Sunday, August 28, 2005

Unintended Ironies

Among my more recent obsessions is Asian classical music, to which the Naxos series "Japanese Classics" is a huge boon. This series of recordings presents works written by Japanese composers, some from pre-WWII Japan, some from post-WWII. It's fascinating stuff, although some of it I've found disappointing -- particularly those discs from composers who worked in more directly European classical idioms, as opposed to the composers who try, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to blend European classical traditions with Japanese melodic material. The latter tends to sound more genuine to me, and I'm always one to prefer a faulty work that's genuine to a more polished work that isn't.

Anyway, I'm listening right now to one of the most recent releases in the Japanese Classics series, the Piano Concerto #3 and the Symphony No. 3 by Hisato Ohzawa (1907-1953). Ohzawa's sound is described on the back blurb as a blend of "jazz, late Romanticism, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Hindemith and other contemporary composers". That's quite a blend of styles, no? American jazz, French Impressionism, and a bit of post-Romantic atonality? Wow. To be fair, though, I do hear some of this in Ohzawa's music -- mainly the jazz and the Bartok, though. I'm not really hearing the Debussy or Ravel. (I don't know Hindemith well enough to make any kind of judgement here.)

But on to the topic of this post, named in the title above: an unintended irony. The Piano Concerto #3 was written in 1938, three years before war between Japan and the US broke out, so there is clearly no malicious intent behind the concerto's subtitle: "Kamikaze". That's right, it's the "Kamikaze Concerto". The word kamikaze literally translates to "divine wind" or "the wind of God", and for Ohzawa at the time of writing his concerto, it referred specifically to a civil airplane in use at the time that, according to the CD's liner notes, "represented an important feat in Japanese aeronautical engineering". (Here's what it looked like, I think. The plane pictured here seems to match the one on the cover of the Naxos booklet, but it's hard to tell because the photo on the booklet has the plane sitting on the ground and surrounded by a mob of people.)

In the Concerto's second movement, the jazz idioms Ohzawa uses really come to play, especially toward the end, when there's a really nice passage that has the piano doing obligato work while a trumpet plays one of those sad, slow jazz tunes that sounds almost like Jerry Goldsmith's theme to Chinatown. So here's music with a distinctly American sound that bears a subtitle that would soon be one of the most infamous words to Americans.

I always find little cultural twist-abouts like this fascinating.

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