Tag Archives: Michelle Fujii

Ten Tiny Taiko Dances: the first steps

Life comes at you in waves, and before one wave pounds against the rocks another one’s just beginning to rise toward its crest. Arts groups in particular know this universal truth: While you’re busy smacking against the shoals of one opening night, several others are already gathering strength.

"The Great Wave Off Kanagawa," from "36 Views of Mount Fuji," by Hokusai; between 1826 and 1833. Wikimedia Commons.Portland Taiko‘s 2010 season begins this weekend with Saturday matinee and evening performances of The Way Back Home, featuring songs from last year’s CD Rhythms of Change. By the time it hits the stage this wave of sight and sound is going to be polished and shaped and sure of itself, like a Katsushika Hokusai print.

That’s this crest. While it was racing toward the shore, a group of almost 20 people met last Friday at Portland Taiko’s warehouse home just off industrial Northeast Columbia Boulevard to start the process toward the next big taiko wave, a collaboration between PT and Ten Tiny Dances that will play June 19-20. I was there in dual roles, as a journalist and a taiko board member. Here’s a taste of what happened:

“When people think of Portland Taiko they think of vast spaces with huge amounts of power,” says Michelle Fujii, PT’s artistic director. “And this is just the opposite of that.”

She isn’t kidding. The sound of taiko drums, born in Japan and modernized in the contemporary fires of North and South American performance troupes such as Portland Taiko, can be small and sensitive but tends toward the big and propulsive. The whole idea behind Ten Tiny Dances, which head honcho Mike Barber began at a wine bar in 2002 in what he thought would be a one-off, is to minimize. Each performance (this will be the 20th public series) consists of 10 short dances performed on a four-foot-by-four-foot platform. It’s all about compactness and discovering a fullness of expression through extreme limitations — like a haiku, or a rhymed couplet. So this collaboration promises to be something of a Mutt and Jeff: a meeting of attractive opposites.

Continue reading Ten Tiny Taiko Dances: the first steps

Bang the drums loudly (Take 3)

Photo: Rich Iwasaki, copyright 2003

People talk about how making a movie is mostly about standing around and waiting.
But all performance arts have those quiet times — the quiets before the storms — and before a recording session it’s a busy quiet. You’re not just getting yourself ready, the way you routinely do before any performance. You’re making sure the instruments and recording apparati are just right, too.

One night not too long ago I drove out to the theater at Clackamas Community College near Oregon City, where the drumming ensemble Portland Taiko was in the last stages of recording its newest CD, and it made for one of the more intriguing hurry-up-and-waits I’ve sat through in quite a while. I was invited not as a working journalist but as a friend of the company: I’ve recently joined Portland Taiko’s board, marking the first time, after decades of observing arts organizations, that I’ve taken a hand at actually making decisions to help one do its work.

Recording sessions are funny things, and this one, for the CD Rhythms of Change: The Way Home, which will be released in August, is no exception. In order to get those precious moments of surging, melting sound, everything has to be prepared just so. Which generally means laying down an undergrowth of electrical wires, erecting a small forest of microphone booms, placing and re-placing baffles and makeshift mufflers (an old blanket might do the trick), arranging and rearranging the positions of players and instruments so that sometimes the people playing can neither see nor hear one another. The focus is up there, above the seats, behind those glass doors in the booth. That’s where everything has to balance and play right.

On this night the ensemble is getting ready to record  a piece called Slipping Through My Fingers, by artistic director Michelle Fujii, that features not only the array of drums that are central to taiko but also a violin, which alternately leads and counterbalances the sound. Except that most of the drummers can’t actually see the violinist, Keiko Araki, who is standing far stage left, hidden from view by a mini-wall of sound-directing barriers.

The drums range from a little bigger than trap size to the looming odaiko, a fatter-than-a-bass drum sitting on a gorgeous wooden stand. All of these hand-fashioned drums are beautiful, from their stretched skins to their burnished wooden finishes to their finely polished metal stays and tuners. But on this night, beauty — that is, visual beauty, which is of no consequence to a sound recording — doesn’t count. Most of the drums are wrapped inelegantly in white T-shirts to keep any metal parts from rattling. (You’d also better not cough, and your shoes had better not be squeaky.)

Continue reading Bang the drums loudly (Take 3)