Looking onward from the year of infamy

Accomplished jazz musician and composer Anthony Brown will debut his “life’s work to date” in remembrance of both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Sunday, Aug. 2 in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Brown, founder of Fifth Stream Music, composed “1945: Year of Infamy.” Unlike his 1995 instrumental piece, “Never Again! (Mô Shimasen!)”, which was composed for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings, “1945” integrates a collaboration with poet and performance artist Genny Lim and Brown’s Voices of a Dream gospel choir and his Asian American Orchestra. “By having vocals in both English and Japanese, I think it takes on a completely new dimension,” he said.

Brown told the Nichi Bei Weekly that his latest work has been in development since 2014 and has taken him as far as Bali to do research. While it started with research on the oral history of hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings, the piece took on a broader message. “Whereas the first piece ‘Mô Shimasen!’ really was concentrated on the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with ‘1945,’ despite the dat(e), it also encompasses the Fukushima disaster, (which followed the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan March 11, 2011) which broadens the scope to not only becoming anti-nuclear, but saving the planet as well.”

Brown said the world is in a state of “climate chaos,” and he wanted to bring attention to issues of global warming and the dangers of nuclear power. “Even the Pope is saying climate change is a reality … these are issues the world needs to hear about.”

Brown composed the half-hour piece to address some dangers people face today. He cited Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album as an inspiration. “When that was released in 1971, I was 18. The Vietnam War was going on, the Civil Rights Movement, all kinds of things were happening,” he said. “That album spoke to all of that and Marvin Gaye was able to communicate across generational boundaries, across any kind of ethnic boundaries, to wake people up … I felt something similar needed to be done.”

Brown said “1945” ends with his gospel choir chanting, “save the planet” and “save the future,” to encourage the audience to take an active role in saving the planet. “I know this sounds hyperbolic, but I don’t really think so,” he said.
Lim first worked with Brown in the early ‘90s. She said she was overjoyed to work with him again. “Anthony has dedicated his entire career to promoting public awareness about the legacy of … jazz and continuing the evolution of the music by exploring the cross-cultural currents and connections embedded in it,” Lim said in an e-mail.

Her section of the piece reflects on the social and political problems and challenges people face today. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the world became fixated on the Fukushima nuclear disaster at first, but the issue has since faded from the public consciousness. The disaster, however, remains unresolved, and many, especially those in Fukushima, are in the dark about the damaged nuclear power plant’s situation, she said.

Lim, whose piece focuses on “sustainability,” said she happily joined Brown when she learned about their shared concerns for Fukushima.  “We cannot go on the way we have much longer without collateral damage to the planet,” she said. “We need to reconcile ourselves to global cooperation for the long term survival of the planet and species.”

Brown said Lim’s poetry is interwoven into his music, and incorporates inspirations from Balinese Gamelan music. Lim invited Brown to Bali to do the research. The composer called the opportunity “a life-changing experience.” Brown said the ancient musical tradition accompanies Balinese recitations of epic tales and he learned to incorporate those motifs into “1945.”

While saving the planet is the focus, Brown remains true to where “1945” draws its inspiration from. The piece starts with a section inspired by gagaku, ancient Japanese orchestral court music, to pay homage to Japan. Brown and Mark Izu, a renown jazz musician and composer also known for gagaku, collaborated in creating the first section of the piece.

The piece also incorporates the focus on nuclear weapons, a reality Brown faced while he was growing up. He knew all-too-well humankind’s ability to destroy itself as he practiced hiding under his desk in nuclear bomb drills at school and witnessing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

During the Nihonmachi Street Fair, Brown will first play a selection of pieces before the premiere of his new work. The Asian American Orchestra will play several pieces from its repertoire, featuring works such as “E.O. 9066” to acknowledge the injustices Japanese Americans faced in the U.S. during the war. He will then lead Voices of a Dream in performing gospel pieces that commemorate the African American experience, including the freedom and justice movements.

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum will also present “1945,” along with “Never Again!” Thursday, Aug. 6 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The  event will also feature lectures and talks with hibakusha. “Never Again!” was commissioned by the Asian Heritage Council and premiered at the Peace Plaza in San Francisco’s Japantown in 1995 and returned in 2005 for the 60th anniversary.

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