The Birdmachine & Michael Pestel
Tokyo’s bird population has declined drastically in the past 75 years. I’m told that’s due primarily to pollution and loss of traditional thatched roofs where many birds nested. Enter the crows, or kurasu, the world’s greatest synathropes, masters of what we do best: produce garbage. There are upwards of 150,000 of them terrorizing the populace with their brilliant antics and survival strategies. It's no wonder that one calls their flock a "murder" of crows. Enter the Birdmachine, a multiphonic, multi-timbrel musical instrument designed to attract and jam with birds, butoh dancers, and anyone else dedicated to avian sound and movement. That includes crows.
From March 17 to April 9, 2015, I'll be in Tokyo performing and jamming with avian butoh dancer, Taketeru Kudo, as well as with vocalist, Mika Kimura, and expatriate shakuhachi players, Yohmei Chris Blasdel and Bruce Huebner, among others. For his April 4th performance at the Tadao Ando Tokyo Art Museum in Sengawa, Chris has invited me and Mika to join him in an unusual acoustic concert space. The performance with Kudosan at Konno Hachimangu, Shibuya's oldest Shinto shrine, on March 22, is the event that set all this in motion. But mostly, I'll be busy exploring the urban soundscape by visiting places where birds used to sing, places where they still sing, and places whose bird names celebrate a particular species. As a kind of shamanic ornithologist bent on discovering the soul of Tokyo's bird life, I'll invoke an avian past of lost sounds in order to connect with the present. I know the crows will be listening!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Day 25, Thursday, April 9 – Shinjuku "Nagashi"

I met Kudo in Shinjuku at 9pm and went over to Golden Gai, an area of back alleys lined with bars – tiny bars – bar after bar after bar! We hit about 15 places where I performed for 5 minutes on the Birdmachine and then left. About two hours in total. The responses varied, mostly enthusiastic, but I actually only hit my peak once. Wow, what a process... and what a deeply Japanese form of social, creative outreach. It's called Nagashi – "flow" – and used to be quite popular. Hijikata, the father of Butoh, got his start this way in the 50s, and so did Kudo in the 90s. At one place, a guy gave me 1000 yen! Of course, I politely protested... and then demurred. Sweet. I hadn't expected that. Unfortunately, I have no video of any of this, just photos of the locales and some people, but that's ok. It's a project, like all the other projects here, to be continued on the next jaunt.

Day 25, Thursday, April 9 – Noko's Edo House in Izu

Here, in the land of the rising Birdmachine, it's my last morning in Tokyo.
Up and atom. Packing and last minute scurrying. Kudo will help me get my stuff to the airport. Big help. Yesterday, despite the rain and cold, was a perfect way of rounding out the three weeks. After a day trip to the Izu Peninsula (four hour round trip with Chris and Mika) and a visit to Noko's 200 year old Edo house with a thick bamboo forest, I met Kudo in Shinjuku at 9pm and went on a "nagashi" spree through Golden Gai. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

An Interlude from Kurasic Park

Day 19, Saturday, April 4 – Tokyo Art Museum (Tadao Ando)

I've known Christopher Blasdel, one of a small handful of expatriate shakuhachi players in and around Tokyo, for about fifteen years. I met him when Mika Kimula, his wife, was a Fulbright Scholar at Chatham University in 1999 and Chris came over with an Aomori folk troupe and performed in the chapel. His shakuhachi playing bowled me over and set off a chain reaction of two back-to-back Japan visits in 2000 and 2001. This time around, he invited me and Mika, as well as another shakuhachi player to join him for an "encore" piece at the close of his program. The Ando museum in Sangawa is perfect concrete minimalism. The narrow space we performed in had at least a ten meter ceiling with a concrete stairway going straight up the middle in two reversing sections. I picked my perch at the very top.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Day 18, Friday, April 3 – Chokoku no Mori, Hakone

Taeko overcame a pulled tooth enough to accompany videographer and photographer, Toshiharu Sasak, Alissa the dancer, and Akinori Matsumoto, the sculptor whose sound installation we were going to see in Hakone, at the Hakone Open Air Museum or Chokuku no Mori (Sculpture Forest).  I had played flute in an installation of his in Yokohama nine years ago and was glad to at least see his new show, if not play in it. Taeko said that the museum was pretty strict about anything that might interrupt museum visitors, but I brought a couple of flutes along just in case. As it turned out, they gave me the go-ahead right at closing time and I got in about a half hour of recording time. Lovely. The best way to explore an installation like this. Perhaps a seed has been planted for future events such as this.

Day 17, Thursday, April 2 – When Joni Calls...

On Thursday, Joni texted me: "Can you meet me at Hachiko, the dog statue at 10am this morning for another unique experience?" When Joni calls.... There were two other Americans waiting for Joni near the famous dog – Melba and Hugh Levick from Los Angeles, Paris, and somewhere in Spain. Hugh is a modern classical composer and Melba does research for Rizzoli art books. They had contacted Joni via a mutual friend who recommended him as the ultimate tour guide. That would be an understatement.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Day 16, Wednesday, April 1 – The Dog House

Kudo and I were expected at Joni's place in Shibuya at 8:00. When we got to Tamachi station, I realized I'd lost another Suica subway pass. That was two in one day, my forty-dollar April Fool's joke on myself. Kudo noted that he'd seen such a pass on the sidewalk in front of the Butoh House, but hadn't connected it with me. We decided to hoof it back there, a fifteen minute walk, though neither of us really expected it to still be there. The foot traffic up that street was pretty intense, and anything even slightly out of place would be cleaned up. Sure enough, it wasn't there. 

Day 16, Wednesday, April 1 – The Butoh House

Keisuke Oka has been working on his concrete masterpiece for fifteen years. It's location between two condominium units near Tachi JR Station, is as unlikely as its haphazard eruption of forms, textures, and surface patterns. His plan from the start was to have no plan. He remains true to that dictum with stunning results. Kudo and I plan to do a performance here in the future.

Day 15, Tuesday, March 31 – Breakfast at Bruce & Tomoko's

To most foreigners, natto (viscously fermented beans) is yikes, no way Jose. The way Bruce prepares it, though, get ready for a seriously delicious, ultra healthy source of ancient power protein. Raw onions, tabasco, and I forget what else. Totemo oishii... I'm a convert now. No wonder Japan has more centenarians than any other country. It's all about natto, miso, and sakana!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Day 15, Tuesday, March 31 – Mitsuike Park

This White-Browed Laughing Thrush wasn't even in our Japan Bird Guide. But he was definitely speaking straight at us. Whether it was laughter or not, however, is seriously debatable! It came across more like: "Mayday Mayday, we've got a situation. Two aliens intent on communication with our avian realm. Mayday Mayday...!"  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Day 15, Tuesday, March 31 – Yokohama

On my next trip here, I want to do rubbings of the utility covers. This one's a beauty. My parents arrived in Yokohama on the Yamato Maru in April 1941, almost 74 years ago to the day. They had planned to stay just long enough for my brother to be born and then continue on to northern China to catch the Trans Siberian Railway into Europe. The Atlantic blockade had prevented the normal route from America. But when Pearl Harbor happened at the end of '41, they were stranded for the duration of the war. My three siblings were born in Kobe. I came along in 1950 in Germany. Yokohama is a name I heard throughout my childhood.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Day 15, Tuesday, March 31 – At the Shakuhachi Shop

Spending time with Bruce Huebner, expatriate shakuhachi player and long-term resident of Japan, has been a real delight. I'd met him briefly in Boulder, Colorado at the World Shakuhachi Festival in 2000. But this time around, connecting was the result of Ralph giving me a shakuhachi to return to him. The day after I arrived, he came up to Nakano Sakaue to retrieve it and we got a bit more acquainted. I showed him the Birdmachine and bass flute. Turns out Bruce is an avid birder and naturalist with years of experience hiking in the Sierras and other places. He invited me to come down to Yokohama and do some birding and playing in the urban wilderness of a large park in his neighborhood.

Day 14, Monday, March 30 – Konno Hachimangu Photos

Here's part of my solo when Kudo left the stage for a costume and makeup change. Joni has the Tasmanian Ridgeback, a natural born lion killer, securely leashed in hand and I'm about to put my little Yamaha guitar amp into overdrive.

Joni emailed these photos of the Konno Hachimangu performance the other day. They're pretty good, and may have to do for now, since the video from Yuki's antiquated JVC needs to be reformatted to a codec iMovie can read. For now the sound coming out of that remarkable Yamaha amp slung around my shoulder shall remain mute in the face of Kudo's visual splendor. In the meantime, definitely need a hat, a haircut, and a shave... in no particular order! 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Day 13, Sunday, March 29 – Evening Cherry Blossoms

After lugging the Birdmachine around kingdom come yesterday, I took a breather today and rebuilt the instrument with an eye towards more portability and ease of assembly. What would have taken an hour in my shop at home, took all afternoon here. First of all, I needed rudimentary tools. That sent me to the hardware department of Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku. I bought wood, a Japanese razor saw, tubing, screws, pipe clamps, sliding clamps, micro c-clamps, and god knows what else. It wasn't difficult to spend a hundred dollars. On the way back, I encountered a Shiba Inu, the foxiest dog on the planet. Will definitely look into finding a breeder in New England. I also stopped at a flea market near Nakano-Sakaue Station and bought an old SONY cassette tape recorder (great for recording and slowing down bird song on the fly circa twenty years ago), and some 200 year old coins from the Edo period. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day 12, Saturday, March 28 – Motomachi Park

Today was Birdmachine's first outing. Yuki and I went up to Motomachi Park near Sudabashi Station and Tokyo Dome City amusement park, the home of the Yomiuri Giants and the Nippon Ham, two professional baseball teams. It was in the low 70s, perfect weather, and everybody was out for cherry blossom celebrations. Beer, sake, and wine were flowing freely, along with elaborate picnics. Many people were totally sloshed. I assume that few are writing haiku or waka. But this is a botanical event of great national importance, along with plum blossoms, going back at least to the Heian court described in Genji Monogatari. It's my first time here during cherry blossom season. What a revelation! Temperature wise, it's the best time to be here. Summer, by contrast, is holy hell, a brew of heat and humidity that only shakuhachis can tolerate.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Day 11, Friday, March 27

Yesterday was the day to rebuild the Birdmachine for portability. It's not perfect, but serviceable and took me the whole day. In the evening went over to Sachiko and Jonathan's. Sachiko is an Orissi dancer. They also invited an American scientist named Dan Sythe who develops high end geiger counters. When he got there, a bit after me, he said "You look familiar." Turned out he'd been watching David Rothenberg's BBC documentary in which I appear a la Birdmachine. Furthermore, David is on Dan's board of trustees for his geiger counter company. Small world. Here's Dan getting "sounded" with Sachiko's magical bowl. And check out my duet with Sachiko after dinner. It's on you tube:

Day 10, Thursday, March 26 – Meiji Jingu

Visited Meiji Jingu yesterday with Yuki and Colors. Meiji Jingu boasts the largest Shinto gate in Japan. Once through the gates, Tokyo vanishes except for the helicopters. They, like the crows, are ubiquitous. Birds of a feather....


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Day 9, Wednesday, March 25 – Cherry Blossoms!

On the way to Shinjuku Gyoen, Yuki and I stopped at a vegetarian restaurant near Nakano-Sakaue Station for lunch. Nice yoga studio with flamingoes.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Day 8, Tuesday, March 24 – Tokyo University

R left for Bali yesterday morning. He'll be back on April 4. Home alone until next Monday when CL flies in from Vancouver. I spent much of the afternoon sleeping and blogging. The jet lag comes in waves of opportunity during my schedule down times. Before I knew it, it was 6PM and I had to be at Tokyo University at 6:30. Kudo had invited me to a dance theater piece called "Bach/black and white" starring the legendary saxophonist and composer, Yasuaki Shimizu; the renown dancer, Setsuko Yamada; the beloved philosophy professor, Yasuo Kobayashi, and Kudo. I hightailed to the subway and got to the university in under twenty-five minutes. Even before the train arrived at the university, I sensed a change of scene and suddenly felt very much at home. I was among students and professors – universal types universally recognizable. But finding campus building #18 was a different matter. No one seemed to know where it was. Finally, someone did and I was standing right in front of it! 

Day 7, Sunday, March 22 – Konno Hachimangu Performance

I'm writing this the day after the performance at Konno Hachimangu. I'll add performance images and quicktime as I acquire them. Kudo was going to arrive at 5:00, and so I asked Yuki to arrive then as well. I, in the meantime, was pathetically lost trying to retrace my steps out of Shibuya Station from two days earlier and was forty minutes late. Somehow I went exactly the wrong way out of the station and up the wrong hill. I asked a couple of women for directions and they went to work on their global GPS cell phones. People in Tokyo are very cell phones savvy and love to help strangers in directional distress. They soon set me straight.

When I got to the shrine, Kudo and Yuki were already there. The three of us were led by the co-abbot, an Austrian man in his thirties, into a changing room in a brand new building on the shrine grounds. We spoke for a while in German about how he came to be here and what the shrine meant to the community, about how they stand on the side of religious flexibility and social innovation. Our butoh performance was a case in point.

Day 6, Saturday, March 21 – Meeting in the Park

Taeko Nanpei, a curator and art manager I met 15 years ago in Tokyo, invited me to join in her SANPO group meeting at Motomachi Park near Suidobashi Station, site of an enormous amusement park.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Day 5 – Friday, March 20 – Hachiko

My mission today was to visit Konno Hachimangu, Shibuya's oldest Shinto shrine, and get a sense of where Kudo and I are performing on Sunday. I just heard that it's happening outdoors, so my other mission is to find a portable guitar amp for the flute. That may sound like an oxymoron, but the guitar effects, together with a Barcus Berry internal contact mic, is a thing of beauty: The Electric Flute! I'm going to try strapping a small amp to my body to give myself full mobility.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Day 4 – Thursday, March 19 – Art Fair Tokyo

The crows are a constant sonic companion. Once away from the traffic a bit, they are the loudest sound element in the city. What a strange counterpoint they provide the jet-lagged traveler vulnerable to macabre associations with other places and times. In the past few days, my being here has consisted mostly in fits and starts of sleeping and writing at odd hours, entirely in the confines of R’s house in Nakano. But yesterday afternoon, a different relationship to Tokyo unfolded. B, one of several great expatriate shakuhachi players in and around Tokyo, came up from Yokohama to retrieve a 1.8 尺八 that RS was returning to him via my formidable courier services. B, in turn, handed me another shakuhachi for RS to try out. This one got National Treasure, Goro Yamaguchi’s approval, before his unexpected death in 1999. B and I chatted for a while about shakuhachis. I demonstrated the Birdmachine, which I'd set up in my room earlier.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Day 3 - March 18 – 13 Hours

Today I dedicated mostly to jet lag. I wonder whether I am coming or going. Am I a Connecticut Yankee in the Emperor's court, or a samurai lost in the New England of my topsy-turvy mind? Sir Cadian tells me that I am thirteen hours behind on the day before.

Awake on futon
Must be on Planet Crouton
Crows in Tokyo!

Transit from Hartford to Tokyo - Monday & Tuesday, March 16 & 17

The flight from Hartford was mostly an opportunity to get some desperately needed sleep. But right before we landed, approaching and then flying over the tip of Lake Huron, the landscape woke me up with a series cubist images in the style of Georges Braque... only to morph gradually into a Kasimir Malevich or Robert Ryman. Your choice of political kind of "white on white."