miércoles, noviembre 19, 2008

Kodo, the name for wondrous percussion

Many years ago, in 1969, the Mozarteum Argentino brought us a superb ensemble, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and they came back about a decade ago, giving us the very best resources of percussion music in the Occidental tradition. Now, closing their season at the Coliseo, they left the audience spellbound with a marvellous Japanese ensemble, Kodo, bringing the utmost perfection in Oriental percussion.

"Kodo" means two things: the heart-beat, origin of all rhythm, heard by the foetus in the mother´s uterus ; and "children of the drum", a reflexion of Kodo´s desire to play with a child´s simplicity of heart. Although they preserve and reinterpret traditional Japanese arts, they are also influenced by the frequent "tournées" that Kodo has made since its already far-off inception, in 1981. It has offered about 3.100 performances in 45 countries; their year divides into three equal parts, 1/3 to their voyages abroad, 1/3 to performances in Japan and 1/3 to preparing new material in Sado Island.

In their repertoire there are three main elements: pieces based on traditional popular art; works by friends and mentors of the organisation (Maki Ishii, Shinichiro Ikebe), the Kabuki artists Roetsu Tosha and Kiyohiko Senba and the jazz pianist Yousuke Yamashita, and creations by members of the group incorporating inspirations from their trips all over the world.

The Artistic Director is Mitsuru Ishizuka and there are 13 interpreters: 10 men and 3 women. They are listed in the hand programme heading, but not identified in the various numbers. The show was continuous and comprised eleven numbers.

Before I go on to describe individual pieces, a general impression. As a Westerner with a superficial familiarity with the Japanese ethos, I was deeply impacted by the tremendous discipline and visceral power of the players. My images of Japan come from their drawings which were such an influence on the Impressionists, by their films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, and by some books. An insular country, it has kept fiercely to its traditions, particularly in rural areas, but in the big cities has had a powerful input from the USA MacArthur plan after World War II, so that Tokyo is a strange mixture of profoundly dissimilar views of life. The composite image is that of an ethos in which we find side by side powerful images of the samurai past with its code of honor, its martial arts, the command of every fibre in the body (in common with the Chinese), its hara-kiri or seppuku, its kamikaze soldiers, along with delicate paintings, exquisite and morose soft music from the koto or the flute and women in elaborate and beautiful kimonos and heavily whited facies.

Kodo asks from its players awesome stamina and total precision. They certainly give of themselves generously, with "esprit de corps". Their main instrument is the "taiko", a drum that comes in very different sizes, from small to a gigantic one that presides over the proceedings from the back of the stage. They are aesthetically beautiful and the artists elicit from them an enormous variety of sounds, from extreme "pianissimo" to granitic "fortissimo". The Artistic Director knows how to dispose them with a true sense of show. The massed sound is overwhelming, although there are segments where the unrelenting battering gets monotonous, for they tend to stay in one rhythm for long periods. But when the drums tend to outstay their welcome comes the contrast of a ruminative soft flute, or of sweet-voiced singing (not the nasalized shrillness of the Chinese).

The programme starts with a thrilling number, "The tribe" by Leonard Edo, a telluric outburst of fantastic power. Then, "Door to the unknown" by Tsubasa Hori, where a metaphysical contact with other worlds is attempted. "The woodcutter´s song" is traditional and has at first an antiphonal vocal structure which leads to "Miyake", where the men strike implacably drums set in the ground. "Monochrome", by Maki Ishii, is a mixture of regular and irregular rhythmic patterns in a constantly spiralling dynamic progression. "Cymbals", by Ryutaro Kaneko, is a subtle interplay of small cymbals linked to Buddhist religious practices. "Three cold days, four hot days", by Eiichi Saito, refers to the end of winter and is a powerful piece of strong contrasts. "Butterfly", by Saito, has a refined choreography by Ayako Onizawa and offers a moment of poetic respite. "The path of dew" refers to the journey through life and prolongs the charm and subtlety of the preceding work.

But now came the greatest possible contrast. In a display of extreme strength and endurance, a half-naked player, all fiber, played during about 15 minutes the gigantic drum mentioned earlier in this review with almost terrifying speed and enormous sound. Frankly I feared for his heart. The training of such players surely implies special techniques of control and concentration.

The final number, "Taiko in festive chariots", is traditional, and makes a grand celebration to crown a very special experience. The communication with the audience was vivacious and authentic, the success particularly important considering that these were people attending a subscription series of Occidental classical music.

In fact, this was quite a gamble for the Mozarteum, but their instincts were unerring: they gave us a show of marked aesthetic and cultural value, moreover quite accessible due to its paradoxically primitive impact. They got us in touch with the real Japanese character. Thanks for that gift.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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