After my mother had gone back to Minnesota that summer I wanted to write a fictional piece about the reconciliation of generational trauma. Less raw like the previous piece “Hospital murmur,” more fantastical and optimistic. I had been reading semi-autobiographical works by authors like Alexander Chee, Ocean Vuong and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and wanted to take a stab at fictionalized writing of my life in music, where I wouldn’t have to say everything and I wouldn’t have to analyze myself.
The piece starts with the beautiful and erratic koto and the 808 bass. This is the “grandmother,” the matriarch of generational trauma, but this is not about either of my real grandmothers. This is a representation of a grandmother, a source of sadness felt by the “mother.” I was playing Debussy and had leftover muscle memory in my hands and sound memory in my head, which suggests that the koto melody is residues of Orientalism reimagined. I don’t know how to play the koto and so this melody may never work on a real koto. The melancholy section with the piano and the violin is the mother, my real mother dimensionalized, the sadness she holds but never expresses, the wheezing wisps of the violin she experiences when she feels like she can’t breathe, EKG machine beeps and conversations and ambient noises I recorded at the SF General that day when I took her to the emergency room. I bring back the grandmother’s koto exactly as it was in the beginning and pair it with the resolving and steady flute, the imaginary “daughter.” The mother’s piano comes back in similar patterns as before but is more bold, more confident, supported by the daughter’s flute. The grandmother’s 808 bass comes back but this time it’s not threatening, even her high koto plucks are shimmering and attentive, watchful. And together they weave a cohesive unit, as an interpretation of resolving generational trauma.
It has been interesting playing this piece in the academic context, in Asian American Studies. By “interesting” I mean that I’m troubled because this piece seems to appeal to the AAS audience because it “sounds” appropriate for AAS, which means it sounds “Asian.” And here I find myself contemplating on self-orientalization and cultural essentialism within the field of Asian American Studies. Because I took from Debussy, because I used the koto, which I don’t know how to play. And because this piece goes over well in the AAS context I feel bad when I play pieces that don’t have elements of Asian essentialism, that I’m not catering to the crowd.
I also feel at odds with myself when people in the AAS community compare my work to those by activists/musicians specifically written with a political motive. I make music as a daily practice from my most tender and vulnerable places and I share it with the closest people in my life, which includes my academic community. I think that my off-kilter Japanese Americanness, not being a part of the narrative of incarceration camps and model minority Nisei soldiers, plays part in my discomfort, my lack of place, the lack of place for my music, within a community of people who come together to celebrate a shared history, a shared narrative, of which I don’t belong.