Monday, October 21, 2013

Haiku at heart of drum symphony

TaikOz in action.

TaikOz in action.

Crimson Sky. TaikOz. Canberra Theatre Centre and Taikoz. Canberra Theatre, Saturday,  October 26 at 7.30pm.  Tickets: adult: $50-$70; concessions: $45-$55; under 27s: $39-49.  Bookings: Canberra Ticketing: 62752700 or

Australia's acclaimed drumming ensemble TaikOz has always prided itself on diversity in performance. But artistic director Ian Cleworth admits, ''There's still a perception that the ensemble is just a collection of big drums played very loud by a bunch of muscular blokes.

''That's not a fair reflection of the art form or what we do.''

No indeed. In fact, since TaikOz began in 1997, Cleworth has continually pushed artistic boundaries, from composing and commissioning new works to working with other instrumentalists and collaborating with artists such as Bell Shakespeare or choreographers such as Meryl Tankard.


''Exploring performance and integrating other art forms extends our creative expression,'' he says. ''These collaborations push us in many different ways, they force us to think and play differently. That keeps us fresh.''

TaikOz's latest collaboration is with Japanese musician Satsuki Odamura, whose bass koto - a traditional 17-string plucked instrument - features prominently in the work Crimson Sky, to be performed at the Canberra Theatre on October 26. The performance will interweave taiko drumming with the shakuhachi and shinobue bamboo flutes and voice.

The program also features works by the two youngest members of TaikOz - the meditative Solace by Tom Royce-Hampton and the energetic Exploration by Anton Lock - as well as the premiere of a new work by Cleworth, entitled Of The Fields.

TaikOz is a synthesis of East and West, Cleworth says, an engagement of mind, body and spirit. The ensemble takes its name from ''taiko'', the Japanese word for ''giant drum''. In feudal Japan, these drums were used to motivate troops and to set pace on the battlefield. Centuries later, the name TaikOz is a distinctive choice, reflecting respect for ancient traditions as well as an unmistakable Australian flavour.

Crimson Sky, written by Cleworth, is based on a haiku poem by Japanese poet Miura Yuzuru:

red dragonflies

flowing like a ripple

toward the crimson sky

''I wanted to evoke the poem's sensual and dramatic imagery of a cloud of dragonflies ascending into a deep red sky,'' he says. As such, the work is structured around each line of the poem.

The first section introduces the bass koto, whose harp-like resonance evokes the sense of a cloud of dragonflies, he says. Alongside, the taiko drums function as rhythmic accompaniment, adding texture and colour.

The second section introduces the sense of rippling movement, with wave-like dynamics and cross-rhythms. ''We've also chosen a particular style of playing that hails from the Japanese island of Hachijo-jima. It's a unique way of playing the taiko - side-on and beautifully elaborate with flowing body and arm movements. It's a style that evokes that feeling of rippling and flowing.''

The final section includes an introspective song for koto, shakuhachi and female voice. The poem is recited and the work eventually tapers off quietly.

''Crimson Sky is about the life cycle of birth and death, symbolising moving towards death before new life happens again,'' Cleworth says.

Interestingly, it's the English translation of the poem that is used in performance rather than the original Japanese.

''That's very much to do with the 'Oz' in TaikOz,'' he says. ''While we use Japanese instruments as our mode of expression, we are Australian musicians working in Australia and draw on a lot of other aspects of our culture here. We're respectful of the roots and traditions of this music but we have to be true to who we are as Australians.''

But he agrees that the percussive sound - to Western ears - of the Japanese language is an important part of their practice.

''When we do our warm-ups we count in Japanese. The sound of the counting has an innate percussiveness about it. Also using the voice muscles differently to create the correct sound attunes the ear to the sound of the taiko. Every member of the ensemble learns how to sing all the rhythms before they play their drums. The syllables imitate the sound of the taiko.''

Watching TaikOz in performance is a fascinating contrast between power and relaxation. As frenetic as the taiko rhythms appear, the drummers seem almost suspended in a trance as they play.

''That reflects a sense of balance,'' Cleworth says, ''between high energy and fast movement and a centredness and quietness. We teach our drummers to make a big sound by weight and gravity and movement of the body. We think of it as playing rather than hitting the drum. And that can only be done by being relaxed.''

In fact, TaikOz is an experience to be seen as much as heard. It begins as the performers take the spotlight alongside their various taiko drums. Then the stage fills with the sound of rolling thunder as the drummers successively join the rhythm, poised with their wooden drumming sticks rather like felines waiting to pounce on their prey.

It's an analogy that Cleworth likes. ''The drummers use images in the rehearsal process as a means of understanding and mastering movement. The animal image is a useful one because that explosive power is only achieved by being totally relaxed.''
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