Music evokes sentiments of internment camp stay
By Daily Bruin Staff
Nov. 17, 1998 9:00 p.m.
Wednesday, November 18, 1998
Music evokes sentiments of internment camp stay
SURVIVOR: Inspired by World War II experience with family,
professor premieres emotional composition
By Sandy Yang
Daily Bruin Contributor
They were torn from their homes and forced to give up their
livelihood. Families were separated.
The memories of the 1941 internment of 120,000
Japanese-Americans lived on last weekend in a choral concert titled
"Minidoka (Reveries of)," written by visiting Professor Paul
Chihara, one of the survivors of the relocation camps.
"It’s a song about my youth and my parents and the others of
that generation who have passed away," Chihara said. "It was like a
dream piece, a memory piece like looking at old pictures."
It is not a proud part of America’s history. Few textbooks and
history classes will detail the circumstances behind this blatant
denial of freedom.
Although most of the people who lived through this experience
have passed away, "Minidoka" manages to recreate the atmosphere and
feelings of being a child in these camps almost 60 years ago.
Performed by the San Francisco Chamber Singers, "Minidoka" was
named after the camp in which Chihara and part of his family lived
for four years. It premiered at the California Palace of the Legion
of Honor in San Francisco, where "Minidoka" was one of the pieces
in a series of concerts about composers’ personal experiences in
World War II.
"The pieces that were in the concert were things in this century
that were not patriotic," Chihara said. "They were often very
anguished, personal expressions of intimate thoughts and
Before the Chamber Singers’ performance of "Minidoka," Chihara
spoke to the sold-out crowd about the personal experiences that
helped him generate the piece, which he described, in William
Wordsworth’s words, as "a strong emotion recollected in
tranquility." The standing ovation that followed the performance
indicated that the sentiment was felt by each person in the
audience in some way.
June Berk, an executive assistant to the director of the
Japanese American National Museum, understood too well the emotions
and memories portrayed in "Minidoka."
Though Berk and her family were relocated to Arkansas, many
miles away from Minidoka, Idaho, the same emotions pervaded the
experience of spending part of a childhood in the relocation camps,
away from one’s home and family.
Berk’s brother had also joined the army and was not allowed to
see his family before leaving for war.
"It was emotionally stirring, and for me, it evoked a lot of
memories of my childhood (in the relocation camp)," Berk said.
"Paul was able to capture the emotions of someone who had been in
camp. He conveyed that to the wider audience who was there, who
were mostly people who had not been in camp."
With a mix of different percussion instruments backing the
choral performance, the 15-minute concert included Japanese folk
music and American pop songs that were integrated to capture the
atmosphere of the ’40s while living in the camps.
The songs were in English, Japanese and Latin, providing the
languages heard in the camps by the different generations of
Specific recollections of the experience included the inclusion
of "Way Beyond the Hills of Idaho," a popular song of the time that
came to have other meanings, including the separation Chihara’s
family faced as a result of relocation. While Chihara and his
siblings and mother were in Minidoka, his father was relocated to
another camp. The family would not reunite until four years after
"You could just picture Idaho as a desolate area with hills that
you could see, and this bleak desert was where (Chihara) called
home and somewhere way beyond the hills of Idaho was his father,"
Berk said. "It was very emotional. I started crying."
Although the injustice was bleak and humiliating, Chihara, who
was 4 years old then, does not deem his stay at Minidoka as
exclusively a painful experience, which is suggested in the
playfulness of the music. There, the future composer tasted his
first musical experiences, singing popular songs for the people in
the camp, away from surroundings that were afraid and intolerant of
Asian Americans at the time.
"The world was very hostile to us," Chihara recalled. "So in a
lot of respects, even if it was a relocation camp, when we left, it
seemed like home."
Through "Minidoka," Chihara is not recreating the history nor
advocating any political movements against the injustices. What
fuels the piece is his desire to write from his own memories and to
share his experiences through music.
"It didn’t happen to somebody else, it happened to us," Chihara
said. "I want others to hear it play, because not only will they
understand me, but a whole generation of Japanese Americans."
Chihara continued, "I’m sure that will be a disappointment to
some people who are activists, but that’s not my purpose. I wanted
to humanize it. In a way, that’s a political statement too. Maybe
the most powerful kind because it would make clear to others that
Americans were put there."
For Chihara, "Minidoka" was the most personal and intimate piece
because it drew solely from his own emotions and recollections. A
renowned, versatile composer and present UCLA professor of Basic
Musicianship and Composition, Chihara has written for various
symphonies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ballets, musicals,
choral concerts, television shows and films in his distinguished
For the first time, however, Chihara has written explicitly
about his own life in "Minidoka."
Though Chihara has composed music for the subject of relocation
camps twice before, including the film score to "Farewell to
Manzanar" and an instrumental piece by the same name for the
Lincoln Center in New York, no restrictions were placed on this
current piece, which took Chihara two years to complete.
Though the relocation experience was not tragic or brutal and
did not parallel the horrors of the Holocaust, it was still a
hardship for the thousands of families who were separated and
forced to leave their lives.
In the piece, Chihara said he hopes the songs offer the
realization that those interned were normal American people.
"(We were) people who liked to watch baseball and went to school
and wanted to get married, and all of a sudden we’re treated like
aliens," Chihara said. "I want people to realize what a sad
situation that is to experience, but we survived it." Claire
Visiting professor Paul Chihara premiered his newest
composition, which dealt with his Japanese heritage, in San
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