When an internationally-acclaimed Polish violinist performed at a Japanese music festival in early November, the instrument played was not a Stradivarius or other prized violin. It was assembled from driftwood.
After his performance at the Ikoma International Music Festival in Nara Prefecture, violinist Nicolas Chumachenco was called back to the stage for an encore. Before starting to play, he showed the audience the back of his violin, on which a picture of a single tree was drawn.
The picture was of the famed “miracle pine tree,” the only tree that survived the devastating tsunami that swept away a pine forest on the coast of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on March 11, 2011, the day the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the region.
The instrument played by Chumachenco is one of the two violins manufactured by Muneyuki Nakazawa, a violin maker in Tokyo, using driftwood recovered from the debris left by the tsunami.
Nakazawa, 72, is the master of a violin workshop that manufactures new instruments and repairs precious classics like Stradivariuses.
After the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Nakazawa felt the urge to do something as an act of sympathy with the disaster victims.
Several months after the earthquake, inspiration came when he and his violinist wife, Kimiko, were watching a TV news report about piles of debris, including parts of broken houses, that had been left by the tsunami.
“This is not mere debris. It is a source of family memories, family history,” Kimiko whispered as she watched the TV.
Nakazawa reflected on how sad it would be to lose a home filled with years of family memories overnight.
Kimiko asked Nakazawa, “Can’t you make something using the debris?” He came upon the idea that manufacturing a violin made of parts of broken houses might be a way of preserving the disaster victims’ family memories.
The body of a violin is composed of parts made of different wood materials. For the front plate, called the belly, a European tree known as spruce is believed to be the ideal material. The back and ribs are typically made of maple.
Nakazawa, who was born to a family that runs a lumber business, is selective about wood materials and uses almost exclusively European wood to manufacture violins.
“The tone color depends entirely on the wood materials,” he says.
This time was different, however.
“If we don’t fuss about the tone color, a violin could be made of any wood,” he says.
So, he decided to look for wood materials among the debris in the disaster area. Last December, he visited Rikuzentakata and scoured the region for suitable materials, guided by Kazuyuki Hinata, an employee at a local lumber factory.
In Rikuzentakata, there was an abundance of driftwood that came from Takata Matsubara, the tsunami-swept coastal grove of Japanese red pine trees, a type of wood that can substitute for spruce as belly material. Meanwhile, alcove posts of houses in this region are typically made of maple, so materials for the backside and ribs were also expected to be found among the debris.
Eventually, Nakazawa collected a sufficient amount of driftwood and wooden posts of broken houses to manufacture several violins. After the wood was lumbered, Nakazawa took it back to Tokyo.
His unique violin-making mission took on urgency after it was decided that his new violin would be used at a one-year anniversary memorial service for the earthquake and tsunami disaster co-organized by Iwate Prefecture and Rikuzentakata that was scheduled for March 11, 2012.
Nakazawa had to drastically speed up the manufacturing process, which usually takes four months. The use of unusual materials also posed a challenge, as it required meticulous adjustments of the thickness of the wood plates.
He also spent an enormous amount of time and effort on the finishing process of varnishing.
The day before the memorial service, Hinata heard the sound of the violin whose materials he helped to collect.
“That was the first time in my life that I listened to a violin played before me. I was reminded of peaceful scenery of the Sanriku coast that I saw before the earthquake,” he recalls.
As Hinata suffered from the disaster himself, his life has been a struggle ever since. “I felt that this sound might have a comforting effect on our minds,” he says.
Two driftwood violins are now being used in performances made under a project to encourage disaster victims and keep the lesson of the disaster alive. One of them is being played in Japan and the other abroad.
Over the next few years, a viola and a cello will be added to the driftwood variety of stringed instruments.
Hinata is delighted at the thought that the instruments made of the remnants of tsunami-devastated pine trees and houses will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
“I’m thrilled to think of their future hundreds of years from now,” he says.