Exploring the limitless possibilities of the taiko, a traditional Japanese drum, Kodo is forging new directions with its latest production, “Evolution” (which stops Feb. 28 for an SCP Special Concert at Symphony Center). This article, reprinted with permission from Kodo’s blog, offers some facts to ponder before heading to the theater:
1. “Ayaori” is played on newly designed drums tuned to a different key on either side.
Ayaori means “twill weave.” This composition is performed by three drummers playing katsugi okedo daiko (portable barrel drums). At first glance, these three drums look like regular barrel drums, but there’s more to them than meets the eye. This innovative taiko, kanade, was developed by Kodo performer Masayuki Sakamoto with renowned Japanese taiko maker, Asano Taiko (winner of the Japan Good Design Award in 2015). It’s the world’s first taiko that lets a performer tune the drumhead on either side to a different key. In “Ayaori,” the drummers use the two tones of the drum and a range of different drumsticks to weave a multitude of tones into a musical tapestry.
2. The performers use handheld switches to control overhead lights in “Ake no Myojo.”
Set in a realm of darkness, “Ake no Myojo” is a dynamic yet haunting piece. The name means “Venus in the Morning Sky.” Each performer appears wearing a light that they control using a handheld switch to create two light patterns. This complex piece challenges the performers to drum, sing and dance in rapidly changing formations, all while carefully controlling their individual overhead light.
3. The finale, “Rasen,” has a special significance.
“Evolution” showcases Kodo’s classic and latest repertoire and its climax is the finale, “Rasen,” which means “spiral.” In the eponymous final number, the performers conjure a spiral as they perform in turn, creating a whirling vortex of energy that envelops the entire audience. “Rasen” also depicts a helix of sound and spirit that connects Kodo’s history to its present and continually drives the ensemble headlong into the future. Refrains from Kodo signature pieces emerge within the fervent torrent of beats as the next generation pays homage to the past while asserting their own dedication to the evolution of taiko performing arts.
4. In “Color,” performers use custom-made bags of bells instead of drumsticks.
This comical piece offers some lighthearted relief by playing taiko that usually appear in very traditional performing arts, such as Kabuki and Noh theater, in brand-new ways. “Color” is a fun piece where the drummers and drums create a rainbow of sound. In this piece drums are played by beating them with a bag of little bells. Just picking up one of these bags makes a sound, but when you hit the taiko with it, you get two sounds at once. Kodo discovered that if the performers made their own bag of bells, this type of “drumstick” broke very easily, so now a professional craftsperson makes the sturdy bell bags especially for this purpose.
5. “Monochrome” precedes “Color.”
“Monochrome” is the final number in the first act of “Evolution.” This intricate taiko piece was created by modern composer Maki Ishii and Kodo has performed it for decades around the world. In 1976, the premiere of “Monochrome” was performed by Kodo’s antecedent group, Sado no Kuni Ondekoza, and the ensemble has continued to perform this piece ever since. It remains one of the most iconic works in Kodo’s broad repertoire.
6. “Kei Kei” means “the piercing sparkle of an intent gaze.”
Kodo performer Yuta Sumiyoshi, who has a special flair for creating sound, composed this uptempo piece to fulfill a request for a “youthful, shiny, happy tune.” Then Tamasaburo Bando, the director of the production that first featured this piece, had the idea to arrange it as a medium-tempo, jazz-like number, played by many performers moving around in a circle. That’s how the current performance style of this piece emerged.
7. The taiko used in “Kusawake” are original instruments designed by Kodo.
Kodo is not only versatile when it comes to playing traditional Japanese instruments, the ensemble also develops new instruments to use onstage. One example is the shime-jishi daiko used in “Kusawake.” When taiko are played as an ensemble, the drums can tend to drown each other out. So Kodo created a new drum with a shrill, sharp sound that stands out. The shime-jishi daiko uses different skins for either head and can be played with bamboo or wooden sticks to elicit a range of tones.
8. The drumsticks used to play “Monochrome” have an unusual shape.
Since ancient times, the loud, resonant sound of taiko has been used in an array of ways, to convey prayers, deliver messages and signal battles. However, Maki Ishii’s “Monochrome” begins with barely audible beats, which is one of the reasons this work is considered revolutionary. To produce such a faint sound with taiko, the Kodo performers make drumsticks with finely tapered tips.
9. The bamboo flutes used in “Yuyami” are selected for the key of the piece.
There are a range of traditional Japanese flutes, such as the nohkan, used for Noh theater, and the ryuteki and hichiriki used in court music. “Yuyami,” which means “dusk,” features the shinobue, a traditional Japanese transverse flute made from bamboo. There are two types of shinobue: one is the “classical” type, used for traditional performing arts, and one is the “song” type, which is made to suit the Western scale. There are several different flutes for each type because each shinobue is used to play a different key. Shinobue are numbered so performers know which flute is in which key, allowing them to select the right flute for a particular song. So while all shinobue may look the same, sometimes you will see performers change their flute during a shinobue piece to play a part in a different key.
10. O-daiko soloist Kenta Nakagome has his own original style of music notation.
He is one of Kodo’s power hitters and audiences will get to see him in action on the big drum, O-daiko. There are two common ways for taiko players to learn or share a composition: one is by speaking the rhythms and the other is by using written scores, such as those commonly found in Western music or classical Japanese music.
©2018, reprinted with permission