Batare at La Mirada Theater

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Batare at La Mirada Theater

This is a very difficult review for me to write because I want to say two seemingly contradictory things at once: 1) Batare has great potential and should keep going, 2) the show needs to be entirely rewritten.

First let's celebrate the producers' and musicians' bravery and hard work.  For months and months, Batare performers have committed to grueling, all-day practices and the producer, Nick, has worked tirelessly to build the entire thing from the ground up, taking huge artistic risks while paying his musicians for both performances and rehearsals.  The stage and lighting are custom-made.  The instruments were purchased just for this production.  This is the kind of visionary management the taiko world needs a lot more of!  Imagine if there were 10 Nicks in north America right now trying this kind of thing!  That would be amazing for taiko.  And we should take a lesson from the performers and their commitment to practicing ridiculously long hours to bring something entirely new to the taiko world.

That having been said, this first draft of the show is in disarray.  The compositions need rethinking and the audio issues need immediate fixing.  Here's the good news... rewriting is nothing like starting from scratch; there's a ton of material and momentum to draw on.  And a stronger show will also be a simpler show to perform.  But it needs to be rewritten, not merely revised.  Revision got us into this problem.

Rewriting does not signify defeat... it's just the next step toward awesomeness.

I should say up front that I'm not sure my opinions are worth very much.  I have no idea how to achieve Nick's dream of creating a wildly popular, Las Vegas-ready taiko show.  There's no way I could do that with my music.  So anyone who is trying to create a popular taiko program (everyone?) should be skeptical of what I say.  With that caveat, here are my observations and suggestions.


The essense of this performance is the combination of taiko and guitar.  This is an awesome starting point.  Unfortunately, it's not working yet.  Part of the issue is technical -- this is an incredibly hard show to mix and balance and the sound person wasn't up to the task.  (And by "not up to the task" I mean, "don't ever hire this person for anything you care about."  He was horrible.)  It would probably help to have guitar amps on stage and fixed positions for the taiko to diminish the weird disconnect between live taiko from stage and amplified guitar from the flying speaker arrays.  Subs would help bridge the gap too.  But more fundamentally, the music needs to carefully match the emotional energy of the guitars with the taiko.  Imagine the power that precise, high power taiko hits could add to heavy guitars... This is the dream we're shooting for!  Right now, the strikes are weak as the players try to stay with the click and the guitars sound brittle; neither side is rocking.

If it were up to me, the music needs to be written from a place of interactive, sonic exploration, listening closely to one another.  "Composition" is the act of trying to capture the magical moments that occur in this space.  The performers need to find and foster the actual sensation of "rocking out", not the image of rocking out.  Don't include people in this process who don't know and love metal.

It will help if the guitars have control over their dynamics and tone.  It would make the sound person's job a whole lot easier, and a pedal board would also allow changes to the type and amount of distortion to keep the sounds fresh.  Perhaps one guitar is enough?  Would more reverb help the strings meld?  This tonal exploration needs to be the foundation of the music, ("wait!  that sounds amazing!  how can we build the song around that?!") not the sound person's job at the venue.


In-ear monitors and pre-programed lights allowed for some great moments.  A "flash" beginning of one of the pieces in the second half was dramatic and quite pleasurable, and I don't usually like that kind of thing.  The in-ear click meant that even when small mistakes were made, the beat continued and the ensemble pulled through the big changes.  And practicing to a click has probably done great things for the performers' time.

To me, though, these benefits are not worth the downside: lack of chemistry between the players and a distant, distracted stage presence.  When everyone is listening to "god", they aren't listening and reacting to each other.  Kaz and the drum set player were the least prone to this, but everyone felt puppeted by the in-ears.  This problem will likely diminish with practice but by then it's too late; the chemistry needs time to develop too.


My favorite musical moments were solos and all-taiko sections because they were the simplest and clearest.  Elsewhere, the pieces are totally scattered.  The pieces need melodic themes and repeated rhythms, set in recognizable structures (chorus, verse, bridge) that guide us through the pieces.  The pieces "stop" rather than "end".

Everyone is playing too much.  When the guitars go fancy, the taiko should go simple. 

The songs need to be distinct...  Move all the bachi tossing into one "bachi-tossing" song.  Move all the inter-drum choreography into one song.  Take the key melody and rhythmic structure for the biggest piece and rewrite around that, figuring out a simple, clear way to build to the best parts.  Add elements gradually and don't change all the elements simultaneously.

Would it help to give total artistic control over to one person for each piece?  Is Kaz free to write the piece he truly wants?  Is Isaku?  I heard some samples of Kaz' composition and loved it but I couldn't find any of that in the live show.  What happened?  For the rewrite, ask each performer to pick a song and rewrite it as they'd like.  There should be no expectation that these are the final versions for the show... just heart-felt contributions to the pool of options.


The switching between drums has potential but is wild and unflattering at the moment.  No one is a dancer so their bobbles and adjustments seem ungainly.  Figuring out the exact footwork for a single way to switch will be more effective than "musical chairs" style.  I would list all the tossing ideas, rank them by awesomeness, and then figure out how to use them musically to build to a satisfying climax.  (And if you're sticking with bachi tossing, there should be no extra sticks.  It's real risk that makes it exciting.)


The skill-level gap between the drumset player / guitarists and the taiko players is stark.  A taiko solo struggling to stay with the click can't follow a ridiculously technical drum solo or guitar riff.  I enjoy watching Patrick play but his parts in the show don't warrant his position as the front-man.

Before the re-write, list each player's unique, world-class strength.  If the player doesn't have one, limit their parts accordingly (and get them practicing on their own to become world-class).  For the strengths that do exist, think of the one spot in the show where that skill might be featured artfully.  For example, Kaz has crazy-fast hands.  What solo would be the right one to include cut-outs that allow Kaz to fill?  Remember that these skills need to be used as tools to achieve larger musical goals, not as an end in themselves.


The audience liked the comedic transitions but I thought they were painful.  That kind of acting is a whole separate skill that requires years of practice and mentorship.  TaikoProject hired professional actor and stage coach John Miyazaki to help them conceive, practice, and refine their dialogue.  And still it's not perfect.  For me, the solution is just to avoid acting entirely.  But if you're going for comedy, hire an actor to help clarify the physical storytelling.

The guitar quoting of classic songs can't be the best-sounding guitar parts of the show!  And the image of two white, male guitarists biting their lower lips as they rock out at the front of the stage feels a little off-putting in this #MeToo era.


Moving forward

So there was a lot I didn't like.  The problems are big enough that the group's current way of working probably isn't sufficient to fix them.  Batare needs to think about how to give individuals more artistic control... and how to create more time together.  Perhaps pairs and threes of performers could more easily get together more frequently.  Nick and Isaku need to think about how to foster more practice and how to create an inspiring, passionate atmosphere.  Though it pains me to say it, Batare might have to give up on paying for rehearsals.  While it's an absolutely wonderful standard, I can't imagine how it would be possible to pay for the time it takes...  It'll have to be a labor of love.

All of this is absolutely okay if it's part of the path toward greatness.  I'm never able to perform to the level I hope to, but I take the mistakes and realizations and try to convert them into growth.  When I'm afraid something isn't good enough, I tell myself, "the worse the first draft, the more impressive the finished product."  I sincerely hope these performers don't give up on Batare, and that something in this review proves useful in making the work more the way the creators envision it.  Go Batare!