Taiko, techno and the lost art of originality
At 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night on the Hill, few would expect much of a turnout at a music event that does not offer its attendees extra credit, or freshman seminar completion. Yet the rows of seats in Given Auditorium were happily full for a concert given by an experimental music group, and for those remaining empty seats, the blast of a Taiko drum compensated, providing the unparalleled presence of a body-shaking resonance. Those who attended--mainly music students, professors, and local art enthusiasts--were led on a journey composed of musical chapters; Taiko drums, saxophone, and techno-sounding emotions harmonized to take the listeners on an auditory odyssey from the present to the future of music itself.
Based in New York City, KIOKU is the brainchild of the College's Artist in Residence in Music, Taiko drummer Wynn Yamami, live electronicist Christopher Ariza, and saxophonist Ali Sakkal. While the band name is Japanese for "memory," the music seemed to almost forget its Asian roots and lean toward experimentation with the technological sounds of machines and synthesizers and the jazzy foundation of a saxophone. Yet the centerpiece of the band's musical menagerie was the Taiko drum, an instrument that has existed for thousands of years and has recently been used to create modern (or, rather, postmodern) genres of music.
With Yamami on the Taiko, Ariza at a computer workstation that resembled a cross between a mad scientist's lab and a teenager's gaming console, and Sakkal swaying back and forth on the saxophone, the band created a music exhibition that can only be described as "art for art's sake."
While their sounds were quirky and loveable, KIOKU's occasional lack of coherence called the group's place in the New York music scene into question. Sometimes the instruments were so different that it seemed as if one were peering into a recycling bin of lost sounds; and, at times, each instrument possessed a phase of competition with the others, the result coming close to an auditory assault. This is not to say that the entire concert was an unpleaseant hodgepodge of sounds; despite its fits and spats of improvisation, its attempt at originality--something seemingly lost in today's top-40 music world--was "noble." But for the most part, KIOKU's fusion of Asian music traditions, jazzy melodies, and weird ambience didn't necessarily push at the boundaries of music, but rather questioned them altogether.
The group is a self-described "synthesis of traditional Asian music and collaborative improvisation," playing four songs with a range of emotions, sounds and instrumental and cultural influences. The first piece, called "Miyake," was named after the island of Miyakejima, off the coast of eastern Japan. With its traditional drum influences that "mirrored the activities of fishermen and laborers," the piece was reconceived by Yamami to include ambience white-noise, a lingering saxophone and the mighty force of a Taiko drum. Often it felt as if a wind chime was in the midst of a giant storm. This ragtag collection of auditory voices harmonized to make it sound as if one were imagining some scene from an Asian neo-Fantasia. While the sax added a flashy, out-of-place kind of vibe, the piece did a good job of meshing together different styles into something crafted, intricate, and painstakingly new.
Another traditional song re-imagined by Yamami was "Yatai Bayashi," which mimicked Shinto festivals to the gods. It sounded like a trip into a great metropolis, with ambient sounds of people's voices, electronic pulses and the increasing rhythm of a pounding Taiko drum. Starting with a murky, techno-processed hum, a gradual drumbeat coalesced to join the sounds of the soprano sax. Gradually the sounds, as if conjuring up a chase scene, rushed and thundered together in a galloping procession, drums rattling the ribcage and altering the heartbeat. Once the soprano sax took reign, the piece echoed a potential scene from Kill Bill, complete with the intensity and artistic consciousness of Tarantino.
Three more songs followed from KIOKU's repertoire: "The Drum Thing," "Binalig" and "Pinari." While it may be unfair to catalogue the rest of these songs in just a few sentences, the fact is, words are not sufficient to describe what one hears when listening to KIOKU. While "The Drum Thing" was a reinterpretation of the "African-ness" of John Coltrane, the other two songs utilized gongs and cymbals to create rhythmically-complex sounds that cycled through a range of emotional states. Perhaps one of the most satisfying things about the ensemble's performance was its ability to make each member in the audience stop to close his or her eyes and imagine how the sounds might manifest themselves as shapes in his or her head.
The most intriguing part of the event was the way in which each musician did not play, but rather performed their instrument as an extension of self. Yamami would strike exotic and graceful poses before pounding his Taiko drum with enough force to shatter worlds; Ariza would sit humbly and happily behind his desk, conjuring odd and revealing sounds by turning knobs and clicking away at his reconfigured game controller; and Sakkal would flicker and seemingly tickle the valves of his saxophone.
KIOKU's reception was fittingly appreciative: a standing ovation followed the concert's end and a short encore ensued. The piece played during the encore was probably the best song of the night, as if KIOKU had been saving a gem for its audience. The ensemble played a melodious, almost sad song of whispers and drumbeats that brought the image of water to mind. The standing applause and bows following the encore felt like déjà vu.
Avant-garde, humble and quirky, KIOKU provided an experience to change one's conception of how music is able manifest itself in exotic new conventions of sound. The innovative spirit of musicians such as these promises listeners exciting, new musical genres that are constantly taking shape in today's contemporary music scene.