No one expects musicians to replace the United Nations any time soon. Still, musical visionary Naoyuki Miura has geopolitical hopes for a round of concerts featuring three traditional instruments: the Japanese sho, the Korean komungo and the Chinese pipa.
Miura is the founding artistic director of Music From Japan, which presents contemporary and older Japanese music in the United States and internationally. Currently celebrating its 40th year, the organization is bringing an anniversary-themed concert to the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art on Feb. 10. The evening will include the Washington premiere of “Unkai (Sea of Clouds),” a commissioned piece for the sho, komungo and pipa by composer Ned Rothenberg.
The programming is significant because relations between Japan, Korea and China have seldom been tension-free. Given this troubled historical record, the spectacle of the sho, komungo and pipa united in performance will be particularly affecting, Miura says. “It doesn’t matter what country you are from,” he said by phone from the city of Fukushima, where he lives. “People are moved by the heart” when they hear music.
Music From Japan’s 40th anniversary festival programming will include concerts in New York, Tokyo and Fukushima, as well as Washington. Miura’s wife, Mari Ono, who helps lead Music From Japan, said by e-mail that she and Miura had hoped to take the lineup to China and Korea, too, but that they couldn’t raise sufficient funds.
Still, with its embrace of cultural heritage from the three East Asian nations, the touring bill is noteworthy. At the concert in D.C., Mayumi Miyata will perform on the sho, a mouth organ traditionally associated with gagaku, Japan’s imperial court music. Miyata has gained attention for using the instrument in contemporary scores.
Performing on the pipa, a lute-like instrument, will be Wu Man. Jin Hi Kim will play the komungo, a six-stringed Korean zither; she will also perform on the electric komungo.
The three musicians will jam — okay, improvise — together at one point in the concert, and will also interpret classical and contemporary solo works for their instruments.
Rothenberg’s “Unkai (Sea of Clouds),” which incorporates a bit of sung haiku and other poetry in addition to instrumentation, will have had its world premiere in New York three days before the concert at the Freer. The New York-based Rothenberg has a background in Japanese music and plays the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute — credentials that made him particularly eligible for the Music From Japan commission.
Miura says that, back when he launched the organization, Americans were generally bewildered by Japanese music. But they have become more educated and receptive in the past two decades, he says.
If only similar progress could be made in the thornier areas of global relations. Japan, China and Korea “should be good friends,” Miura says.
“I come from a place where — I have to admit to the fact — there are several concurrent realities,” remarks Kenyan writer Okwiri Oduor, who will read from her work on Feb. 10 at Georgetown University.
Oduor’s remark was aimed at supplying some perspective on the non-naturalistic twists in her story “My Father’s Head.” The English-language story is a wistful yet funny portrait of a bereaved young woman confronting loss, love and the mystery of memory.
Speaking by Skype from Iowa, where she was visiting a friend, Oduor said the story drew on her experience growing up in Nairobi, where she still lives. She was brought up by devout Catholic parents but also found herself spending time with relatives who represented a different worldview and told fantastical stories — a tale of someone throwing lightning down a hill, or keeping a spirit in the back of the house, for instance. That sense of divergent realities left an imprint on Oduor’s fiction.
Now in her mid-20s, Oduor grew up speaking Swahili, but she learned English at an early age in school. As an undergraduate, she studied law — a field of inquiry that, she says, opened her eyes to the injustices in the world. Ultimately, she opted to pursue writing, rather than a legal career. (Her D.C. reading is part of a writer’s residency sponsored by Georgetown’s English Department and the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.)
She also is trying to get into the practice of doing more writing and reading in Swahili. “I started speaking English in school, but it just took over my life — I would say it colonized me,” she says. “[Now] I’m taking deliberate steps to undo some of that damage.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Music From Japan 40th anniversary concert Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium. asia.si.edu.
Okwiri Oduor Feb. 10 at Georgetown University. Seminar at 5:30 p.m. at the Lannan Center; reading at 8 p.m. at Riggs Library. lannan.georgetown.edu.