On April 28, 2011, in the wake of the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Otomo Yoshihide gave a lecture at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He had been lecturing there once a year for the past decade, and often these talks would focus on “sound and noise and what ensembles mean.” But this lecture was different; it had to be. Japan was in the midst of one of the most horrific catastrophes in its history, with millions already affected throughout the country and a massacre occurring two hundred kilometers away from the university, to paraphrase Otomo.
For this lecture, entitled “The Role of Culture: After the Earthquake and Man-made Disasters in Fukushima” (with follow-up pieces here), Yoshihide described the imperative to avoid the cultural genocide that occurred in the wake of Chernobyl. But he also described the immediate aftermath of the event, as he was trying to find any information he could about what was happening in Fukushima. Otomo found Twitter most effective in this regard, in particular tweets by a poet named Ryoichi Wago, who in 140 characters composed poetry under the collective title “Shi no Tsubute (Stones of Poetry).” To Otomo, these simple poems resonated stronger than death counts, technical explanations of the fallout, and other news reports. These tweets were tiny beacons of culture emanating from a sickly place, a reminder that the hope of a meaningful future for Fukushima was still alive.
This is where the compilation Fukushima! comes in. To combat the radiating cultural decay, Otomo co-founded Project FUKUSHIMA!, a non-profit seeking to reestablish the cultural heritage of Fukushima and its surrounding areas through fundraising, festivals, and awareness. One of the many responses related to this project was by Presqu’île Records, curating this compilation, all the revenue of which will go to Japanese non-profits.
Comprising entirely non-Japanese musicians, Fukushima! compiles various swaths of electroacoustic improvisation, composition, and lowercase music — i.e., a “post-eai” mix that nods not toward the music of Fukushima per se, but to the distinctive styles that originated from and were incubated in Japan over the past decade-plus. Every piece on Fukushima! (was) influenced (by) Otomo and his contemporaries (Taku Sugimoto, Sachiko M, Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, etc.), and with this in mind, we can view Fukushima! as an artistic dialogue between Japan’s onkyo and its foreign contemporaries.
Moreover, Fukushima! bears resemblance to Wago’s tweets, containing short (at least by eai standards) snippets of homage, interpretation, and evolution. And these snippets are of a generally high quality. John Tilbury’s performance of Dave Smith’s “Al Contrario” is as chilling as we’ve come to expect from Tilbury. Magda Mayas’ “Foreign Grey,” which is delightfully placed after Tilbury’s “conventional” piano, is an exquisite inside-the-piano/prepared-piano piece and surprisingly tonal at times. But the true highlight is Annette Krebs’ brief solo inclusion, “Field recording of the anti-Wall Street-demonstration in front of the Reichstag in Berlin.” A bedroom tape piece, “Field recording” places an impromptu performance of a James Tenney piece over children laughing and faint chatter, interestingly juxtaposing the tenderness of muted trumpets, bowed crotales, and more against the (presumed) tensions going on around Berlin. After listening to this track, we’re left with the sense that this music — eai, onkyo, etc. — can both soothe and withstand great turmoil.
In the literal sense, Fukushima! is a response to Otomo’s call for preservation. Now the flickers are emanating from Greg Kelley’s trumpet, from Hong Chulki’s mechanical what-have-you. But again, Krebs’ vignette seems the most evocative; “Field recording,” while brief, reinforces the imperative of Project FUKUSHIMA!, that this music, or art more broadly, has the power to positively affect the situation in Fukushima.
Listening to Fukushima!, I can’t help but think of a short review I read a few years back of Good Morning Good Night (Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide). In it, the reviewer compared the album to the On Kawara “I Am Still Alive” series, seeing Good Morning Good Night originally as an irritant, but, through time, seeing its austere screeches, beeps, and silences transformed into a reifying experience. In a way, I view Fukushima! and the project as a whole in a parallel manner: as “tweets” of “You Are Still Alive.”