10. Power of Beauty in the Devastation

December 7, 2020Roger W. Lowther

In the previous episode, we talked a little bit about “Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave,” an illustrated children’s book released last week. Thank you for your support of this project. Sales have been going really well. It’s pretty exciting! We were the #1 Best Seller on Amazon in various categories, for both the English and the Japanese versions of this book.

And it’s our hope that this will be a blessing to you, sharing just one story of hope in really hard times. The story takes place during the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, but there’s an important part of the story that doesn’t get much attention in the book. In fact, it only gets one little part of one page because it’s seen through the eyes of Pippy the Piano, and he doesn’t even realize what he’s done. I think many artists are like that. We don’t understand how important the role of the arts are or the degree to which it can help others.

When the people were cleaning the mud and debris out of their church, they needed to decide what to do with their piano. Everyone else was taking their pianos to the street, and throwing them out. Those waterlogged pianos were heavy! It was no easy task to move them, and there was no trash collection, so they just sat there for months. I was constantly reminded of how the tsunami robbed all those cities of music.

At one point soon after the tsunami, I found an upright piano that had been tossed outside not by people but by the wave itself. It was propped up on the roof a house, leaning against some debris. And as I climbed over it to get a picture, I guess I must have moved some of it just enough that the piano actually fell, right there, right in front of me. I could have been killed! I’m not making this up!

What’s so amazing about this story is that Kamaishi Church decided NOT to throw out their piano. When they tried playing the keys, they found it could still make music, though barely. It still had life in it. It was still breathing, in a sense. It could be fixed! There was hope! And they desperately needed that hope. During that time, there was a tendency to think it was pointless, that nothing would ever get better, that their town and their lives were beyond repair.

But when the people looked at this piano, they remembered the promises of God. He does not abandon us in the mud and muck of this broken world, but fixes us, encourages us, and gives us the courage to keep going and to rebuild. So it’s because of the piano that the people decided to fix their church, and the pastor wanted me to make it clear that that is an important part of the story.

Last month, I gave a TEDx talk on other stories of the power of beauty to bring hope in devastation, and I wanted to share them with you here, as part of this podcast. This talk was given on November 2 at the Christian Heritage School near New Haven, Connecticut.

TED x Christian Heritage School
November 2, 2020

It was just before lunchtime in 1923. A devastating earthquake leveled the city of Tokyo, but what came next was even worse. A wall of fire raced through those broken buildings faster than anyone could escape. The largest group of people took shelter in a park not far from my apartment building here in Tokyo. It’s next to a river that runs through the city, but neither the park nor the water could protect them. They were surrounded and over 38,000 died, there in that one place. Throughout the city there were hundreds of thousands who died. I often jog to the memorial museum that’s in that park today, which tells the story.

Well there was a writer, Kikuchi Kan, who had this to say about that time,

“In an emergency such as this earthquake, art is useless, to say the least. Our recent experience only helped expose the ultimate futility of all artistic endeavors.”

This quote struck me, because it’s the way a lot of us think. When budgets are cut to our schools, the arts are the first thing to go. If you declare your major to be art in college, you are basically taking a vow of poverty. Music is often seen as nothing but a form of mere entertainment, some kind of luxury item that we don’t need. When things get really tough, we need food, water, and shelter. Whoever died from a lack of a painting? It’s foolish to even think that art would have any legitimate role in a disaster.

Well, I found out for myself whether this was true or not when another earthquake struck Japan in 2011. This time instead of a wall of fire it was a wall of water that took the lives of so many, a tsunami over 120 feet high in some places. This was followed by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, comparable only to Chernobyl.

It’s really hard to express the fear that we felt during that time. We were told not to drink the tap water, but there was no bottled water anywhere. The shelves were completely empty of everything, and we had small children. We didn’t want them drinking the water. We were told not to go out in the rain, because it was showering radioactivity from the sky. And blackouts rolled throughout the city, so we’re in the dark. Everyone was fleeing so we felt alone and abandoned, and rumors spread that 38 million people would have to be evacuated, basically the whole middle third of Japan. People were actually whispering, “Is Japan finished? Is this the end?”

In that situation, I entered the relief movement as a truck driver, providing “necessary” items: food, water, clothing, supplies. Three days in I was in a shelter near the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. And in the corner of that shelter, there was an old sticky keyboard.

Now, I’m a classical musician, and during my six years at Juilliard, I was taught how to play on stage in a nice controlled, quiet, and clean environment, wearing a tux. And here I was wearing jeans and boots and a winter coat because it was as cold inside as out. My hair was a mess from sleeping in the truck. We were stressed and tired from driving local roads all night, keeping an eye out for holes caused by the earthquake. There was mud everywhere, and I was dirty.

I was asked to give a concert in that situation, for a group of people who’d lost everything, which would seem like the most “useless” thing, the most “futile” thing I could possibly do. But you know, I don’t think I’ve ever played for a more appreciative audience. It wasn’t just the applause and the shouts of “Bravo!” and “Wonderful!” but all the comments afterwards. The music had a power I’m just beginning to understand. It didn’t even occur to me that music could be useful or even “necessary.”

The music had a power I’m just beginning to understand. It didn’t even occur to me that music could be useful or even “necessary.”

I don’t think I played very well. I’m so glad my teachers weren’t in the room. I certainly wouldn’t have won any competitions or awards. And yet, there was something very special about that. For that brief moment, there was no emergency. There was no earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear radiation.

Pretty soon my full-time job soon became giving concerts in shelters up and down the coast of Japan where the tsunami hit. Despite the aftershocks, the devastation, the mud, the all-night driving, living in a tent, eating instant and canned foods, no running water, no showers, no flush toilets…despite all these very much less-than-ideal circumstances…it was like I found music for the first time, something I’d been playing my entire life.

It was like I found music for the first time, something I’d been playing my entire life.

There’s one concert in particular that stands out to me. I was in a nuclear power plant, north of the ones in Fukushima. It had been shut down when the earthquake hit. There were probably two hundred people there sheltering in that gymnasium. It was about two months after the earthquake, and we observed a minute of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time the earthquake had struck. Then it was my job and the job of the musicians with me to give a concert.

I’ve never been in a room that was more somber. As an organist, I’ve played for hundreds of funerals, so I know what it’s like to be in a room full of grieving people. But this was different. The despair was beyond anything I had ever experienced. Everyone was staring at the floor. Nobody wanted us there. Or rather, it wasn’t that they didn’t want us there. It’s more like they didn’t care if we were there or not. There was nothing that seemed appropriate to break that silence, nothing we could do musically or verbally.

One of the musicians with us played the traditional Japanese flute, the shakuhachi. He went to one side of the gymnasium and played a short melody. Just four notes. One of the other musicians also played the flute, so he went to the other side of the room and echoed it back but slightly differently. Back and forth, call and response, question and answer, their melodies crisscrossed the room through the people. Little by little, their melodies got longer and longer…faster…happier. People started to look up and sit up straighter.

The musicians began to walk toward each other and met in the middle. The two of them formed a little parade, walking together through the people and playing happy music, and people started to clap along! Somehow, the music literally moved the people, not just emotionally but physically as well.

After the concert, so many people came up to share their stories with us. Oh wow, there were so many stories of loss, but there were stories of survival too…and hope and life. There was a young high school girl who told us she played the flute as well and that she had it with her. Of course we wanted to hear her, so she ran back to her place and dug through her clothes, all the possessions she had left in the world. I don’t think she’d played in that shelter because there was no privacy and she wouldn’t have wanted to bother anyone.

So she grabbed the flute, ran back, and started to play for us. The other two musicians joined in as well, and pretty soon a group of women surrounded them and started to laugh and clap and even dance! It was like a party had just suddenly started, the epitome of joy! I couldn’t believe it! Just moments before we had been in the depths of despair. I had never seen such a contrast. I didn’t know that it was even possible.

It was through music that I experienced firsthand this power for hope and healing. It was so clear that art and beauty were among those “necessary” things we had to provide in an emergency. Traveling from shelter to shelter, I witnessed scenes like this over and over again. It wasn’t always laughter and joy. There were also times of weeping and crying, when entire rooms full of people were able to mourn and grieve, sometimes for the first time.

It was through music that I experienced firsthand this power for hope and healing. It was so clear that art and beauty were among those “necessary” things we had to provide in an emergency.

Music played a role I did not know it could play. It wasn’t just useful. It was so important. It completely broke down the boundaries of what I was taught to believe about music. It began to make sense to me why slaves sang in the cotton fields, and why some of the greatest works of art ever made came out of war, and why a string quartet on the deck of the sinking Titanic played music, knowing they were about to die.

So to answer Mr. Kan, “No!” Music is NOT “useless”! It’s not “futile” in the least. In fact, only a disaster like this could show us just how precious music really is.

Thank you.