As part of its mission to bear witness to the lessons of history and to remember victims of persecution, Music of Remembrance has commissioned a new musical work about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II by Seattle composer Christophe Chagnard.
A single word that implies so much: “gaman,” a Japanese term often translated as “perseverance” — patient, dignified endurance in the face of a situation that seems unendurable.
“It describes the feelings of Japanese Americans about being incarcerated in the camps,” says Shokichi Tokita. “You could translate it as ‘to withstand, to prevail.’”
Now 84, Tokita was a boy of 8 when his family was forced to leave their Seattle home. Merely on the basis of their ethnicity, the Tokitas were sent to the Minidoka “war relocation center” in south central Idaho. That ordeal lasted from 1942 to 1945. Then they were left to pick up the pieces of their interrupted lives.
When composer and conductor Christophe Chagnard learned about the resonance of “gaman” from Tokita, he decided to use the term for the title of his new work for Music of Remembrance (MOR). Now in its 20th season, MOR will present the world premiere of “Gaman: to persevere” at its annual spring concert on May 20, along with Shinji Eshima’s “August 6th” and other chamber pieces by composers who perished in or were affected by the Holocaust.
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While MOR’s mission is to remember the Holocaust through music, its focus is also emphatically on the present-day relevance of humanity’s darkest chapters. Nowhere is this clearer than in the organization’s commissions of new works by contemporary composers like Chagnard, who is also familiar to local audiences as the co-founder and former director of the Northwest Sinfonietta and current music director of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra.
“This has been an organic evolution for us,” explains Mina Miller, MOR’s founder and artistic director. “We’re still faithful to our founding mission but are looking beyond the Holocaust itself to these reminders of what happens when others are excluded and persecuted — in this case, to the terrible moment in American history when Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and incarcerated in camps.”
Joining the list of MOR commissions — which now surpasses 30 — “Gaman” is actually the third of three new commissions the organization is presenting this season.
What led Miller to commission Chagnard to write a piece about the incarceration of Japanese Americans? “Over the years, I’ve found that the most successful commissions have been the ones that told stories and engaged you to think in different ways,” she said.
Miller says she was impressed by Chagnard’s narrative gift in writing pieces that confront troubling issues and mentions his compositions “Opre Roma,” which deals with the plight of the Roma, and “Terra Nostra,” a piece addressing climate change. “When I approached Christophe with the idea of a work about the Japanese Americans who were sent to camps, I asked him if he could tap into any art work or poetry as part of the piece.”
Chagnard consulted with the Seattle-based art historian Barbara Johns, who has published fascinating biographies of the artists Takuichi Fujii (1891-1964) and Kamekichi Tokita (1897-1948), along with curated editions of the remarkable diaries both kept while at Minidoka. In “Gaman,” Chagnard creates a musical framework for his setting of excerpts from their diaries, with projections of related sketches and paintings by their authors as visual accompaniment. He found additional literary and visual sources in the poetry of Suma Yagi (a freshman at Garfield High when her family, like Tokita’s, was sent to Minidoka) and in paintings by Roger Shimomura. All of these sources come from artists with roots in Seattle.
“Here in Seattle, you don’t have to go far to actually meet people face to face who were there in the camps,” Chagnard says. “It was so local, with the triage camps at what is now the Puyallup Fairgrounds and Bainbridge Island, before these people were sent to places like Minidoka. And the later generations of many affected families are still here.”
To prepare for his new composition, Chagnard interviewed 12 people who had experienced the camps — including Shokichi Tokita, Kamekichi Tokita’s son. “Meeting with Shokichi was especially inspiring, since his father’s diary entries provided the core of my literary sources. The fact that Shokichi was able to add his perspective to his father’s writing and painting made it very personal and direct. I was able to get an extra dimension after reading the journals, which in themselves give such vivid descriptions of what it felt like.”
Chagnard found especially powerful material on the period of “liberation” and the closing of the camps in Fujii’s diary. “We tend to think people were suddenly elated when they were told they were free. But it was not that simple. Even if you survive, it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to rebuild any sense of normalcy.”
Tokita recalls a happy childhood in Seattle before the war, when his parents — both immigrants from Japan who had met and married in Seattle — did well running the old Cadillac Hotel on South Jackson Street. “We had a family car and my father would take us on drives through the I-90 tunnel after it was first built. We had regular picnics at Alki Beach when there were still clams you could gather.”
Tokita still remembers the shock of Pearl Harbor as the day his father started keeping a diary, recording his anxieties about what would happen to the family, which numbered six children at the time; two more would be born at Minidoka.
He recalls the setting: “There were poorly constructed barracks, which they said would be just temporary — supposedly for our protection — but the guns were pointed in rather than out.”
In “Gaman,” Chagnard has a soprano and baritone double as narrators who read from the diaries kept by Tokita and Fujii. They also sing poems he selected from Suma Yagi’s collection “A Japanese Name, An American Story.” He realized the importance of keeping the narrative clearly linear, framing it with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the liberation in late 1945. “The chronology of events is important, because I wanted to show the transformative sequence of events that ultimately leads you to an entirely different life — this progression away from normal family life and business, to being suddenly ostracized and losing everything and ending up in a camp in the middle of nowhere. ‘Gaman’ asks: from a psychological, emotional and practical standpoint, how did that happen?”
In addition to the two vocalists, “Gaman” is scored for a small chamber ensemble of violin, viola, cello, double bass and clarinet — and two authentic Japanese instruments. Chagnard met the musicians Ringtaro and Asako Tateishi, who run the School of Taiko in Bellevue, a center devoted to teaching Japanese musical instruments. They suggested traditional Japanese songs, which Chagnard embedded in the piece as sections where the Tateishis play their versions — on Taiko drum and fue, a traditional side-blown flute — while the rest of the ensemble accompanies.
“I spent almost as much time trying to structure the piece as I did writing it,” Chagnard says, “because telling someone else’s story is a real big, humbling responsibility. And with the resurgence of worldwide tensions and xenophobia, I believe it’s especially important. The big difference between now and the 1930s is that we have the tools to gain knowledge. We can’t blame it on ignorance.”
Despite the bitterness of the experience and what it did to his family, Shokichi Tokita — who went on to an acclaimed career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force — says for him the significance of “Gaman” is how its subject matter is being echoed by current events. “I see it happening to the Muslims, and that bothers me. It shouldn’t happen again, to any group of people.”
“Gaman: to persevere” by Christophe Chagnard, and music by Shinji Eshima and victims of the Holocaust, at Music of Remembrance’s spring concert; 5 p.m. Sunday, May 20; Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $30-$45; 206-365-7770, www.musicofremembrance.org