Alumni Spotlight: John Graham '79

For John Graham ’79, part of his job composing for hit Japanese television show Taiga Drama requires navigating the cultural context he inhabits. When he looks back, his years at St. Anne’s-Belfield School prepared him for this.

“In my recollection, it was like a bunch of brothers and sisters; although of course nothing is perfect, we looked out for each other and made allowances,” he said of his time at the School.  

“Moreover, the style of interaction at that time was to avoid open confrontation and to tune in to what was not said, the body language, indirect allusions or hints. There was restraint in the way we communicated. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have disagreements, but we communicated those disagreements obliquely and indirectly. ‘I’m not sure I see things quite the same way’ meant, for instance, ‘I don’t agree at all with you on that.’ Same message, different style… My interaction with the team in Tokyo has been a lot like that.  People have been scrupulously polite to me. Every time there is a meeting we bring gifts for each other. Even if someone doesn’t like some part of what I wrote, the request for changes comes along with compliments and kind words. Courtesy is part of every communication, written or in person, so it’s very important to be on the lookout and able to recognize subtle currents, including disagreements about creative approaches, the need for changes, or what the underlying message might be.  

“If I’d grown up outside St. Anne’s-Belfield and Charlottesville, maybe in a part of the USA where communication is more of a blunt force instrument, I wonder if I’d be getting along with the team in Japan as well?  St. Anne’s was a great platform to inhabit in preparation for interacting in a more formal, indirect culture.”

Taiga Drama is an annual, year-long historical drama broadcast across Japan on Sunday evenings. Its popularity has endured since the first broadcast in 1963, with families tuning in together to follow the plots set across Japanese history. This year it is set in the sixteenth century, the so-called “Sengoku Period,” a time when Japan was experiencing constant factional wars.

“If I think of what I learned in high school that informs the music, sure, the choir absolutely helped me to read music better, but I think English classes and history mattered at least as much, maybe more.  When I first heard about the subject of the Taiga Drama, set this year in medieval Japan, I dutifully studied the history of Japan; found images of courts, and samurai, and ladies from that time; read fairy tales from old Japan, biographies of the main character, and watched a bunch of Japanese movies old and new. I searched for images of the geography in which the character lived his life: Mino Province, which in some respects doesn’t look so different from dear Virginia.”

For Graham, days on a project can be long, but worthwhile.

“I often start at five in the morning and finish at midnight. It’s hard! Sometimes it takes ten minutes to come up with an idea and twenty hours to round it out, orchestrate it, and massage it into place,” he said.  

“Then, after the demo is approved, we have to get parts copied for the players, book recording space and musicians, and record. After that, we still have to edit the live recordings to get the best takes and work around any problems and mix them into stereo and surround mixes. It takes a huge ecosystem of players, engineers, agents, producers, and skilled copyists and orchestrators to do all this. Getting along with people under stress like this is probably the number one skill for getting things over the finish line. You can’t be an orchestra of one.”