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Listening to Fukushima

The dread sound of Fukushima hardly sets the joyous Christmas bell to ringing. But a recent disc bearing simply that name from the experimental jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Satoko Fujii leading the twelve-piece Orchestra New York spreads a paradoxically uplifting hour-long message of chaos barely kept bay — and chaos occasionally let loose to enact its carnage.

These unsettling, yet strangely beautiful ruminations on the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Fujii’s native country might serve as a bracing corrective to the rituals of the Christmas season—the yule log in meltdown mode. Sometimes loosely structure, at other times more carefully orchestrated, and at other junctures simply unleashed, this music is plaintive and angry, mournful and wild. It grieves and rages. Often unmoored from any beat, the course of musical events periodically breaks into jazz time—that marriage of looseness and precision known as swing. Whenever such chronology resumes, Fukushima becomes the soundtrack to the tick-tock of the Doomsday Clock.

Listening to this disc’s journey, one that is divided into five untitled tracks (marked simply with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), you are often held captive to stasis; you await signs of movement, perhaps even escape. Where is one to go?  Fujii’s music makes only oblique gestures towards a possible directions.

Disasters, natural and man-made, have long spurred composers to try and evoke their destructive power and aftermath. Even before the invention of moving images, music could be called on to conjure proto-cinematic images in the minds of listeners. Morbid curiosity and the frisson of fear gave such works their particular charge, one that was both exciting and unthreatening when heard in the seemingly safe confines of church or concert hall. But in seismic areas such as Lisbon and Rome, there was always the danger of another quake and therefore of being crushed by collapsing domes to the surround sound of live musical performance more terrifying than any Dolby-enhanced multiplex experience at the local mall. Lisbon was obliterated by the great quake of 1755, and soon afterward depicted with sublime terror in Telemann’s Donnerode (Thunder Ode)  presented that same year in Hamburg as a fundraiser for the Portuguese victims: Telemann’s is a landmark piece of disaster music, a sublime monument not just to the tragedy but to a major breakthrough in sophisticated sonic terror.

Even in stable geological areas the Almighty might decide to shake things up. A rare earthquake in London the night before the premier of Handel’s Theodora, an oratorio set in the late Roman Empire and suppression of its burgeoning Christian cult, kept much of the audience at home and sent others seeking refuge in the country. The year was 1750: its round number had already unleashed premonitions of the apocalypse in mystics and millenarian preachers.

In the age of Handel of Telemann, history painting was the most prized and remunerative genre among the visual arts; these tableaux often depicted battles and biblical catastrophes. Thus it is no surprise that composers attempting to representations in sound and were duly admired for their efforts. The Donnerode and its ilk were vocal works:  the words sung by soloists or chorus made clear the meaning in their dramatic narration and in their poetic description of human emotions like fright and grief. Alongside the voices, the tumult of instruments—timpani tremors and trumpet blasts—logarithmically magnifying the aural impact

In the nineteenth century the status of music that unambiguously depicted events quickly waned, at least among taste-making critics. These Romantics sought to invert the musical Richter Scale, arguing instead that music without words could pack the most punch and could be still more terrifying and transporting than vocal works. Untethered from semantic specificity, the listener could be carried to infinite realms far above and beyond, and sometimes even more terrifying than, terrestrial storms and landslides. Chief among these radical aestheticians was the German composer and essayist E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose whacked-out fiction inspired the Nutcracker and other uncanny tales.  In a seminal article of 1813 extolling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Hoffmann derided musical pictorialists and commemorators of military exploits:

“Have you begun to suspect the unique power of music, you pitiable instrumental composers who have taken such anxious pains to portray definite emotions, yes, even actual occurrences?  How could you possibly conceive of using for representational purposes that art which is just the opposite of sculpture.  Your sunrises, your thunderstorms, your battles … were nothing but ridiculous aberrations and have been deservedly punished by absolute oblivion.”

Hoffmann conveniently ignored the fact that Beethoven himself had created the most famous musical thunderstorm of all in his Sixth Symphony, and had marked the signal defeat of Napoleonic forces with his meretricious mega-hit, Wellington’s Victory. These were perhaps the exceptions that proved the rule that action music was for the masses not the muses.

But it would be wrong to hear Fujii’s Fukushima as an exacting representation of the Japanese musical disaster. There is (apparently) no direct link between musical ideas and actual incidents on this disc. Nor is there a written program that would alert listeners to exact meanings, as in the kinds of works dismissed by Hoffmann.  Instead, Fujji offers only a short paragraph in the thin booklet that is made up mostly of photos of the one-day recording session in New York with the twelve-member ensemble—all men conducted by this animated woman of fifty-nine. Fujii writes that, “The nuclear accident at Fukushima affected me tremendously … Many of us felt desperation and disappointment, but also had some of the hope and motivation that can arise from such dire circumstances. Through this work, I seek to convey the depth of this emotional experience and my own internal response to the accident.” The album cover of Fukushima shows the burnt black face of a sunflower; in the background the wispy silver trunks of leaveless trees trace upwards towards a cloudless azure sky.

While Fukushima can be placed in long tradition of disaster music, I would not want to compare the scope and impact of this largely-improvised work to the grand and ponderous symphonic achievements of Beethoven or the carefully crafted depictions of Telemann.  In comparison both to the alluring indeterminacy Hoffmann heard in the great symphonies and to the electrifying specificity of baroque battle and catastrophe oratorios, Fujii’s group contemplation of Japan’s nuclear catastrophe is fragmented and unruly.  Nowadays, a single “author” cannot hope to offer a comprehensive view of such a disaster. The Lisbon calamity claimed some 60,000; the Japanese earthquake around 15,000. But the latter anticipates wider environmental devastation.  Last month robots finally located the melted fuel of Fukushima.

Late-breaking scientific prognostications of an imminent Japanese earthquake reaching 9.0 on the Richter Scale cast an aura of dread over Fujii’s disc. Scientific progress has amplified the impact of natural events: the earthquake and tsunami are all the more devastating for the uranium still pulsing somewhere below: beating and emitting and destroying that might—or might not—be conveyed in some of angular grooves and distant pulsings of Fujii’s music.

Fukushima begins in nothing, its world breathed into life by musicians blowing through their instruments. The meaning is again indeterminate: it could be the sea after or before the tsunami; it could be the respiration of the reactor or of the survivors or just the wind on the sea. There are complaints both solo and communal, inchoate whispers and unison omens, teetering chords and the continual hiss of disaster. There are surges of rage and stretches of calm, then still more fearsome emissions and, at the end a muted hymn, shortlived, haunting, and hopeful.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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