Yuri Yamamoto: Japan, My Homeland. Yuri Yamamoto, mezzo-soprano & piano, with Rocky Iwashima, taiko drum (Tr. 7), and a bell, chime, or triangle in Tr. 13 [struck lightly by Yamamoto?], both trs. without piano; self-produced, © 2013, TT 64:16; $15, available at CDBaby and at some local stores.
The 18 tracks on this disk include 15 songs to texts by poet Masao Tachiya, with three piano improvisations interspersed among them (Trs 4, 11, 16). In this sense, these songs are what we call "Art Songs," but I am not aware of such a tradition, equivalent to lieder, mélodie, or romanze (in German, French, and Italian music respectively) in Japanese music, whose traditions are, in any event, completely different from Western classical music ones. Yamamoto may well not be the first composer-musician to use a Western classical music form for Japanese poems, but this is the first such CD I have encountered.
Although born in Tokyo, Yamamoto, music director of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, has known since her teenage years the Michinoku region in the northeast of mainland Japan, the area affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011 that we tend to refer to as the Fukushima Disaster, although it was far more widespread than that city where the damaged nuclear power plant is located. Tachiya lives in Soma, a village near Fukushima and not too far from the plant. Most of the poems pre-date the disaster; only those of Trs. 10 and 17 were written shortly after it.
Some of the songs have a traditional or folk feel, at least insofar as being similar to such songs that I have heard, like "Sakura," for example. Most are descriptive or narrative rather than lyrical in content. Several of the melodies have a haunting quality. Although most are strophic in form, a couple have a through-composed feel. There is a great deal of variety among them; they do not all sound alike in spite of the common thread of their base in traditional Japanese style and topic of places, people, and traditions of the Michinoku region. They are grouped according to their general style, with the most traditional-sounding (Trs. 1-5) first, those with some syncopation (Trs. 7-8 and 18) in the middle, and the more modern ones at the end. Several of them (Trs. 12-15) feature a cappella sections, one (Tr. 13) is essentially entirely unaccompanied, others have different punctuating accompaniments: chords in Tr. 14 and arpeggios in Tr. 15, and Tr. 14 features a piano prelude and postlude, which no other offers. The whole ends with the most modern sounding song and in a jazzy flourish. They are also in different vocal registers, some high and some low as well as the middle range where most lie. I was completely enthralled without understanding a single sung word.
The piano improvisations, inspired by Tachiya poems, are likewise all different from each other. Their titles ("Homeward Wind," "Ocean in My Hometown," and "Summer Sunset," sequentially) suggest a ground in Debussyesque – he was famously enamored of Oriental music – French Impressionism, and there are such moments, although they also have at times a New Age music tinge.
There is no true accompanying booklet, but rather a simple four-page folded glossy multi-colored booklet-sized sheet bearing English translations of the texts, all by Yamamoto herself, seemingly literal rather than attempts to make polished English poems of them. They follow the Japanese titles, listed in paragraph form at the top of page 1, and the musician credits. Production and grant credits (Regional Artist Project from the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, with funding by the NC Arts Council, a division of the Dept. of Cultural Resources) are placed below an image of a work of art that follows the translation of the last song. The insert also contains three other drawings, with portions of the translation texts superimposed on them, again all in different styles and all by Yamamoto, who also conceived the insert's design and handled its production. It is as attractive and charming as the music, even if reduced to minimalist simplicity and very crowded, and the layout occasionally doesn't make the sequence of some of the translations immediately apparent as standard booklet design does with its four-square organized layout and ample-white-space.
The project was conceived as a memorial to the victims of the disaster, with a color photo taken by Yamamoto in May 2013 of a physical memorial on the back of the disk's cardboard sleeve, and one of a landscape with dunes and a rice paddy on its front and on the face of the disk. Yamamoto has traveled back to the area several times to volunteer and perform and to listen to the stories of people affected by the disaster; all the songs were composed subsequent to those visits. A few hundred copies of the CD, dedicated to the people who were affected, are being given to some of them and to some of those helping them as non-profit organization employees and volunteers, and to some workers in local governments, many of those having been directly affected as well. All proceeds from the sales are also donated to the relief effort. Hence, in addition to acquiring some beautiful and charming music, purchasers are supporting an important cause. Yamamoto deserves congratulations and praise on several fronts. You will not regret treating yourself to this creative and original CD!