TaikOz Future Directions, 14/6/2014

Disclaimer: I learned taiko with members of TaikOz for a number of years.

It’s taken a while to write this. I’ve felt conflicted, as I am a TaikOz tragic and want them to succeed and grow – but I’m also a gig-goer with limited time and limited cash. And I like to spend my time (and money) accordingly, and to feel some kind of reward – not always in the form of back-slapping woo-consuming-arts! kind of way, either – for the investment of both.

Unfortunately, the Future Directions gig was one of the poorest shows I’ve seen from the ensemble. There’s been member injuries to contend with – artistic director Ian Cleworth was not on stage – but I feel Kaoru Watanabe‘s guest artistic direction didn’t provide enough cohesion to the performance to pull it off. The performers’ mostly-mufti (typified by Graham Hilgendorf’s spectacular performance-day hairdo) was a break with their own tradition, though it heralded a sort of “it’ll do” approach – something underscored by a kitchen-sink level of instrumentation, and a casual ‘there is no offstage’ vibe, where players chatted between (and sometimes during) pieces.

I understand that though they’re billed as interpreters of Japanese music, TaikOz have more in common with the mod-classical composition crew – and perhaps it’s this nexus that led to the jazz-flavoured, improv-heavy bill tonight. It’s a continued part of the exploration which has seen the group move into electronica, renewed collaboration with dance groups and videographers. It makes sense in that context – but it also takes away from the TaikOz I think their core audience has come to appreciate.

Unfortunately, Watanabe’s pieces generally weren’t up to the level the PR would indicate. I found them generally unimpressive, as was the continual on-stage banter. During his frequent between-piece talks – mostly about his daughter, delivered in a state of breathlessness – the pieces were raved-up, with Hiraki in particular singled out for its engulfing climax. When said climax lacked the appropriate thunder, there was a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction, just as there was when improvisational noodling stretched those couple of bars too far.

In terms of flute playing, I felt Watanabe was outclassed by Riley Lee, both in tone and preparedness. I know, there was only a two-week lead-up to the gig – but when the first flute number had the guest lead reading from stave while Lee serenely moved through his paces, it was hard to avoid the image of a performance playing catch-up.

A big point in Watanabe’s favour was Chakuto, a piece with improv rendered lovely by the strictures of a more traditional, theatrical form. The drumming was spot-on, and the piece really sang because it wasn’t trying to Ornette Coleman up the joint: it worked without attempting to shoehorn things into the form that didn’t belong. Likewise, TaikOz’s rip through In the Fields, a Cleworth-penned piece featuring lithe unison and interlocking playing, was well received as it played to the group’s strengths. Other pieces seemed to highlight the players’ background in classical idiom – Misra especially sounded like an apocalyptic 70s work.

One of the most disappointing parts of the evening was the ensemble’s performance of Tribute to Miyake. It’s the group’s arrangement of the traditional miyake style of playing, and is something they’ve refined extensively in the past, studying with masters of the style. I can only imagine the version on display – performed in the ‘older’ style the group used prior to their most recent training with the Tsumura family – was so Watanabe could play along. When performed with gusto and well-oiled ability, the style is both graceful and shatteringly strong: bodies pass low to the ground, delivering beefy beats with sureness. This evening’s version was higher-up, and seemed to run out of puff; it was certainly the worst version of the piece I’ve seen the group play, though I suspect it’s due to accommodation more than anything else.

The performers, to their credit, seemed aware of the tension. While TaikOz foster either seriousness or camaraderie in their onstage guise, the evening’s performance was marked mostly by a sort of forced jolliness. Hilgendorf is an endlessly entertaining player, and his enthusiasm is never forced – he loves to play, and it shows – though the same can’t be said of some other members, whose grins seemed to hide an internal ohshitohshitohshit monologue. It must be difficult to manage the level of uncertainty which accompanies a show with a hefty amount of improv, but it seemed the frayed edges were worrying to more than one  of the group.

I must acknowledge that a lot of the negativity I associate with the performance stems from both venue and price. As usual, TaikOz fans picked up tickets earlier in the sale window (albeit with a small discount) – but then a week before the performance, smaller sales dictated a 40 per cent price discount. Add to that, our $70 seats -automatically allocated – were hard right, second row, with an obscured view, resulting in a weird soundfield. Everything sounded out-of-time and strange. It wasn’t until interval that we were able to nab a vacant, back-of-the-hall seat and hear something approaching acceptable.

It galls somewhat to pay a premium and receive a shit seat, particularly one not advertised as restricted view. The architecture of the hall – and it’s great, if you’re sitting on the floor, somewhere in the middle – is of course not TaikOz’s responsibility, but the effects of the acoustic on the music (and management on ticket prices) both combined to create an atmosphere that wasn’t great. Coupled with the rougher performance, it left me feeling puzzled and a bit disappointed. It’s a shame, as when taiko performances work, the audience – and not just us otaku types who speak the language because we’ve learned it a little, or are crazy for Japan, or feel the pull because we’ve spent much time and money making ourselves understand – is transformed.

If this is the future direction of TaikOz, it certainly runs against their previous path of excellence. What was gained in improv – in this case more a reward for the performers than the audience – was lost in the feeling of rigour, of preparedness in performance. Again, this sort of programme is a risk acceptable at a $10 jam night, but when a night out costs the thick end of $100 and results in an active diminution of previous glories, the goals have to be examined. I’ve no doubt the time spent working on improv in an intensive situation with a visiting artist is beneficial for performers. It’s just difficult to transform that experience into a something an audience can grab hold of, particularly in the sort of music TaikOz and Watanabe make. In jazz? Sure, I’ll happily watch The Necks groove for two hours with nothing more behind it than bravado and experience – but the improv on display during this evening lacked both the risk-taking and the sure-footedness to pull it off.

I look forward to TaikOz’s upcoming Sydney run of Crimson Sky shows. During my intensive study with the group, I saw rehearsals and the performance for a one-off version of the show, and it struck me as both profound and a stretch of writing and performance. I heartily recommend the show, and admit that my harsh criticism here should be considered in the light of their successes, too. This can be a strong group, and hopefully Future Directions was merely a weak show rather than an indication of rudderlessness.

It’s taken me a while to write this post. I’ve wanted to convey my impressions of the performance, but have had concerns on how it would be interpreted. I was involved with TaikOz as a student for some years, culminating in a trip to Japan to compete in (and win) a group section of a taiko contest. I stopped playing for personal reasons a couple of years ago but still miss it – and still do respect the work the group does. I’d like to think my thoughts would not be construed as sour grapes, but rather an informed audience interpretation of the performance. I want to see these guys succeed, because it is bloody hard work. 

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