Since Chi originally conceived the music he has composed as being sung by a vocalist accompanied by a rock band, he has tried over the years to coerce me into writing lyrics and singing even though I am neither a lyricist nor a singer. He finally succeeded in convincing me to sit down with him one day and at least attempt a rough English translation of already extant Japanese lyrics for one piece and of some ideas for lyrics he came up with for a couple newer pieces.
Listen while you read to “Coronado Bridge” and “Sunset”, both from the “blue side” of the double album “10 Strings” by the Panache Orchestra. “Peacock Hill” is a (relatively) new unpublished piece that really needs to be properly recorded, hopefully on our contemplated EP of odd-metered dance pieces if we can manage to hold together long enough to pull that off. These are the pieces we worked on writing/ translating lyrics for.
Mid-Late January 2013
One day last summer Chi worked with a young woman at an acting job who is an opera singer that had recently relocated to L.A. from NYC, and she was open to the idea of collaborating with us. Various things occurred so we have not been able to meet and work on anything yet, but in the meantime (at my urging) Chi began selecting potential pieces to record rough demos of with vocals and getting some lyrics together. It took quite some work for me to get him to understand that putting the onus on the singer to listen to our entire repertoire of nearly 80 pieces and choose the ones she was most interested in working on was a recipe for failure, and to be proactive and make it easy for her instead (i.e., choose the pieces ourselves and prepare them well). Chi appears to be under the disastrously mistaken impression that everyone in the world is just standing around waiting for him to decide that he wants them to do something for him, and will immediately snap to it as soon as he tells them to, or if he doesn’t do so immediately, he thinks they are supposed to chase him down and kiss his ass to let them. (Rolling eyes and shaking head. How else can one react to that?!)
Anyway, an old friend of his in Japan (who Chi believes is now deceased as he was ill with cancer the last time Chi saw him many years ago) who is/was a professional lyricist had hired Chi to set some of his lyrics to music, so that is where the Japanese lyrics came from for at least one of the pieces Chi wanted to try with the opera singer. Chi wrote down some ideas for lyrics for a couple other pieces he has composed since we moved to California that he also wanted to try with the opera singer and wanted me to translate. I had thought that he wrote lyrics in English and just wanted me to clean them up, and fully expected the work session to turn into the usual situation where I get totally annoyed and frustrated with the corny, lame, nonsensical and generally fucked up lyrics Chi typically comes up with in English (a language he has no real understanding of or competence in!) by sticking together random definitions that came up when he looks Japanese words up in the dictionary for their English equivalents and demands that they be used as is, and the naïve, juvenile themes he typically insists on, which practically always results in a fight and nothing getting accomplished.
Somewhat to my shock and amazement, we actually not only got something done this time, but managed to do so peacefully. He had written some reasonably decent material in Japanese for both “Coronado Bridge” (embedded above) and “Peacock Hill”, and this time said that a rough translation would suffice instead of insisting on matching something specific to the music, so I was willing to at least give it a go. I have no particular skill or training in verse and prefer to leave that specialty to someone who does. Chi had said earlier that the singer we may potentially collaborate with has some capability in several different languages as part of her opera training, and he would be happy to allow her to write lyrics herself if she wishes (and can come up with something useable).
Now is a good opportunity to explain why we have never worked with a vocalist before with the Panache Orchestra. Because I don’t want to. Why? Because unless they have a high degree of classical training and experience (and quite possibly even if they do), it’s just a monumental pain in the ass for the following reasons:
- Unless the vocalist is Japanese or can communicate effectively in that very challenging and highly nuanced language, I will inevitably get stuck with Chi triangulating everything through me, which is an absolute nightmare;
- In my experience (apart from the exceptional class noted above), singers often:
a. cannot read music;
b. suck even worse at rhythm than melody-specialised instrumentalists (like yours truly);
c. their pitch is often hit-or miss and they have a limited range so the music has to be transposed into keys to accommodate them that are fucked up for the instrumentalists (no, it’s not that I can’t play in six flats. I just get little sympathetic vibration from my instrument in flat keys — hence the reason why string-centric music is usually written in sharp keys so it sounds bright and alive as it’s supposed to, and you use the flat keys for a darker more muted sound when you want that instead. Many wind instruments have the opposite issue.); and
d. sometimes they can’t even fkng SING, yet still think they’re God’s gift and have outsize egos that are a noisome hassle to deal with.
Naturally there are exceptions to that rant, and they tend to be very busy and expensive. It’s also worth noting that I am strongly biased toward instrumental music, and just prefer it, so I have little interest in dealing with singers and lyrics, and besides, my life is more than complicated enough already. While on this subject I should also come clean and admit that there is some element of sour grapes in this since it seems any cute young girl can get booked/signed practically anywhere despite being a piss-poor to middling vocalist, while attempting to book an instrumental act has become a fool’s errand, particularly when doing original music!
At any rate, this is what we came up with for “Coronado Bridge” (and keep in mind that the following are rough English translations of Chi’s ideas for lyrics, and NOT actual lyrics):
“An indescribably huge ship slowly slips through San Diego Bay, as if sliding on ice.
How many people made the choice to be aboard?
Some chose this path for the paycheck, others for the adventurous lifestyle.
All decided to offer up their lives for their country.
Now that great ship #76 is passing under Coronado Bridge —
an impressive sight that makes me feel small and insignificant.
All I can see at the stern of the passing ship is resting seagulls lined up on the railing.
I pray for their safe return, and hope they remember all the people who care about them.
The huge ship becomes small as it vanishes into the distance.
How many people are being carried away on that now tiny ship?”
I remembered Chi composing that piece in the brand-new loft in San Diego that we lived in when we first moved to California from Tokyo in summer of 2004 with a partial view of the Coronado Bridge where we could see navy ships passing under it on their way out to the Persian Gulf that inspired the piece as a prayer for their safe return.
We next took a crack at “Peacock Hill” (with same caveat as above):
“Have you ever seen a peacock fly with your own eyes?
They spread their wings and take flight, rising and descending with their great size and weight.
They live on a hill overlooking downtown L.A.
where many years ago a musician brought them and set them free.
Various people care for them.
Sometimes they are chased by children and cats and they alight atop the telephone poles.
Their cries of “Mei-yo! Mei-yo!” echo out across the city in twilight.”
Chi composed that piece sometime in 2009 when we first moved to Chinatown and discovered a small flock of free-roaming peacocks that live in our neighborhood.
When we finished that and moved on to “Sunset” that had actual finished lyrics that were set to the piece, it became immediately obvious that these lyrics had been composed by a highly skilled professional, and I found working with that material enjoyable and inspiring rather than irksome. Here is how “Sunset” turned out:
“Emptiness and sorrow at nightfall
splashes vivid colours across the darkening sky
My heart has been taken away
somewhere beyond the horizon
as if whipping in the wind on the wings of a ghostly flying bird
leaving my deserted body behind.
Perhaps I could say goodbye to the loneliness but…
our love has ended.
You vanished without a word.
The sun has set and I have nowhere to go.
I let a single tear fall, as far off in the distance
a flock of birds pulls the scudding clouds across the darkening sky.”
Reading through the finished translation brought tears to my eyes since that was pretty much the path that Chi and I were on at that point. In fact, after we wrapped up the translation work, Chi began talking very animatedly and insistently about his plans for adding the vocalist to the ensemble, which would push me into the background, and I am perfectly ok with that since I am by nature and training a sideplayer, i.e., the charming fiddler chick usually positioned next to the big star in the center — not the big star myself — as I have never been comfortable in that role and do not have the personality for it, so I would be quite happy to hand it off to someone who is. He then paused and directly addressed my recent warnings of leaving him, questioning whether the Panache Orchestra would even still exist going forward, and agreed to let me go, only asking that I give him a chance to get an alternate arrangement in place instead of abruptly throwing him out.
While it would have absolutely been in both of our interests to carry that conversation further and openly discuss this elephant in the living room since Chi seemed to be in a rare constructive frame of mind to do so, I felt cornered, so I let that opportunity slip away, merely registering my agreement by staring back at him wordlessly.