Should I make music about the Japan earthquake?

I was in Osaka when it hit; my friend was in Tokyo. We are musicians. What is our role?

Published April 7, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been living in Osaka, Japan, since September of last year working as an English teacher and playing music. I have a friend from college who lives in Tokyo and is also a musician, and we are both trying to manage the aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami and concerns about the enduring threat of radiation.

Though there was quite a bit of shaking over here (I was in an apartment on the eighth floor when the earthquake hit) there wasn't devastation comparable to what has happened in eastern Japan. Although Tokyo had to endure alternating blackouts to conserve power and had shortages of many supplies at stores, the city was not as heavily damaged as coastal areas, and though there are government warnings about the radioactivity of tap water, the area is generally safe.

We both have a tight network of friends who support us and, being Japanese, are able to accurately translate news reports, allowing us to receive direct information and avoid the inflated broadcasting that helps generate revenue for major foreign media sources. However, at the risk of sounding selfish and insensitive, an issue that has emerged after this disaster has little to do with the death toll -- which is horrifying, as is the suffering many families are enduring in the highly affected areas -- but has to do with the arts. Music, specifically.

When the earthquake hit Tokyo with tremors far more severe than what occurred here, my friend was practicing guitar and was so shocked by the swaying of his building that he shuffled down the fire escape. His apartment is on the 10th floor, and the view must have been horrifying; I've visited his apartment, which he shares with his wife, who is also a musician, and he has a panoramic view of a train yard and many adjacent buildings, and I can only imagine how they must have looked as he struggled to hold the railing and descended the black, metal staircase as it clanged and vibrated.

But what struck me is what he said when I called him, something to the effect of, "This earthquake has wreaked havoc, so who cares if you can play 'Giant Steps.'" (He was referring to the infamously difficult jazz tune by John Coltrane that is used to cut newbies in jam sessions around the world, a tune that we both memorized and performed in order to graduate from our university.) I was being inundated by all of these feelings at the time, and news about the devastation in the coastal areas hadn't reached either of us -- we were unaware of any fatalities -- but in the following weeks I've thought about what he said, and internally this recurring mantra keeps coming up: "What if working hard at music is really important? What if our bodies, which are easily susceptible to cuts and death and cancer, are less important than what we strive to make?"

I think about the fragility of life, the people swept into death by water, and my own life, inevitably set to be extinguished at some point. Is this challenge to learn difficult music and become proficient at an art -- though doing so does not satiate hunger or shelter people -- important as the world is literally shaken and rearranged? I don't know, but I can't stop thinking about it, even during the aftershocks. I really want to know what you think.


Dear Shaken,

Grief, terror, awe, fascination, curiosity, amazement: All these things we may feel at once in response to events in Japan, and yet because of our piety and concern for the lives of others, we hesitate; some of our reactions may feel sacrilegious, or tasteless; so we do not know what to say; we cannot give voice to all our impressions. We look to artists to express some of these things.

In contemplating the image of your friend clanking down the steel stair-steps of the 10th-floor fire escape, with Tokyo's rail yards spread out before him, I felt an unauthorized aesthetic thrill at the terrifying, dazzling, strange and awesome sight it must have been; and this gave me some idea of what you may be experiencing.

Surely we grieve the lost lives as deeply as anyone else, and surely we hold human life in high regard, but we are also gifted or cursed with the ability to stand back and be interested in a disinterested way. We start thinking of ways we might make music or poetry in response to the events.

If we feel, after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, that we must gather materials for a sculpture or installation, or must begin making music, or begin writing, then we do these things. Does that mean that our response is better or more important than anyone else's? Each of us does our part. You may not be so good at digging through rubble or fixing a nuclear reactor, but you are trained in how to synthesize sounds that reflect forms of consciousness. So you do that.

You ask if maybe the creative act has some value that lasts beyond the act itself, and beyond the body. In a literal sense, of course it does. A recording does not disappear when we die. Wouldn't it be interesting if all our creative works did disappear when we die? But they don't seem to. Rather, apparently it is we who disappear. I wonder if we mourn our creative works after we are dead, or miss them in the beyond?

But in thinking about such an idea, I am quickly on philosophical ground and out of my league. I wish we could have attended the Conference on the Philosophy of Creativity.

How do you reconcile your awe and reverence for the Earth's power with the horror that it inflicted? And where do you put your appreciation for the sheer rarity of the event? Anything rare excites us but when it is rare and diabolical we have a particular frisson. We stand transfixed as intimate moments of unseen souls are unspooled before us even if we can't quite make out their lives expiring, even if we cannot feel their terror and their disappointment that the end had to come at this precise time: not with family around or at the end of a long evening of slowly, slowly giving in, but in this absurd chaos of water and used cars and boats and houses unnaturally floating! Why now?

What are the moral dimensions of our appreciation for nature's cruel but amazing behavior? How to process that?

I can imagine that making a sound work out of this experience might give people the opportunity to experience both the grief and the awe together in a satisfying way.

It also puts me in mind of watching on television the twin towers collapse on 9/11 in 2001. We know that people are dying in this maelstrom and we know we can't do anything about it and we have a feeling we should look away but we gape in shock and horror and rapt curiosity.

As an artist you live in a world of expanded sense, a world in which you are the innocent antenna for something way beyond you. Different rules apply. We don't look to you for piety and deference; we want someone to reach beyond our conventional grieving and see how it might feel if we got down on all fours like curious wolves: What might we see that we miss when we look at it through moral eyes? Might we see the beauty that our piety hides?

So what is the job of the creative person in the midst of all this? I think it's to make the music that fits the moment. Out of this will not come "Giant Steps" because "Giant Steps" was for another moment.

I imagine bells recalling the clanking of the fire escape. I imagine timpani playing the earthquake.

Got more questions like this? Read the book
Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions
on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Japan Earthquake Since You Asked