Igor at the Kabuki

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Igor at the Kabuki

By Donald Richie

Even geisha couldn’t rival Stravinsky’s legendary charm, as Donald Richie recalls in this excerpt from his Japan Journals: 1947 – 1994

The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie, who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the October 1994 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from his memoirs, “Japan Journals 1947 – 1994.” Donald Richie’s f irst visit to Japan took place in 1947. He went on to become a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents who recorded the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”

AT the Kabuki he sat very still, his glasses reflecting the light from the stage, behind them his eyes alert, his hands folded in front of him, the rings on his fingers shining in the dark. With his small compact body, his large sleek head, his big folded hands, Igor Stravinsky looked like a cat - a cat intently staring, a cat about to jump.
It was 1959. We were watching Kanjincho and Benkei was beating Yoshitsune. In his seat, Stravinsky loosened one finger from the others and began to tap.

As the play ended, the clappers sounding, the great striped curtain pulled across the stage, the cat pounced. “Oh, I had no idea it was like this. I had no idea.” He beamed, looking from his wife, Vera, to his protege, helper and amanuensis, Robert Craft. “Oh, the rhythm, the rhythm was fantastic. Fantastic. And, oh, the tempo.” He turned to me suddenly: “They are not the same, you know, rhythm and tempo.”

In the interval he continued, “I do not understand. I conduct Petrouchka here and they are all right, good rhythm. But tempo? No, no idea. And yet here! Ouf! Fantastic, incredible.”

“And the way they sang,” said Craft. Stravinsky nodded enthusiastically: “That is the way to sing Renaissance madrigals. In fact, that is the way they originally sang them. No bel canto. Straight from the throat.”

“And the colors,” said Vera. “Oh, the colors.”

“Oh, we must hear more, more, more,” said Stravinsky, leaning forward in his chair.

In Kanda, looking at books and prints, “What is that? What are they doing? What does that mean?” He looked with quick, appraising glances, as though he could thus extract meaning.”Ah, look at that. See, look at this.” As soon as he learned something he explained it at once to Robert and Vera. He was shown some erotic shunga prints. There was silence and then: “What is that?” Then, “Ah, so?” Then, “But the Japanese they are really so large?” I said I thought they were probably not. When he found that reality was not reflected he abruptly lost interest. “Okay, perhaps. Because not sexy. More like medical drawings. But inaccurate.”

He wanted to know where the prices were. They were on the back. “Look, each of the dirty pictures costs so much. And the others are much cheaper. You would think it the other way around. More dirty, more cheap.”

He shortly discovered the very cheap, a pile at one of the tables. This he turned completely over and riffled through the prints until he had located the two least expensive, both scenes of the Russo-Japanese war. These he bought.

Among the books, attempting to decide between four early European travel books and an expensive four-volume encyclopedia in Russian, he suddenly pounced.

“Ah hah,” he cried, clutching a copy of his own Poetique Musicale in Japanese, the title alone in French. “This is it, yes, this is it, the culprit book. There, it says so here, in English, shameless David-sha. Famous, I know all about this. Not one cent. They never paid me one cent. They paid nothing. Villain David-sha. And we could do nothing. Nothing.”

I explained that David-sha had gone bankrupt and that was perhaps the reason they had not paid. “Oh, no. They would not have. They would have taken. Here, this I will buy. How much, how much? They ought to give it to me.”

I told him about the singing insects of Japan. They are sold in small bamboo cages in July and August. “Oh, I will come in July and August again.” One of them, I mentioned, sang only two notes. “Two notes,” he said, as though in reverence. “Imagine. Two notes.” Then: “How wonderful, a long piece in two notes. Long . . . very long.” Then, remembering: “Oh, I wrote a piece about one of them, but it was short, and it used many more than two notes.”

With this reference to the Three Japanese Lyrics he next wondered why the Japanese did not make more of this work. I told him that the Japanese tend to regard things Westerners do with their materials as, well, quaint. He nodded soberly. “That is Russian of them. Very Russian.”

Later Craft told me of another example of Russian economy. Stravinsky was writing away, the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, and turned suddenly and asked how much the commission had been for. Told, he looked at the manuscript page, then added a few notes, drew the double bar at the end and signed it.

At the geisha party, the same unfailing curiosity as at the Kabuki, the Noh, the print shop, the concert, “What is she doing, what does it mean? I see.” Then, hands in lap, legs folded under him, he listened to the shamisen and watched the dance.

Afterwards he was very affable as, I had noticed, he often was with women. Much kissing of hands, then holding on to them. “I am old now,” he had said the day before, indicating a passing girl, “But she is truly lovely.” Then, after a time, indicating another: “Now that, that is the way to stand.” Later yet, at the coffee shop, looking at the waitress, “That is a lovely face, a noble face, a true mask.”

The geisha gathered round; they know perfectly well who he is, they all know, Haru no Saiten. “How do you say that?” one of them wondered. “The Rite of Spring,” I said. “No, no,” she said, frowning, “in French.” Whether she would have then produced it for the pleasure of the master I do not know. They were obviously much taken with his manners.

Extreme politeness, always standing when introduced, always last out of the door, always bowing. And hand-kissing. The geisha were enchanted. I remembered that Marian Korn, often his hostess in Tokyo, had said: “I knew he was great, knew the music, but I didn’t know how great. It takes a very, very great man to be sure enough of himself to behave so exquisitely with women.”

Party over, time to go home, with the geisha insisting, as was their duty, that it go on, that the guests stay. Stravinsky smiled, blew kisses. “No, I am old. I go. But you, Robert, you stay.” He had seen that Robert, much enjoying himself, wanted to stay.

“No,” said Vera, “Robert must come back with us.”

“C’est pas importante,” said Stravinsky, turning away.

“Pas de toute,” said Vera, contradicting.

They then went into Russian. Robert stood between them. He was a confidant, family friend, secretary, but he was now plainly the son, and his parents were having a small and quiet argument about him.

It was time now to leave Japan, and Stravinsky was hosting a splendid lunch at the Imperial Hotel. All sorts of delicacies, everything done perfectly, very expensive. Like everyone leaving, he had already left - his mind was back home in California. “My books, oh, but I have missed my books.” He was thinking also of the airplane. He spread his arms like a small eagle, holding them out at either side, looking down at his plate. “This is the way I want airplane to fly. Strong.” Then he flapped his arms and rolled his head. “I do not want airplane to fly this way. Not strong, frightening.”

He turned, smiled, reached for the whiskey. “Like milk to me,” he said with his cat’s grin. “Blood too thick. This is my medicine.” He beamed. “Doctors’ orders!”

After we had eaten, drank, talked, and it was time to go to the airport, Vera up seeing to last-minute packing, Robert up, assisting. Stravinsky folded his hands, looking at his napkin, then looked up at me curiously appraising. As he had the day before when he signed my copy of the full score of Threni, then stopped midway through, looked up, alert, and said: “You did buy this copy, didn’t you?”

Now he looked up again, intelligence manifest and said: “You tell me. Gagaku - do I have it right?” A single finger unfolded and began to beat out the opening rhythm, from very slow to very fast, an unbroken tempo of beats, consistently accelerating - a Japanese concept of time, one unknown to the West.

He did it perfectly. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #273. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Donald Richie

Donald Richie is first honorable visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the nineties, Donald replied, Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes. Mr. Richie passed away in 2013.


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