Tuesday, September 14, 2010

random note (postminimalism)

In the 1980s, Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu once joked about why American composers tend to write in Minimalistic style, Europeans tend to put a lot of dissonance like in serial music, and Japanese slow and depressive one with a lot of pauses. Of course he was talking about those who have academic background. His assumption was that it had something to do with their childhood experiences, especially punishments at school. American children who didn't do their homework had to write "I'm sorry I didn't do my homework" one hundred times on the blackboard, so they would get this repetitive style. European children were spanked, so they would get this sado-masochistic tendencies. Japanese children had to stand still alone in the corridor during the class, often holding two buckets, which are filled with water in them, in the hands, so they would become depressive and sad.

Last week American composer Kyle Gann criticized two points about American young composers writing in Postminimalistic style: one is that use of vocal in opera is ineffective; the other is that too many are trying to be a John Adams. Especially the latter appears to prompt many responses. He is not opposed to a young composer imitating John Adams as a career start. What he worries about is that those excellent young composers are becoming indistinguishable. Nico Muhly appears to be a bit irritated not by what Gann says, but by many comments easily appreciating Gann's post. Galen H. Brown is trying to analyse the systemic problem of academia.

They are talking about music probably not the way I talk about. They often talk about how to be effective. They brilliantly analyze how a certain piece is structured. They talk about "American tradition." Then, they make me think.

Though I don't go further today, I feel writing about what I liked may sometimes be good.

I haven't developed any style because I haven't written a good amount of music. Also I think a style cannot be developed only by a composer, but also by the audiences and the players. I haven't developed this sort of relationship. I think Woody Allen's quote, "90 percent of life is just showing up," is not merely an irony depicting a superficial life. Showing up is important.

I have listened to many kind of music. I have always been curious how those composers and performers make music, and why. Probably "why" is what I've been more interested in. It is probably because I've been a slow learner.

So, I tend to think like, "What's behind atonal music? What makes them to write that way?" And I imitate it, just writing several pages, and then I stop it since I have no intention to write this as my own work. And then I marvel at some books about aesthetic, history, and philosophy of the time. Not that I want to know the cause and effect like the pseudo-Freudian joke I mentioned. It is more similar to the way a child learns how to desire from the others.

Monday, September 13, 2010

so, what's the problem with anti-colonial worldview?

I don't worship any. Because we've been bombarded with the stupid news from America, I'm thinking about the relation between culture and religion. My last post was actually about this, though I didn't mention about the news and didn't really conclude my post.

Watching Geert Wilders speaking to the people gathering in New York is a bit scary. Tariq Ali argues the debated Islam community center should be build elsewhere. I don't know which is better. But I agree with his view that the plan has been instrumentalized by the politics. Perhaps it's time to step back a bit.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

what i understand about shinto

It is not easy to articulate religion and culture. Notorious atheist Richard Dawkins claims to be a “culturally Christian,” since he still enjoys singing Christmas carols. I feel there is something wrong with his notion of relationship between religion and culture. In my view, what determines the way of distinguishing religion and culture is rather politics and he overlooks this. I don't think atheism is problematic, but when seeing his followers' anti-Islamic comments on his website, I feel something going wrong. Here I won't go further on Dawkins, but what I know about the history of Shinto makes me think about the complexity of relation between culture, religion, and politics.

I recently had an opportunity to walk around Asakusa, the touristic old downtown in Tokyo, with some artists from Europe. There is a well known Buddhist temple called Senso-ji in the center of the district. Though it was weekday, the place was crowded. I like the pragmatism of the people praying there. They pray for their health, wealth, and career success, but they don’t care about something like abstract enlightenment. What they worship is more like a sort of Paganism or Animism. And I can imagine many of the people claim to be neither Buddhist nor Shintoist. Actually this place also includes a Shinto shrine, which was officially separated from the temple around 1870 when the Japanese government, which was struggling to transform Japan into a nation state, started to establish Shinto as the nation’s “religion.” Around that time the ordinary people didn’t care about their national identity. It might have been no easy task for the government to tax and educate them, and also make them as soldiers. So the government used Shinto to unite the people. But, the government didn’t do it simply by declaring that Shinto was the nation’s religion. I’m going to explain this later.

Around 1870, Shintoism, however, was not really united. There were thousands of shrines and they vaguely shared some mythologies. These mythologies somehow explain how the islands which are now called the Japan archipelago were created, but doesn’t explain how the world was created. The deities didn’t create the world. Obviously, the ancient people living in these islands didn’t care about whether they were living in the center of the world or the periphery. They cared only about where they were living in.

Such shrines were the places where the ordinary people come to be socialized. There they celebrated birth, marriage, harvest, and so on, traded things, and discussed over the problems of their community. The shrines also provided entertainment for the local community. They were also theater.

Shintoism basically doesn’t preach. Perhaps it only says: “You have to do dirty jobs in order to survive, and sometimes you feel guilty, helpless, and hopeless. You feel you’ve become filthy. So just come here and purify yourself, and it would be okay. Anyway praying is good for you. Also sometimes you want to share your happiness when good things happen to you. This is the place you share things.” In Shintoism everything, be they plants, animals, mountains, potteries, clothes, fire, rain, the sun, the soil, or local heroes, becomes a deity. Those deities are like us humans, they hope, they suffer, they anger, they laugh, they cheat, they learn, and even they try to learn from Buddha (and that was why Shinto and Buddhism were mixed in Japan). Natural disasters, such as famine, earthquake, flood, and epidemic, were rarely interpreted as that the deities were punishing the people, but rather that the deities were in trouble. When a deity got sick, the people got sick. When a deity cried too much, there would have been a flood. The deities don’t have capacity to control things. So the people prayed for well-being of the deities.

Shrines originally had little to do with national identity, but probably had much to do with the identity of the local communities. What the government of the time of the modernization did was centralizing those shrines. The government claimed that, in the center of shrines, there was the emperor, who was descendant of god and he himself was god. There had been a clan which had have no surname, rarely governed, but endorsed warlords who claimed to have a capacity to govern. Which, roughly to say, had been functioning as pope in Europe. But the ordinary people didn’t know about this clan. So the government took this emperor to travel through Japan and claimed he was god of the nation. On the other hand, the government guaranteed the freedom of faith by the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1889), and then, surprisingly, it claimed Shinto was not religion. The government well understood that, in order to be a modern state, Japan had to appear to be secularized. So, Shinto was categorized into the domain of “culture.” And the government claimed the Japanese culture was spiritual. This definition of religion and culture was thus acrobatic.

The government strengthened the hierarchy of the shrines, and also banned the people who had been maintaining the shrines and leading the worshiping from performing the traditional local theater which had been taking place at the shrines. So the local people started performing this local theater, called Kagura, on their own. While the government promoted Shinto as the central of the Japanese culture, it partly destroyed the local communities’ culture.

America, the occupier of Japan after World War II, might have seen Shinto as religion. The occupier tried to “secularize” Japan. In 1946 Emperor Hirohito traveled through Japan and declared he was no longer god. But, how this happened was not clear. It was not that the occupier forced Hirohito to do so. In my view, this “divine emperor” was a sort of vanishing mediator in the process of modernization of Japan. Through the war, Japanese people became Japanese enough. So the government no longer needed such a divine emperor.

It can be said that Japan’s imperial project, which had started around the mid 19th century, completed after World War II. Japanese sociologist Eiji Oguma, in his Genealogy of Japanese Self-Images, argues it was around the 1960s that many Japanese became to share the view that the Japanese society is homogeneous.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I’ve recently seen several gigs held in Tokyo within a couple of weeks, which I haven’t done for a long time. Those are experimental, unestablished, and non-academic, and audiences are not many. Most of the audiences are also doing some artistic activities. Between the audiences who are new to each other, a conversation often starts in this way: “Do you play music, or do some other artistic things?” In some places where I was among the audiences, some people asked me so.

I’ve found myself still liking that kind of atmosphere. It is good to be a bit more socialized. Being an unestablished artist is hard in Japan in many ways. Do I really want to start it all over again? Yes and no. My inner voice tells me, “Fail better!” Okay. But I have to be prepared. I cannot be a full-time musician just because my SoundCloud sometimes receives positive reactions.

Not that I quit making music at some point in these years. I’ve occasionally been sketching and what I should do is just to continue this. Yet it is just too early for me to throw gigs and release CDs on my own. Nor am I prepared for working with someone. So, what else have I achieved in these years other than some humble sketchy tracks? I'm afraid this sounds irrelevant--I think my English has significantly been improved, especially when it comes to listening. Now I can comprehend most of the international news spoken. On the other hand, I’m not so sure about my writing. Though I’ve studied news writing and Japanese-English translation at an institution in Tokyo since I came back to Japan several years ago, I’ve been a bad student. I hope I’m as good as college students in continental Europe.

In a way, I’ve been busy inputting things. Yet I’m still clumsy to speak out. The same goes for my music.


My blogs aim at to a large extent practicing English writing, but also thinking about art and the media in general. “In general” is a tricky term, since things are so discursive and my knowledge is limited. But I’m not so interested in writing only about music. Rather, I’m interested in what makes a certain music, which might be interconnected with the other criteria. On the other hand, I lack certain terms and knowledge to go across every category. For example, I cannot say, “If Lacan sees this, what would he say?” What I say is largely depending on my experience. I hope I’ll be able to formulate a good question, connecting the dots.

By the way, I’m not interested in curating. Though I like a lot to read the others writing about what our contemporaries are doing, I’m not brave enough to commit this kind of activity. Though inevitably I sometimes mention a certain artist or a work, I have no intention to promote or demote a certain artist or genre.


Making an artwork to some extent means translating something. That may be obvious when making an artwork becomes making a representation. But even when there is no model to be represented, the artist is translating something he doesn’t know, but he is supposed to know. What interesting for me is that when translating language from one into another, the translator doesn’t always know what he is translating. Or, to put it more precisely, not always does what the translator understands about the original correspond to what the readers of the translated version understand about either the original or translated version, moreover, not always is what the readers understand determined by the translator.

A process of translating is a process of understanding. So is a process of making an artwork. This notion of art may be rather conventional, but I think even when an artist insists, “Stop making sense!,” what this artist is actually opposed to might be not understanding in general, but a certain way of understanding: “It’s good we are getting to know each other, but not this way!” It might be important for such an artist to make something about what doesn’t make sense because his knowledge about what he doesn’t know is more important than his knowledge about what he already knows.

To put it metaphorically, the artist and the audience are reading the same book, which may be entitled, say, “Things We Are Supposed to Know.” And then, the artist underscores any part of it he thinks important for the audiences. But the ideal relationship between the artist and the audiences may be not that the audiences just follow where he has underscored, but that the audiences also underscore on their own for their understanding. Either of them can be a translator.

This ideal relationship has been deemed as difficult to be realized by many. The “passive audience” has long been criticized. So, those artists who are critical about the “passive audience” rather try to set up a place where people meet each other and face a question the performers bring up to. Gaze is often questioned by the performers, since there is no theater without a spectator. So, what such a gaze conjures up? The relation between being passive and being active is ambiguous and worth questioning (I think Glenn Beck was at some point created to a large extent by the “passive” audiences, who have later turned out to be the Tea Party “activists”). I think those various experiments have been fruitful, especially in performing arts.

In 2004, choreographer Mårten Spångberg who had read Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster asked Rancière to give a lecture based on this essay at the fifth Internationale Sommerakademie in Frankfurt am Main (I wasn’t there at that time). His lecture entitled the Emancipated Spectator turned out the first chapter of his new book The Emancipated Spectator in 2009 (the original French version in 2008). Here’s the last part of the lecture. He speaks in heavily accented English. I also speak heavily accented English, and his is still easier for me to understand than heavy Scottish dialect.

Here he mentions about a tendency of interdisciplinary activity many artists are following. According to him, this can be categorized into three:1. the form of total artwork created by a few outsize artistic egos or a form of consumerist hyper-activism; 2. a hybridization of artistic means by the postmodern reality of a constant exchange of roles and identities; 3. to problematize the cause-effect relationship itself and the set of presuppositions that sustain the logic of stultification. He is negative about the first and the second. I note here that an artist or an activity can take the all three categories, though an ideal activity might be motivated by the third.

Around that time I was struggling to make some performance pieces and apparently failed. I know that when I call it failure it becomes failure, but I’ve had enough time to admit so, and then I can make a fresh start.

Music people are practical. If you see any comments on any tracks appearing in SoundCloud, you would find the people exclusively talking about effects and the pleasure principle. Those who talk about the other principles are few. And a part of me is really practical. I’m not a saint at all.

A few people in Tokyo are asking me if I go public, and I’m considering it. Tokyo is the city of “consumerist hyper activism,” and what the people want is effects, effects, and more effects, and being a politico is very very unpopular. What can I do in this circumstance? A kind of lecture performance? Probably. This idea may not be attractive for those asking me, since they seem to like my practical part. But I don’t have to be popular. So, maybe I’ll fail again, and at least try to fail better?