A musical remembrance for Japan

I think it says a lot about us as human beings that we instinctively turn to music during times of crisis and sadness. Whether personal, communal, national or global crises, once the numbing sensation of shock wears off, we are so often driven to music – driven by an unspoken knowledge that music is the great healer and will do for our grief what no other medium can achieve in quite the same way. This is not a new revelation, of course – I’m just telling you something that I suspect you already figured out a long time ago. Maybe when you went through a break up, or had to choose music for the funeral of a loved one. There’s a sense that the music that accompanies you through this part of your life matters in a way that it didn’t before. Layer upon layer of meaning is entrenched in music that has the privilege of seeing us through a difficult time.

I found myself musing today about the influence our global interconnectedness has on collective grieving in the twenty-first century.  How the outpouring of a grief response from a planet with several billion people on it, a great many of them sharing the same sadness at the same time for the same reason, has only been possible in the last ten years or so. Less, even. And how, thanks to the wonders of technology, the same music can be a channel for processing that sadness among people who have never met and will never meet. Is it just me who finds this extraordinary?

I’ve noticed a few tributes to Japan popping up today in various forms, marking the one year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that swept across large parts of coastal Japan with astonishing devastation. The music I’m sharing today is not actually about Japan. But it could be. And one of the reasons why I find it so moving and poignant is because it seems to be one of those songs with the power to bring people together through a shared experience. The song, called Requiem, was originally written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami which took the lives of more than a quarter of a million people on Boxing Day 2004 and in the weeks following.

I first heard the piece last year sometime – I discovered the choral arrangement below first – and only later found out that it was a setting of a song by popular/folk/country singer Eliza Gilkyson. (Who I actually saw perform live in Melbourne a few years ago, but I didn’t know about this song then.) And not long ago I found a radio interview with Eliza where she talks about her impetus for writing it:

“We were all just glued to the television, all of us just watching these horrific events unfold. And almost immediately there was a benefit where a lot of major stars did a fundraiser on television. And I remember I watched the fundraiser, and I was touched by people stepping forth and asking for help and donations. But at the time I was struck by the actual music they were playing. I felt it was so disconnected to the event and somehow I was inspired to write something that would connect in a more visceral way, to create a vehicle for grieving for victims of the tsunami.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in September 2005 she found herself thinking more about Requiem again.

“I think people here in this country because of what’s happened in New Orleans have been wanting to find songs that address what this country’s going through right now. I thought that once again there was this need to grieve, and I was grateful that I had a piece of music that could offer that prayer and that option for consolation of some sort, some sort of image of compassion. I was glad I had a song that could address it, it’s been a sad time for everyone.”

Clearly, this was a song that people responded to. The choral arrangement by Craig Heller Johnson, who conducts Conspirare, has pretty much gone viral itself and has been sung all around the world, even by people for whom the underlying religious sentiment of the text is not personally significant. (Oh, and for the interested folk among you there’s also a short clip where Eliza talks about her use of Mary as the archetype of compassion, despite not being particularly religious herself.)

A year ago, when the Japan earthquake and tsunami hit, it resurfaced again in online tributes, including a version on YouTube with a backdrop of photos of the devastated areas. I’ll admit it – I find it hard not to cry when I watch it, and it’s a moment of truly cathartic release when I do. To know that I’m just one of thousands of people who probably have this reaction too is somewhat comforting. Living in the world today means that we’re never really disconnected from global crises, and global expressions of grief. And I think that’s a good thing. So today I find myself listening to this, as I recall the sadness of the events last year, and the deeply human need to process loss and devastation in times of natural disaster. Thinking of the people of Japan, as they continue to rebuild their homes and lives.

About Bronwyn

Brisbane-based editor and choral musician
This entry was posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Folk & Popular Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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