Shakuhachi concert, 28/5/2014

Simon Barker performs.

Simon Barker performs.

I spent part of last night at a performance of shakuhachi and percussion works at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. The players ranged from student to shakuhachi master (and grandmaster) level, and while the event did have some slightly off-target moments, it was good to see how a casual approach to programming and execution – and at a free concert! – can yield rewards. (Well, some: the lack of performance notes was a little confusing, even though performers introduced – sometimes too briefly – the pieces.)

The evening began as you’d expect: traditionally. Riley Lee opened the performance with San’an, a honkyoku from northern Japan sometimes used as a prayer for safe delivery. For a piece with such a simple, safe goal, the work contained a lot of technique. Those  unacquainted with demanding shakuhachi playing found the piece different to stereotypical long-tones-misty-mountains sounds usually associated with the flute: rapid fingerings and staccato phrasing throughout gave a real sense of the player working to execute the piece.

Next, the Deborah Kayser- and Anne Norman-penned Unden paired a Hildegard von Bingen text with shakuhachi. Soprano Wendy Dixon (approaching medieval text via iPad) seemed engaged in a battle of breaths with Bronwyn Kirkpatrick‘s bamboo. Voice and shakuhachi overlapped, started phrases and passed endings in an almost conversational manner, with most enjoyment occuring when the source of the tone (vocal cords or bamboo?) couldn’t be readily identified.

Percussion featured in excerpts from Simon Barker‘s Chant Cycle, in which tribal, ritualised pieces on modified drumkit (with additions including a kick-pedalled gong and mounted slit/log drum) were interspersed with shakuhachi quietude. Barker, a jazz drummer and composer, created some deep, rattling grooves in his first variant, which seemed the best marriage of kit and tribalism, and reminded me of the sort of nameless power found in some of John Zorn’s mystical work, best voiced on IAO.

The following examples didn’t reach the same heights – it seemed the language was sometimes more kit-oriented, which seemed a disappointment after so emphatically shamanistic a beginning –  but as a sampler of what I assume is work in process, it was informative. There was no denying Barker’s immersion, and it will be interesting to see the cycle completed.

A duet returned the concert to a slightly more traditional mode. Nicholas Hall and Felicity Clark’s performance of Fukuda Rando’s Tone no Funa Uta – a relatively modern work – cranked the pace. Rather than feeling too rushed, the players’ interplay accurately conveyed the sensation of boating, of the pulling of oars, of travel. Twin parts diverged, toyed with each other and returned as Hall and Clark closely watched each other to ensure unison. Where shakuhachi can sometimes feel weighty, Tone no Funa Uta was trippingly light and fresh.

Bronwyn Kirkpatrick returned – solo – for another Rando piece. Tabibito no Uta (Traveller’s Song) had a wistful, folksong feel conducive to musing.  It’s the sort of piece non-players would imagine when they think of a shakuhachi piece, even though it was composed in 1927 rather than the Edo period. Kirkpatrick’s performance seemed almost a discourse; the flute spoke of travel, not music.

Rhythms returned with an improvised performance by Aliquot, a shakuhachi and percussion duo. Lights dimmed, green exit signs provided the only illumination for a set of spontaneous music which at its best rivalled Barker’s pieces for tribal engagement. Clark’s flute sat back, responding to Yui Kasamatsu’s percussive battery, largely focused on an hourglass-shaped Korean drum.

Aliquot’s playing explored some interesting tones, but was best in its final moments when a deep gong line was accompanied by sputtered, rasping flute sounds – a sort of jungle desperation. Clark and Kasamatsu took a while to reach that level of unity – there were a couple of jarring changes along the way, a little at odds with the continuous, responsive development usually associated with improv – but when they arrived it was affecting, music designed to hear in darkness.

The traditional nature of the opener was revisited with Riley Lee’s final performance, a last-minute substitution. Rather than Akita Sugagaki, Lee performed the traditional (non-Japanese) piece She Moved Through The Fair. A standard (famously covered by everyone from Sinéad O’Connor to Van Morrison to Bert Jansch), it was a piece full of love and death in the best Irish manner, consisting of two phrases, repeated and varied. The shakuhachi was an able replacement for the Uilleann pipes one would normally associate with the tune’s haunted bent, and Lee’s performance closed the night with a sweet, sad air.

What made this set of performances special was the players’ proximity. Being a smaller room, observers were much closer to the performers. The closeness deepened the experience of watching, as the struggles of performance. Concertgoers were able to see world-class musicians perform (for free, no less) and to observe what occurs when composition and improve falter – and more importantly, when they succeed.

This casual-dress gig – no penguin suits required – was a very palatable introduction to what’s sometimes considered niche, difficult music. More of it, thanks.

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