Canon in the Smelting Pot: Manuel Gregorio Tavárez
(EDIT: Well, this is embarrassing. I have been informed by my mom that the mother in the family was from the Dominican Republic, and the father was Mexican. I suspect that, because child me didn't know what the Dominican Republic was, and because I knew she was from one of the islands, and the only islands I knew were Cuba and Puerto Rico, but I knew it wasn't Cuba, I just filled in the blank with the only other option child-me knew at the time. I assumed the mother and father were from the same place, so... Well. Since this blog is partly about how perception and memory and categorization are all squishy, but work together to create something which appears concrete and unalterable, I'm going to leave it as written, but now with this caveat that I was wrong. Imagine that! /EDIT)
Latin-American is one of those identities which defines something so broadly it barely means anything. Kind of like European, or Asian-American, people have a vague idea in their heads for what it means, but education (if it can really be called that in the US) is such that the particularities are quickly lost. Wait. Why don't we say "European American?" Curious.
In most States, "Latin American" usually is just another way to say "Mexican," which I'm sure is irksome to anyone from... well, from anywhere else in South America or the Caribbean. You might get some white Americans who know the word "Latino" without much change in definition, while scratching their heads at why there are people pushing for Latinx instead. My spellcheck sure doesn't recognize Latinx, I tell you what. It's a term also complicated by the fact that there are many Black Latinx of African descent, as well, so how those people approach the census asking their ethnicity must bring at least a pause for consideration.
Where I grew up, in a mostly white suburb outside of Houston, TX, if you saw any Latinx, you saw guys working construction, or mostly women working janitorial and cleaning staff. I just happened to live right across the street from a family of Puerto Ricans, however, and having something of a glimpse into a rather different lifestyle than is commonly found in suburbia. Their mother cooked basically all day, and their house always smelled delicious. Their father I hardly ever saw, as he worked incredibly hard and usually came home after us kids left for dinner. As a kid, I knew they shopped at Fiesta rather than HEB, which is one of those weirdly specific details children sometimes pick up on. All in all, a nice family, but in my mind they were "just" neighbors and I had no inkling of their past or the culture they left behind when coming to the States.
One day, however, I did get a brief glimpse. I forget exactly the occasion, a birthday or something, but my family was invited over to their house for a party. They had a number of extended family visiting, and it was one of the few times I ever saw the father of the house. I think it's my child-mind's sense of scale, but I remember him being rather tall, and he was very stern and didn't talk much. Not knowing much about him, I had assumed the guy was a total square. Then they turned on the music.
Holy cats, could this guy dance. Like, absurdly good dancer. His wife. His family. Her family. They all could cut a rug. Oddly enough, the kids couldn't. Looking back, though, the reason is clear. Suburban American does many things, but dancing is not one of them. I mean, sure, there were school dances and things like that, but those were the awkward exception to the unspoken rule - thou shalt not bust a move. The only exception was if you did ball room dancing... but only for exercise. Anyways, there was a clear generational split. Those who grew up in Puerto Rico could dance. Those who grew up in the States couldn't, because dancing never happens.
Nowadays I wonder what exactly brought that family here. I mean, I have guesses. Puerto Rico comes up in the news sometimes, and the news is generally not great. Like anything involving the media, I have to wonder how much is perspective, but it's a small island that keeps getting hit by hurricanes and keeps not receiving emergency funding from Congress, so... I imagine the outlook is grim. At this point, I highly doubt I'd have the opportunity to ask them. Wherever they are now, I hope they are well.
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Speaking of dancing the composer I will introduce today is Manuel Gregorio Tavárez (1843-1883). He was a classically trained pianist, learning first from Gonzalo de J. Núñez then travelling to Paris and studying at the Music Conservatory of Paris with the help of a scholarship from "The Economic Society of Friends of Puerto Rico." Tavárez wrote a number of piano works, somewhat echoing the style of Chopin, and wrote a number of danza, a genre of dance that had been the national dance of Puerto Rico for a time. There's not a lot to the biography on Wikipedia, and I can't find much beyond that. He is referenced as "The Father of the Danza," but the links which are attached to those attributions are dead, so who knows? Maybe you do. It sounds reasonable, so why not. Here's one of those piano works titled "La Ausencia," or "The Absence."
Somewhere along the foggy banks of my memory, there is an article titled "Japan: The Land Feminism Forgot." I can't find the article, not for lack of trying, but because when I searched "The Land Feminism Forgot," I found it was not just an article. It was a bit of headline trope, phrased alternately to emphasize a country (I found an article for Italy with basically the same title, as an example) or for a demographic of women (either married women or single women, depending on the slant of the writer, I suppose).
The top hit I found was a BBC article* discussing "Western Myths about Japan," and they bring up the phrase verbatim. Dr. Christopher Harding writes "Japan has been seen as the land that feminism forgot. Both Japanese and Western commentators have tended to see the geisha girl as the ideal of Japanese womanhood - attractive and subtle, subservient to men, but clever enough to be good company." This "geisha girl" ideal was leveraged by an artist in a previous article, Tamaki Miura, to craft her performances of Madame Butterfly. Her personal life, on the other hand... Lets say the Japanese media had a difficult time reconciling the two personas.
How entire countries could come to be viewed as "left behind" by feminism, or to lack feminist thinking entirely, has much to do with media representation. (As an aside: Portland, OR is learning the hard way how much media representation matters. That's for another time. Maybe.) Speaking anecdotally, it seems like much focus is spent on Japan's problems with things like groping on subways or the as yet uncracked glass ceiling. My sense is, whenever these topics come up, it comes up with an air of superiority, as if America has solved these problems and those poor backwards Japanese are languishing in the distance. (More related aside: this attitude seems to be present for the Middle East and Africa as well.)
As if. Of course there are feminists in Japan, but I suspect the language barrier in consort with a host of implicit assumptions prevents their names from travelling far. I will not pretend to be an expert**, so if you're curious you can look up some of the historical movement: Shin Fujin Kyokai (新婦人協会), or The New Women Association, in 1919; the Sekirankai (赤蘭会), or The Red Wave Society, in 1921; uman ribu, or Women's Lib, in the 1960's and 70's... There's a lot of there there, and there's always more to be said.
**For the love of all that is holy, don't take me as the final word on any of this.
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One trend which has been pretty consistent in my Composer for Every Country series has been - women who compose academic music ("classical") don't pop up in Google searches very often unless you search for them specifically. Even if you do, you don't always find many. The pop world, on the other hand, is a place where women composers have consistently found prominence and success, and it seems like this has been true as far back as the 19th century with the advent of the salon.
There's plenty of ink to be spilled about how women consistently end up in the world of popular music, how such music's ephemeral nature and lack of perceived seriousness and "genius" work to quickly erode women out of the historical record... But that's not what I'm here for, go look for someone who actually knows what they're talking about.
Searching for women composers in Japan, I find a handful of women working in the academic and symphonic stage world, and a whole lot working as composers for anime or video games. Michiru Yamane, Manami Matsumae, Harumi Fujita, Yoshino Aoki... The list goes on. But for today, I'm going to focus on a composer very near and dear to my heart: Kanno Yoko. As a film composer, I do not hesitate to say that Kanno Yoko is a composer of a caliber on par with John Williams. I am well aware that in certain circles, that is damning with faint praise, but lets be real - the attitude relegating film scoring to a lower tier of talent and compositional skill is part of the reason there's such a mess of inequality to begin with.
Anyways. Kanno Yoko's work spans a number of disparate genres, both in anime and music, and she has provided the scores for (in no particular order): Wolf's Rain, about a group of wolves looking for Paradise in an apocalyptic future; The Vision of Escaflowne, a story about the conflict of individual freedom and fate and giant robots... and... Isaac Newton? Somehow?; Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a story about... something... there's a lot of talking and then shooting and then talking some more; and Cowboy Bebop which is probably the best story ever told. Say what? That's an exaggeration? Fight me.
I was lucky enough to go to a wealthy public school. One of the benefits to this was a very well funded music program - large music halls, instrument lockers, practice rooms... Now that I've taught in a number of different public schools, and even a couple of private schools, I've learned how extraordinary this is. But in the moment, it was just, you know, "normal." I didn't have anything to compare the experience against, so it didn't cross my mind to question it. That's just how it was.
One of those "just how it was" things was the school marimba. Marimbas? I think there were two, but they were in the band hall and there wasn't much reason for me to be over there. They did bring the marimbas out for full orchestra rehearsals from time to time, though. In another example of something weird that "just was how it was," the school had a full sized five-octave marimba.
Now, I know I have non-musician readers out there. They are probably thinking, "Oh, a marimba, it's that xylophone thingy, right?" Well, yes... but no. I won't get into it here. What I want to impress is, a 5-octave marimba is pretty darn big. A typical length is usually 107 inches, a bit longer than a grand piano, and can weigh around 380 pounds. It's the kind of thing that makes you appreciate whoever invented the wheel, and I remember it was always a hassle to move around. Average cost of a new 5-octave Yamaha marimba? $17,000. You know. About the limit before a really rich person notices someone has stolen their credit card number.
The point I'm trying to get at is, this is not a common instrument. But our school, being blessed with a combination of high property values, an appreciation for the arts, and riding the crest of good old Texan 5A high school football, had enough funds to purchase something extraordinary, and, crucially, house it in a facility which made it feel ordinary. It's just how it was.
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What am I going on about marimbas for? To be honest, I was going to write about Minoru Miki, and how he composed new music for traditional Japanese instruments, and how he repurposed the European orchestra to perform something akin to Japanese gagaku. But I couldn't find any recordings of his koto concerti on Youtube. I couldn't even find his koto ballades, collections of short works grouped by seasons. Instead, I found his koto ballades arranged for and played by marimba, and I couldn't help but think, "What the heck? Where are all of these Japanese marimba players coming from, and why are they playing koto music?" The answer lies in Abe Keiko (b.1937). For non-Japanese speakers, that 's "AH-bay," not Abe as in "Abe Lincoln."
Now, because Japanese leaders, in the wake of Admiral Perry, had come to the conclusion that European culture was the superior culture of the world, this came with a conscious shift to adopt European music. In 1879, the Meiji government created the Music Study Committee, devoted to the study and dissemination of Western music. This made fertile ground for Asabuki Eiichi (1909-1993) to fall in love with the xylophone, which subsequently filtered out to Japanese schools between the 1920's-30's. By the time Keiko went to elementary school in the 1940's, they were there for her to play. Pre-1920, no xylophones in Japan. Post-1940's, common enough for little Keiko to be playing in school. It's just how it was, for her.
Do you know what else Abe Keiko did? I mean, you don't, unless you're a marimba player, that's a hypothetical question. She worked with Yamaha Corporation to invent the 5-octave marimba. In the early 1960's, I guess Yamaha's higher ups went, "You know what we need? New marimba designs." So they gave Abe-san a ring and, over the next decade, worked with her to create the design of the 5-octave marimba that percussionists know and love today. Even smaller 4-octave models bear the stamp of this work, the rather uneven sound quality of the traditional instrument being polished and standardized over the length of its range. One could question if this homogenization of sound is a good thing, but, you know, too late now. Yamaha is currently one of the biggest sellers of marimbas in the world. Anyone else who wants to sell their own version has been pulled well into Yamaha's event horizon, so the modern marimba design looks like it's here to stay.
Hey, did I also mention Abe Keiko performed Minoru Miki's piece "Time" for her first professional recital? Yeah, that's how I fell down this rabbit hole of the marimba world. Unfortunately, I can't find a video of her playing the piece, so I'll post two videos today: the first is Abe performing her own work, "Prism," and the second is Taylor Davis performing Minoru's "Time."
Somewhat ironically, the marimba arrangements I found of Minoru's ballades for koto were not written by Abe, they were written by Brian Zator, who worked closely with koto player Yamada Akemi to create his transcriptions.
Canon in the Smelting Pot: Keiko Fujiie and the Kazuhito Yamashita Quintet
I was not born into a musical family. My father was an engineer, and my mother was a teacher for a time. Neither of them play any instruments whatsoever, and they certainly don't have any experience in the music industry. They were always supportive, especially because I think it was very difficult to get child me to commit to anything, so seeing me commit to music must have come as a bit of a surprise. I would not say I showed any talent or promise at the beginning, that is for sure.
While my parents did what they could to help, there were always limits to what they could do. They could sign me up for youth orchestras, drive me to lessons and auditions, agree to send me out more or less unchaperoned (my orchestra director was there, along with a few other students from my class) to San Antonio for All-State. They did a lot. But when it came time to jump the gap between high school and college, and particularly from college to career, there wasn't much they could do other than cheer from the sidelines. Which they do, as they always have. Thanks mom and dad!
But looking at famous musicians, I can't help but notice how many of them had family members with connections in high places. Yo-yo Ma's father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a professor of music at Nanjing National Central University. Jacqueline du Pre's mother, Iris Greep, was a wonderful concert pianist and music educator who attended the Royal Academy of Music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father, Leopold Mozart, was an exceedingly well connected violinist of his time. What, you think 18th century opera impresarios just let any old talented 14-year old waltz in an write an opera for them? No, of course not. Don't be silly.
Does this detract from their talent and hard work? Gods no. Do not mistake me for saying "Oh, if only I had musical parents, I'd be as famous as Mozart." But the soft power of social connections cannot be denied. My life, had either of my parents been musicians at all, would have unfolded in an altogether different manner, and not necessarily for the better. Which makes me wonder: how many exceptional talents are lost in the noise of history for want for a letter of recommendation? For that matter, does it matter?
I suppose it might matter to them.
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Speaking of musical families, this brings me around to the Kazuhito Yamashita + Bambini Quintet. Kazuhito Yamashita is a classical guitarist of some small controversy. The man is an absolute wizard at the guitar, transcribing works one would assume impossible to arrange for the instrument: Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Dvořák's New World Symphony. From what little I have read, not everyone thinks he should have done that, but it's a bit too late for complaining now, isn't it? He is also quite dedicated to the performance of newer works for guitar, giving upwards of 60 premiers, including the works of his wife, Keiko Fujiie.
Fujiie's music has proved frustratingly difficult to find. This frustration is familiar, cropping up whenever I dig around for composers farther afield than, you know, France or something. It turns out, written records are easier to get ahold of than recordings. Anyways. Fujiie has written a number of orchestral works, twice winning the prestigious Otaka Prize. She also has composed a number of works for her husband and for the family guitar quintet.
Family guitar quintet, you say? Yes! The Kazuhito Yamashita Family Guitar quintet has done a number of tours, and has one album, Kasane, featuring the music of Fujiie. If you're looking for the CD, it's kind of hard to get ahold of. It has a listing on Amazon, but is labeled "unavailable." It's not on Spotify, either. In fact, out of all the searching I've done, I've found exactly one video of the quintet playing together, from a performance at the Festival de la Guittara de Córdoba. Supposedly, they are playing one of Fujiie's works, but it was not credited, so who knows?
One daughter of the group, Kanahi Yamashita, has been going on to pursue of guitar career of her own. You can see some of her work at her website here: https://kanahi.de/media-2/
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Canon in the Smelting Pot: Tamaki Miura's Butterfly
There are few opera arias as well known and instantly recognizable as Puccini's "Un bel di," from Madame Butterfly. The story of the opera, about a 15-year old Japanese girl married to and then abandoned by an American naval officer, is seen alternately as a heartrending tale of love and heartbreak or a microcosm of American and European colonial bigotry. Or both. Things can be more than one thing at the same time.
My personal reaction to the opera is tinged by my own family history. My maternal grandmother, Sadako McMahon, married an American soldier, Thomas McMahon, at the end of World War II. When Americans think of the Pacific theater, they mostly think of atomic bombs, kamikaze suicide bombers, and maybe Iwojima. They tend to gloss over the fact that America did to Tokyo what Germany did to London, if indeed they know about the firebombings at all. Oba-Chan (my grandmother) barely ever talked about that time in her life, but when she did it was clear she was in desperate straights. So, in some small way, my grandmother's story is a little bit like Cio-Cio's, except with a happier ending.
It's curious to me, then, that Madame Butterfly is considered a love story. When Cio-Cio is introduced, she makes it pointedly clear to Pinkerton that she is poor. Heck, it should have been clear before that, considering Pinkerton bought her from a wedding arranger. She's also *checks notes* 15 years old? I know age of majority has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I don't want to get into that, but have you met 15 year-olds? There's a reason we don't trust them with driving cars.
Anyways, this is a roundabout way to get to my point: she may be in love, but she is absolutely driven by survival. Especially when her family disowns her, Cio-Cio is just about to fall off Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Which, you know, complicates my understanding of my grandparents. Did they love each other? Surely so. Oba-chan spoke of him fondly, and kept her wedding photo near her bed. She also never remarried. But was she also motivated to secure her own future? Undoubtedly. Oba-chan was far from the only Japanese woman to take the path she did.
So watching Madame Butterfly is, for me, lets say... uncomfortable. And that's even before we get to the issue of yellowface.
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Tamaki Miura was a Japanese soprano, the first to achieve global fame. Her success rests largely on her performances as Cio-Cio-san in Madame Butterfly. When I first read about her, I was excited to hear what she sounded like. Reviewers extolled her as one of the greats. When I first listened to her, I was... a bit disappointed. She has a very pleasant voice, but it didn't quite match my expectations. How could this happen, I wondered. Maybe a difference in attitudes about quality changing over time? It is not uncommon for contemporary musicians, hearing a missed note or rhythm in old recordings, to chuckle a bit at great musicians of times gone by.
But it's complicated. When I did some reading, it seemed more of the reviews focused on her quality of performance not from a perspective of technical vocal prowess, but from the simple fact that she was a Japanese woman playing the part of a Japanese character. Indeed, many reviewers noted she had a weak voice, but her performances as Cio-Cio were seen as more authentic simply by virtue of her race.
And yet... It is clear Mrs. Tamaki had her own ideas about how to present Madame Butterfly. Not only did she fight to ensure the style of clothes was correct (Cio-Cio and other Japanese characters were often presented in Chinese garb) and that elements of stage design were accurate representations of Japanese styles, but she also participated in a number of projects which worked to present a more "Japanese" version of the opera. One of them, a 1930 production translated into Japanese by Horuichu Keizo, made significant changes and adaptations to make a version which was more true to how the Japanese saw the Japanese. Another was a short animated film, Madame Butterfly's Illusion, which includes music written by Tamaki.
So who can say? We don't have video of her performances to make judgment, obviously. We simply have to make do with old cylinder recordings. With that said, here's a recording of Tamaki Miura singing "Un bel di," recorded in 1917.