The Desert Oasis: The True Riches of Arizona

HASHIRAMOTO Megumi (vocalist)

The Daniel LENTZ concert, "Music from the Desert," that was introduced in SoundArts #9 was held on December 5, 1996. HASHIRAMOTO Megumi gave a wonderful performance in a newly commissioned work that included a choka (long poetic form) from the Japanese poetry anthology the Manyoshu. After the end of the Xebec concert, she was invited by Lentz to join her for a concert in Arizona. Although as a classical vocalist, she has had quite a few opportunities to perform contemporary pieces, unlike her usual repertoire, these pieces were in English and classical Japanese. Despite this, the concerts were an astonishing success. In this report, Hashiramoto discusses the cultural and environmental differences she discovered behind the warm audiences during her two-week stay in Arizona.


The horizon extended as far as the eye could see. A pure blue sky opened out in every direction overhead. The freeway cut through this scene in a single, straight line. As if in pursuit of a mirage, our car headed ever northward as the spectacle around us captured our hearts.



     I went to America to perform after an unexpected invitation had arrived from Arizona State University. The instant I left the airport, I felt I had entered a new world. The air was different. The expanse of sky was different. The colors that bombarded my eyes were different. All of these differences acted as a premonition of the culture shock ahead of me.

It Began with One Phone Call

It was the end of September or the beginning of October 1996. Out of the blue I had gotten a call saying, "This is Xebec Hall..." Thinking back on it, that was where it all began. I was asked to sing in a concert by the composer Daniel Lentz, but at the time I didn't know who Daniel Lentz was, and of course, he had no way of knowing what kind of singer I was, so I hurriedly sent him a tape. I sang two pieces in the concert, each of which had a suite-like structure. "Apologetica" was in English, and the second piece, "Temple of Lament," was a new work with Japanese lyrics. That was where the need for a Japanese singer arose. Daniel had recently become particularly interested in the use of voice as an element in his work. In addition, the lyrics were not written in modern Japanese, but were from a poem by YAMANOUE Okura from the Manyoshu, and I understood what he meant when he said, "I wrote this piece because I felt some attraction to the gentleness of the Japanese language."







I first met Daniel two days before the concert. I remember as we repeatedly practiced over those two days, with support from the keyboardists TAKAHASHI Aki and Brad ELLIS, I started to have an amazingly clear image of the music. The concert went without a hitch. At that point, Daniel already told me, "I want you to come sing in America," but to be honest I only half-believed him. I thought, "There are lots of talented singers in America." But it actually happened. For someone who received an academic education in classical music, I had had little connection with America in comparison with Europe. This is only natural when you think that the history of the United States isn't that long, and the vocal music field in particular has a decided bias toward European music of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Having had the opportunity to take part in a number of contemporary music concerts, you could say I had deviated from the unusual path to some extent, but it is still rare for me to sing in English. I think that was another reason I started to have premonitions of culture shock.

America, Here I Come!

I arrived at the airport in Phoenix on April 10. It was huge! Along the road there were cactuses everywhere. That's when I realized that I was in the desert. Except for the center of the city, there were almost no buildings. Since the land was so vast, many of the residents lived in houses with gigantic yards. Thinking about how cramped Japan is, it really made me wonder. Living in a place like this could change a person's sensibilities, and would undoubtedly change their music.

I woke up the next morning at 7. "Where am I?" From a fairly high hill a short distance away, several hot air balloons floated through the air. Birds were singing. How many different kinds of birds were there?





That morning we headed for Arizona State University to rehearse. As I gazed at the scenery outside the car, the number of people walking suddenly began to increase, and on closer look, I found that they were almost all young people. Just as I was wondering if this town was especially popular with the young, I realized we had already entered the university campus. "This is a university? I would get lost here." I would have had no idea how to actually get to the room we were going to. Not only that, but this was the main campus in Tempe (a town outside Phoenix), and in Phoenix itself there was another campus--the west campus. I couldn't believe it. Anyway, we went to the room, and there were, of course, foreign people everywhere. First off, we greeted the workers there, and then went over to the hall, which was called Drama City. This was also on the campus. It had the atmosphere of a free space with a very high ceiling. The seats and stage could be arranged to fit the performance. A concert had been given there a few days earlier, and for it, they had made some quite handsome posters, invitations, and programs. There were about ten people on the staff who did a variety of jobs from manual labor to computer work. None of them expressed the slightest prejudice in dealing with me. They made me forget that I had only arrived a couple of days ago along with the language barrier between us. In that unpolished environment without any unnecessary ornamentation, preparations were made for a natural performance without any artifice, which allowed me to sing without having to psych myself up.


Drama City


The Highly Praised American Concerts

At times, because performers are tenser than they need to be at concerts in Japan, the idea of letting people enjoy the music gets pushed off to the side somewhere. No doubt it is important for the performer to give a good performance, but if they don't also experience the happiness of the music along with the audience, the concert has no meaning--in my opinion at least.

On the day of the concert, we were welcomed by the smiling faces of the staff again at Drama City. The empty waiting room was certainly large enough. The concert program was made up of "Apologetica" in the first half, and "Temple of Lament" in the second. The former was performed this time by 12 singers. The dressing room was buzzing with energy with these 12 young people in it, and seeing them eat big sandwiches before the performance was a memorable sight for me. As I felt a little overwhelmed by everything, I waited for my turn and after a while went on to sing in an amazingly relaxed state. Only once in the middle of the piece, I thought, "This is America," but that didn't make me nervous. Afterwards, I was complimented and responded by shaking many hands and repeatedly saying, "Thank you." Even though I had heard stories about how Americans tend to exaggerate more than Japanese, I was surprised at the response.

Cut to April 18. Over the last few days, the temperature in Arizona had risen during the daytime. There were some people in summer clothing, and I saw some people swimming in the hotel pool. This was the day of the second concert, which was to be held at a hall on the university's west campus. It was a flat, but large space with various kinds of equipment set up inside. (At the very least, the west campus had one other hall like this--this too was nothing like a Japanese university.) For this concert, three pieces by the composer Richard LERMAN and three by Daniel Lentz were performed. In Japan, it would have been unthinkable to have a concert at 8pm on a university campus, but people began to gather and I was introduced to so many people I couldn't keep track of them all. Since this was a different space, it had a slightly different atmosphere, but I was again able to relax and sing "Temple of Lament." After the concert, I was greeted again with an avalanche of compliments. Just as I was considering the rich variety of expressions Americans have, I was suddenly embraced by someone speaking a mile a minute. I think they were telling me how moved they had been by my singing. One after another people I had never before met gave me their impressions of the performance, but I began to falter, and responded only with a "thank you" as I shook their hands. Faced with these unfamiliar customs, my English became more and more confused.

New Stage


In the outstanding natural and technical environment, 46,000 students are enrolled at Arizona State University. I'm not a famous singer, nor did I leave behind any great achievements in America, but the staff gave their all to the performance, and I sang well in a very natural way. The staff also did well and worked in a natural way. We exchanged our ideas about things in a frank manner, and in doing so, grew to respect and understand each other. I really felt lucky to have been in that kind of social setting. From a technical standpoint, there are countless things to study in Japan, but there was a richness there we don't have here, and I came away feeling that there were many things to be learned in a spiritual sense. If I was just a little bit younger, I would become a student there. As I was thinking these thoughts, I found myself back in the reality of Japan for the first time in two weeks.

There were so many things that happened there, and my family, who went over after me, also fell in love with Arizona. Between the concerts, I visited Red Rock in Sedona, flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter, and thoroughly enjoyed an exciting trip.

My voice fit the image that Daniel had had, and he told me that he wanted to write something for me soon. We are now making plans to release a CD in the near future. When it comes out, I hope you'll give it a listen.

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