June 24, 2020

European Influence on Japanese Music

Tomoko’s favorite piano music continues to be European classical compositions. That taste was started early in her life as she heard European classical music on the radio and the organ pieces that her brother played. These habits reflected the earlier Japanese interests in Western   (generally European) music.

Traditional Japanese musical tonality differed from its Western counterparts; it uses a Phyrgian scale of E-F-A-B-C-E instead of C-D-F-G-A. The Phyrgian scale is also used in modern blues minor keys. The oldest forms of Japanese music include Buddhist chant and orchestral court music. Traditional folk music included religious songs and songs for gatherings, work songs, and children’s songs. Typical instruments were stringed instruments, drums, flutes, bells. The first piano wasn’t heard until the opening of Japan, but by 1875 the Japanese were manufacturing their own pianos and other Western musical instruments.

Emperor Mutsuhito, who adopted the title Meiji – or Enlightened Rule – in 1867, pushed for modernization with an eye to the West to avoid becoming dominated by other countries. In 1868, the government issued the Charter Oath: a five-article document outlining the principles of the Meiji administration. It declared that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world.” Meiji curiosity about Western culture included absorbing foreign classical and religious music. On the bureaucratic side, the Meiji government created the Music Study Committee, which encouraged Western music. They wanted Japanese composers to write in the Western style, and the committee required the German model of music instruction for all students. The committee also led to the founding of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which Tomoko attended. 

Combining Western and Japanese music could be challenging though. For instance, Christian religious tended to be Western based, which was sometimes hard for Japanese to intonate. And when missionaries tried to translate their hymns into Japanese, they found it hard to match the rhythm to Japanese text. 

The tension between Western and Japanese music and their currents continued to flow through Tomoko’s families. During World War II at school Tomoko’s class sang nationalistic music with Japanese lyrics set to European music. Tomoko’s mother played and sang Christian songs, and Tomoko’s brother became a composer in the more Japanese mode. 

Nevertheless, Tomoko brings her Japanese sensibility as she performs music from around the world.

June 15, 2020

Fake news and literacies.

"Concerns over fake news have triggered a renewed interest in various forms of media literacy. Prevailing expectations posit that literacy interventions help audiences to be “inoculated” against any harmful effects of misleading information. This study empirically investigates such assumptions by assessing whether individuals with greater literacy (media, information, news, and digital literacies) are better at recognizing fake news, and which of these literacies are most relevant. The results reveal that information literacy—but not other literacies—significantly increases the likelihood of identifying fake news stories. Interpreting the results, we provide both conceptual and methodological explanations. Particularly, we raise questions about the self-reported competencies that are commonly used in literacy scales."
S. Mo Jones-Jang, Tara Mortensen, Jingjing Liu. (2020). 

June 12, 2020

Black Beginnings at the Conservatory

When Tomoko started teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was only one other non-Caucasian faculty member: a Black woman Beulah Forbes-Woodard, whose specialty was jazz music.

Born in Ellensburg (in central Washington state), Beulah Forbes grew up in a musical family. Her father played ragtime music for silent films, and all of Beulah’s siblings worked in music or the theater.

Beulah studied classical music at the Conservatory, and was their first African American graduate. Upon her graduation, Beulah was asked to join the Conservatory as a teacher, thus becoming the Conservatory’s first Black faculty member. When she retired from the Conservatory after teaching there for almost fifty years, the Conservatory awarded her a doctorate of music. She also taught at the University of San Francisco and Lone Mountain College.

An accomplished pianist, she played professionally with well known musicians, headlining performances in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Beulah also performed the first jazz concert at the Conservatory, which led to jazz being incorporated into the curriculum.

A friend recalled Beulah saying: “Music is my passion, teaching is my heart, and performing is my thrill.” That sentiment could well be shared by Tomoko.

May 29, 2020

‘Tis the Season for Tchaikovsky

It’s the beginning of June and soon summer begins. In the northern hemisphere, June is a lovely time to be outside. Tomoko herself enjoys gardening outside. She sees the garden as a metaphor for musicians; both take much work and much patience. “Labor is labor,” says Tomoko.

On her CD album “Touria,” Tomoko performs Tchaikowsky’s “June, the Seasons,” Opus 37b in g minor, composed in 1876. This piece is one of twelve short character pieces, reflecting the spirit of each month in Russia. “The Seasons” was commissioned by the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvelist editor, the idea being that each monthly issue publish one month’s piece. Tchaikowsky was finishing his first ballet, “Swan Lake,” while her was composing these pieces – mainly to supplement his income. Nevertheless, each piece is a lovely little melodic masterpiece.

“June,” which is in the tradition of the traditional folk song barcarolle genre, has been very popular and arranged for a variety of musical instruments. “June” recall’s Mendelssohn’s Venetian gondola songs, but Tchaikowsky’s develops a more polyphonic theme. Furthermore, “June” has a more melancholy tone that reflects Russian sensibility. The lyrics that accompany “June” were written by poet Aleskey Pleshcheyev:
Let us go to the shore;
there the waves will kiss our feet.
With mysterious sadness
the stars will shine down on us.

Like Marin county where Tomoko resides, which experiences June gloom of foggy mornings that burn off by the afternoon, Tchkowsky’s “June” starts slowly and subdued, then opens up broadly for a moment like clouds parting for the sun, only to go back to its original tone and ending resolution of the day. It is no wonder that Tomoko chose this piece to perform.