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!

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.

On our way out to catch the subway to Harajuku Station, where I was to meet Y for dinner, R returned from a graduation ceremony at Musashino University. B and R had met years ago, but never really gotten to know each other. It often works that way – a foreign traveler arrives and unwittingly brings people together. R spoke at length about his eight years of shakuhachi studies with Yamaguchi while also spreading wings into the world of Noh. Eventually, Noh won out. R is one of the foremost western authorities on Noh in the world. Beyond that, he is a totally delightful person and a fine host. Staying here is perfect.

B and I finally left the house and made our way to Harajuku station, from which point he continued on on the JR train to Yokohama where he lives with his Japanese wife. Despite the struggle finding the place, plus being an hour late, dinner with Y at Mominoki vegan restaurant in Shibuya was glorious... and very fin de siècle Paris! Y was a student of mine at Chatham University fifteen years ago. She's going to help with videography and editing the Birdmachine footage once the performance with Kudo has happened.

After dinner, Y and I went to the Grand Ballroom of the Peninsula Hotel for Art Fair Tokyo's annual Bacon Prize event. Joni Waka, the guy who'd invited me to perform with Kudo, was master ceremonies.

The place was packed full of fancy people and one large brown dog who mingled with the crowd. I walked up to Joni and extended my hand with a big smile. When there was no immediate response, I said, "Do you remember me?" I realized that maybe the beard was throwing him off. Skipping only a slight beat, he said, "Oh, yes, nice to see you, and who's this?" I introduced Y and that was it. No, wow, you made it, so nice to see you. He just walked off the way people do at parties when something else catches their eye.Y and I then we dove into the crowd and made our way up to the stage where two scantily dressed GoGo girls were gyrating in front of two gigantic screens. Later, Joni's husband, a Zulu warrior came on stage with them as well.

       Soon Joni had the microphone and was asking the audience to quiet down. Easier said than done.

The projections were footage of Bacon, the Irish wolfhound after whom the prize is named. The dog, in turn, had been named after Francis Bacon, the painter. Here's the new mascot:

One of the trophies was a carving of a crow. The woman holding it is from Australia and the recipient of the accompanying award.

I expected to be bored by the whole thing, but it was fun, anthropologically speaking. The only thing that bothered me was the odd reception I had gotten from Joni. Oh well. On the way out, Joni was talking to some people at the exit. When they moved on, I thanked him for a great party. He responded with, "You coming to the event on Sunday, I hope?" I laughed and said, "I'm in it!" "Oh, it's you Michael. I didn't recognize you in that beard." I replied, "Yeah, they come and go." I gave him a hug and all was cleared up. Y and I drifted toward the coat check.

My overwhelming feeling that night had to do with the complexity of arriving in a different place. Getting out and about was exactly what the jet lag doctor had ordered. One never arrives in Japan from the West in one day! Here's a picture of the doctor:

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