God of Thunder and God of Wind – Music of Japan

Rhonda Sider Edgington


This October, I planned and performed in a series of concerts featuring music of Japan, with organ, marimba, voice, and Taiko drums. It was a very unusual project, larger in scope than anything I’ve done before, and afterwards, friends and audience members kept asking me how it all came about. The comments I heard after the concert also confirmed that not only was it a success, it had been something special for both audience and performers alike.

It began in 2004 with an organ concert I attended in the cathedral in Bremen, Germany. My husband and I had recently moved to Germany. I had a Fulbright grant, to study organs and music of 17th century Northern Germany with Prof. Harald Vogel. This concert was not at all related to my Fulbright project. An organ student from Japan was performing her degree recital of 19th and 20th century music on the Romantic Sauer pipe organ. Included in the program was a striking, large work for organ and one percussionist, playing Japanese Taiko drums. I had never seen or heard of Taiko drums before. I remember being somewhat baffled by the piece, but also very intrigued and taken by the sounds and visuals. The giant drum stood high in the back balcony, beside the organ. The sound of it reverberated throughout the cathedral, and the powerful movements of the player were striking. I saved the program from her recital, but forgot the piece, until many years later it resurfaced.

Fast forward to 2014. We now lived in Michigan with our two young children. We’d recently moved back to the States, after spending seven years in Bremen. Suddenly, it seemed I was hearing Taiko drums everywhere. At the inauguration of the Japanese Gardens in Grand Rapids’s Meijer Gardens, at the opening of the new Art Museum at Hope College (with a large Japanese art collection), as part of the Big Read cultural events in Holland – within a couple years, I’d heard three different performances, each time becoming more enamored with the sound and drama of the instruments and players. The piece I’d heard years before resurfaced in my brain slowly, as the seed of a seemingly crazy idea – wouldn’t it be fun to get to know some of those Taiko players, and maybe perform that piece?

I’ve learned enough about my creative process not to dismiss such ideas. After the idea came back enough times, I sat down and wrote some emails. At that stage, I didn’t even know the name of the piece (though I thought there must be a box in the basement somewhere with that old program!) Searching through my emails shows that I first sent an email in May of 2017 to the original performer Megumi, still living in Germany, asking about the piece she performed. Then I emailed with two different Taiko groups in Michigan, who both indicated theoretical interest in knowing more about this piece and my idea. I then dug through the boxes in the basement to eventually find the old program with a title and composer of my piece, but then the real searching began. I couldn’t find any information or contact info for the composer online. My brother, living in Japan at the time as a trumpeter in the US Navy band, also tried to help me find out more information, but didn’t have much more luck. And the original performer, Meguni, couldn’t remember anymore where or how she had gotten the score originally, or where she had it now!

I emailed many Taiko players, getting names from one to ask the next, none of whom had ever heard of my piece. I did find a CD on Amazon, however, it was a later version of the piece, arranged by the composer for Taiko drum and orchestra. I ordered it anyway, listened to it, and read the linear notes. The next step from an unlikely source. The publisher of the orchestral score was listed as Zen-On in Tokyo, and they replied back to my emails with promises to contact the composer. After a few back and forths, there appeared in my mailbox one day a package from Japan, with a copied manuscript of Fujin- Raijin (handwritten by the composer, with scribbles from the original performers in the margins.) The handwriting was difficult to read, there were intimidating extended techniques and baffling symbols, but I felt triumphant!

As with many things, what I thought was the end of my search turned out to be just the beginning. I contacted the local Taiko players again, and met each of them for lunch, bringing the score along. We were all a bit intimidated, but one, Carolyn, was intrigued by my proposal, and we tossed ideas around together over lunch. We landed on an appealing concept – an entire program of Music of Japan, with solo organ works (I knew none at the time…), solo marimba works (a significant genre of 20th century Japanese music), as well as Taiko ensemble pieces and Fujin Raijin, the large work for organ and Taiko.

With this concrete idea in mind, I hesitatingly approached presenters about our Music of Japan idea. While some were skeptical, many responded with lots of enthusiasm. “This is a really interesting idea,” I heard many times, or “Wow, I’ve never heard of anything like this!” It wasn’t hard to line up three venues, one in each of the three main cities in the part of Michigan where our players were based. My Tai Chi teacher is also head of the Asian Studies program at the local college, and he found the program immediately appealing, and was instrumental in helping organize a concert there. I found a marimba player who was game for the idea. And later, I remembered reading in his bio that a local voice professor had a program of Asian art songs. While he is Korean, it turned out that he knew and performed a number of Japanese songs, and thus that element was added to our program.

Considerably trickier was the funding. I spent perhaps hundreds of hours applying for a grant from a major Japanese Foundation, which we didn’t in the end receive. However, going through that process did teach me something about applying for grants, which I later used when applying for two different AGO Special Funds grants (one of which I eventually received) to commission an ensemble piece for all the instruments for the closing of our program. We also applied for a Cultural Affairs grant (to encourage interdisciplinary efforts) from Hope College, with some of my new grant-writing skills.

While funding was one of the biggest headaches in planning this endeavor – contacting presenters with specific numbers, figuring out who needed how much, approaching organizations, trying to decide how to make never-quite-enough money go far enough (for multiple players and logistics like moving enormous percussion instruments), it also touches on an aspect of which I am quite proud. All the conversations and efforts paid off in a different way, because each concert was funded by a variety of people and organizations, a broad coalition of interests. While that made for more work organizing, it also proved to me that our project had value and was interesting to people of different backgrounds and specialities.

The evening of our first concert, I wondered who might show up, if the repertoire would be too avant-garde, how our small-town audience would respond to a program full of such foreign sounds. The room gradually filled with people, and a fascinating collection of audience members took their seats, broader than we’d usually see at “just” an organ recital. This had been my suspicion, and it was gratifying to see it fleshed out.

As I watched the other performers take the stage that evening and perform their solo and ensemble pieces, I was filled with joy and gratitude – that they had joined with me in putting together this unusual (and a little risky) idea, that we were all part of something bigger than any of us could have done alone. There is magic which happens when we gather in a group performing music, and a chemistry when people come together to experience music together, with an audience who shows up, curious and eager to listen and learn. And sometimes this all can help us as performers set aside (even if for only an evening) some of the questions that we can spend too much time obsessing over. I, for one, can wrestle with wondering how much I got paid for a gig versus how many hours I spent practicing or organizing logistics for that event, or how many “important” people were in attendance, or how much this concert really “counts” in the grand scheme of things, etc… Despite 8 years spent living in a small town, investing in local connections and valuing performing for local audiences, it can still be difficult to remember that these kind of equations aren’t the only way to judge the success of a performance.

During those concerts, as I performed and watched my colleagues perform, I remembered (again) why I love music, why it is worth the headaches, the low pay and lack of job security/ insurance/ retirement. Together, with other musicians and with an audience, we are creating something special. Something we all need.

Fujin Raijin: God of Thunder, God of Wind – Music of Japan
(Fujin is the Shinto god of Thunder, and Raijin is the Shinto god of Wind)
took place on Friday, October 18, 2019 at Hope College’s Dimnent Chapel, and Sunday, October 20, 2019 at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Kalamazoo. It was cosponsored by the Holland and Southwest Michigan chapters of the American Guild of Organists, the Kalamazoo Festival of Sacred Music, the Kent Hill Fund for Special Music at Prince of Peace, and these departments of Hope College- Asian Studies, Music, Dance, World Languages, the Center for Global Engagement, and the Office of Cultural Affairs. It will also take place on Sunday, February 18, 2020 in Grand Rapids at First United Methodist Church.

Performers for the concerts were:
Rhonda Sider Edgington, organ and piano
Mark Lopez, marimba
Carolyn Koebel with Ken Koshio and members of Michigan Hiryu Daiko – Esther Vandercarr, Wyatt
Harris, Jon Wegner
JungWoo Kim, voice
Commission provided by the San Francisco AGO Chapter Special Grants for a piece by Carson Cooman
Composers included : Takashi Sakai (Fantasy on Sakura, Sakura for solo organ), Takatsugu Muramatsu
(Land for solo marimba), Tokuhide Niimi (Fujin Raijin for organ and Taiko)

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