November 2014

Music for the Moment

November 29, 2014 09:26

Yesterday (28 November 2014) was the Big Day. The day set for launching Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850–2010 with a burst of music. Bowed of course, by myself, brilliantly aided and abetted on the piano by one of my chamber music companions, Jean-Claude Grivel. For both of us a recital is a big change from our day jobs as researchers, Jean-Claude at the Technical University of Denmark, I at the University of Copenhagen.

We played pieces by three composers discussed in my book and in a short talk I introduced each one before we played their work:

Kôda Nobu (1870–1946)
Sonata Movement for Violin and Piano in E flat major (1895)
Kishi Kôichi (1909–1937)
Tsuki (Moon), Suifu no uta (Sailor’s Air) (first published and performed 1934)
Miyagi Michio (1894–1956)
Haru no Umi (Sea in Springtime, 1929) Violin version as performed by Renée Chemet with the composer in 1932

playingAs the day drew nearer I did my best to push away all thoughts of my own recklessness. I had actually asked people to come and listen to me not only lecture – after all I do that as part of my profession – but play my violin, and not one but four pieces! Most of my rare public performances are in ensembles with several others and organized by someone else.

To help me prepare, I’d finally splashed out on one of the recording machines recommended by Gerald Klickstein’s Musician’s Way website. Now I not only had a most excellent reason to record myself as part of my practice: the new gadget would also enable me to record THE BIG EVENT. So I got to know the dream machine well enough to use the ”rec,” the stop and the playback switches. I even recorded myself tuning the violin up from 440 to 442 Hz to adjust to the pitch of the karaoke koto (plucked zither) recording for ”Sea in Springtime” (Lesson learnt: If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it – apparently I’d tuned to 442 previously and the strings were still in place).

Reckless or no, here we were, in a large church hall in the centre of Copenhagen. The combined mailing lists of the Japanese Embassy, the Danish-Japanese Society and as many personal invitations as I managed to write before running out of steam brought in an audience of over 70 people – pretty impressive, seeing that we were competing with ”Black Friday” (held for the first time in Copenhagen I hear), the finals of the popular TV show ”Vild med dans” (Crazy about Dance) an the beginning of Advent and the Christmas party season. The drinks and nibbles and – of course! – copies of Not by Love Alone were ready, the president of the Danish-Japanese Society (which was sponsoring the event) welcomed everyone and introduced us, and then we were on.

Talking first worked brilliantly – talking comes much more easily to me than playing the violin. Kôda Nobu’s lovely sonata movement went pretty well (ok, so some bits remained slightly dodgy, but I’d given myself advance pardon for that). The pieces by Kishi Kôichi and Miyagi Michio I’d decided to play from memory – don’t think I’ve attempted this since my last performance in a student recital back in the early ’80s. I felt that Kishi’s pieces demanded a freer approach than Kôda and that it was easier to establish a rapport with the pianist. And for ”Sea in Springtime,” in the absence of visual cues from my invisible partner, I wanted to be all ears.

After the last note had sounded – I remembered to stay in playing position with my bow on the string until the invisible koto player had concluded ”Sea in Springtime” with his final arpeggio – I felt I had surpassed myself in one of the most challenging performances I’d ever attempted. Of course, perfection eluded us, but we’d given the best we could. Deeply thankful for the friendly audience and everything and everyone who had helped make the launch truly special, I sailed through the rest of the evening.


Not until this morning as I was eating breakfast with a distinct ”morning after the night before” feeling did an appalling thought come to me: I knew I’d switched on the recording machine. I was almost certain I had pressed the ”rec” switch. But had I pressed it twice? A quick test confirmed my dreadful suspicion: throughout my dream performance the dream machine (complete with fresh 32-GB SD card and brand-new batteries) was on standby!

Yet even while disappointment hit me, I felt that maybe there was something entirely right about the absence of a recording. After all, what were my real motives for wanting the performance recorded? True, I had no intention of uploading it on Youtube or Facebook. But was I not driven by the wish to hold on to what I hoped would be an amazing performance, rather than the wish to learn? Anyway, would I have learnt from a recording? That I was right in suspecting that my playing had been far from flawless? So what! Hadn’t I always meant to be a unique event? And if so, what would I gain from dissecting a recording? The most important and useful lessons from yesterday are already engraved in my brain and in my heart.

Ultimately music is meant to exist in the moment when it is played. These days we forget all too easily that music isn’t a thing, a mere commodity. Music is best when we play and listen actively as it unfolds. So the music on the Big Day was truly music of and for the moment, to be savoured as a memory, without the illusion that we can cling to what rightfully belongs to the here and now.

Not by Love Alone is now available from Amazon. ( as Kindle as well as paperback).

3 replies

The Violin – a Japanese Folk Instrument? ヴァイオリン演歌

November 7, 2014 03:52

In early summer 1999, towards the end of a sabbatical in Japan, a Japanese friend and I strolled through in Ueno Park in Tokyo. A festival happened to be in full swing and we wandered into the open air theatre. On the stage an astonishing sight met my eyes. A Japanese man in a kimono, hakama (a kind of pleated wide trousers), and high wooden geta sandals was playing the violin and singing at the same time. In between pieces he talked. As music goes, the performance wasn’t much to write home about, and the words I did not catch. So when my friend said the performance was vulgar and wanted to leave, I agreed.

But I couldn’t forget it. What was this man doing in his Japanese attire but with a Western musical instrument? The scene suggested some kind of performance I would label as “folk.” But to my knowledge Western musical instruments had never made it into what we could call the folk traditions of Japan – not even the versatile violin.

Only much later did I learn that the years after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) saw a new breed of strolling minstrel known as the “vaiorin enkashi,” a street singer, who accompanied himself on the violin. The first one to do this is said to have been Kaminaga Ryôgetsu (1888-1976). Not that he could play, but he felt that the novelty value of the Western instrument would more than make up for that. He had a musician tune his fiddle and mark the strings with black ink, so he would know where to stop turning the pegs. The sounds he produced made his audience jeer, but he was right in assuming that people would stop and listen.

Soon others followed his example. Some wore a bowler hat and Western shoes to enhance the image of exotic sophistication. Others donned the garb of impoverished students. A few of them where real students, for whom performing sentimental love songs became a popular night job. The violin, they hoped, would enhance their chances with the ladies. But enka singers were a mixed bunch, including some less than savoury characters, and that some of them took up the violin did nothing for the instrument’s image.

Untrained as most of them were, their playing style was pretty rough, but it did develop from unison accompaniment of the singing to a more elaborate playing style with prelude, interlude and postlude, as can be heard in recorded examples from the 1920s. The heyday of the vaiorin enkashi did not last long. They disappeared from the streets of Tokyo after the Great Kantô Earthquake in 1923, although they apparently could still be heard in the small variety theatres known as yose, where enthusiasts could enjoy various more or less traditional forms of entertainment generally perceived as lowbrow if not downright vulgar. Certainly not something most Japanese would want foreign visitors to see and mistake for “Japanese culture” if they can help it.

But what was this guy doing in the open in 1999 then? It took me another ten years to find out. I had started to write Not by Love Alone and a sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton meant I had more time and freedom for my research. It occurred to me to surf the internet to try and determine the identity of the performer who’s act, vulgar or no, had been one of the inspirations to write about the violin in Japan. I only had a poor-quality snapshot to go on, but I think it may have been Fukuoka Utaji. If so, he is still going strong.

Here is a link to Fukuoka explaining and demonstrating what he calls “Taishô enka” (enka of the Taishô era, 1912-26) including remarks about his clothes (if you want to fast-forward, the song starts at about 1:15).

And here is another one where he is performing outdoors.

Fukuoka’s repertoire is not limited to “Taishô enka,” as the comic performance here shows. As the pompous visiting virtuoso “Utajinsky” he pokes fun at several fetishes in the world of classical music: touring superstars, Stradivari violins and Carnegie Hall: the latter in a word play with the word “negi” (onion or leek) you can buy easily and then toss aside (hôru).

Fukuoka is not the only one to perform vaiorin enka today. On Youtube you can find videos of contemporary performers as well as historical recordings; for example, the playlist at this link:

Or try searching by pasting the Japanese characters from my title above. You’ll find that many of the performers in the videos feel a need to explain the historical significance of the genre to their audience.

Perhaps, if the vaiorin enka becomes sufficiently acceptable as “Japanese culture” to be performed publicly at festivals, the Japan Foundation will soon start sponsoring performances abroad?

3 replies

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