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Two Years of "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" Project: A Consideration on the Possibility of Group Composition

Miki Akahane


I am a musician, having studied music theory, music therapy and composition in university and graduate school. Currently, I perform professionally, and organize projects where I create music with other people. One of these projects is called "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" or, "A house that makes a songs habitat". This project started with the two fundamental questions of, "How does one define what song (music) is?" and "How does one define what a house (home) is?" It seems to me that in recent years these questions have overlapped with moderate views of music therapy (community music therapy).

But first, here is how I began to think about the issues of "song" and "house".

I grew up in a home where someone was always singing; my parents did not have a musical education, nor did their careers deal with the field of music and yet improvised songs, humming and such could always be heard. Once, a visiting friend remarked that she constantly heard a tune in the air and it was then that I knew my circumstance was special. This experience with my family where multiple parties would be involved in the creation of music gave rise to my interest in the concept of "space", the environment in which one is exposed to music.

It was at this point that I was introduced to the field of music therapy. However I became aware of a drawback in that by being watchful of a client's actions during "treatment", I was not able to simultaneously listen to his/her music. Thus I came to want to create an environment "for music-making" but in the interest of providing treatment. This eventually led to my continuation of the activity from the standpoint of not a music therapist, but as a professional musician.

Within a year of becoming a professional musician I came across a project called, "Ableart Onstage," which was the "approach of the new performing arts made with various people including disabled persons"1. I thought that the creation of a new "space" through music-making with these "various people" held potential for new stage-making, and thus started this project "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", in conjunction with the application to "Ableart Onstage"[1].

I) Outline of the "Uta-no-sumu-ie" project

The "Uta-no-sumu-ie" project is organized by "Sokkyou-karamehru-dan" (an improvisation music unit), managed by Miki Akahane and Keiko Masaki. The project was funded by "Ableart Onstage," which managed "Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company" and "Able Art Japan," and Minato Ward in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, solely Minato Ward will fund the project.

The outline of "Uta-no-sumu-ie" is as follows:

Aim This project aims to create songs with various people, while searching for the form of new "songs (music)" through making songs repeatedly.
Participant This project is intended for whoever is interested in "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie".
  • Renting a private house for the creation of songs.[2]
  • The workshop is held 1~3 times a month.(Songs created will subsequently be featured in concert)
  • Various artists will be enlisted to facilitate the workshops. e.g. voice performers, composers, dancers and stage directors

About Uta (song) ~ Why do we treat "UTA (song)"?

Firstly, we will associate "Uta (song)" with lyrics and melody. As each person’s "Voice" and "Way of Speaking" contains the inherent individuality of a different sound, "Uta (song)" is a splendid medium because it takes that unique sound and turns it into music making as is.

In fact, the word "UTA" has several Chinese characters; for example "歌 (song)", "唄 (song)" and "詩 (poem, Japanese poem, tanka, waka)". In the dictionary, "Uta" is explained as lyric, melody and rhythm, as a 31-syllable Japanese poem, modern poetry and so on.[3] There are also works that exclude the use of words entirely, like Mendelssohn's "Lieder ohne Worte (Song Without Words)". This suggests that "Uta" has the possibility for a wide interpretation and we think that the "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" project is an appropriate attempt to search for new forms of "Uta" through the creation of song with various people and artists.

About home

I think that the Development of a workshop is influenced and changed by the space it is conducted in. If so, the selection of "space" is rendered a truly important factor. In this way the "space" setting of "home" permits various forms of existence through the use of regular home-based environments such as the living room, kitchen, and so on. While having a meal or tea, participants in the workshop may feel at home in this interesting yet familiar inorganic space.

However, conducting a workshop with various people in a private home has some problems. For example, the "home" in which we reside now is not without its own physical barriers. If such barriers are present they will hinder the process of having a common understanding about space between the disabled and ourselves. Also, because the home is situated in a neighborhood environment, musical activity has to take into consideration the surrounding residents and how not to inconvenience them overtly with noise pollution from the project.

Other important things in this project

  • The aim is not therapy or education but the creation of music.
  • A facilitator to positively adopt the feature and characteristic of the participants
  • The importance of not having a pre-determined end-goal, but instead one which will be decided on upon conclusion of this stage of the project[4].

We started the workshop with the above-mentioned concepts. Participants’ ages ranged from newborn babies to the elderly, and their standpoints also ranged from the disabled, to university students, nearby residents, musicians, artists and so on. These participants were people who came into contact with the staff through various everyday activities, such as those who saw handbills relating to art and the disabled being put up in various public places etc. Each time, 10-20 people participated in the workshops with some participating in multiple sessions while others attended only once. We had 53 workshops between October 2007 and August 2009 and the project is still ongoing, with completed tunes already numbering over 50. These tunes were sung in 7 concerts at venues such as a house, a school, and concert halls as well as in the streets.

II) The feature of music made in "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie"

In this paper, I describe three elements of the feature of music made in "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie": (1) Melody, (2) Lyrics, (3) Form. These will be elaborated in detail shortly.

(1) Melody


Ex.1) Christmas of an alien


Figure1. Christmas of an Alien


Christmas of an Alien (Audio file .m4a 4.28MB)

The first part of this melody rises by fifths twice and falls by 1 octave. It is not easy to sing. This was made by the method of each participant choosing one note or phrase, one by one, and combining it sequentially. As mentioned, the backgrounds of the participants are wide-ranging and this impacted their concerns when choosing notes. Some composed while thinking about the smoothness of the entire melody, others decided it visually or simply by gut feel. Someone said, "we sing the sounds of the highest note and the lowest notes of keyboard harmonica together," while another said, "I want to sing the phrase that fall from the highest note to the lowest note of keyboard harmonica." The disabled person decided the next note by beating the glockenspiel. This method was used for some song-makings.

(2) Lyrics

I introduce two songs here.

Ex.2) UBB


The lyrics of this song are as follows.

Three years ago, I began to live in UB.
This room was the first floor of home.
This (UB) is normal in U.S.A.
In Bali, UB is the river.
In India, UB is Ganges River.
In Paris, UB is Danube River.
"The Grandmother caught it from front desk of a hotel if she had mistaken how to use UB."

I came to Tokyo to live in.
The plan of my house was UB without window, that is, bath and toilet was together as one.
I was a rootless, wolf-lion, Bohemian UBB.
"I always had scratch in my body."

I'm still living in UB.
It is narrow, UB.
I can't store up the hot waters in my UB.

Let's draw the curtains.
Papa (daddy), don't come into UB when your daughter was in there.

*Lalala lalala la-
Lalala lalala la-
Unit Bath Blues

These lyrics do not have a firm meaning though there is a vague theme. Once again, various people were involved in its creation and the events, which transpired on the day, were as follows.

On this day, the theme was "song of room". A facilitator asked participants, "Is the song of what kind of room made?" One of participants answered "Unit bath!" but the other participants did not understand the term because unit baths are not common in Japan. Incidentally, a painting student drew an image of a unit bath, which led to a disabled person remarking, "There is a unit bath in the first floor of my group home!" and another added, "There were the unit bath in my house about three years ago." Another participant also said, "The bath has integrated with the rest room in the unit bath" and "The unit bath is normal in the United States". Everyone started discussing about the bath environment in other countries.

"What is the bath in India?"
"It’s river, I think."
"What is the name of river in India?"
"It’s Ganges River."
"What is the word of ‘Kawa’ in English?"
When this remark came up someone joked, "Well, the bath is the river in Bali," and our conversation continued. "What is the name of river in Paris?"
"It’s Danube River."
"It’s a mistake. It’s Seine River."
"But its mistake is interesting! It’s OK, Danube River is in Paris!"
"That reminds me! My grandmother caught it from front desk of a hotel because she had flooded the room in a hotel in Hawaii, for she hadn’t known how to use the unit bath."

Then, an art student who studied motion pictures said, "That reminds me! I want you to watch my short film work (fiction) about a man who lives in the bath." This movie enriched the participant's image. "What kind of person lives in a unit bath?" "How does the family live at a unit bath? For example, what will father do, if he wants to go to the toilet when his daughter has stepped into a bath in the unit bath? In this way the conversation continued like a word association game and the lyrics for the song were compiled from arranging snippets of the above conversation.

Ex.3) Received a letter

Two men wrote these lyrics. I would like to introduce a part of the lyrics, which were made by one of them. The man is suffering from a tendency to keep speaking in a loud voice to the people around him. He talks about the painful situation of events, which he experienced in the past, explaining, "I will not recover from the sickness for another ten years." Due to his affliction he has been on the receiving end of remarks such as, "Do not trouble other people."

The facilitator began with the suggestion that we should make an "impressive song", but progress was slow. Everyone felt stuck, and it was at this time that the man said suddenly, "There is no time. Advance it, please! I am moving according to time," and upon hearing this, the facilitator adapted the phrase into a lyric form, which eventually resulted in the text below.

When he says that it will do, man does.
Man moves on time.
Advance it because there is no time!
Others are themselves. I am myself.
Bird is bird’s. Mountain is mountain’s.[5]
My life progress everyday.

The connection and meaning of the word in these lyrics are odd, but provides a glimpse into the man’s life and way of thinking. There is a peculiar charm about the lyrics, which exceed his usual level of expression.


Ex.4) Which section do you visit?

The form of this song is very different from that of a general song, "There is a melody and lyrics". I worry about being asked whether this tune is a song. This tune consists of four sections, a) Clapping game, b) Chorus of "Music Love", c) Game of "rock-paper-scissors" tournament, d) improvisation. The members do not sing the same melody, but it is instead the accumulation of personal work from each of the four parts. For example, the chorus of "Music Love" would not have been approved if there had been no variation in voices. The difference in each voice forms music. "Improvisation" part (the last part) is made from other’s improvised responses to the improvised expressions of one person. This is an original method that "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie " has developed after about fifty workshops.

Factor to bring song at "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie":

I introduced some examples of the music made by "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie". The songs of "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" are different from tunes composed by only one person, even if one considers only singular elements such as the lyrics, the melody, and the form. I can say that this feature might be "distorted", I think. This "distortion" is characteristic of a group composition in "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", where "several people are related to the song-making".

In "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" workshops, anyone can participate if they are interested. The participants come from various backgrounds and ages, with unique strong and weak points to each. From this we also found that there were groups of people who have not met at all under "normal" circumstances and the more we tried to bring these participants together in one existing form, the more trivial the state of the place and music became. Conversely, the more the individuality of each participant is reflected in the song, the more music is warped into something original.

It was important to consider the "Place" of a group composition to produce this originality. The "Place" of "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" is a loose structure. In the "Place" of workshop, there are various people; those who actively participate, those with an interest in the performance aspect but not the process of song-making itself, those who remain detached and even those who engage in activities seemingly unrelated to the workshop itself. A peculiar "Distortion" to "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" exists here. In such a situation, the facilitator does not have the role of teaching or directing music but instead becomes a tool in the expression of the uniqueness each participant. It is important here that we do not limit the height to which creation can reach. This enables the uniqueness of each person to be flexibly put to music, thus resulting in a piece which may be devoid of social context and colored by the presence of multiple characters. In addition, the process also empowered each person to be actively involved in the creation of the end product.

The possibility of "Distorted" music.

"Distortion" of the songs (music) in "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", as we have explained, might be a side effect of the diversity resulting from a collaboration of several people. This "Distortion" remained constant as the situations and participants changed. The so-called standard of music is transcended by a group composition such as this where people with and without prior musical experience are involved in the production of a single musical piece. In other words, music that is made free from existing musical theory and boundaries holds the possibility of discovering a new form of music.

In addition, this process of "distortion" holds proof that people from differing backgrounds may co-exist in the same "place". In "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", we try to take a person's (music) trait as is, without use of a standard form of measurement to see who should be "included," and who should not. From this work, I feel that there was a consideration not only of the method of creating music, but also the method of "Place"-making where these differing individuals were able to find common ground.

Nevertheless, this study into the process of music making via "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" is still in its infancy. I intend to continue this endeavor for Music and musical space, which has "Originality wearing diversity" by repeating this process of song making, as illustrated above.


In "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", people with unique capabilities, cultural contexts and individual interest are engaged in the creation of music. The creative process included trying to find the possibility of music and the possibility of a group composition through the creation of a large number of songs, each unique in its own regard.

In 2009, Sakakura mentioned "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" is "Musicking Community". "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" aims to create new music from a viewpoint that is separate from that of existing music therapy (Igari, 2008), with the purpose of promoting community-making and inter-personal connections. However, it shares the focus of music therapy in that it attempts to create a space where several people are able to share their musical experience, which is the issue of "for a social multiplicity to manage to communicate and act in common while remaining internally different and consequently form new order autonomously" that Miyake (2008) points out as well as the field of music therapy.

In "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie", the process of music creation has continued for about two years. This process not only searches for a new form of music, but also maintains the possibility of meeting new people. I want to consider "new ways of music making which can respect the singularity and then finally produce the common"(Miyake, 2008) in the field of group composition.


[1] "Ableart Onstage" is a program that supports the approach of new theatrical art made with various people including disabled people. This project was jointly started by "Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company" and "Able Art Japan" in 2004. Home page of "Able Art Japan": http://www.ableart.org/

[2]The project first started at a community space called "Mita-no-Ie" which was jointly organized by Keio University and the Mita Shopping Street. In December 2008, "Uta-no-Sumu-Ie" had another activity based in Takeshi Cultural Center, which is one of the experimental businesses under the Hamamatsu Art Center Plan in Hamamatsu City, Ha-mamatsu. We are also currently planning a collaborative community project with artists based in Britain.

[3] http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/jn/15693/m0u/%E3%81%86%E3%81%9F/

[4] For example, in the first workshop we made the song "The mackerel pike is in season" by combining the impressions we had after the improvised performance. In the second workshop, we decided to make another song while cooking the mackerel pike.

[5]"Bird is bird’s. Mountain is mountain’s." was inserted upon consultation between the man and the facilitators.


Igari, Yuji (2008). Music Created by Community. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.voices.no/mainissues/mi40008000269.php

Miyake(2008). Rethinking Music Therapy From the Perspective of Bio-politics. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.voices.no/mainissues/mi40008000284.php

Numata(2009). EinScream!: Possibilities of New Musical Ideas to Form a Community. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.voices.no/mainissues/mi40009000304.php

Sakakura(2009). "Musicing community and "the space of appearance." In Art Meets Care Academic society (Ed.) ArtMeets Care 1 (pp. 47-60). Tokyo: Seikatsushoin Co. Ltd.

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Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy (ISSN 1504-1611)