RIKUZENTAKATA, IWATE PREF. – When a violin’s melody wafted through the air in a tsunami-devastated area of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on the first anniversary of the March 2011 disasters, what astonished people was not just its beautiful sound, but also the material it was made of.
The one-of-a-kind violin was crafted from wooden debris, possibly parts of the many houses and trees washed away in the massive tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region on 3/11.
“I was surprised to know driftwood was recycled into an instrument with a tone that makes people smile,” said 11-year-old Emi Matsumoto, who attended a memorial ceremony where the violin was played. The event gave her a chance to see friends she had not seen since the disaster.
It was fitting that the instrument was first played in a city known for its symbol of recovery, the so-called miracle pine tree, the only standing tree in a coastal forest where 70,000 30-meter-tall pine trees were wiped out by the tsunami.
It was there that Ivry Gitlis became the first to play the violin as part of a musical relay project aimed at getting 1,000 artists to eventually play the unique fiddle.
The municipality, which had a predisaster population of over 24,000, recorded the highest number of deaths in the prefecture, as the massive waves killed nearly 1,700 while demolishing about 3,200 houses.
“A violin is a violin. It’s a very nice violin and it has hope and a long life in front of it. The more it grows, the better it becomes,” said Gitlis, 89, a world-famous Israeli violinist who flew from Paris to Japan last month.
The Bond Made of a Thousand Tones project will formally kick off July 20, with the first round of 300 musicians poised to play a pair of tsunami-driftwood-made violins, one across Japan and another, which was recently completed, overseas.
As of mid-April, overseas performers had applied from the U.S., Australia, Britain, Germany and Canada, organizers said.
Veteran violin craftsman and restorer Muneyuki Nakazawa, who conceived the project, said he hopes over 1,000 musicians take part in the project, which is expected to last at least 10 years.
“The number ‘1,000’ has a meaning of ‘forever’ (in Japanese tradition),” he said. “A thousand origami cranes or a thousand stitches were traditions representing an endless prayer.”
A native of Hyogo Prefecture, which was hit by the magnitude-7.3 Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Nakazawa had been pondering how he could support areas decimated by last year’s disasters, and came up with the idea in December while viewing tsunami debris.
“The rebirth of (driftwood into) the two small violins can continue conveying what happened on March 11 beyond this generation,” the 71-year-old violin maker said.
Referring to legendary violins made in the 16th century, he added, “These violins can be 300 years old, too. They can be passed from generation to generation to console the hearts of those who have lost loved ones or the souls of victims, and also to remind people of the calamitous event.
“Some memories need to be forgotten, otherwise sorrow persists forever. But some should never be forgotten, so there won’t be another unfortunate tragedy,” he said, referring to past tsunami in Tohoku that took thousands of lives.
Nakazawa said the fame or skills of the musicians who will play the violins is irrelevant. Organizers, including himself, welcome anyone who is willing to “console people with soft and tender melodies,” including individuals who will play in front of small gatherings, even groups of friends and family.
Nakazawa, the son of a family that runs a lumber firm, made his first violin when he was 8. He became a professional refurbishing violins in his 40s and has devoted his life since to repairing and making the instruments.
Despite Nakazawa’s successful career — he has restored more than 50 Stradivariuses — making an instrument from the tsunami debris was a novel challenge. Usually, European maple trees are the preferred materials for making violins. Japanese trees, he said, are not known for making the “top-notch sounds.”
Still, he worked with local lumber firms, picking the finest maple and pine species he could find from piles of driftwood.
Putting the finishing touches on the instrument also turned into a laborious task, he said. Facing the approaching March 11 deadline, the veteran took to unusual procedures, such as whittling the material before waiting for varnish to completely dry.
A violin takes about 15 coats of varnish, each usually requiring a few days to completely dry. But in the last week before the deadline, Nakazawa awoke every few hours at night to finish varnishing, refusing to waste a minute in creating an instrument that would play his ideal sound.
After sleepless nights and a process of trial and error at his studio in Tokyo, Nakazawa completed one violin in time — with a sound topping his expectations. “Everyone’s expectations and hopes brought life to the violin,” he said.
A notebook for violinists to scribble messages to subsequent players in the relay and an original musical score titled “Triste,” meaning grief, created by composer Susumu Ueda in memory of the victims, will be placed inside the case of each violin, he said.
Representing hope, a picture of the miracle pine under a blue sky is painted on the back of the first instrument.
At the March 11 memorial service held jointly by Rikuzentakawa and the Iwate Prefecture, Ayana Kumagai, 11, who lost her home in the tsunami and now lives in another city in the prefecture, said with a smile: “The violins will support us. I knew about them through the news, but never imagined I could actually listen to one’s melodies.”
A firm believer in the power of violins, Nakazawa hopes to “deliver the determination of the Japanese people through instruments born of Japanese debris.”
Before the service, Gitlis, who traveled to Japan to play for evacuees at shelters after a planned concert a year earlier was canceled in the aftermath of the disasters, said: “As Shakespeare said, if music be the food of love, play on!”
To join the project, contact organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org. An English-language Facebook page is planned for the end of April.