Here is our 2014 Japan "Building Bridges" Tour Blog.
This year we decided to take things a little easier during the first few days. There is some organizing and preparing to be done for the second week of our tour: the trip to Fukushima and the subsequent concerts in Kakogawa and Nagoya will be quite demanding.
The first week will give us a chance to discuss the adventure with organizers and press. Meanwhile we'll play a few concerts around Tokyo which will give us the opportunity to fine-tune the whole program of European and Japanese music that we brought.
(Musical-technical subjects are printed in orange and can be skipped without detriment to the story-line. Since this blog is also about Artistic Research, i often include these thoughts within my narrative because to me they are inseparable from it).
Yesterday i ran into Jacques Van Herenthals, who lives just a couple of streets away. He used to be a fabulous bass player, now he composes and conducts. He wrote 4 bass solo suites in baroque style, one of them dedicated to me. He wants to record them now. Well, he wants me to record them. Surely a great honour, but in general i'm not crazy about anthologies, even less if it's just one instrument and one composer. Not always very interesting for the listener. And the listener is high on my list of priorities.
So i suggested that i play each suite on a different bass, in a different tuning, with gut or steel strings. "My" suite will be in Viennese Tuning, the others i have to look at first. I'm thinking: Violone, Solo Tuning, Orchestra Tuning. Some with gut strings, some with frets and some without. We'll go on playing around with ideas when i get back from Japan, but Jacques is very interested in the concept. During our stay in Japan part of my brain will silently continue to look at all the possibilities this project has to offer. Artistic Research isn't something one switches on and off. It's not a choice. It's a driving force.
This morning the taxi was 15 minutes early, but we were ready. Travelling with a bass, we're always careful to be really early. Staff tend to be friendlier and more helpful when you show up early, especially with a case the size of a small car... You can't expect great service if you arrive ten minutes before the gate closes.
Like last year, i paid 100 Euros for "oversized luggage". The weight came down to 24.7 kgs as compared to last year's 26-odd kgs because i left out the bed spread and replaced it with light bubble wrap. I took three bows after all. The Gastaldo walnut baroque bow for general playing, my Patigny snakewood bow for Paganini, and a cheap spare, just in case. When packing the bass, i almost forgot the bridge... That's the great risk of this travel bass: forgetting one of its parts. When we get back i need to ask Patrick Charton to make me a spare bridge that i will just leave in the case at all times.
My favorite spot at the airport is the Gate, or rather the gate-hall. I could live there, i think. Well, at the A-Gate anyway. The B is a little less cosy. It's not only the space i like, but also the atmosphere. People waiting to board their planes, expectations, plans, dreams that end or that find a beginning here.
It's a sunny day but i can feel a cold sneaking up on me. Very annoying. I try very hard not to sneeze, because just a few days ago i badly hurt my ribs and the pain is killing me. Unless i stop breathing, but that's not really an option.
While i'm sitting there waiting and minding my own business, an airport staff member comes up to me with an iPad and asks me a lot of questions about how much i like or dislike the airport, for a customer survey. Since i'm in a good mood i give top marks. I do like this airport.
We're flying cheap Aeroflot, so we'll stop over at Moscow. As we land there, at around 100 metres above the runway, a giant hand suddenly pushes down the plane and my face turns a whiter shade of pale while passengers start screaming in panic. But the pilot manages to control the plane and we make a shaky but safe landing. Round of applause, the relief is palpable. How quickly life can be over.
The airport of Moscow Sheremetyevo is gigantic and we have to walk what seems like a half hour to reach our gate. Through the speakers we hear an old Boney M hit that seems oddly appropriate for the place. It goes something like "Oh oh Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen" and it conjures up weird images of his present-day almost-namesake. We change planes in the middle of the night.
Then the long, sleepless flight to Narita in a cramped seat, watching first "Gravity" (which i don't find good enough to watch till the end. Technically well-made, but what a waste of money) and then a few documentaries. I doze off a couple of times but no real sleep. I read a couple of chapters in one of my favorite books: "This Is Your Brain On Music". It's a real page-turner and full of amazing information about, you guessed it, music and the brain. I keep coming back to it. Very inspiring.
At Narita we change our reservations for Railpasses into the real thing, then take a couple of trains to reach Minami-Urawa.
Before take-off, Brussels Airport.
Next day, Narita.
The station at Minami-Urawa has almost no escalators, and the ones they do have only go up, so i have to carry the bass in its case down the flight of stairs. Not all that terrible when you think of a traditional bass case weighing two times more, but it doesn't do my ribs any good.
Got up early, but at least we had some sleep last night. The nights here are still very cold. We have coffee at our favorite neighbourhood 24-hour restaurant "Gusto".
Today is "Art-Day" at the Urawa Cultural Centre and we attend the second part of a very nice all-percussion concert, and some funny, captivating modern dance by young dancers outside the building. A very festive atmosphere and delicious food smells wafting through the air.
Some shopping to be done: i forgot my black trousers back home. With our Duo we never play in the traditional black and white attire (the classical music world can be so boring...) but the Nagoya baroque concert is with local musicians and i'm not so sure they'll appreciate my reds, blues, yellows and oranges. Then we practice for a while and we play a short private concert for Haruko's parents. We're staying at their place for the first week.
(Right before we left, we played a little concert for Max Morton, a painter friend in Schaarbeek, and i decided there and then to take off the kevlar-nylon compound strings that i had been trying for a week, and to put the gut strings back on. I only left the kevlar low A-string on the bass. I do like these modern strings, but the F# string is out of tune in the higher positions. I had been blaming it on the player (usually when something seems wrong the real culprit is the musician), but actually it's the string itself that is "untrue". The fifth is too high, and by the time i reach the octave the difference is a quarter-tone. So it has to come off. But if i replace it with gut, the whole set is unbalanced. The gut string sounds stronger and has more tension, so it feels too awkward between two very low-tension kevlar strings. As a consequence it's better to use all-gut for the top three strings.
Now, after having played for Haruko's parents, i decide to take the low A off as well, so i have a complete gut set-up again. But the kevlar strings were very interesting. They gave me fresh ideas for fingerings and sound production, and this experience i can now transpose to the gut strings with positive results. Lesson: improving your playing can be accomplished in different ways. By practicing, by reading, listening to records, going to concerts. By playing pop and rock, or jazz. By changing strings, bows, instruments. There are hundreds of ways to improve your musicianship, beyond the traditional recipes. Artistic Research, anyone?)
We had lunch at a Japanese-run "Belgian Restaurant" in Omiya. The owners are a very nice couple. We met them last year and they have become fans of our Duo. They have a selection of Belgian beers and they serve nice Belgian food. Although last time the "carbonades flamandes" or "stoverij" as we call it revealed a touch of Japanese over-zealousness in that all the pieces of meat were the exact same size, as if they had been meticulously measured and cut to some ideal standard...
Last year the owner broke his arm. As he was unable to cook for months, the regular clients found an original solution to keep the restaurant from going bankrupt: they brought their own food to eat there, but they got drunk every night on the restaurant's Belgian beers which they drank in huge quantities. Getting drunk to save a restaurant, a touching example of human solidarity.
Since we were there, i made a quick English-to-Dutch translation of useful phrases for restaurant use. They're trying to learn enough Dutch to be able to serve their Belgian (Flemish) clients in their own language. It makes me chuckle to think you have to go all the way to Japan to find what is sometimes so hard to get in Brussels.
Afterwards we went to Mrs. Nakahira's. Just as we were at her place (she is our main contact person in Japan), the toys arrived by FedEx.
My brother Egmont, who is a toy designer and wholesaler, donated a huge amount of toys to the Fukushima children we'll be playing for. He sent them over to Nakahira Sensei's address. That way we didn't need to bring them along. With a bass, a viola d'amore, two violins and all the luggage, we had enough stuff to carry.
Along with the toys we got from Brussels toyshop The Grasshopper, we now had plenty of presents for the Fukushima schools we were going to visit next week.
Mrs. Nakahira is a remarkable lady. She is not only an expert in Kamishibai, but she's involved in all kinds of charity work in Japan and Vietnam. We have a lot to discuss about the Fukushima project, because she is the key figure and our connection to the charity events we'll be playing there.
18 th March
Early breakfast at Gusto with French toast and coffee. Here they always play easy-listening jazz over the speakers. I feel it's the perfect place for a writer. The waitress-san always looks so tired but she never fails to be utterly professional and polite, it's quite touching. Makes you wonder what kind of life she leads, and i can easily imagine a film in which she plays herself. The patrons are a mirror of the local society: families, solitary men and women, young lovers. One could picture a novelist spending his days or nights here, observing (or not) and writing, re-filling his coffee cup every so often.
Nearby where we live there is a children's playground. Sakura (cherryblossom) season is coming, and one precocious tree is in full bloom already, the others are waiting for warmer days. The trees will blossom for a very short time only, and thousands of Japanese people will enjoy the traditional "Hanami" (watching the Sakura blossom). The Sakura symbolises the ephemeral nature of life: awareness of transience increases appreciation. Or so it should.
The nights are still cold, temperatures drop steeply after midnight and approach what feels like freezing. But daytime is usually sunny and bright, with the occasional rainy day or storm when the wind tugs at the drying laundry outside with a rage.
Today we played at a friend's place. We were picked up by taxi. With the bass we need a "kuruma-isu no takushii", a taxi with space for a wheelchair. Whenever possible i try to take the assembled bass in its soft case to concerts because the gut strings stay in tune more easily when i keep the instrument in one piece. Only problem is, i left my transport wheel at home. So i have to carry the bass everywhere i go.
Our friend is an amateur flautist. Last year she attended 3 or 4 concerts of our tour, but this time almost none of our concerts matched her agenda. So we offered her a private concert, and she's invited some colleagues of her orchestra.
Since the audience consisted of amateur classical musicians we adapted our program to include pieces that would be of interest to them. A good chance to try out some of the changes we made last night in the Ariosti Lezione and in a few of the Japanese pieces. At every concert we find little things to tweak, the cobwebs that install themselves all too easily when we leave a piece alone for too long need cleaning up. Things always seem to work just fine until you play them in public, when you find out there are still some loose ends.
We played for about an hour and a half. Playing for musicians always makes for a little extra stress and mistakes. Silly of course. Today we had really nice colleagues in the audience. But there it is: you can never be too sure of yourself. The cocktail of acoustics (we played in a dry living-room today), audience atmosphere, how you feel today, so many variables to deal with. So after the concert i reviewed my music and checked the spots where i screwed up. Next time i can make new mistakes. Yes!
Later on we went shopping for slippers, surippa in Japanese English. At most concerts we play we have to take off our shoes and play in the slippers provided. But usually these are too small and too narrow, and unstable under the foot. Being "grounded" is important for everyone, but as a bass player playing standing up, the right footwear is crucial. Most of the time i end up kicking off the slippers and playing in my socks. (I always make sure there are no holes in them before i leave home). Unfortunately no success with our search for the ideal konsaato no surippa. Maybe one of these days we'll go slipper-hunting again.
Today we went for a stroll in Minami-Urawa, in the old part of town. We came across a funny sign that said : "Entry forbidden for bad people", but i didn't take it personally.
Afterwards i practiced for a couple of hours, cleaning out the little mistakes of yesterday's concert and pencilling in some new fingerings here and there. I keep changing fingerings all the time.
(Viennese Tuning is exceptionally inspiring in this regard. I change fingerings for colour in repeats, or to help overcome problems with the hall's acoustics (some fingerings are more resonant than others), or to tweak intonation (the F# string is tuned just a tad lower than equal temperament, being the Major Third within the open D chord. As a consequence, all the notes on that string are a shade lower than on the other strings, because the frets don't really allow intonation adjustment. This can be a problem, but i also use it as a tool for adjusting intonation within an ensemble or within a certain harmony: i have at least two choices of where to play the notes, one sounding a little lower than the other. In double stops this is interesting too. You can often find a position that sounds better or purer than the seemingly most obvious fingering. The many subtleties of Viennese Tuning will be the object of forthcoming entries in this blog).
"Mistakes are a cause for celebration. You know exactly what to fix". (Jeff Berlin)
Tonight we were picked up by Mrs. Nakahira. I disassembled the bass and put it in its hard case, because we had to check whether it fits in the car for the trip to Fukushima. It does, but that means sacrificing one seat. And we need four places because the Saitama Shimbun journalist is coming with us. Mr. Kikuchi is senior head reporter of the paper, and he chose to come along in person rather than to send one of his younger journalists. He figures that the radiation is more dangerous for the young generation, especially if they want to have children later on.
We decide to leave the hard case behind and to take the assembled bass in its soft cover, so we can put it across the back seats. That way we still have enough space for all four of us.
At Mrs. Nakahura's "Dolce" tea-room we discussed the details of the trip. She and Kikuchi Sensei will alternate driving. For a great part of the trip we'll be using maps rather than the GPS because we also want to go to places on the way where we're not normally supposed to go. We'll be provided with high quality face masks and we've been advised to take warm clothes and rain coats. Porous clothing tends to absorb the radioactive particles. We don't really need that.
We played part of our children's programs for Mrs. Nakahira, and she suggested some other songs as well, which she sang for us and that we wrote down. One of these days, before leaving, we'll make arrangements of the new material. Then we'll rehearse together with her. She's preparing the Kamishibai (paper theatre) to go along with the music.
Tomorrow we're playing in Omiya, in a home for socially vulnerable people. The boys and girls there have great difficulties living in society for a number of reasons. The centre where they find shelter provides activities for them and is "embedded" in the neighbourhood, inviting outsiders to come and visit so they can see for themselves how they work. At tomorrow's concert we'll have a mixed audience of inside and outside people.
Early morning on a dreary, rainy day. After a hot bath, japanese style (scorching hot) we quickly made an arrangement of the Japanese song Mrs. Nakahira had sung for us yesterday, and that she wants to include in her Fukushima Kamishibai performances with us. Making arrangements has become second nature now, and it's always great fun when we play around with ideas and suggestions.
Afterwards we took the train from Minami-Urawa where we're staying for the first few days of our tour to the next station at Saitama. From the station to Mrs. Nakahira's place is a 15-minute walk. We had left the instruments there for the night after yesterday's discussion and short rehearsal. With basses loaded we set off for Omiya.
The GPS kept us running around in circles but we eventually arrived at the shelter.
Its inhabitants are people who for some reason have missed their entry into society. A good comparison is to imagine a person standing at the foot of an escalator, too frightened to make the crucial first step onto the rolling stairs. Everybody else is going up, but there she is, immobile and afraid. Unable to get a good start in life, she is lost and helpless while everyone around her finds the right ways to go and the right buttons to push. There is nothing much wrong with most of these people. Their innate shyness has become too big a burden, or their minds work in different ways than most people's, so they don't fit in.
The great thing about the centre is that they actively seek connection with the neighbourhood. Outside people are invited over to see for themselves what it's all about, to participate in some of the activities etc. Today's audience will consist of both "inside" and "outside" people. A concert like ours is an ideal occasion for the two worlds to connect.
In this way, again, we feel that music has a meaning beyond the purely "artistic" side of it, and indeed this meaning has become more and more important to us.
Having lost much time in traffic and in trying to find the way (my Japanese is too bad to be of any help in such situations, so i tried to keep silent and to convey a feeling of tacit support) we didn't have much left of our scheduled rehearsal. Instead, having seen our audience as we entered, we fine-tuned and adapted our program to them. We left out two of the three Sperger movements and substituted them for more of the Japanese pieces, and we limited the total duration to one hour all-in, no break.
The hall was beautifully decorated with paper cut-outs, some of them quite intricate, by one of the boys there. Our "waiting room" was the Art Room, where stunning drawings and paintings by the boys and girls were on display. Another cut-out on the table said: "Welcome Duo Sweet 17". Very sweet indeed.
We started the concert with some Japanese pieces (the Rototo-Variations, as we call them. Based on "Tonari no Totoro", film music by Joe Hisaishi), then moved on to Italian baroque, Suite Dolce-ssimo, Sperger, Furusato and we finished with Paganini's "Moses-Variations" (in our own arrangement).
After the concert was time for Questions-and-Answers, and a few of the people surmounted their shyness. Some of the questions were quite interesting, such as : "What are you thinking while you're playing" or "What does Korneel-san feel when he's playing Japanese music". An older lady wanted to hear my voice, in any language i wanted. She just wanted to hear what i sound like. For some reason the first thing that sprang to mind was "Dare ni mukatte mono itten da yo?" which means : "Who do you think you're talking to?"
This had everyone in stitches, and afterwards the lady asked Haruko if this was the style of our daily conversations... But actually i got it from Bill Murray who is so magnificent in "Lost in Translation". The quote doesn't come from the film itself, but while they were shooting it in Tokyo, he picked up the phrase from a Japanese crew member and he used it all the time - to the great surprise of everyone he met there. Not really a very polite thing to say, but then foreigners in Japan are kind of expected to act strangely so we get away with a lot.
After all that, Nakahira Sensei gave a Kamishibai presentation. It reminded me again of the importance of telling a story and of the ways to tell it and to keep an audience's attention till the very end. She's a true master and every time i learn.
As is often the case with these things, Kamishibai is originally a kind of street performance, which was very popular before television existed. Someone came along on a bicycle with his portable paper theatre, the kids came to see the show. They paid for a sweet treat and then they could watch. Nowadays it is considered an art form that has to be preserved.
We drove back to Saitama, dropped off the instruments for tomorrow's two concerts at the Dolce Tea Room, and went shopping for winter clothes. The day after tomorrow we leave at 5 in the morning for our trip to Fukushima, and there will be no more time for shopping after tonight.
(Just received a mail from Giuseppe Lupis, the American composer we met at Copenhagen in 2012, and who wrote a piece for us, the "Codex Lupensis". Another recording project is in the air, even more extreme than the Solo Bass Suites: we'll record the Codex five times in different versions. Here's an excerpt from Giuseppe's letter:
"Thank you for your nice words and for sharing your project on Codex with me. Needless to say, I am extremely humbled and honored. Especially, i am very happy that you liked my work, and i wish all the possible best outcomes...
... indeed, i agree with you: we need to change the perception of contemporary music in the minds and hearts of the listeners. Music can be beautiful at any time, this is why we chose to become messengers of this art. If contemporary music is written with consideration for the performers and the audience, the need to shelter in classical repertoire will be gradually substituted by the production of new works".
When we received the piece, we started by transposing it one step lower, we changed the tempo drastically, we replaced part of the cadenza with our own, we found different ways to play with the dynamics. All of these changes met with the approval and indeed with enthusiastic encouragement from the composer. Now THAT's the kind of composer that i like, and that can change the perception of contemporary music.
I'm quite clear in my opinions about the composer/performer relationship: once the work is written, it doesn't belong to the composer anymore. It is now the property of the performer and of the audience, and the performing musician has to make the piece work in real life. The best way to show respect to a composer is not necessarily to play exactly what he or she has written, but rather to do all one can to make the music "speak" to an audience. Sometimes that means tweaking the music a little bit, and sometimes it necessitates more drastic changes.
In our case, Giuseppe is very open to suggestions, and he was very happy with what we did "to" his music: our interpretation opened up sound possibilities he had never even imagined:
"Your rendition of Codex is simply breathtaking. Your performance goes beyond anything i could possibly imagine, gifting beauty and peace to my humble composition. I am honored to have such wonderful musicians performing my work!
Thank you thank you!!!"
I think this is maybe the only option if contemporary music wants to re-connect to wider audiences: if all three human elements (composer, performer and audience) are given equal importance in the equation.
For our recording, we'll start with the original score as written by Giuseppe, played by a computer. Then we'll move on to our transposed version with Viennese Bass and Viola d'Amore. We have discovered medieval and Arabic elements in the piece that we want to bring out. Another version will feature the 7-string Violone and a gut-strung Amore without resonance strings, and will be in C instead of the original E. And so we'll transform the piece and give it different colours and atmospheres. The most extreme version will have electric guitar and bass, and some percussion instruments.
True Artistic Research, far removed from dusty theories and rules. A hands-on approach that will (hopefully) lead to a fascinating and moving experience for us and for our listeners).
Fukushima is up north, a 6-hour drive. It's still winter there and we really need warmer clothes than the ones we brought with us from Europe. Rubber boots as well. So we went to the hyaku-yen shop (hundred yen shop) and got us some cheap clothes to help us get through the couple of cold days and nights there. We'll leave them behind anyway, what with the heavy radioactive contamination in the region...
Tonight, as i'm typing this blog, two concerts for next year's tour are confirmed. One in Chiba, where many Fukushima refugees still live in temporary shelters (understandably the government can't pay for Olympic Games and for the tsunami victims at the same time...), and the other one in Osaka.
Maybe our last entry for a while. Not sure if we have internet over there. Also, no time to upload pictures now. Leaving tomorrow early morning. Updates will be done as soon as i find the time.
Last day before Fukushima. The tension is mounting little by little because we have no clear idea what we'll find there. We've seen recent photos and documentaries, even some under-cover footage of the most contaminated areas (where we're not going anyway), but reality is always very different from the images and from the mental picture one constructs out of them.
In the meantime we have to prepare for today's two concerts. We arrive at Dolce at 11.30. The tearoom has been transformed into a small concert hall. Kaneso-san, the young sound engineer who made video and sound recordings of our concerts there last year, is busy setting up his equipment. It's so nice to see him again. He's a wonderful person, modest, professional and always helpful.
We play some of the pieces for the children's concert and we rehearse the Kamishibai story with the musical accompaniment that we arranged yesterday. It works beautifully with the pictures and the story. We'll integrate it into the concert later on, and it will be part of the school concerts in Fukushima as well.
The parents and children arrive one by one. There are quite a few babies, and kids between the ages of 2 and 10. As usual we have changed the original program somewhat. The opening piece is the Borghi Sonata, part one. This is our favorite opener for almost every occasion. It's not too long, it gives a good idea of how we sound, the music is really beautiful and uplifting.
(Historically speaking, everything about the piece is "wrong". First of all, it's not by Giovanni Battista Borghi, as it says in the edition we're using, but by Luigi Borghi. Second, it's not for bass and viola d'amore as the editor wants us to believe. The bass part is really difficult to play well, and it goes very high. No music from the Italian baroque has this kind of double bass part. It's always been clear to me that there's no way this was written for a double bass. Recently we learned from the liner notes of a CD with this sonata (played on a violone, not on a bass) that the work is a collage of movements from three different violin sonatas with an 8ft Basso Continuo.But we don't care. We rearranged it, using our common sense and our musical feeling and experience, and it sounds great now with the Viennese Bass and Viola d'Amore. Sometimes it just doesn't matter what is historically correct or not. We're not a museum and we're not playing musicology, but music that means something to us and to the audience. Music that moves the heart. Music that does what it's supposed to do in the first place).
The children like it, the parents like it. We move on to a suite of Japanese children's songs, and with every song we play, parents and kids sing along as soon as they recognize the tunes. A wonderful feeling. We also play the 3rd movement of our new Sperger-sonata, a very joyful Rondo full of surprises (of course as a musician you have to be willing to find the surprises and the humour and to play with along with the composer's wit). Some more Japanese songs, and the Kamishibai story. And to top it all off, Paganini for kids. They just love it. We clown around quite a bit in this piece. It's all part of the job. The visual element in music is important in conveying emotion - and that's not just an opinion but a scientific fact, as i read in Levithin's book.
The next concert, for adult listeners, is at 6. So we have some time for a breath of fresh air and a quick bite. It's very windy today, so much that we literally stand still when we walk up wind.
In the evening we finally meet the newspaper journalist who will come with us to Fukushima. Kikuchi Sensei is an intelligent and sharp-witted man. He brings us a copy of his newspaper with a short article he wrote about us and the reasons for our Japan Tour. Now he's here with his daughter and a blind lady friend to listen to us play.
The concert is in two parts, we play an hour and a half. For me that's pushing it, i prefer shorter concerts. But the audience can't get enough and they want an encore on top of all the music we've played. Great audience...
Afterwards we have a long talk with Mr. Kikuchi and his friend. We discover she speaks fluent English, French and Mandarin, and it's such fun to speak Chinese with her after all the impossibly bad Japanese i've been using this week. We have a great time and we laugh a lot. It releases some of the tensions and apprehensions we're all having about this crazy trip to hell we're going to undertake.
At least musically we're more ready than ever. The concerts have been succesful in many ways. We know now that the pieces work well with the listeners, we know how to play with the interpretation, timing, dynamics, surprises, the show elements and a certain degree of improvisation and freedom from the scores.
We have received so many encouragements from everyone and so many good wishes for our adventure, we feel very touched and at the same time we have this feeling of responsibility for doing the very best we can up there in the North.
Back home for a short night. We leave here at 4.30 am, load the car with instruments, luggage, good will and love, and then we'll be on our way.Wish us luck.