was played, and again I moved. This time alone with all eyes on me. I'm used to performing solo, but usually I use my voice and other sounds. The gestures are always guided for me by my own generation of the sound. This time I was performing without voice. To give myself courage, I tried to imagine that I was singing. I used my hands and arms the way I often do to articulate my phrases-- using quick fluttery motions alternating with slow expansive gestures and sudden percussive fits and starts-- but I added the feet and the legs too. I used the floor and I used the space and tried to get lost in this dance. At the end, he looked at me and said (in English) "You are very good." My heart was pounding when he asked me to do the solo, but afterwards I floated through the rest of the workshop. He spoke of a bridge that he and his father used to walk on together. "My father is dead, but his memory is still with me in the flowers that grow under the bridge." He put on shamisen music and asked us to be the flowers that grow under that bridge. We danced, he demonstrated, we danced, and so on.

At the end of the evening, tea, wine, and refreshments were served on the floor, and I made conversation and exchanged cards with many interesting dancers, including an older Japanese man who had also been asked to solo that evening, and who made wonderful Kabuki-like vocalizations while he moved. I asked him about them later and he said "Oh, it's all fake. I just make it up!" I plan to attend these workshops as often as I can!


One word: "Cute." Not "cute" as in "What a cute guy!". Cute as in "What a cute portable telephone holder!" or "What a cute stuffed animal backpack!" It almost seems as if ninety percent of the Japanese commercial world can be characterized in this word "Kawai!" And as a matter of fact you can often here girls and young women singing out this word emphatically when admiring a friend's new purse or hairdo or, for example, my leopard-pattern back pack from a Sangenjaya bag shop. Everything in Japanese advertising seems to be terminally kawai, and Hello Kitty personifies it perfectly.

And it's not just ads and baubles aimed at young girls. Hello Kitty's image graces my bank card. And an entire menagerie of other related, round-faced, big-eyed, pastel, mouthless, and mostly cat-like creature images are everywhere inviting you into shops, warning you to be careful as you exit the train, waving banners with the low average percentage rates available with certain accounts, etc etc etc. It took me a while to get used to it. Actually I'm not sure I really am used to it yet, but when I bought the bag, I suppose it was a sign that I was making progress in that direction. I am still thrown by the preoccupation with cuteness. Most jingles from television sound like children's songs- in fact many are sung to the melodies of actual nursery rhymes by people (usually adults) who bob their heads back and forth or hold their hands up by their faces and sway from side to side while grinning profusely.

But just as it is in the States, I notice that the artists I have met here are very far removed from that world. (It is a strange, artificial world to which I sometimes wonder if even the general public is even really connected, even though it seems so all pervasive on one level. But I guess that the product names get engrained in people's minds, and that's all that really matters to the advertisers.)

It was also surprising to me how the commercial music world here seem so adamantly imitative of the western rock scene. I realize that all pop music is that way to a certain extent, and it's kind of hard to explain what I mean, but this pop music seems more to be a copy of the veneer of American and European pop than just another branch on the same continuum. I even hear groups that seem to be kind of Japanese knock-offs of certain American and British "alternative rock" bands, while I never hear those bands they are imitating played here. (It's almost like that phenomena of all those new American groups trying to sound like 60's bands that their 20 year old fans don't remember.) I saw a really interesting program on an MTV-like show about a popular rock group who's hits I hear on the radio in every shop I enter. The three young women in the group were preparing for a tour or a recording session or something. Part of their regime was that they hire Black R&B singers from the United States as vocal coaches. It was really very interesting. They showed one of the women in a voice lesson. Her coach was working her on a disco song. She would belt a line "I want some hot stuff, baby this evening…", and then the R & B singer would tell her, "No, now listen to the way I do it: I want some hot stuff, ba-a-aby this e-e-evening! Take a little more time with it." And so forth. Then the documentary cut to the group doing one of their own songs in a rock video- more of a modern rock kind of style but with this R&B singing style (in Japanese) over the top. Really quite impressive- this woman's teaching ability- but it seemed strange to me how it was all packaged in the end to seem as if it was just this natural, raw, street-wise sort of thing, when in fact it was all so carefully engineered.

But it occurs to me that I pay a lot more attention to the pop scene here than I ever do at home. The world of new music and experimental artists is really the world I'm more steeped in, and that world here seems very much like what I'm accustomed to at home. I've met a lot of really interesting electronic music and noise artists here. Maybe when I get back home I'll take a closer look at our pop world and see that it's really all the same everywhere. But, I'm still in search of that strange in-between world where people who are interested in making pop records are experimenting and stretching the boundaries of that. Once in a while, I catch a whiff of it when I go into odd little underground bookshops or clothing stores, but so far I haven't heard enough of it.


My sister Hillary and I have found a marvelous way to beat the telephone system! We downloaded "Internet Phone" software from the web and now we call each other over the web- using the microphones and speakers of our computers as phones. The technology is a bit sketchy, so there's a slight annoying delay, but you get used to it. If you wear headphones while you do it, it prevents an annoying delayed feedback of your own voice as you talk. Essentially, (on the days when it works) we're talking between California and Japan for free! It is nice hearing a familiar voice, because I live alone here and have few friends with whom communication isn't a challenge. For that reason, I also really enjoy getting and responding to emails from home. I know, I know! I should get out from in front of the computer and go view those cherry blossoms! Still, feel free to drop me a line anytime the spirit moves you.



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