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Volume 16 Issue 6 - March 2011

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  • Toronto
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PHOTO JAMES

PHOTO JAMES WILSONDifferent DrummersGlennie, Kodo, Nexus: Percussion and Cultural ConfluenceANDREW TIMARBROADLY SPEAKING, Western classical music hasbeen dominated by the human voice, strings winds andkeyboards. The many faces of percussion music however, socentral to many other cultures, have been marginalised for most ofits thousand-year history.It was only in the 20th century that percussion instruments beganto be featured as (almost) equals alongside the violin and piano. Inthe auteur hands of European composers such as Igor Stravinsky andBéla Bartók, Americans Henry Cowell and George Antheil, and theFranco-American Edgar Varese, both tuned and un-tuned percussioninstruments began to take their place on the classical concert stagealongside more established instruments. Then in the late 1930s, westcoast American composers John Cageand Lou Harrison, both students ofHenry Cowell, started to write for multipercussionensembles.That such groups did not existwasn’t an impediment to these youngmusicians; they gathered instruments,formed an ensemble and organizedpercussion music such as Cage’s ownCredo in US (1942), and the First,Second and Third Construction inMetal (1939–42), and Harrison’s FifthSimfony and Concerto No.1 (both1939). Numerous composers andperformers have since taken up thecause of percussion music in subsequentdecades, including the iconoclasticAmerican composer, music theorist andinstrument inventor Harry Partch.So, how much have things changed?Well, last week (on February 24, 2011),I attended a Soundstreams producedconcert at Koerner Hall by LesPercussions de Strasbourg, the grandfatherof modern European percussiongroups, at which its current team of sixpercussionists marked a remarkable 50years of performances by the ensemble.This week, solo percussionist extraordinaire Dame Evelyn Glennieis the featured soloist in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s March 2opening concert of the New Creations Festival at Roy Thomson Hall.March also brings us auspicious anniversary concerts by two otherpercussion groups: Nexus turning 40, and Kodo Drummers turning30. If that weren’t enough, the international percussion service organizationPercussive Arts Society (PAS), with over 8,500 members,is marking its 50th year of operation.With all these notable percussion ensembles beating the anniversarydrum in a spate of Toronto concerts, it feels as if percussionensemble music is coming of age. In a recent interview I askedDame Evelyn Glennie, one of today’s most widely admired soloclassical percussionists, about this apparent convergence.“It is very encouraging,” she replied. “It is no longer unusualfor orchestras and concert promoters to put on percussion concertssomething ‘percussive’ listed nowadays. The ensembles you havelisted have each had strong identities and evolved during times whenthere was real curiosity about what they were performing and howit was performed. They have managed to sustain that high level ofperformance whilst developing their brand.”Above: Evelyn Glennie; Below: Kodo.In her Toronto concert, Glennie and the TSO will be presentingthe local premiere of The Shaman, by Ottawa native Vincent Ho,currently composer-in-residence with the Winnipeg SymphonyOrchestra. “The Shaman is a very beautiful and powerful work,”notes Glennie. “The composer creates excellent balance betweenorganic drumming whilst always keeping the music line, and realsuspense through a simple delicate and passionate melody. VincentHo has really understood percussion well and created a roller-coasterride of emotions.”Glennie is a remarkable, multi-talented individual. She may welland sustain a full-time career as a solo classical percussionist. In herprimary profession she has constantlyexpectations of percussion music – andalso performs with orchestras on theGreat Highland Bagpipes. Amongmany other interests she is active as amotivational speaker, composer, bestsellingauthor (her autobiography: GoodVibrations), educator, TV personalityand jewellery designer. Obviously alsoin good physical shape, last Decembershe ascended Mount Kilimanjaro for thecharity Able Child Africa.Back to her music: Glennie recordsand tours widely, giving more than100 performances a year worldwide.Performing with leading orchestras shehas been featured on 26 solo recordings.Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion,won her a Grammy in 1988. A furthertwo Grammy nominations followed, oneof which she won for a collaborationwith the American banjo virtuoso BelaFleck. canceof the current stage of her solocareer she countered: “Each stage ofam treading new territory most of the time. The period I am experiencingnow is allowing me to see the impact of the work during thepast 20 years – the belief that a solo percussion career is absolutelysustainable and should not/cannot be challenged ever again.”Her many local fans will no doubt pack Roy Thomson HallMarch 2 to experience her signature brand of percussive magic.But from a global perspective, some would argue (I among them)that when it comes to the role of percussion, the Western concerttradition is still playing catch-up with much of the world. AsGlennie puts it: “Our western classical music or indeed muchof our folk music has not had percussion as the backbone to itsexistence, unlike the music of Africa, Far East, South America,etc.” where percussion instruments and entire ensembles haveenjoyed pride of place as far back as we can trace. In China largeorchestras including tuned bronze bells and stone chimes werepart of aristocratic entertainments as far back as the 5th centuryBCE. In S.E. Asia, percussion-rich ensembles both large and smallstill feature prominently in the musical lives of several cultures.The Indonesian gamelan and Japanese drumming traditions offercompelling arguments on this point, and not just in their Asia homeseither. In the past three decades their traditions have set roots here8 thewholenote.comMarch 1 - April 7, 2011PHOTO COURTESY SONY CENTRE

in Canada, from St. John’s to Vancouver.The Japanese group Kodo, sometimes referred to as Kodoits own regional Asian folk roots, yet also totally at home on theinternational road. Kodo’s March 11 show at the Sony Centrefor the Performing Arts is only one of 29 concerts in its presentNorth American tour. A veritable touring juggernaut, to datemeasure alone makes it arguably the most successful internationalpercussion ensemble group ever. Their goal is to reach as manywebsite, however, they take care to stress that while “Kodo is nota preservation society involved exclusively in the passing down oflocal Sado traditions,” their performances are based upon traditionalfolk arts, learned from people throughout Japan’s many regions.Kodo’s intention is not simply to replicate these living performingarts, however. Their goal is rather to rearrange them for the stage inthrough our bodies.”I interviewed former Kodo apprentice Kiyoshi Nagata, theartistic director of Toronto’s own taiko group Nagata Shachu, aboutKodo. “Kodo tours internationally under the banner One EarthTour” they believe the boundaries of their tiny island village are culturallyexpanded to embrace the people of the globe.”“The origins of Kodo lie with a few groups formed by youngJapanese in the post WW II era,” says Nagata. “Disillusionedby what they saw as the westernization of Japanese culture theywanted to revitalize it by returning to folk traditions, as well as toJapanese spiritual and physical values and disciplines.” The skill anddiscipline of playing taiko, originally part of matsuri (festival) music,was part of this effort.Although the main focus of Kodo’s performances is taiko(Japanese name for drum), it is notable that other traditionalJapanese musical instruments such as fueand shamisen (plucked lute) are used on stage as is traditional danceand vocal performance.How did Kodo take a Japanese drum-heavy festival music andparlay it into a major act on the world’s main stages? Part of theanswer lies in Kodo’s rigorous physical training, as well as the danceand song elements added to the power, precision and excitement ofthe taiko ensemble. Another part is the compelling compositionscontributed by Maki Ishii and Shinichiro Ikebe, and also by theKabuki (a form of traditional Japanese theatre) orchestra musiciansRoetsu Tosha and Kiyohiko Senba. Compositions by the jazz pianistYousuke Yamashita also add to this rich mix. Original works byKodo members, based on Japanese folk forms, complete theircreative team portrait.Kodo’s iconic huge drums played by powerfully toned malesin loincloths and headbands have become a commonplace icon inmainstream media. Years ago I attended an impressive Kodo concertrequired to produce their music. (I’ll admit I wondered about theloincloths.)I asked Kiyoshi Nagata: “It’s part of Kodo’s return to oldJapanese tradition,” he replied with a smile. “The loincloth waseveryday wear for Japanese farmers and Sumo wrestlers, for example.It’s also appealing to audiences everywhere I think. There’sanother aspect too. In Japanese culture the cultivation and display ofthe human body is important as an expression, a demonstration, ofthe learning and discipline one has acquired through diligent work.”And what about the quasi-ritual aspect some see in Kodoconcerts? “Actually the group’s spiritually goes hand in hand withtheir performances. This comes through in the physicality of thedrumming, in the training discipline and in the stamina required toperform on the massive drums they use, some played with malletsthe size of baseball bats. The taiko has a long history in villagesand temples as an instrument used to communicate with the Shintogods, a custom which is still widely maintained. Kodo taught me toMarch 1 - April 7, 2010 thewholenote.com 9

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