ett (and the three nostalgias)

27Jan11

In his book Cognitive Variations, G.E.R. Lloyd discusses the Russian word toska, a word that denotes the feeling that one gets when “one wants some things to happen and knows they can’t happen.”  It’s like a kind of nostalgia for a future that one already knows will never come to pass.  This strikes me as being different from the American form of nostalgia, which seems to generally tread one of two paths: On the one hand there’s what I will call ‘eBay nostalgia,’ which is that cotton-candy pleasure we get when we encounter commercial artifacts from our childhood that it wouldn’t bother us (deep down) if we never actually saw again; on the other hand there is a deeper form of nostalgia that is a melancholy longing for a now unrecoverable past.  There’s a whole politics that could be read into this: Russian toska as the base emotion of a citizenry that once invested its hopes in a perfect Soviet future while already fully aware that this future was extremely unlikely to come into existence vs. a U.S. imaginary that longs for the perfect democratic past that must surely have existed somewhere in the hearts and intentions of the Founding Fathers.

If you’re wondering what all of this could possibly have to do with music, the answer is that I had been excited for weeks to see one of my favorite bands — Ett — perform at Osaka’s Musica Japonica.  Unfortunately, the night before the performance I acquired a terrible case of fever, chills, and stuffed-up head and that’s when the feeling of toska kicked in.  A nostalgic longing for an event that I would now never get see.  This especially depressed me because it has been ages and ages since I’ve had a chance to see Sayuri and Kei, who are wonderful people, and I was looking forward to saying hello to them again before returning to the States at the end of March.

Japanese has it’s own word for nostalgia — natsukashi (懐かし) — which has a slightly different feeling than the English nostalgia. In fact, natsukashi really has no direct English equivalent.  It doesn’t exactly mean ‘nostalgia,’ or (as my electronic dictionary would have it) ‘dear, desired, missed.’  If I absolutely had to describe what natsukashi means I would have to say it’s ‘the feeling you get while having a fond memory of some certain aspect of your past.’  Often a sense of familiarity is part of this feeling, as well as a feeling of fulfillment that goes along with the act of remembering.  And a sweet sadness might make its presence known as well.  (LetsJapan has an interesting post about the word natsukashi that points out, in no uncertain terms, how much more commonly it’s used by Japanese people than nostalgia is by English speakers.)

Whenever I hear Ett’s music I get a little bit of a natsukashi feeling because they’re one of the first Japanese bands that I fell in love with after moving to Japan.  My friend Marié and I went to see Ett play with Ryukusanburu Koen and it was an incredibly wonderful show.  Marié plays accordion on a few tracks from 無茶の茶 (TEA/NO TEA), Ett’s third album, and also translated the lyrics for the album into English (I get a co-translator credit, but really I just gave a bit of advice about word choice and tone).  Kei has called Ett’s style of music “Zen pop,” and there’s definitely something to this.  Many of the lyrics are spare and contemplative , and several of them explicitly reference the problem of being/not being in the world, as in this lyric from “Who” —

You are not I.
You are also I.
It’s when you lose yourself
That you become yourself.

A lot of Ett’s lyrics also invoke the natsukashi feeling of (re)encountering elements of past experience in the present, or they stress the beautiful transience of experiences and customs that used to be as commonplace as breathing but that are now disappearing as quickly as a mist.  Even the formal simplicity of the songs — many of them referring back to folk melodies, or the types of songs that children might once have learned to sing — enacts a kind nostalgic relay to the past.  But I think that what’s important in the way that Ett uses natsukashi elements in their work is that these elements are always used not to produce a desire for the past, or to disparage the present, but rather to bring the fullness of an emotion connected to the past into the present and let it live and breath here.  The moment of feeling natsukashi becomes a moment replete with contemplative fullness — joyful, fondly familiar, refreshing and sad, a rush of the life of the past that is as beautiful as a swallow’s flight through a warm hall in winter.

I wanted to find more videos of Ett, but it turns out that they’re few and far between.  This video, a performance of the song “First Thing in the Open Morning,” is one of the better ones.

Early empty crispy morning is of a freshly-painted color
A wild dove is singing

There are people taking walks, even this early in the morning
The footsteps get near, crunch in the dirt, and fade into the distance

Meanwhile, the color becomes more and more vivid and bright
How beautiful
An absolutely beautiful morning
The same morning as always.

Looking for something in the empty mind —
It was all ocean.
On the quiet ocean, desperately
Afloat lightly
Afloat softly

Meanwhile, the color becomes more
and more vivid and bright
How beautiful
An absolutely beautiful morning
I want to show it to you too
The same morning as always.

Of course, like all great Zen poets, Kei and Sayuri have a fantastic capacity for humor.  This video — which is cut short just as the song starts to get going — is by Inunco of Aozoratei (青空亭) fame.  The song is called “Tooth-brushing Song” and it’s a cautionary tale about oral hygiene:

If you don’t brush your teeth,
A cockroach will bite your lips
They’ll get swollen when you’re bitten
And it stings and hurts sometimes.

But it’s not just for kids —

Hey, you there, passed out
With beer in your mouth,
You’ll get bitten by a roach
Bitten, bitten, bitten

And if you miss Ett, you’ll be bitten by regret . . .

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2 Responses to “ett (and the three nostalgias)”

  1. hi Trane,

    Terrific post! Esp. liked the contrast between Russian toska and American nostalgia, and the reasons for the difference.

    Funnily enough, I was just talking about nostalgia in pop music Tuesday night with the poet Donald Dunbar. We were discussing Ariel Pink, and Donald pointed out how his earlier work lets you hear the “tape decay”–literal and metaphorical–that’s part of his nostalgia for a musical ’80s that’s a little too skewed to have ever really existed. While the new record, “Before Today,” cleans up the decay to make the nostalgia closer to something like pastiche.

    I’ve always liked the nostalgia for a vanished music hall, sing-around-the-piano-in-a-parlor sort of past in the Beatles. I guess Paul was mostly guilty of this–even his bass lines carry the echo of brass band tuba parts–but George too died a card-carrying member of the George Formby Appreciation Society.

    One of the greatest explorations of nostalgia in pop, IMHO, is The Kinks “We Are the Village Green Preservation Society.” (“People take pictures of each other/just to prove that they really existed…”). I guess that’s a pretty obvious one, though. Is there a Japanese equivalent to the Village Green?

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Hi Rodney — 

      Thanks for you enthusiastic comment! Wish I actually spoke some Russian so I wasn’t relying on someone else’s sense of what toska feels like, but you’ve got to trust the experts sometimes, right?

      Curiously enough, even though I’ve read a ton about Ariel Pink I’ve never really had a chance to catch very much of Pink’s oeuvre — still, tape sounds like just the thing to bring back certain (now nostalgic) listening practices that were central to the 80s. Not only was it the necessary medium for that love letter to music that we know as ‘the mix tape,’ but it was also an incredible technology for distributing newly discovered musical finds. Back before radio played only the same 40 songs over and over on repeat (i.e. back when the DJ could actually pick and choose), it was still possible to be surprised by not only a song you’d never heard, but even an artist or a whole musical genre that you hadn’t known about before. I remember sitting with my hand on the record button for hours at a time while listening to my favorite radio stations, just waiting for something to happen. The sound quality may have been crap, but that didn’t matter because the excitement that went around with new music blew everything else away. That was, for me at least, the real meaning of the Maxell guy being blown back in his chair. It wasn’t so much the quality of the tape that mattered, or the volume you could play it at, but the joyful shock of the new that was at stake.

      It’s really funny that you should close by bringing up The Kinks, since I’ve just been having an email conversation with a friend about The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Muswell Hillbillies, and Preservation Act 1 and 2 — some of my very favorite albums. As for a Japanese equivalent, I guess I would say that the desire to preserve particular elements of tradition is a tendency that runs though a variety of Japanese subcultures. The LOHAS movement in Japan, for example, at once engages in the kind of international resistance to the predations of capital that other slow life movements do, but at the same time it insists on linking this rejection to the preservation of certain specifically Japanese traditions and customs. Lots of underground musicians like to wear kimono, incorporate the sounds of traditional Japanese music, etc. — NOT as unthinking replication, of course, but rather in the sense of bringing an echo or trace into the present that says “still here, and making difference.” Another example of The Village Green Preservation Society at work would be the way that community makes itself felt — at one fantastic all-day punk/electronic/experimental/pop/rock marathon show that I attended there was a tent set up in the middle of the listening space. Occasionally (between other sets) two guys would emerge covered in crazy hand-made costumes and play wonky/funky/funny electronic music on cheap synths while they jerk-danced around. The third time they came out, however, it turns out they had a pot of stewed daikon radishes they had been preparing in the tent (or at least heating up). They set up a table and started distributing the daikon among the audience members. It made everything so casual and, um, village-like — even in the middle of what would usually feel like a most urban and contemporary situation.


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