Ghost Stories Meet Modern Music at the Village Trip

By Lionelle Hamanaka

LEFT TO RIGHT: Pianist Satoko Inoue and narrator John McLachlan. Photo by Moti Margolin.

Spooky ghost stories interwoven with modern music wafted through the Tenri Cultural Institute on September 22 on the Village Trip. The concert was the American premiere of works celebrating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan.
Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish immigrant who became a Japanese citizen and wrote many books on Japanese culture, died in 1904. He never would have imagined that his ghost stories, (Kwaidan) would be performed internationally over 100 years later. Four composers, Akemi Naito, who lives in Greenwich Village, John McLachlan and Paul Hayes, both from Dublin, and Yuji Itoh from Tokyo, wrote modern originals using Hearn’s ghost stories. On September 22 they formed a tricontinental bridge between Greenwich Village, Ireland and Japan. Pianist Satoko Inoue and McLachlan, narrator (and composer), linked the unique tales.
The first piece, Ubazakura [song] was about the legend of the Cherry Tree. An old nurse offered her own life to replace that of her master’s sick child. In return she asked that a cherry tree be planted on the 16th day of February. This tree blossomed every year on that day. This piece enshrines the virtues of self-sacrifice that is highly valued in Japanese society. The piano, like a melodious cradle, was a simple expression that balanced the beauty of cherry tree blossoms in a beautiful garden. The piano part ended on a suspended note. McLachlan had the stage presence of an experienced narrator.
The second piece was, Fragment, by McLachlan who described it as a journey led by a bodhisattva priest guiding a fearful traveler over treacherous terrain. The piano part featured wide intervals using the extremes of the keyboard, depicting surprises encountered during the journey. The priest calms the follower (while the piano part is steplike in structure, as if miming two people climbing the mountain). The follower trembles and crashes, depicting his difficulties managing the fearful terrain. Japanese religion does have a Hell, and in this ghost tale, the travelers were confronted by a heap of skulls. The priest says the skulls are all the follower’s and represent delusions of his four lives. The piano part ends in a small chord and resolution. The music is a close reproduction of the text, using clusters and dynamic variety to depict a harrowing experience akin to visiting Dante’s Inferno.
Yuji Itoh’s piece, The Reconciliation, was third and borrows emotional tinges from Hearn’s own life. His Irish father married his Greek mother despite Greece being considered backward at the time. Family protests led to his mother, Rosa, returning to Greece while his father married another woman. Hearns was left with relatives in Ireland who went bankrupt and sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lived in great poverty. He was angry at his father for casting his mother aside.
The Reconciliation involves a samurai who left his first wife, a good woman, to marry up in society. He later regretted his choice and came back to look for his first wife. He finds her and sleeps with her again. However, when he awakes, he finds that their Reconciliation was a dream. Itoh depicts the emotional line of the story in an understated and minimalist style that carries great emotional weight, capturing “what was echoing in it” in shining, radiant chords. In the era of the tale, the samurai had tremendous power that could not be questioned on pain of death, therefore the emotional reactions of his wife could only be reflected, not directly expressed. Similarly, the regret of the warrior at having spurned his virtuous wife was expressed later, like many mistakes.
The last piece of the concert was the most complex, an Opera Comique by Paul Hayes, “The Second Heaven of Desire in Old Tramore,” a multimedia composition using “Electronics and Musique Concrete” as well as piano and narration. Hayes deconstructed music in a technique called “octave displacement” and rhythmic transformation, truncation and elision. The result was very charming to the ear. The various instrumentation included birdsong, koto plucks, a solo soprano voice (all electronically interwoven with Hayes sitting at an audio console downstage right). Hayes wove these strands into a whole as if they were ascending to Heaven. It ended in a low chord resolution.
A Note on the Composers, Performers and Producer
The evening was produced by William Anderson, a professor at Sarah Lawrence who runs an institute of modern music, Marsyas Productions and the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music.
Satoko Inoue, pianist, gives contemporary music concerts all over the world and can listen well to the text and provide the appropriate musical other half of consciousness. She has 11 CDs and was a professor at Kunitachi University, and has given master classes around the world.
Akemi Naito, composer and the Greenwich Village link to the Ensemble, first came to New York in 1991 and has settled on Cornelia Street where she “clarified her voice” and met many other composers. Among other awards, she won the Aaron Copland Award and a New York Foundation for the Arts Award. Her pieces have been performed around the world and her compositions recorded by major modern music companies.
John McLachlan is an excellent narrator who has a Ph.D. from Trinity College in Dublin. His works are performed internationally and include commissions from symphony orchestras and arts organizations. He records CDs and this performance received a grant from Culture Ireland.
Yuji Itoh is a composer, producer, lecturer and a jury member of International Composer Competitions. Born in Nagoya, Japan, Itoh’s first composition “Furikaeri 1” made a sensation and since then his pieces were featured at international modern music festivals. He is being honored with a Portrait Concert in Japan in 2024. It was his conception to express the relationship between Ireland and Japan, combining centuries old folk tales culled by Lafcadio Hearn, with modern music.
Paul Hayes has a range of expression from music theatre, live electronics, ballet and modern dance. He was commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland and presented abroad from Paris to Hong Kong. His work is intellectual and abstruse, but has emotional impact that stamps it as valid art.