Music and Vision homepage


Safely Grazing


A Japanese notebook - some of it musical,
with composer ADRIAN WILLIAMS


Adrian Williams. Photo copyright (c) 1998 Keith Bramich You just cannot get away from incidental music in's either the most basic of basic classics, or dated jazzed up versions of them, or tinkly synthesized versions of them - or it's the latest female pop-idol-cum-foetus with some banal tune. Maybe massively overcrowded Tokyo with its white-collar, middle-of-the-road culture is not the place for an artist. Certainly not the musically-sensitive, as another musician friend of mine recently remarked, having experienced a Japanese city for the first time. But at least there is a rich supply of material for little articles like this one, written for the Tokyo Notice Board magazine...  




You know that thing about sheep where if they go through a particular gate enough times, then you move the gate to a different place, even if you leave the new gate wide open, they still wait where the old one used to be. Maybe the problem is that farmers are not in the habit of playing Bach to inform the sheep where and when to begin walking. The amusement I used to get from the sight of crowds of Tokyo-dwellers bunched up on the side of a main-road awaiting their little tune, even though the nearest vehicle was light-years away [note 1], has now been replaced by a paranoid fear of having to listen even once more to that damn tune every time I wish to cross a road. It's enough to make any gaijin [note 2] want to jay-walk. Soon I will begin to make a map of tune-less crossings.

But this use of music in the street, it can't be simply utilitarian; in fact I know that every local authority has an ACS, an Aspiring Conductors' Society. If you go out any time of day or night you can see them, wanna-be Seiji Ozawas with their bright red batons, sometimes with a gesture of bravura as if to the trombones in thick traffic, or with baton held close, gentle wafting movements to muted-strings as we carefully tiptoe past the obstruction. [note 3]

On board a Tokyo commuter train. Photo (c) 1999 Adrian WilliamsHowever, I don't feel the purpose of all this overt musicality is educational, for I have never once heard Takemitsu on JR. [note 4] I fear the only purpose is to sooth the weary heads of over-worked business men and footsore shoppers. What's more the menu is strictly table d'hote, Mozart, yes; Schubert, yes he's okay, a bit of his 'To a Wild Rose' tinkles away on the outward-bound Keio line [note 5] to Hashimoto; Brahms - hmmm, bit too modern maybe. Dango san kyodai? [note 6] Oh that's fine - there was a mass exodus from the supermarket last time they played it, but lots of people bought the CD so it must be okay.

As for the non-descript piano-plus-strings stuff in most shops, designed to waft Mrs Average up to the blissful NHK-pink powder-puff in the sky [note 7], or the caged nightingale hidden somewhere in the elevator [note 8], we won't talk about those.

At least there is some creativity going on, with literally thousands of hopeful composers scratching away by candlelight and quill pen to create the latest mobile-phone masterpiece. [note 9]But in the subway the greats still have the edge, Mozart's G minor Symphony across the carriage gives way to a sudden blast of Bach's Toccata and Fugue from the handbag next to you. I suppose it could be called on-board entertainment for the crowds, cascading out of JR trains every day to tumuluous arpeggios from the station loudspeakers. I wonder what would happen if, overnight, they suddenly moved the position of the doors?

Copyright © Adrian Williams, December 20th 1999


Advertising on a dessert top in Japan. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Adrian Williams

This picture of Shaun with Wallace and Grommit on a dessert top
is the nearest thing to a sheep I could find in Tokyo




1. Many pedestrian crossings play an electronic folk song (the same one for all of them) when it's 'safe to cross'...but even if there is no traffic Japanese people still wait for the 'safe' signal ....baaaaaa

2. Foreigner

3. At maintenance and construction sites men with red flashing batons are paid to usher people along walkways, even though you would have to be an olympic gymnast to find a way into one of the holes in the road

4. Japan Railways, the main Japanese railway company. Sometimes one feels like shooting them....

5. Different railway company

6. A simple tango with childrens' story lyrics about three brothers in the form of ricecakes on a stick, written a year or so ago, which somehow caught the imagination (if you heard it you would conclude that imagination levels had hit a new low) - one could not escape it anywhere, supermarkets, stations, toilets - irritating is an understatement. By July I was beginning to yearn for punk rock

7. NHK is Japanese BBC...nice middle-of-the-road TV programmes for the over 50's

8. ...especially hotel elevators, mixed with the most kitch trash you can imagine, trapping you for maybe 50 floors

9. ..inspired by the sight, on TV, of a roomful of people with their cellular phones, performing some kind of corporate symphony


 << Music & Vision homepage               Wroclaw State Opera's Traviata >>