With each piece, the impressive physicality of Kodō’s drummers becomes even more theatrical.
DADAN 2017, performed by Kodō. Presented by Celebrity Series at Symphony Hall, Boston, MA on March 19.
By Ian Thal
The members of Kodō, an ensemble of fourteen young men, come on stage dressed in white pants and sleeveless white shirts. Because they are percussionists, it’s not surprising that their arms are muscular. But the sparkling glitter in their hair and on their bare skin would seem to be more appropriate for a glitzy night club than Boston’s Symphony Hall. In the opening composition, Toudoufuu (composed by Tomoshiro Mitome), four of the musicians take their places behind xylophones – two play a bass-drone while the other two provide a repeating melodic figure, manipulating dynamics and volume until other members of the ensemble take up the taiko drums. They perform with a relaxed discipline, focused on how their mallets strike on the drumheads. The xylophones return later, playing pentatonic melodies as part of Mitsuru Ishizuka’s Ajara.
DADAN (translated as “drumming men”) features the youngest members in the taiko ensemble Kodō (the group contains over thirty members). Outside of Japan, “taiko” refers to the expansive range of traditional Japanese drums (the word means “drum” in Japanese) that have been used for ceremonies in temples, festivals, and as accompaniment to traditional theater productions, such as Noh or Kubuki. However, the taiko ensemble is a modern development in Japanese music – even if it is rooted in older art forms.
Kodō is not dedicated to preserving an ancient tradition; it is about making it a living art form. For example, the oldest composition on the program dates from 1999, and the timbral range of Kodō’s repertoire incorporates western orchestral percussion, like the aforementioned xylophones, but also timpani, whose copper bowl generates the instrument’s trademark sound of bright, crackling thunder, which serves as an effective contrast with the low rolling thunder of Kodō’s three gigantic hirado ō-daiko.
The hirado ō-daiko are, of course, the signature instruments of Kodō (and the taiko genre). They were originally built for temples and shrines. Kodō’s are emblazoned with three black tomoe — their negative space forms a triskelion on the drumheads. They can produce a sound so viscerally powerful that one can feel the vibrations push into the air; these are beats that are not merely heard, but felt in your ribcage — it is no accident that Kodō can be translated as “heartbeat.”
For Kodō, tradition is inevitably in conversation with innovation and syncretism, having a distinct identity but open to the influence of rhythms from other classical and popular traditions. In Color, a composition by Masyuki Sakamoto, the drummers sit on the stage: on their laps are shime-daiko and okedō, two styles of taiko which are tuned via taut ropes on the exterior of their bodies. The musicians explore the tonal qualities of the skins through various strategies, not just beating them with mallets but treating them as hand drums, at points rubbing and scratching their surfaces, sometimes humorously interjecting grunts and sighs.
It is rare when all the ensemble’s musicians are on stage at once. As one group begins playing a composition another group will silently and swiftly wheel the instruments from the previous piece off stage, only to come back on to arrange the instruments in a new configuration for the next piece. Thus the performance is seamless, only interrupted by an intermission. The impression is that of a continuous suite that progresses from small percussion orchestras to double trios that feature daiko of various sizes to ensembles of other configurations.
With each piece, the physicality of the drummers becomes more theatrical, the musicians often taking wide stances – athletic poses that come off as heroic given their now bare, well-muscled torsos. The performances becomes increasingly choreographed as well: the drummers often switch positions, pivoting on their feet with superb precision. It should not be surprising that Kodō’s artistic director, Tamasaburo Bando, is not only a composer but a noted Kabuki actor. Many of the drums used in this performance are fixtures in the theater; drawing on that spirit, Kodō’s signature style is as much an example of performance art as it is concert music.
After the intermission, seven members of the ensemble march onto the stage, nagadō-daiko slung over their shoulders. The instruments’ syncopated rolls are accompanied by one percussionist playing heavy brass cymbals. The choreography recalls one of the taiko’s historical roles: to keep armies marching at a uniform pace and to communicate orders in code – a role drummers have fulfilled in many cultures. Composer Kenta Nakagome has named the piece Phobos, after the personification of fear and one of the two sons fathered by Ares, the god of war in Greek mythology. Divorced from its martial context, the thumping sound remains exhilarating. This piece gives way to a trio playing on the hirado ō-daiko. By the end of evening, as the performances have become increasingly larger-than-life — as well as more athletic — the ensemble members are drenched with sweat. The sparkly glitter has been washed from their bodies – it is as if the mesmerizing rhythms have generated a metamorphosis in the musicians and the audience members.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report