City Recital Hall, October 18
The idea was enticing. Take the 15th-century Japanese writer Zeami Motokiyo’s concept of the seven ages of the artist, and depict them in music while incorporating taiko-style drumming. Three of Zeami’s “seven flowers”, as he calls these ages, are clustered in childhood, three between 24 and 49, and the seventh begins as early as 50. (Moderns of a certain age may take some solace from life expectancy probably being modest at the time.)
Ian Cleworth (artistic director of Sydney’s Taikoz ensemble) and his collaborators had some enchanting and insightful solutions to realising and contextualising Zeami’s seven ages. Standing out was Seventh Flower, which combined a translation of Zeami’s text, a Cleworth score for voice and percussion and electronics by John Cleworth. The singer was tenor Jess Ciampa (better known as a drummer, percussionist and bassist, and surely Australia’s most versatile musician), whose purity of voice illuminated both text and score to achieve the intended expression of twilit fulfilment.
John Cleworth also provided electronics behind Riley Lee’s closing Stillness, the titular notion – perhaps the peace of death – realised by the composer on shakuhachi with such clarity that it seemed a shame it must be shattered by applause. Other highlights included interludes by Stuart James for electronics and gamelan gongs. These pieces, being predominantly gentle, airy, nuanced, melodic and as mysterious as sounds from a deep well, provided vital contrast to the surrounding default of thunderous ensemble drumming.
You can’t question the energy with which the Taikoz members flail their staggering array of drums, and Cleworth has that energy drilled close to perfection in terms of precision (the odd unintended flam or stick-on-stick sound, apart). But regardless of the combination of drums, players and compositions, nothing deeper lay behind the salvos. In many ways taiko has more to do with theatre, dance, circus, ritual and martial arts than music. It lies outside the truly great traditions of drumming that come from such places as India, Arabia and Africa, and ultimately it compromised this enticing concept for a suite.