Preparing for After the Quake

So I was hired as cellist and composer by the Walking Shadow Theatre Company for their production of “After the Quake;” the play is a mash-up of two short stories by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the titles of which are “Honey Pie,” and “Superfrog Saves Tokyo“.  This production’s original instrumentation was cello and koto, but there is only one koto player in town and her demands were apparently too great to meet, so it was decided that solo cello would have to suffice.

My first instinct was to begin conceptualizing an extremely naked/minimalist, intimate and largely improvised score, focusing on simplicity and the vocal/melodic nature of the cello.  As alluring as that sounds, I began straying from simplicity the second I remembered that I have a loop pedal.  And after watching some amazing koto videos on youtube I felt inspired to sit at my cello and plink out a vaguely Japanese-sounding pentatonic-ish chord progression.  Here’s a recording of me exploring melodic possibilities by improvising over the top of that loop (track #1), as well as a much more minor loop with similar improv. over the top (track #2).

The second detour I took from my first instinct was suggested to me, and therefore the fault of, my composer friend Adam Conrad.  I invited him to be my sounding board/creative consultant/co-composer for this project and he jumped at the opportunity to work with me, since we both love each others’ respective work and effectively use each other to boost our own egos.  respectively.  Anyway, I’d been trying to make my cello sound vaguely koto-esque by plucking with a guitar pick near the bridge, subtly modifying my vibrato, and bending pitches in a way that mimics the limitations of the koto.  I told Adam about this and he suggested that I go one step further and mimic the tuning of the koto, and even add movable bridges to several strings.  I was instantly on board and hastily got off the phone to start looking for something to jam between my strings and the fingerboard (using my crummy beater cello).

The bridges do jack up the tension of the strings a little bit so I have those strings (C and G) tuned down a halfstep, and the A string tuned down to a G.  After adding cork pads to the feet of the bridges I’ve been able to bend the pitches up to a wholestep by depressing the string behind the respective moveable bridge (much like it’s done on koto).

The cello and its strings are definitely not designed for this kind of punishment, so I would not suggest trying this on a valuable instrument.  I’m not a doctor, but I imagine that strings could snap and other stuff could get knocked outa’ whack.

Tunings I’ve been messing with have mostly been based on the most common koto tuning which is D, Eb, G, A, Bb – although I have recently been experimenting with tunings that suggest E minor.  This led me to a marriage of this new idiom with the first chord progression I came up with and I really like the direction it’s taking:

The difficulties are many as I try to learn/combine/invent new idioms/techniques/instruments, but most importantly of all I need to serve the production in which this music will ultimately function.  Concerning how this instrumentation will serve the play, my thoughts  are relatively vague/underdeveloped and require research (as per usual).  But, as long as I don’t end up satirizing/bastardizing Japanese music by quoting “Turning Japanese” or “Sakura” or anything like that, I should be okay.  At this point I intend to use the modified cello (or as I like to call it, “choto”) to differentiate between the narratives of the two stories that are being told in the course of the play.  The short story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” serves as sort of a fantastical secondary narrative, or a story within a story – “Honey Pie” being the literal/primary story – and my aim is to musically enhance the impression of foreignness during the scenes of “Superfrog” by adding the bizarre sound of my frankensteined instrument.

Judging from the musical cues as suggested in the script, the bulk of the score is going to be little musical moments that last under 10 seconds, but I’m hoping to get the chance to really develop some musical ideas and play an integral role in the telling of the story.  Logistically that might not be possible, but I won’t know until I get thrown into rehearsal in a couple weeks.  yikes!

Comments/suggestions/offerings of knowledge and all of that is VERY welcome, especially at this stage in the process – so by all means let me know what you think about this project and my approach so far.  I also plan on posting more audio samples and ramblings over the next couple weeks so stay tuned!


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