With the help of an old handwritten memoir of 300 or so pages and a limited 78RPM Japanese record collection mostly from the 1930s and ‘40s, Seattle-based composer and percussionist Paul Kikuchi explores the life of a great grandfather he never knew in his newest song cycle, “Bat of No Bird Island.”
“As a composer, I make fairly abstract work,” said Kikuchi, adding that this song cycle draws inspiration not only from his great-grandfather’s stories and life, but the connection he has made to it himself. “His record collection has become a much more inspirational seed than I expected it to.”
The four-movement song cycle invites the audience to join Kikuchi on this abstract exploration of his great grandfather, Zenkichi Kikuchi. Some parts of the memoir will be spoken through old walkie talkies, intentionally distorted with static and feedback. This mimics Kikuchi’s own experience of deciphering the memoir and relating it to who he is. The textured sound of Zenkichi’s records will also be interwoven into the composition.
“I’ve just really grown to love that surface noise,” said Kikuchi. “It feels like a canvas to me almost.”
A chamber jazz ensemble will also perform that includes Kikuchi, Stuart Dempster (trombone and conches), Bill Horist (guitars and dan nguyet), Tari Nelson-Zagar (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Maria Scherer Wilson (cello), and Rob Millis (78RPM records).
After immigrating to the United States from Japan as a young man in 1901, Zenkichi established himself as a farmer in the Yakima Valley. His family in Japan helped arrange a marriage in is home country, and his bride arrived in the U.S. in 1910. During World War II, the family was taken from their home, spending two years in a farm labor camp. Upon returning home, they lived through intense discrimination as they resettled and resumed their lives on the farm. While it is specific to his experience, in many ways, the memoir represents the broader experience of Japanese immigrants and marginalized communities in general, noted Kikuchi. The memoir, written in English, has a certain poetic simplicity.
The title of the composition comes from the following selection Zenkichi wrote in his memoir:
“School teachers in the time not all graduate of college. Some time, they send some problem to me to explain, and most farmer can not figure, about the stacked hay. Generally come to me figure out for trade, and some the orchardist come to me about using fertilizer, because in this these time nobody knew about fertilizer, nor recognize its necessary, so nobody knew anything. So I was like a Bat of no bird island.”
“You just have to kind of stop and think about it,” said Kikuchi. “That was a phrase that really stood out to me.”
In the unpublished memoir, some of the topics he also writes about include farming, hardship as a youth, and sending for his wife and daughter to join him at the farm labor camp, removing them from the internment camp. On his decision to stay in America, Zenkichi writes:
“Change of the mind: In the streets there are many educated Japanese young men. But they walking or living as stray sheep, because they don’t know what they should do, or can do. To lead these young men to farm and build up new Japan in America – real man’s job. Farming only thing we can do with decent, and hope of future in present social condition. I should, to do and I have well to do even my ability very low. From that time I change my mind to stay in US instead of go to Japan.”
Kikuchi’s grandparents farmed and lived on the same land Zenkichi lived on near the end of his life. Kikuchi, who grew up on the Kitsap Peninsula in Indianola, went there as a kid, and still recalls running through the orchards and climbing on the tractors.
“I definitely felt like I got to know him better,” noted Kikuchi, adding that he learned that his great-grandfather was a leader in the Japanese community and is in awe of him and the overall courage, perseverance and determination of immigrants to make it work in the U.S. “It’s so easy to lose track of how privileged we are in this culture in this time.”
“Bat of No Bird Island” has been made possible with support from Earshot Jazz, the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, Nonsequitur, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing), Jack Straw Productions and Chamber Music America’s 2012 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
The composition will premiere at Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival on Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space on 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. Please visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/439276 for tickets.
There will also be a free encore performance, which will include a question-and-answer session with the composer on Nov. 7 at 6 p.m., at The Wing on 719 South King Street in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.
For more on Paul Kikuchi and “Bat of No Bird Island,” please visit www.paulkikuchi.com/work/