Yahoo! This was a fantastic show. UnitOne has blossomed into an exciting addition to the taiko world. The last few months of intense practice by these eight players and the tireless support of Katsuji Asano has produced an interesting assortment of pieces, well-performed. During the show I took copious notes, but the things I wrote are mostly inconsequential... notes for individuals, song revision ideas, and set-list concepts. If any performers / composers would appreciate that feedback, I'm happy to give it, but for this review I'll stick to the bigger picture...
What are the similarities and differences of Miyake Taiko and UnitOne? What are their roles in the taiko world?
I assume Katsuji's interest in presenting Miyake Taiko alongside UnitOne stems from his love of taiko fundamentals. He often expresses his desire to help the taiko world hit more powerfully and efficiently. He has a keen eye for these details in LATI students and has a remarkably beautiful strike himself, though he's never seriously studied the music. Perhaps Miyake Taiko and UnitOne represent his ideal of taiko skill. Perhaps he wants to expose UnitOne's younger players to Miyake's life-long pursuit of strike mastery. For me, the takeaway in seeing these groups back-to-back, however, is the realization that fundamentals are not enough to make great art.
Miyake was one of the first taiko pieces I saw. I was a wide-eyed freshman at Stanford University and I loved the simplicity of Miyake's single rhythm. I loved the power of the performers and the image of this music being performed on a far-away island. This is a valid and beautiful kind of appreciation, and I felt a twinge of that tonight. I love that these men dedicate their lives to a single rhythm and that Akio Tsumura has done this one thing for 40 years. But I'm not able to be moved by these facts anymore. The mystery of the far-away island is gone, and my ear desires more than volume.
Miyake Taiko's performance begins with a formal announcement in Japanese by the leader, Akio Tsumura. I couldn't understand all of it but I caught references to the island and that these drums and this music are part of growing up in the culture of Miyake. But the words don't matter... the tone is clear: this is "authentic Japan". At this phase of my musical journey, this use of cultural context is a barrier. When I'm told "this is the music of our island", and "this is the music of our family", up goes a wall. I'm asked to appreciate the performance as "cultural", a no-touch zone of polite applause. I can't say, "Why do they do that weird shime thing?.. where one player has to hold the drum for another player standing awkwardly and hitting the tiny drum so hard it sounds like shit." I can't say that the "female" dancing seems sexist and juvenile. I can't say these things because I'm afraid I'm offending tradition.
The Tsumura's use of "authenticity" suggests to me they are in fact afraid that their one rhythm is not enough. And so they've reached to the cloak of "culture" and sprinkled in some audience-friendly additions. They haven't gone the hard route of trying to move us through art and music.
But UnitOne has. UnitOne has taken a bold step down the difficult path of making music.
As Miyake bashed away, I longed for the reverb of Isaku's solo shime and Yuta's voice. As I tired of that single Miyake rhythm, I remembered Airi's confident use of dynamics and pauses. The audience members laughed when the masked Miyake dancer sat next to them, but it was altogether different than the applause in UnitOne's Dokokara, when the rhythms and interaction between the players lifted us to a musical form of joy. UnitOne's shishimai required complicated drumming and dance technique, but these elements served the larger artistic arc: emoting the lion. Of course there are lots of possible tweaks to better achieve these ends but UnitOne's arrow is pointed in the right direction: sensitive, creative, musical taiko.
What are the roles for Miyake Taiko and UnitOne in the taiko world?
Miyake Taiko needs to travel. If they've only got one song, then the goal should be to play that song in every major city. And their performance is highlighted by being first-time visiters. Their "connecting people through the powerful strike and deep sound of taiko" is bullshit, but they look really cool, they hit hard, and that's enough to get people excited about taiko. And while I lament their use of "authenticity", it's no grave danger. People will still try taiko -- like I did -- and later come to feel that "struggling to create art" is even more respectful than "preserving tradition". Miyake Taiko can serve as taiko ambassadors.
I see two options for UnitOne.
1) Katsuji's group.
If Katsuji is to remain the main visionary, and his goal is remains "fundamentals", then UnitOne can dedicate itself to the challenge of refinement. The goal would be to become the very best performers of these pieces, eventually setting the bar for how this repertoire can be played.
2) The members' group.
UnitOne restructures itself to encourage and foster artistic control in each of its members. The group dedicates itself to continued exploration and risk-taking.
Option 2 is the only one I understand. In my own playing, I run out of ideas for how to improve the things I know. Every drill I've thought of, I've done, and at some point I exhaust my creativity to think of the next one. I run out of ways to go more deeply, so I move horizontally. I try the next new thing that floods me with ideas and hope that as I go in that direction I'm working my way up a gentle hill, toward someday being the player I want. This the opposite of Miyake Taiko's approach. I don't know if it's right, but seeing tonight's show, it feels like the better bet.