Saturday, September 1, 2012

Japanese Spirit and Music

The performance on the Sunday night, August 26, was entitled 'Japanese Spirit and Music - Voice, Shakuhachi and Shinobue.' The concert featured two Japanese music duos (with additions). It was held at the Michiko Rehearsal Studio close to New York’s Times Square. A somewhat unusual place, but very functional for the purpose, once one managed to get there through the tourist crowds on Times Square.

The first pairing was Nobuko Miyazaki and Emi Inaba. The set started with a solo shinobue, a Japanese transverse bamboo flute, by Miyazaki. She was soon joined by Inaba, a proficient pianist and composer, for a set of tunes that had all been composed by one these young ladies. The first one, on which Miyazaki played the Western flute, left me wondering whether this would be a concert of romantic but somewhat meaningless semi-classical pieces played by two good musicians. I was proven wrong, luckily, as the pace changed rather quickly afterwards. The next piece, Echo, an Inaba composition, was already quite different and quite fun! It immediately demonstrated Inaba’s compositional talents.

The following piece was hers, too, Traveller. The musicians explained how they had met nine years ago in London where Inaba had been a student of composition; how she had wanted to write a piece to play with her friend: and how she had asked about the shinobue and its scales in order to know how to write for the unusual instrument. In fact, playing shinobue or any other traditional bamboo flute with a piano with its fixed tuning is a challenge to the flutist This turned out to be one of the highlights of the performance, a tune with a beautiful theme, followed by changing dynamic and rhythmic patterns. The pianist played some complex yet attractive patterns involving both hands, first in octaves, then in harmonies, which the flute followed. The piece, as the one that followed it, was an enchanting mix of Japanese and jazz sensibilities. Despite these clear jazz influences, all of the music appeared written through with no improvisational elements.

A solo piano piece confirmed Inaba’s skills both as a pianist and, primarily, as a composer. Again, the tune moved dynamically between a sweet and harmonious beginning and an innovative and strong middle before returning to the original melody.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by a tsunami that destroyed a stunning amount of the coastline and killed some 15,000 people. Nobuko Miyazaki told the audience how she had visited the devastated area in Iwate just a couple of weeks ago. She had then composed the tune that was played next as a prayer dedicated to those who perished in the disaster. It was a beautiful piece played on the shinobue, with some powerful inputs from the pianist. The set ended with another jazzy piece by Emi Inaba.  All in all, a nice performance, which was hard to pigeonhole: just two clearly very talented musicians trying to balance their act between Western and Japanese music.

None of this ambiguity was present when Emme and Akihiko Obama performed. In fact, Obama started their part of the event with a classical Japanese shakuhachi solo piece, Daha. He played it with a jinashi shakuhachi, a longer version of the classic Japanese bamboo flute with a deep sound. He switched to a shorter flute when Emme joined him (he would use five different flutes of varying lengths throughout the performance, so I won’t get into that anymore). This was an innovative version of a minyoo, a Japanese folk song arranged for just voice and shakuhachi. After the first song together, the couple proceeded to play Edo no komoriuta, a beautiful lullaby from Old Edo before it became Tokyo. The version—again just by voice and the bamboo flute—contained some amazing interplay between the musicians. It takes some out-of-the-box thinking when in the arrangements for a voice-shakuhachi duet the rhythm would be provided by the singer!

The next piece, Splendour of Sound, was honestly cooking, with Emme adding some African colour and rhythm with a thumb piano. Obama provided some inventive lines while Emme got into singing in the complex traditional nagauta style.

In Aoi Tsubame, Shu Odamura joined in with a guitar. He had to wait for a lengthy moment while Emme sang the theme unaccompanied by any other instrument—she is just fantastic, her confidence based on the absolute command of her voice and the genre—before he was able to join in. He started with an atmospheric solo, followed by a sequence in which he and Emme interplayed in an almost bossa nova –like style.

The piece led seamlessly into another one, starting with a guitar-shakuhachi duet with interesting improvisational exchanges. Suddenly, Emme joined and inserted some very potent vocals into the slowly building music. This piece contained some of the most intensive playing of the evening, with a searing shakuhachi solo by Obama.

At the end, all of the musicians present got together for a fun Japanese tune, Zakiyaki, which Emme instructed the audience to participate in (which we did by clapping our hands and joining in the catchy refrain). This was a very engaging and fun moment, with Miyazaki and Inaba joining the rest of the musicians on stage. In fact, the bamboo flute improvisations by Akihito Obama and Nobuko Miyazaki, on shakuhachi and shinobue, respectively, were most enjoyable!

To calm the scene down before we all had to go home, Emme and Obama performed one more tune. This once again brought the solo human and bamboo voices together, the couple singing  and playing with and without each other, both showing more artistry and skill than reasonable for an average musician. The beauty and peace of the Japanese music lingered with me as I stepped out to fight the crowds in the neon lit hell of Times Square.

Just a few days later, on August 30, Yoko and I went to listen to Obama once again, yet in a different setting. This time he performed in Ran Tea House, just blocks away from where we live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Obama’s performance tonight was part of a series of cultural talks with Asian related artists from different fields, called uNtitleDdialogue initiated by Echo He and Jessie Yang from New York University. This was the shakuhachi player’s last engagement in New York as part of his six-month Asian Cultural Council fellowship that had brought him here to research the intersection between traditional Japanese shakuhachi music and the American improvisational jazz-inspired music.

This concert consisted entirely of traditional solo shakuhachi music, with six numbers of mostly classic honkyoku style. Most of the tunes, such as Honshirabe and Shika-no-Tone, are meditational, the shakuhachi not only playing a tune in flute style; an important part of the music consists of the sounds and atmosphere created by a variety of blowing techniques.  Obama also played Kumoi-jishi, a traditional but not meditational piece in koten style, which the Buddhist monks had made just for fun, and Ko-Myo, a goeika Buddhist hymn.

The performance was followed by a brief lecture by Obama of the history of the shakuhachi, with demonstrations of the various techniques and different types of flutes that he had brought with him. This was clearly interesting to the crowd of more than fifty people, mostly of Chinese origin (my Swedish buddy Björn and I were amongst the handful of Westerners present). Shakuhachi, as so much of Japanese culture was introduced to the islands from China as early as the 6th century. Since then, the music developed in a uniquely Japanese style, while it slowly disappeared from the mainland.

Yoko, Emme and me
Obama, Yoko and me
The evening ended in an informal manner celebrating Akihito Obama’s completion of the stay in the US and his forthcoming 2nd of September birthday. While Emme brought out the cake, Obama jammed with a ukulele and guitar player demonstrating in practice the fertile middle ground between traditional shakuhachi music and contemporary jazz.

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