This is a soul shake これを魂振りという: Doctor Atomic Symphony & Symphony No. 6 “Hiroshima”

Went to see a pair of unusual musical performances recently: the Japanese premier of the “Doctor Atomic Symphony” by John Adams (adapted from the opera of the same name), and Symphony No. 6 “Hiroshima” 交響曲第6番「HIROSHIMA」 (1985) by Ikuma Dan 團 伊玖磨.  About the latter piece, it is difficult to find online information, even in Japanese.  The Google results in English are overwhelmed with information about Masao Ohki’s 大木正夫 Symphony 5 “Hiroshima” 交響曲 第5番「ヒロシマ」, which was composed in 1953, preceding Dan’s work by almost 30 years.  I don’t want to admit how many times I listened to Ohki’s work on YouTube before looking at the concert program and realizing my mistake.

There are now a few version of Ikuma Dan’s Symphony No. 6 online. Here is one:

1.  Hiroshima, the musical

Dan’s Hiroshima is striking for two reasons: the piece blends the European classical traditional with traditional Japanese music – at several points the orchestra is accompanied by a nohkan 能管 (a bamboo flute used for noh theater) or by a shinobue 篠笛 (a folk bamboo flute).  I found this effect strange; the orchestra, with its size, technical skill, and lush sound, dwarfed the lone bamboo flute.  At the same time, the presence of the humble instrument acted as a rebuke to the rigid engineering of European music.  This may have been the point, and while I wouldn’t want to listen to this trick repeatedly, my ears found it effective.  The second striking thing about Dan’s Hiroshima is that, absent the title, I would never had guessed it was “about” Hiroshima.

I stumbled upon a Japanese website, the translation of which lent me the memorable phrase, “this is a soul shake” (source).  The writer describes each movement:

1st:  “from the beginning, by piercing the brain stem”

2nd:  “is an allegro movement, Scherzo and Minuet not just silly, the serious music has appeared.”

3rd:  “the third movement of No. 6 may be particularly conspicuous.  But by entering the solo soprano, has appeared before the Shinobue lower the pitch of the sound a little bitter on behalf of the brainstem.”

4th: “the last movement of the symphony’s final fantasy perhaps, or Rhapsody, Overture, Symphony may be the poetic or something.”

Through the gibberish of google translation, this reviewer is clearly moved by Dan’s symphony, as was I.  Not necessarily by the music itself, but by the fact that music in the classical tradition could make me not only care, but also think.  Combined with Dr. Atomic, this was a double-billing of contemporary music that proved that orchestral music can be relevant beyond the doors of the concert hall.

2.  Bombs away

I had been aware of Adams peripherally – in New Yorker articles and similar hallways of culture importance.  I must confess that I had placed him in the same category as John Cage, if only because they are/were both Americans alive in the 20th century.  But my ongoing interest in atomic age history and culture pushed me towards Adams’ Doctor Atomic.

The first 60 seconds sounds like a train wreck – that’s a good thing.  It combines the exhilarating noise and terror of an accident with no loss of life or limb.

  • Clip I:  

The last five minutes is more like a car crash…a roadster driven at night on a treacherous mountain road.   The speed and intensity of the piece builds then recedes into a cold, sad, trumpet – perhaps the driver, racing to his doom daydreams about simpler, happier times.  These interludes are mournful but very beautiful.  Start at 4:16 of the attached clip.

  • Clip II:

In the final 50 seconds (at 8:46 of clip II) when the racing continues there is a sense that this is the final ride.  The speed picks up, as does the sense of danger, teetering on the edge of the cliff, a cascade of bells sound, a final gasp for air, then crashing into a final note, followed by…silence.

When I watched this performance, the audience sat in complete silence for 3, maybe 5 seconds, an eternity for these situations.  It was the loudest silence I can remember, not just for a classical music concert, but ever in my life.  Of course, Doctor Atomic is not about driving a car on a mountain pass, it is about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”.  I can’t be the first listener, given the subject matter to hear the ending note of low brass as that of the world’s ultimate crash, the atomic bomb.

3.  A parting gift

Discovering a new artist in the internet age is a joy.  My affections are now split between Dr. Atomic and John Adams’ equally evocative City Noir.

In this clip from the ‘Boulevard Night’ section, the music and accompanying black and white cityscape perfectly evoke film noir, just as Adams intended:

 

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