This post is in the The Music Room category

In the early morning of January 17, 1995 the Japanese city of Kobe was struck by a force 7.2 earthquake that caused huge damage and killed nearly 6500 people. At the time, Zen Zen Zo artistic directors Lynne Bradley and Simon Woods were based in Kyoto, studying Japanese theatre disciplines including Suzuki, Butoh and Noh and creating cross-cultural works including Macbeth: as Told by the Weird Sisters, which was the first production I was involved with.

In 1996, the company created a set of Butoh works that was collectively titled Unleashed, which included a piece dedicated to the people of Kobe. At the time I had not seen much of the Butoh style beyond images on the internet and documentary on television, so didn't have much concept of the form. I met with Lynne and discussed her own reaction to the disaster - which was concerned with the courage of the people and the triumphal re-birth of spirit. She showed me some of the movement, body convulsing, crashing to the ground and pulling itself up time and again, clawing fingers reaching skyward, whirling figures as if blown in a wind.

My response to the piece began with a fairly literal interpretation of the quake itself, the rumbling, the shattering ground. I recall that this was the technical part of the work, involving samples, granular algorithms and unfamiliar software. Once I had the earthquake, I put myself above it, seeing someone trapped in a wet, dark and freezing hole under the rubble. In my mind I heard machinery and people searching, cries and silence and the dripping of icy water. I wrote the piece in a single session, immersed in the horror of someone not being discovered. I used the fairly basic sampler (a Roland s-760) I had for all the parts, drawing on Arvo Part's Threnody for Benjamin Britten with its falling string lines. The erhu (chinese violin) line represented the cry for help, the piano the dripping water, the bell the bringer of death.

At the end of the night the piece was complete, and I returned to it the following day to tidy up the sonics. I was conscious that the string parts were not particularly "realistic" either sonically or compositionally, relying in places on quite close chordal harmony. In some places the inherently uncontrollable sample attacks created a jarring point. However there was something about the "plastic" nature of these tones that appealed. I had no budget to record a string section, and knew it would take many hours to tweak the parts to achieve something that would still not sound "real", so I let them be and concentrated on the erhu - which consequently has a much more organic feel.

When I listen to the piece I still remember the emotional wringer I put myself through in that night and the exhaustion at the end of it. Watching the piece however, especially live, the sense of hope that Bradley describes is much clearer to me - it is as if the performers bodies are fighting against the weight and and unrelenting force of the music.

One of the original performers of the piece offers her experience.

For me, the most prominent emotions/feelings in the movement are grief and loss; there is also a sense of imploring or beseeching to a higher power in a world that is disintegrating; and finally there is compassion.

The music conveys both a profound sense of loss, yet compassion or hope. There is also exquisite beauty expressed in it, like in a situation where a family is gathered round the death bed of a beloved grandmother. (H. Smith, personal communication)

I also asked Lynne for her current perspective on the work, which has since been adapted slightly in performance to reflect on the New York Twin Towers tragedy.

"The emotional content for TERROR/KOBE is grief. But the cast all agree that it's mixed with a sense of hope - inspired by the courage and tenacity displayed by human beings in times of crisis and in the face of unspeakable circumstances. For me personally, it is a dance of reincarnation - the dancers die and are reborn over and over in the dance. There is a deep sadness inherent in the peace, but also a beauty born out of adversity and human courage. In its original manifestation it was about the Kobe earthquake, as you know. It was a tragic time, but after the initial shock, my memories are of the stories of human beings' courage and generosity in helping each other through this crisis.

The music was completely opposite to what I expected you to write. But as you know, I think one of the reasons this piece is still in our repertoire, and one of the favourite dances we have ever created, is because of the music which juxtaposed the tragedy. I can only describe it as "sublime" - filled with the poignancy of life. Sometimes life is almost unbearably painful, but at the same time it so full of beauty and joy and hope. I think this dance/music is a great example of two artists coming together to create something greater than anything we could do alone". (L Bradley, personal communication, October 19th, 2010)

I also conducted an interview with one of the Zen Zen Zo members who performed the piece in it's second life as "Terror"

CW: You know that piece was originally written after the Kobe earthquake?

Kat: Right! this is interesting, because the first time I heard that I thought - this is beautiful but I don't know if it goes with the [dance] because I imagined rolling hills in Ireland the first time I heard it and then I though "what?" that goes with Terror? and I didn't think it would work until I saw it together

CW: well that was one that Lynne said "what the hell are you doing?"

Kat: which is why it works, because if it was a horrific as what we're doing it would be too much and the audience would pull away, but because what we're doing is horrific but beautiful,

CW: it's grotesque

Kat: it lets you come in and watch it

CW: kobe was done for the earthquake and I wanted to be the observer of that piece, rather than be "in it" for me it was like looking from a distance at this stuff happening

Kat: for me its like a tribute to it

CW: I guess it's a remembrance - but still to me when I was writing it, it wasn't about feeling sadness that people had died, it was about feeling horror that it could occur

Kat: right ..

CW: so when I took it in and Lynne said, "but its beautiful and sad" and I said - no its meant to describe my horror and she said "Ok we'll try it"

Kat: a lot of people say that's their favourite piece

(K. Cornwell, personal communication, August 2010)

Related Posts

  1. Terror: The Terror is a piece that was originally written for Zen Zen Zo to express the horror of the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
  2. Macbeth by Fax: My first collaborative piece with Zen Zen Zo was created long distance, mostly through written communication by fax.
  3. The Others: What does Allan's experience mean to students?
  4. Interviews: Interviews provided great insight into the collaborative process.
  5. I do this because ...: Academic pursuits are never the whole picture. There are personal reasons for engaging in this research.
  6. Current practice: I am now teaching music and sound production full time at Tertiary level and continue to work compose for collaborative projects.