So I noticed I’ve been making the same meal whenever I cook – a sort of vegetable stir fry (with tofu or bacon if I’m feeling fancy), finished with some eggs scrambled into it for that protein, and served with rice for them grains. Tonight I’m having it with some of the green tea I bought in Kyoto. It’s a perfect meal because it’s loaded with veggies, it’s delicious and filling, I can make it in about 20 minutes using one frying pan and leaving a minimum amount of dishes to wash, the ingredients are cheap and plentiful, and there’s an enormous variety of veggies and seasonings to put in so I can feel somewhat creative. I just feel like a bum when I eat at my computer like this, but there’s not really anywhere else to eat unless I stand and eat in my kitchen, which is kind of sad… Anyway, on to my blog post.
I wasn’t going to keep writing tonight, but this is a topic I’ve been dying to write about because it fills and delights my heart and mind – Kodo! The famous taiko group who live on Sado island. I got to see them live on the 23rd last month (shoot, last YEAR!) with Ai. I have seen them once before live in LA two years ago, and both performances have been highlights in my life, truly transcendent musical experiences, so please forgive me for gushing. This is something I’m really, really into.
I was somewhat apprehensive before the concert, because Kodo recently named a new artistic director for the group, a famed Kabuki actor named Tamasaburo Bando. His previous endeavors with Kodo have left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, Kodo constantly excels as a group of performers and are a delight to watch; but on the other hand, Bando seemed to approach Kodo in a slightly egotistical way, his “artistic direction” seemed kind of confused, and the pieces he helped write left me cold. Having him in charge of a group I held so dear made me nervous, and although the concert wasn’t perfect, I feel more comfortable having him at the helm after seeing it.
The concert consisted of seven pieces, and lasted about two hours with an intermission. The first song was a new piece written by Bando called “Kaden”. The piece started, and within 30 seconds I thought “oh no, I don’t like this…”. My problem with Bando’s pieces is that they repeat and ramble without going anywhere interesting and without saying much. Being an amateur composer myself, I feel I can say his pieces feel amateurish, kind of like composition exercises. “Kaden” is set up with two circles of drums, with three players inside each circle. It starts off kind of low and mild, and although I appreciated him using odd time signatures, it felt like he was using odd time signatures for the sake of using odd time signatures. The music itself felt obvious and labored. I thought, “the stuff he’s writing still stinks. He hasn’t improved!”
Then Kodo came along and saved the day! Because luckily, Bando decided to have a long series of solos, so the performers could really shine. And shine they did. We were treated to the performer’s creativity and technique honed to the highest level. After all the players solo, it was mixed up with some written bits, improvised bits, even flute bits and dance bits, and went on for quite a while. “Mixed up” is a very good way to describe the part after the solos, and I feel this part of the piece jumped around too much. I appreciated the thought and time that went into it, but I wanted just a bit more unity in the piece. For example, there was this cool part where the players would jump up dramatically and come down to play at the front drum, and they would switch out rapidly for these short solos. It was so, so cool, and an awesome idea, and he only did it once in this super long piece. He didn’t even play with this idea of performers switching around in a quick way. There were lots of times when I felt that way: musical moments I wished were expanded, cool choreography that was ripe for developing. I felt the piece was somewhat haphazardly constructed in an effort to make it appear complicated, smart and creative. I also got this feeling from the set up of the drums. They were set up in two circles, and the different sizes of drums were arranged quite randomly and unevenly. Which is fine, I’m ok with asymmetry. But the randomness of the set up seemed to enhance the confusion of the piece itself.
So the first song was definitely the low point of the show, and in all honesty it wasn’t that low because Kodo is awesome and it’s terrific to just hear them play. The rest of the show was utterly amazing (with a few gripes). The second piece was an old Kodo favorite called “Monochrome”. This minimalistic piece was written by an actual legit composer named Maki Ishii in 1977, and uses seven shimes (small, high pitched taiko). I love this piece because the emphasis is really placed on relishing the sound of the drums. It starts with a single drum playing a straight beat, and each drum adds on, and then there’s a terrific, slow crescendo until all the players are playing in unison as hard as they can. It is such a treat to hear live in a giant hall with great acoustics. They come back down, and begin to mix the straight beat with rolls (roll=play as fast as you can), which they randomly spike with crescendo-decrescendo hills. The hills become more frequent until it sounds like a million insects buzzing around your head. It’s the most amazing sound, and it left me literally breathless.
The piece works its way down, and there’s a quiet, moody section with a tam-tam being played infrequently somewhere off-stage (kind of wanted to see it played on stage, oh well). The random rhythms grow in energy as the tam-tam gets played quicker and quicker, and four of the players (typically only three! They changed it, hoping I would notice) switch over to the deeper, heavier sounding, big nagado taiko, and as the tam-tam accelerates and crescendos to a climax, the nagados start playing a heavy, intense straight beat. The shimes slowly convert from a random beat to the straight beat of the nagados, and the nagados play like a fugue, so the second nagado is eight beats behind the first nagado, and the third nagado is eight beats behind the second nagado (maybe not eight beats, I don’t know, just to give an example). The rhythm the nagados play avoids repetition, but since they stay with the beat, we get a tremendous, exhilarating layering of rhythms, not to mention the sound of the drums themselves is larger than life. I was gripping my seat and tensing my leg for this section, it was so intense! Probably my favorite part of the whole show.
The third piece was “Ibuki”, a piece that makes heavy use of the shinobue (Japanese transverse flute). This piece was written back in 1996 by Motofumi Yamaguchi, the resident flute extraordinaire at Kodo. Apparently, Ibuki means “to release breath”, and according to the program notes, the piece is “an homage to all living things”. A small pet peeve of mine is when composers try to do something so vague and general like that, like naming a piece “Calm” or “Happiness”, as if to say, “yeah, I was just trying to convey the idea of happiness with this piece. That’s what the piece means, is it basically means you listen to it and you feel happy”. Argh! So dumb! And the taiko world seems to be riddled with these sorts of pieces. Give it at least a bit of context. “An homage to all living things”? How do you even do that, and what does it really mean? For me, it just doesn’t translate to music. It’s not how music works, you just can’t do that. I don’t know, I can’t quite explain it, except that it bugs me! But the piece is great, so whatever.
What it is is four flutes are the center of the piece, backed up by a big taiko and a chappa player (chappa=hand cymbals). I’ve never seen the piece performed before, but I could only ever hear 3 flute parts on recordings, so it kind of surprised me to see 4 players. Maybe they’re switching it up from 3 to 4 like they did with “Monochrome”? I don’t know the details, not that it matters, I just like numbers. Anyway, I love this piece, but the performance wasn’t mind blowing like I expected it to be. Motofumi Yamaguchi is definitely a legendary shinobue player, but Kodo is a taiko group, not a shinobue group, and it really showed here. Yamaguchi didn’t perform, if he did it would have been more impressive. But it sounded like there were four taiko players who played shinobue on the side, instead of four shinobue players. And when one or two of them would solo, I could tell they are able to get a great sound, but it wasn’t a magical mixture (magical mixture?) of flute tones like it was on the CD, something was just….kind of off. Sorry I’m short on explanations, I only got to see them play it once and it’s tricky to remember the details….maybe it was a balance problem. Maybe it was one or two strong players with one or two weaker players, maybe they tried doubling up one of the flute parts so it was louder, maybe they were just nervous and not super confident about their fluting. Irregardless, it was very, very pretty, and not as distasteful as “Kaden”. Ooh, and it was the first time we got to see Eiichi Saito! He is one of the four Kodo members who are still in the group that were with Kodo when it began in 1981! I’ve seen him in all their videos and his drumming has always impressed me as being very authentic and joyful. He played a supporting part in this piece on the big taiko, but he got to shine more later on in the show. This is one of the reasons I was so excited about this performance, because it would include Saito and one of the other original Kodo members, the legendary Yoshikazu Fujimoto! I don’t believe those two tour any more, so this may have been my only chance to see them live.
So that concluded the first half of the show. I got to enjoy a short intermission where I took a look at a small exhibit about the apprentice center and pick up a pamphlet about it. This post is really turning into a beast of a post, but there is much to say! And it’s refreshing to get to talk and think about music. I will stop here for now and continue with part 2 over the weekend.