Kojo no tsuki

Twice this evening I have played through “Kojo no tsuki” — the jazz version by Thelonious Monk. It is nearly seventeen minutes, on the 1996 CD re-issue of his album, Straight, No Chaser, from 1967. The full recording was resurrected from the old tapes; time limitations on the original LP had made abbreviation necessary. On that LP, the piece was identified as “a Japanese folk song.” This it was not. It began instead as an offering by the Japanese composer, Rentaro Taki, to his high school music students around the turn of the last century. The title means, “Moon over ruined castle.” Several Japanese musicians had already adapted both song and lyrics. It became a popular hit in Tokyo, in the early 1930s, changed from B minor to D minor, and slowed to a dirge: impossibly exotic to my Western ears. Monk probably had heard this best known version, and instinctively sped it up again.

The correct attribution might have been supplied sooner, had Monk bothered to tell anyone where he had found the extraordinary tune. A musician, not a punctilious scholar, he did with the Japanese raw material what he’d done with standards by Ellington and Arlen. There was no intention of plagiarism. The very idea is missing from traditional art. He was doing just what “early musicians” did when, for instance, they picked up tunes from the street, and transformed them into profound Mass settings. “Classical music” tends to trickle upwards, or percolate. What emerges is shockingly original: extremely complex, and totally unified. But it began with some tune someone was whistling. (Sometimes it is an angel who has whistled the tune.) Great art is like that. Inferences are drawn from a simple mystery: a few notes strung together that mean more than they can ever say.

Monk’s setting of “Kojo no tsuki” was one of my mother’s favourite pieces. That’s why I put it on my machine, this evening: she died one year ago. It is Canadian Thanksgiving again; a year has passed. Mama seldom admitted to preferences in music; I did not know she adored Thelonious Monk, until she mentioned the fact, at age ninety. It was something I could not have guessed. There are many things people don’t say, or may not get around to saying unless they live a long time.

Time hurries on. I left home at the age of sixteen. Then four decades passed, very quickly. Then I was attending to my mother in a nursing home, around the corner in Parkdale, here. We had been around the world together, when we were all young (my father and sister come into this). She was in a bad way her last few years, after my father died; my hardest task was to jolly her. (My sister worked harder.) We drew closer to each other than we had been since, I think, she had been pushing me in a stroller. Her remarkable memory held out to the end. My memory was inherited from her: the ability to recall small things from many years ago, “as if they happened yesterday.” Between the two of us we could reconstruct quite a lot of pointless detail. Except, as one grows old, one begins to know that every detail is important.

That was one of the details: “Kojo no tsuki.” She didn’t remember the title, but when I asked for it, she hummed out the melodic line in her fading mezzosoprano voice. It was an “aha” moment: I loved that piece myself. “The two of us must be related.”


I have a picture here, of refugees, fleeing across France (I think it must be) in the last World War. There is a mother clutching a little baby; a boy fitted out as a beast of burden, carrying what he can; a girl, being yanked along, looking to one side. She’s a child, but there’s an adult expression on her face. There is no man with them. They appear to be walking fast, through open country. They look Jewish to me. No caption: and I have no idea what their story was. But there are four of them, and one can see they are related.

The picture fell out of a book. I was thinking about “family,” and there it landed. Horrible cruelties are endured in this world; the “culture of death” is all around us. But there are families; and there will be families.