Exploring Manzanar Camp's Legacy in Music

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A new orchestral work uses the story of Manzanar to send a message its creators hope will influence future generations. The music references the World War II internment camps that tens of thousands of Japanese-American citizens were confined within. They were forced to leave behind friends, fortune, and family to wait out the war at camps like Manzanar, in central California. Anthea Raymond reports.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)


Many people still struggle to reconcile American democratic ideals with what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II. Tens of thousands were put into detention camps, forced to leave behind family, friends and fortune. One of the biggest such camps was Manzanar in central California. Anthea Raymond reports that a new orchestral work uses the story of Manzanar to send a message its creators hope will influence future generations.


In the 1990s, historian Kevin Starr was running the California State Library when the state Legislature pushed through funding for projects about the internment of Japanese-Americans and other citizens during World War II. Starr felt strongly that one of those projects should be told through art.

Dr. KEVIN STARR (Historian): I think unless something like this so profound is, in some way, memorialized through art, through musical art especially, it's really not been given the full level of consideration that such a tragic occurrence is entitled to.

RAYMOND: Soon after Starr visited well-known conductor Kent Nagano. Nagano, a third-generation Japanese-American, had parents and grandparents who spent time in US internment camps. Starr floated his idea at Nagano's San Francisco home.

Mr. KENT NAGANO (Conductor): He said, `You know, Mr. Nagano, I'd like you to consider trying to instigate the composition of a piece which we might call the Japanese-American Internment Camp Symphony.' (Laughs) And my--I'm sure my eyes got really wide, and I just had to be honest and I said I wasn't really sure if that would be the best title for a work, but maybe we could find something else.

RAYMOND: What the maestro found was theater director Robert Wilson, who held two workshops at his Watermill Institute on Long Island to help get the project off the ground. Nagano hoped state funding would help him keep Robert Wilson involved, but California budget cuts eventually made that impossible. So the project, says Nagano, had to take a new tact.

Mr. NAGANO: I had a number of follow-up conversations with Dr. Starr, and we decided we would go ahead and try to do the project anyway. And we would open up the time line. Instead of limiting it to a year or a year and a half as originally thought, we decided that we'd simply leave it open-ended so that independent, private fund-raising could be done.

RAYMOND: Nagano turned to the Japanese-American community for help, eventually raising $2 million to bring "Manzanar: An American Story" to life.

(Soundbite of "Manzanar: An American Story")

Unidentified Woman #1: As we pass through the gate, I notice how blue the sky is.

Unidentified Man #1: Soldiers no older than boys point guns and escort us off the buses.

Unidentified Woman #2: Big, fluffy, white clouds silently moving.

Unidentified Man #2: Marksmen with drawn rifles looking down at us from wooden towers.

Unidentified Woman #3: A sprawling...

RAYMOND: The result was a symphony that was more like an oratorio, with spoken word, staging and songs adorning the orchestration. Philip Kan Gotanda, whose parents also spent time in an internment camp, wrote the original libretto that guided "Manzanar's" composition.

Mr. PHILIP KAN GOTANDA: The music is the sort of motor of the piece. Even though we started with the text initially, once they began to write music to it, the text also moved towards the music. So it was a constant exchange.

RAYMOND: "Manzanar" incorporates the work of three composers: Jean-Pascal Beintus, David Benoit and Naomi Sekiya. Sekiya's compositions begin and end "Manzanar." Her opening movement evokes the pre-World War II period when immigrants were coming from Japan.

(Soundbite of "Manzanar: An American Story")

Unidentified Woman #4: The boat rocks to and fro, to and fro. I spent the first week hanging over the rail. I cannot keep anything down. I clutch my future husband's photograph to my breast.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: I go to an address where a man from my village helps newcomers, for a fee, a place called Montana.

RAYMOND: Sekiya, who was born in Japan, is currently composer in residence at the Berkeley Symphony, which performed the first two productions of "Manzanar." At a rehearsal for the third performance in Los Angeles last month, she said the piece is still a work in progress, much like Americans' tolerance of diverse peoples. Her closing section links the lessons of Manzanar to the present.

Ms. NAOMI SEKIYA (Composer): And it's a mixed feeling because we wanted to focus on the warning as well as hope in the future. Hope is presented by the children's choir--children, you know, we're presenting the future and the hope. At the same time, orchestra is depicting warning signs.

(Soundbite of "Manzanar: An American Story")

Choir: Have you seen ...(unintelligible)? Do you know ...(unintelligible)?

RAYMOND: Conductor Kent Nagano says it's important to remember that this story is not just about Japanese-Americans but about all American citizens.

Mr. NAGANO: There's not one of us that hasn't had, at the very least, major disappointments. And for the most part of us, we've also experienced great tragedy and, in some cases, great injustices. And to be able to apply this and to check ourselves, as we face this very complicated time today, we can hopefully take from the retelling of the--"Manzanar: An American Story" something that will help us see the world around us today.

RAYMOND: Nagano says he'd like more people to see and hear the performance. Ideally, he says, other symphonies will take on the composition, but he'd also like to bring the whole production outdoors to the Manzanar site and shoot a DVD version against the backdrop of the lower Sierra Mountains. What happens next is up to history. For NPR News, I'm Anthea Raymond in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

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