Composer Robin Richards On Creating A Score For The Earth Asleep

On Friday 11 March 2011, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded took place 18 miles from the Oshika Peninsula of Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that killed over 10,000 people.

The Earth Asleep, an artist film directed by Clara Casian, addresses the ways in which our exposure to extreme live-trauma in the form of rolling news and citizen reportage has resulted in an inability to process grief at a manageable, human scale.

Composer Robin Richards joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about the film – which will be released on BFI Player to mark the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan disaster.

You’ve previously collaborated with visual artist Clara Casian on Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat, which looked at Ukraine and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. What interests you about visiting these sites of immense trauma?

The inspiration for Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat originally came from my personal recollections of children from the Chernobyl exclusion zone visiting my school in Stockport years after the disaster, as part of recuperative holidays organised by the Chernobyl Children’s Project UK.

In 2015, whilst researching new projects to work on, I found the story of the Pripyat Amusement Park, which was only ever opened for a few hours whilst the city was being evacuated following the explosion at Reactor 4 a day earlier. I met Clara at a HOME networking event that year and told her about the amusement park as a foundation for a new project and she was interested in collaborating.

The main thing that interested us was in the vast number of previously untold personal stories from the immense disasters. Visiting these sites allowed us to find the personal testimonies buried within striking and sometimes eerie imagery, and immerse ourselves in these areas and the human stories in order to create the music and film. 

Chernobyl and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami are connected in the sense of their sheer scale of devastation. What were the main differences and similarities between working on Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat and The Earth Asleep?

The main difference for us working on the two projects has been time spent on them. We finished the film and score for Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat in around six months. For The Earth Asleep, we went to Japan in June 2019, and the film was scheduled to premiere in April 2020. With this being postponed because of the pandemic, we decided to use the extra time to work further on the project, refining it throughout the majority of 2020 in the end.

In terms of the projects themselves, we could feel that the instant devastation of the tsunami in Otsuchi is still very raw for everyone we spoke to there ten years on. Personal testimonies we gathered in Ukraine were far more political due to the nature of the Chernobyl disaster. During both projects however, we found that everyone we spoke to wanted to tell their story and were extremely accommodating to us as outsiders.

The Earth Asleep takes us to the village of Otsuchi in remote North-East Japan. Can you tell us about this community and why, if for any specific reason, you chose this village?

I had heard about Itaru Sasaki and The Phone of the Wind on a podcast shortly after we had finished Birdsong. Sasaki, a resident of Otsuchi, built a phone booth in his garden, disconnected from any actual phone lines, as a means of mediating upon the death of his cousin. Following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Sasaki’s phone booth has become a site of pilgrimage for those who wish to reach out to the deceased and missing. The Phone of the Wind (the name given to the phone booth) as a physical object, destination of pilgrimage and elaborate metaphor is a beacon around which the film’s exploration into methods of dealing with grief and loss begins.

In a similar way to the way the ferris wheel in Pripyat Amusement Park being the starting point for Birdsong, before it opened up into more personal accounts of the Chernobyl disaster, the phone booth became the starting point for The Earth Asleep. We then began to do more research on Otsuchi itself and found more testimonies from residents, who we then also interviewed.

I imagine there’s a plethora of lasting memories you have created for while making this project. Can you share one of those most striking or standout memories?

I think the most memorable moment was when we interviewed Masahiko Haga, who runs the Kirikirikoku community group in Otsuchi, working with young people and orphans in the town. He invited us to his workshop where he performed a meditative ritual which he uses to deal with his grief and loss through his connection to fire.

He lit a fire and explained to us that they regularly invite the spirits of lost loved ones to join him and his family around it. Once the fire goes out the spirits return to heaven. The evening spent with Haga was an extremely powerful and moving experience, and Clara and I knew instantly that it would be an integral part of the film.

Can you tell us about the process of constructing the music for The Earth Asleep? How do you create a sound that is impactful to the viewer but also true to the experience of the victims?

Having the opportunity to go to Otsuchi, experiencing the incredibly divergent sceneries and speaking to the residents alongside Clara gave me a lot of inspiration for the composition, and themes for the score would come from the smallest detail gathered.

In areas of the score, I wanted to use the field recordings obtained during the trip as foundation for the music, such as the sound of birds, a monk’s mantra, the sea and rhythmic footsteps in mud. Tying these in with the more melodic elements of the score also involved some found sound, such the Otsuchi neighbourhood music – a melody played over the loudspeakers used for earthquake and tsunami warning, heard every few hours across the whole town, which I weaved into sections of the soundtrack. I composed themes for the five main protagonists we interviewed during filming and wanted to make sure I addressed their stories sensitively so not to distract from the messages within the film.

During the trip to Japan we also went to see traditional Japanese opera Kabuki, I had Taiko Drum and Shamisen lessons, and I went to a synthesiser workshop. These elements of Japanese music and culture also fed into inspiration for the score. 

The Earth Asleep is available to watch on BFI Player (from 11 March)

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