Program Notes: Kishi Bashi (September 17, 2021)

Updated: Sep 15

Program

Friday, September 17, 2021, at 7:30pm


Norman Huynh, conductor

Kishi Bashi

with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra


Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Kishi Bashi makes his SLSO debut with a multimedia program including Improvisations on EO9066, a heart-rending musical exploration about the internment of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II.


Program to be announced from the stage.


Notes on Improvisation on EO 9066

By Julian Saporiti


A little over a year ago, I met Kishi Bashi for an interview. I was curious about his thoughts on being one of the few successful Asian American artists in indie rock. Unlike other artists I’d spoken with who had spent a lot of time considering their race and identity, Kishi Bashi, hadn’t so much.


As we wrapped up our interview, he remarked: “So, there’s an orchestra in Miami that asked me to write a piece for them and I’m basing it on Japanese Internment.”


“That’s great. That’s what I research at Brown. What’s your vision for the piece?” I asked.


“I have no idea.”


Ten minutes later, he was texting his wife Keiko to see if he could go on a research trip with me and eight other Brown University graduate students.


These travels provided the inspiration for his piece, Improvisations on EO 9066. They also set the stage for Kishi Bashi’s remarkable transformation from, as he says, “a self-serving artist” to a musician who has turned his bow, his voice, and his pen to exploring complex and largely forgotten histories which are unsettlingly reverberant today.


The land-based musical improvisations that Kishi Bashi—or simply “K,” as referred to by his friends and colleagues—recorded throughout our travels provide the raw musical material of Improvisations.


Through his classically trained but popular sensibilities as an arranger, orchestrator, and songwriter, segments of these improvisations were woven together into a cohesive symphonic piece. Projected archival visuals and location footage add additional layers to the experience, which brings to light both the personal costs and vast geographic legacy of the Japanese Incarceration. This multimedia experience liberates the audience from the usual “dusty and stale” transmission of history.


The piece begins with an introduction and prologue featuring “A Song For You,” written to remind us that, “there’s no sugar-coating World War II. It was a tumultuous time for everybody, and while the heightened tensions and hysteria were understandable, the results of this hysteria were not justifiable.”


K stresses that he wants his audience to understand that the root of the Incarceration was “economic jealousy and lobbying from agricultural groups, as well as the press” fanning the flames of deep-rooted anti-Asian racism and prejudice.


In “Chapter 1: Removal,” listen for jazz overtones, a nod to the music of the time.


K: “I’m surprised at how well my Japanese-inspired melodies worked over this harmonic texture.”


“Chapter 3: Forgotten Words” perhaps best illustrates the evolving thoughts of the artist as he considers his identity. Here, a Japanese-inspired melody is employed as the main theme. “I had been afraid of incorporating Japanese-sounding music into my work,” K revealed, “because of underlying identity issues based around race and ethnicity. I struggle to keep my daughter speaking Japanese, so, that erasure of one’s culture because of racism during this time really affected me deeply…all the children who never spoke Japanese after the camps.”


“Chapter 5: Omoiyari” roughly translates to “empathy.” This concept, which is also the title of K’s forthcoming film documenting this entire journey, invites us to step into the lives of others, and by doing so, realize that we might be capable as a society of “avoiding the unnecessary aggressions” that have scarred our past.


It is fitting then that Kishi Bashi leaves us with the uplifting “Summer of ’42,” an up-tempo song of love and loss tracking one individual’s experience through the incarceration. The finale brings this broad narrative to a personal level, providing us with a more impactful way into our history, and, perhaps, keeping omoiyari in mind, maybe a way out.


Julian Saporiti, The No-No Boy Project, PhD Candidate, Brown University

For more information on the The No-No Boy Project, visit: www.NoNoBoyMusic.com

For more information about the documentary, visit: www.OmoiyariSongfilm.com


Now through October 3, Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II is on exhibit at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. The exhibit was developed by the National Museum of American History and Adapted for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Learn more here.