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May 14, 2021

Talking drums with TaikOz

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Australian’s world-acclaimed taiko drumming ensemble, TaikOz, are in Lismore this week to present a stunning new work: Crimson Sky featuring Satsuki Odamura on bass koto. 

With two shows and a workshop, this energetic and inspiring group has much to offer lovers of thunderous, visceral and ritualistic arts! Artistic director Ian Cleworth spoke with The Echo.

Tell me about the inspiration for Crimson Sky.

Crimson Sky is a program in two parts. The second half comprises just one 50-minute work, Toward The Crimson Sky. It was inspired by a beautiful haiku by Miura Yuzuru, which reads, ‘red dragonflies / flowing like a ripple / toward the crimson sky’. Even in such a short poem, the imagery is so powerful, which really got my creative juices going. Being an autumn poem (all haiku reference the seasons in some way or another) it has a tinge of the melancholy about it, which is evoked by the melody of Satsuki Odamura’s solo bass koto (a traditional Japanese zither-like instrument). 

The first half features three works by members of TaikOz – my virtuosic Of The Fields – a work recently featured on TaikOz’s tour of west coast USA; Anton Lock’s powerhouse Explorations – a veritable tour de force for drum-set soloist pitted against four taiko sets; and Tom Royce-Hampton’s Solace – a hauntingly beautiful meditation for koto and shakuhachi solo, accompanied by delicate percussion and taiko.

How do you use the drums to tell your story?

In Toward The Crimson Sky the taiko play a really important role in creating a sense of drama and character. For instance, in the middle part of the piece, which correlates with the middle line of the haiku – ‘flowing like a ripple’ – three players perform on taiko that are placed sideways on a high stand. It’s an intensely physical way of playing the drums as the players throw their whole body into the rhythms and their arms move in mesmerising figures of eight – their visually beautiful circular movements really flow and ripple!

Why do you think the drums are a powerful way to interpret the haiku?

In a way, using the taiko is counter-intuitive – the sheer power and force of the drums is almost at odds with the delicacy of the haiku. But… the taiko are capable of really bringing the imagery to life. For instance, the high-pitched taiko always play in groups of four and act as a cluster of dragonflies. 

And some of the sounds they make are very insect-like… hard to imagine, but true! Apart from the taiko though, the bass koto plays many gorgeous melodies that provide a suitably autumnal flavour, as does the bamboo shakuhachi flute that appears throughout. There’s also a song for female voices and lots of colourful percussion – all of which go towards bringing the words of the poem to life. 

What is it do you think about haiku that has such powerful resonance?

For a long time I’ve enjoyed reading haiku, and although it’s always been in English translation (my Japanese is not good enough to understand the subtleties in the original language), I gain enormous satisfaction from the evocative imagery, the playfulness of the words and figuring out hidden meanings. A haiku’s very brevity makes it easy to delve into an anthology of poems, too – the great poets are so varied and skilful in their use of the form. 

How do you keep your players fresh and enthused when creating new production pieces?

There’s one very special thing about TaikOz and that is the enormous energy, dedication and enthusiasm shown by all its members… anyone that sees one of our shows will see why! 

What have been the highlights for your troupe in the last 12 months?

TaikOz has had a string of exciting projects over the past 12 months or so. Firstly, we presented the world premiere of Chi Udaka for the Sydney Festival – this was a collaboration with a group of South Indian classical dancers and their wonderful choreographer Anandavalli that explored themes of water and earth through movement, taiko, shakuhachi bamboo flute, cello and Indian vocals. And in June the group toured the USA for the first time. After gigs on the west coast, TaikOz ended up in LA for three performances at the World Taiko Gathering. Exciting stuff, as we got to meet and play with so many great players from all over the world. Now, we’re on the road with Crimson Sky, which is just as wonderful – it’s always a privilege to play our music for audiences all over Australia! 

What do you think is the greatest strength of TaikOz?

TaikOz is made up of a diverse range of players. Our backgrounds encompass years of study and performance in traditional Japanese music, western symphonic music, contemporary music and jazz, as well as various forms of dance and martial arts. All of these things add to the overall mix of TaikOz’s performance and aesthetic. It was interesting to hear back from the players and audiences in the US who said that TaikOz has real musicality and a unique sound.

Tell me about the workshop: who would benefit from this? What do you teach?

Everyone can benefit from one of our workshops; age, experience, physical ability don’t come into it! People often attend after a day’s work and feel a bit tired, but after an hour and a half of solid drumming, they walk out re-energised – everyone is very ‘bubbly’ when they leave. The thing about TaikOz’s workshops is that we not only exercise our bodies, but challenge people mentally, too (or rather they challenge themselves). I think people attain a real sense of achievement by the combination. However, I also have no doubt that the endorphins kick in at some point! We believe that everyone has rhythm. Relatively simple, but learned, tasks such as talking and walking require coordination and playing a rhythm on a drum is really just an extension of this notion. It’s our job as teachers to help each person discover that within themselves and for this reasons we see results quite quickly – after one session, in fact. However, like any skill, it requires dedication and hard work to perfect, which takes a lifetime. Nonetheless, one of the aims of our workshops is to have fun in our efforts. 

What should we expect from the show?

Well, based on previous comments from audience members I can honestly say it will be some or all of the following: pounding rhythms, gorgeous melodies, beautiful handcrafted instruments, drama, excitement, intense physicality balanced with serene gentleness. Taiko is as much about seeing as hearing, so people will be thrilled with the spectacle and the sheer power of the drums. 

Performances are Friday and Saturday 7.30pm at Lismore City Hall. Bookings 1300 066 772 or norpa.org.au. Workshop is Friday 4–5.30pm. $15, limited spaces – bookings to 1300 066 772.

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