Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sept. 7: Tokyo

Up in the morning and...straight to the vending machines. I’ve been on the lookout for a product called Water Salad, and bought a can of something I thought might be it, then followed with two cans of Coffee Jack Blue Mountain Blend. Blue Mountain coffee from a vending machine? But it did the trick. The other stuff turned out to be a very good V-8 kind of thing.

I was up early, jet-lag having had its way with me, so I read for a while and then called Carl, who suggested we try the Japanese breakfast in the hotel. This turned out to be a lacquer box with a slice of salmon, some mountain potato grated into goo, miso soup, rice, and tofu. We then headed over to Shinjuku Station to get reservations for tomorrow’s trip to Ogaki.

There being time for it, and since we were in the right neighborhood, Carl suggested we check out the food basement of a department store. We headed into Mitsukoshi, and it was like a museum. A museum of stuff you’ve never seen before -- and stuff you have. The first floor we went to was gift foods, stuff elaborately wrapped and packaged, something the Japanese have had down to an art for centuries. There was pastry, jelly candies, rice crackers (I succumbed), sakes, snacks for drinks, teas, beef (very, very fatty and sliced paper-thin for sukiyaki), seaweeds, and other confections and combinations. The floor below was more practical, a super-supermarket for the very wealthy. Your usual selections, only at a much higher quality than normal. There weren’t many people around, given that it was near noon, and no samples to speak of, although I did have half a grape which reminded me of the Concords which came off of my grandmother’s trellised grapevines.

There was still time, so we headed to another department store across the street. As we got there, we saw a line of women stretching around the block, which Carl couldn’t figure out. I had seen a little woman behind a screen telling fortunes on the street, and sure enough, that’s who they were waiting for. Dozens of them. This store, Isetan, was much livelier. We finally figured it out: they were offering samples. So we dove right in. Most of the people manning the departments were very friendly. I had a neat deep-fried meatball, passed on what Carl called “squid guts,” had a piece of what was advertised as “perfect tofu” (close enough), some killer kimchee, and I don’t know what all. I was also exposed to my first hostility to foreigners at a fish stall where the guy moved what Carl described as samples of “ruinously expensive herring roe” the minute we got there and also snatched a plate of little fish from Carl’s hand before he could grab one. He fumed about this for the rest of the day. I mentioned someone’s comment that foreigners in Japan were treated as half rock stars, half lepers, and he said you’ve never really empathized with minorities until you’ve had people change seats on a train to get away from you. (He also said, later, that he disapproves of Westerners using the word “gaijin,” which, he says, has the same resonance as “nigger.”)

It was later than we thought, and Carl had to be at the concert hall for sound check and so on at 3, so we mooched around Shinjuku and finally wound up in a fast-food joint where you look at the plastic food in the window, then buy a ticket for it from a vending machine, hand it to the guy inside, and receive your food by the time you get to the counter. Mine was fried vegetables on soba with some broth, and Carl had curry rice. Neither was particularly spectacular. I didn’t mind, though: I had found some Water Salad in a vending machine and discovered it’s a product of the Coca-Cola company. I think I may write them a letter when I get back: it’s amazing stuff, very subtle, well blended, if just a tad sweet for my taste. If the pictograms on the front of the can are to be believed, it contains lemon, green pepper, apple, spinach, carrot, pear, tomato, celery, lettuce, grapefruit and grape juices. It’s a masterpiece.

We headed back to the station and got on the circle line for Ueno. The concert hall turned out to be facing Ueno Station, which was easy enough, so Carl went inside and I headed into Ueno Park, where I sat and read my Japan Times, one of the New York Times/Washington Post collaborations (there’s an IHT/Asahi Shunbun also) on the stands here. It’s a weak paper, with lots of filler and not much content, although it would be okay for kids, given the large amount of fluff in it, like a column on animals.

While I was reading I became aware of a lot of people singing, who could be heard over the crows declaiming Aaa, Aaa, so I got up and went in search of them. Over where they were perfoming, I noticed some imposing buildings, so I backtracked to a sign and discovered it was the National Museum. The singers turned out to be led by a preacher, and were largely comprised of the contingent of homeless people who live all over the park. Each had a laminated piece of paper with the hymn music and lyrics on it, and another piece with prayers. The reason the crowd was so large was pretty apparent as I skirted the service: big vats of food were being stirred, and tanks of tea set into place.

The museum is pretty much the way Nick’s book describes it: filled with priceless treasures, but extremely inadequately captioned. Overall descriptions of each room’s contents are also very superficial and dry. Nonetheless, there’s not much you can do to diminish the effect of the three giant statues, a wrathful deity flanked by two attendants, or a number of serene Buddhas, or three statues of Kannon from the famous temple in Kyoto. One statue of a deity stands in front of an intricately-carved screen of crimson flames. Just about every facet of Japanese art is represented, including textiles and ceramics, and there is a great hall with a small but superb selection of swords, each of which is perfect and quite deadly-looking, and most of which are between 1500 and 500 years old.

Eventually one comes to the entrance to another building in which Japan’s past is described, although again there is much, much more documentation in Japanese than in English. I don’t think it would break the national treasury to print up -- and sell -- a booklet in various foreign languages for foreigners, but they’re not doing it now. One great thing in this building is the collection of haniwa, odd clay statues which were found at the openings of so-called keyhole tombs, named for their shape when viewed from above. Many are portraits, but there is a charming horse whose kawaii content qualifies him for endless reproduction in the souvenir shop.

I had missed the top floor of the main building, so I walked back there and saw the painting and calligraphy sections, although the lighting necessary to display them is so gloomy it’s very hard to make things out. It was getting late, and I was hurrying more than I wanted to, so I may go back when I come back to Tokyo. This didn’t stop me from noting the incredibly derivative late Meiji-era Impressionists, though.

It was nearly 5 by the time I hit the park again, and the homeless guys were all lined up getting haircuts from the Christians. Given that they have a pretty well-defined encampment there, the denial by the authorities that the homeless exist is pretty chilling. I hit Ueno Station with visions of the famous Tokyo rush hour in my head, but I was headed the other direction, and the ride was actually spent sitting down, for the most part. I hit the hotel, changed my shirt, threw my ticket voucher into my bag, and turned around to go back to Ueno. One nice thing about shows here is how early they start: 7pm, ending about 9, which gives plenty of time for an interval.

The show was in the recital hall, a relic, as Carl pointed out, of the Olympics in the ‘60s, with radical concrete walls in a rough but deliberate Japanese style I rather like. There were plenty of people, too, although it was far from filled, and lacking any more specific directions I just plonked down in the third row. Eventually, the lights went down, and Tomoko Yazawa, the pianist, came out wearing jeans and a backless top with stars and stripes on it, reminiscent of Wonder Woman. She sat down at a synthesizer and opened with one of the David Lang pieces, “Cage,” which had her hammering away such that it sounded like there was a digital echo, a very interesting sound, given the dry tone of the synthesizer. This was followed by “Far Away From Here,” which she co-wrote with Horkazu Hiraishi, and had a drum-and-bass component on tape, although the piano part was austere in an appealing way. Next up was the Frank Zappa composition, “Ruth Is Sleeping,” which, perhaps because of my jet-lagged condition (the Coffee Jack I’d had at the hotel was letting me down: it’s the damn sugar) I found incomprehensible. Hell, I think that about his “popular” music, so why not this? It was virtuosic -- scored for four hands, although she seemed to be equipped with only two -- but empty. Again, just like his pop work. Scott Johnson’s “Jet Lag Lounge” was next, and I was really drifting. It seemed pleasant enough, but I’d really have to hear it again. Another Lang piece, similar to the first, was next, and the first half concluded with Hirokazu Hiraishi’s “Fire,” which pitted live piano against taped piano and electronics.

I stretched some, talked with some San Francisco-based art administrators and a guy who runs a fellowship program to bring artists to Japan, and felt a bit more awake. The second half opened with Scott Johnson’s “Maybe You,” which began with that phrase, electronically manipulated, the piano tracing around it, and the track filling up with cello, electric guitar, and other electronics which might have been the words even more distorted. A collaboration with Masahiro Sugaya, “Gyration,” followed, pretty undistinguished, and then Carl’s new piece, “Tlapazola,” which he had described to the arts administrators as “a bagatelle” while explaining why he’d graciously ceded the concert’s finale for it. It’s nice, quite subtle, with a taped piano playing alongside the real one, but gradually doing things which show that it’s been manipulated electronically. The video for this one -- there was video for all of them, hard to make out against the grey of the concrete walls -- showed Japanese children playing in Ameican concentration camps during the War, a brilliant montage put together by Sugaya. It was, yes, a bagatelle, but it was a lively and pleasant one. The finale, “The Same Sky,” by Carolyn Yarnell, had its own color video, and a track which seemed to have been recorded on the same piano Tomoko was playing, giving the piece a great hall-of-mirrors quality which brought about quite a response at the end. Tomoko, clad for the second half in a sheer silk pantsuit, encored with “Far Away From Here,” although I think she may have improvised some of it differently from the first time around.

There followed the usual post-concert sit around and wait, and I talked to a director from New York who’d been at Bellagio with Carl, and with various others, and then drifted out for a cigarette, which finally caused the caffeine to kick in. This was good, because things always take a long tme after a show, and this one was no exception. I talked for a while with the director, and the arts administrators came out and we talked some, and finally we were shooed out by the usherettes. Outside, I began talking with Scott Johnson, who was over here for the event, and he started complaining about how the guys in the academy have ignored popular music for so long that a vital strain in what he called the “cultural ecology” was dormant and in danger of dying. This came from a remark I’d made about how he should sell t-shirts at his gigs (and I was only half joking, since I know Carl does well selling CDs at gigs), and I think this opened up for me the possibility of a panel at SXSW on the crisis in the avant-garde. I’ll e-mail them about this if I can ever get my damn e-mail to work at the same time as I’m around a telephone that also works.

The deal was that we were going to get a meal, and the good news was Noda-san was there. He’s kind of Carl’s road manager and advance man in Japan, and is a true foodie, an expert in Japan’s regional cuisines. In junior high, he’d been in an accident on his bicycle with a car, and after he recovered, he never went back, I later learned. He is nonetheless very well versed in avant-garde music and performs road manager services for a number of acts, both Japanese and foreign, when they tour the country.

A long, long discussion between Tomoko (who was now wearing a skimpy top and jeans open at the top to reveal a kind of black silk jockstrap with studs -- did I mention that she’s a complete babe?) and Noda and several others who were standing around as to what to do next resulted in a plan finally being hatched -- and a good thing, because it was getting on to 11 -- and we jumped on the train and headed to Shinjuku. As soon as we got off the train, cell-phones were put into action and Noda-san scored. A call was placed to Tomoko and Scott in her car and we headed off through streets lightly misted with rain to a cellar bar with what seemed to be hundreds of food options -- Japanese tapas, as it were. This sort of place is called an izakaya.

There were green soy beans on the table when we sat, and we gave Noda full freedom to order. Thank heavens. Some chicken cartilage (with some meat still on them) with kimchi, skewers of thin-sliced pork, Osaka-style pressed sushi with mackerel, tofu in a soupy cod-roe sauce, clams in a thin broth, a delicious simple broiled fish (“No word in English, it comes from very cold waters,” said Noda), a kind of Japanese guacamole with saltines, chicken gizzards and green peppers in a great mustard sauce (the gizzards were too stringy, though), tofu with tiny, tiny deep-fried fish, and I think there must have been more...all washed down with good cold Asahi beer. It was a great party, and clearly all those who had participated in the concert appreciated it.

It was also not very far from the hotel, and my SXSW idea kept coming on as we walked back, contrasting the way Kronos, Glass, Reich, and Adams were marketed almost as pop stars, and the idea that people like Tomoko, too, should be able to be marketed like that while giving exposure to new composers. Somebody should set up a record label with a relationship with a major or strong indie, put out a dozen records over two years, liberally salted with electronic and chamber works which are cheap to record, with one release by a star like Glass, and marketed to the avant-rock and dance markets. This, I think, is what Scott was talking about, although he didn’t have the idea, just an informed observation of the symptoms.

Time to leave Tokyo tomorrow, so I went back, had a nightcap while thinking on all of this, and crashed.

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