One of the first words that comes to mind to describe the music of Taiko drumming ensemble Kodo is “visceral”; I am far from the first to describe them this way, and it may have something to do with the word “Kodo” itself, which means heartbeat. Their performance of Dadan 2017 pulsed through the Walt Disney Concert Hall in much the same way as blood through the heart: massive but unseen, bending and unfixed in space, and with a constant building and easing suspense into the next pulse.
The way that the performers – in the case of Dadan, only the young male performers of Kodo – operate like extending arms of a single body mirrors the sanguine flow of the beat, replacing vessels and membranes with ears and muscle. In a different context, “Kodo” can also mean “children of the drum”, which Dadan makes sense of as it showcases the variety of ways they interact with the differing sizes and varieties of percussion at their disposal.
The complexity of sound and the layers they create is all the more impressive when you see the simple, familiar materials involved in its creation: wood for the sticks and body of the drums, stretched skin to create their surface, and occasionally metallic cymbals and bells that the performers seem to manipulate with the same fluidity as the drums, wrangling their erratic clang to complement the hollow swells and pulses of their instruments. The audience was drawn in to the buzz of the cymbals first as comic relief, but soon changed their minds as the buzz became a glow to match the rolling waves of the pounding percussion. Between the 11 pieces that comprise Dadan, wooden xylophones guide the ear musically on a smaller sonic scale, yet still embodying Kodo’s reflexive march through rhythm, an exercise in muscle memory honed through Kodo’s intensive training.
As children of the drum, they must share genetic traits – in this case, skin, which produces ripples of light on the membrane of the drum as much as on the backs of those in front of them (body glitter may have had a hand in highlighting these similarities). In the group’s piece “Kaden” in particular, each player manages to find a different way to create sound from the friction of the drum’s skin and theirs. Guided by a centering beat, their variations make use of Kodo’s integral tool of repetition: hearing what another was playing, and recreating it either in full or with a personal variation. Kodo repeats this process so many times, and in so many ways, you forget the original riff – until someone else plays it again, recapitulating that moment and making you think back to where you were only moments ago. It is through this layering that Kodo contours the sound by paying attention to the strikes of the drum just as much as their lasting reverberations; the result shifts through the air and touches on all the senses to map them against the beat of the drum.
The drummers echo each other as the air echoes the drum, emanating sound that can only be taken in with careful appreciation of the surroundings and the people you are watching with. What most impressed me with Kodo’s performance was their ability to carry on the same beat without ever having to look at each other. This not only proved their expertise, but also made the listener feel just as included with the performance as any performer; Kodo’s performers had no tricks up their sleeves (nor sleeves, for that matter) and nothing to hide in what they were doing. If you looked around after their performance, you could see the last echo in the audience, who clapped in unison at a steady pace like that of the performance; needless to say, it was very well-deserved.