Thursday, 6 August 2015

Hiroshima 70 years on, in art and music

Seventy years ago today, Hiroshima was destroyed. Never must we ever forget. Today, we are in danger of taking  Hiroshima for granted but in 1950,  Japan was still under military occupation and Japanese people weren't allowed official news of the bombing. News leaked out as small horrible hints : people who knew people who knew first hand. And the Japanese were still reeling from the shock of defeat, total carpet bombing, firestorms in cities of wooden houses. Hard news was hard to come by, but information spread by word of mouth, and by art. Novels were written, films were made, music was written. 

Above, Ghosts,  the first of the  fifteen "Hiroshima Panels " Genbaku no zu, made over the course of 32 years by Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi. Read more about them HERE. .The artists wrote "It was a procession of ghosts . In an instant, all clothing burned off of hands, faces. breasts swelled. The purple blisters on the victims soon burst and peeled off, hanging down like pieces of rags. With hands lifted half up, the victims appeared as ghosts in procession, dragging their ragged skin behind them  exhausted , rthey fell down moaning in heaps and died, one after another". Click on photo to enlarge.

In 1953, Masao Ohki (1901-1971) composed his fifth symphony, the Hiroshima Symphony, based on the first six of the panels, which were completed between 1950 and 1952. The symphony is a  carefully constructed meditation on the images, which reflects the idea of self contained panels, as if "boxes within boxes" can make sense of the chaos, the totality too hard to absorb at once. .The Prelude starts with unsettling calm, tense cello and bass pizzicatos gradually adding a sense of time ticking away urgently. Ohki is too subtle to "depict" the actual impact. Instead, the second part is a meditation in the lowest registers of winds and strings, a solo trumpet adding a sort of cry of anguished disbelief. He titles it Ghosts – it was a procession of ghosts, referring to the Maruki panel above. 

The third section of the symphony refers to the second Maruki panel, Fire, (pictured above) of which the Marukis wrote "In an instant, everything burst into flames. Even the ruins were ablaze. The dead silence of a vast desert broke. Some fell senseless under fallen debris, others  desperately tried digging out.  Everything was consumed by a crimson light. People fell and were taken by the fire".  Ohki expresses this with rapid chromatic runs and trills, tremolos and glissandi. This is the imagery of wind, and transformation for in those moments, the world  was changed forever. Another darkly meditative section Water,  develops the themes in Ghosts, before the strange and disturbing fifth section, Rainbow. Ohki quotes the description "All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow". A plaintive solo violin, then a solo clarinet evoke the unworldly half light. Ohki isn’t depicting an ordinary rainbow as such, but perhaps a surreal, inchoate response to the idea of beauty in the midst of horror. The sixth section, Boys and Girls is even more poignant.

The seventh section is Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls. Against a background of "flat-lining" strings, keening and wailing, the disembodied sounds of flute, piccolo and clarinet rise tentatively. It’s a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years since the Japanese regime, allied to the Nazis, suppressed "modern" music. The final movement, Elegy, draws in themes from the earlier sections, yet also develops them with deeper emphasis. As Morihide Katayama writes in the booklet of the CD (Takuo Yuasa, New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra): "the conflict is unresolved, and whether the terror is broken down or not depends on subsequent human conscience".
Below an excellent blend of music and illustrations:  

Hiroshima - never forget. Follow the label "Hiroshima" to see all the other pieces I've written about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, related films, history and music about war.Later I'll write about Ikura Dan.

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