Taiko / Butoh / Amazing Thing

Well, I’m exhausted. On Saturday I went to see the Third Annual Chicago Taiko Legacy, at the cultural center. Just experiencing that was tiring, like a good workout. I had known intellectually that the Boredoms were inspired by Japanese Taiko, but had forgotten.

The butoh was butoh, and I think it’s a real mistake to try to explain butoh. I can talk about it, though. The costumes had a strong visceral effect on me, which is (I think) good—but I did not like them. I suppose I didn’t really enjoy the previous butoh I’ve seen, either, and I don’t necessarily enjoy Foreman, either. But they change my life, and that’s not a small thing at all.

There were three men and three women, dressed identically in white ballerina costumes / diapers / cast-offs / weird things. They all wore ridiculous hats. The men entered first, and took poses with frighteningly maniacal expressions. The women entered, like scared prisoners with bound wrists, and then like some sort of bird, and then (after somehow getting something—a plum?—from the male dancers in their mouths) like squirrels. They chewed their plum-thing at the front of the stage.

Later on the men did an intertwining dance in which each dancer held a string / leash / chain in his mouth; each was enchaining another male dancer.

Through it all, there was one person playing slow, rhythmic beats on a taiko drum, and there was this crazy electronic artist. This guy plays music like I want to play music—which confuses me, because I don’t especially like that sort of music. Well, maybe I do, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. Weird, dissonant soundscapes with bizarre moanings and clankings going on.

He was playing an instrument that he, presumably, built himself and it could easily be an extension of what I’ve been doing of late with my electric violin. Lately I’ve taken to layering a bunch of effects on my violin, and then drumming on it with a spoon, scraping at it with a fork, and tapping the bridge with my fingers. This guy had built a huge electrified contraption out of a elderly person’s walker, some wood, and a bunch of wire. He played it with wire brushes, with rubber mallets, and occasionally with double violin bows—one in each hand. I liked it. He made the room vibrate, and it was a fine compliment to the strangeness of the butoh.

This was all about ten or twenty minutes of the two-hour-long taiko performance, however, and that was absolutely incredible. Really, too much happened for me to explain, so here’s a bullet list of things that made an impression. Maybe some day I’ll expand on this:

  • The drums were so powerful that after each set, when three hundred (or more) people all clapped for all they were worth, the applause sounding weak. The room in the cultural center was huge, with a beautiful domed ceiling, and six hundred hands clapping at once couldn’t fill it. Eleven drummers drumming sure could, however.
  • They kept bringing out bigger and bigger drums. First they mounted one of the one-foot-wide drums on a stand, so that it was at eye level. Then, later, they brought out the big drum, which was three-feet across. For the big finale, they brought out a huge drum in a six and a half or seven-foot-tall stand, which was at least four feet wide. They sounded about as cool as you might expect.
  • They manner in which they played the drums was awesome—very stylized, and I’m afraid I can’t really explain. But basically they were drumming for all they were worth, but they were also dancing. And the dancing was smooth and flowing and graceful, even though the drum beats were strong and powerful.
  • There was also a traditional wasscalled, Japanese-lute-thing or four, and tradition flute. That was very nice, and a great counterpoint to the drums.
  • One segment was a traditional Japanese dance piece (they referred to the rest of the taiko as “contemporary”, but I’m not sure how contemporary it was—was the drumming I saw mildly different from the original stuff, or was it as radical a change as the shift from kabuki to butoh? I have no idea.
  • At any rate, this guy did a really cool dance to pre-recorded music. First he used two fans, and then a young-boy mask, and then a female mask, and then a mustachioed man mask, with appropriate movements for each.
  • Throughout it all he was wearing the shiniest kimono on God’s great earth. It was that metallic-iridescent color that they use for fourth graders’ school folders that have pictures of unicorns on them. I have no idea if the garment was traditional, or just the dance, but if it was I have a whole new respect for ancient Japan.

Lots more stuff that I just can’t articulate. If you were here I could sort of act it out for you, but it wouldn’t be the same. In short, if you aren’t me (or if you are me, but Future Me with a less-accurate memory but a flying car) what can I say? Sorry, you had to be there.