Kojiro Umezaki

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I first found out about this concert through our very own Weekly Breakdown by Laura Yoo. Going into the event, I knew that the concert was part of Bucknell’s Gallery Series and would feature Mr. Kojiro Umezaki, performer of the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) and composer of electro-acoustic works. I read that the New York Times had heralded Umezaki as a “virtuosic, deeply expressive shakuhachi player and composer.” He performs regularly with the Grammy-nominated Silk Road Ensemble and has also been featured on recordings by Yo-Yo Ma. His music is inspired by literature such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and world-famous composers including Antonín Dvorák. He is largely influenced by his Japanese heritage as well. After reading all of this information, I was intrigued by the performance, as I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. The concert was set in Rooke Recital Hall in the Weis Music Building on Tuesday, April 7th at 7:30pm. The space is more formal than say Bucknell Hall, but seats a much smaller audience than the larger Weis Center. Most people in attendance were music faculty members and other older members of the community, however, the audience was much more empty than other concerts I have attended.

The concert opened with a piece titled “(Cycles) American (5+’).” It used a combination of electronics performed by his computer and the shakuhachi. The electronically-enhanced sounds of incoming, crashing and receding waves from the American oceans framed the vibraphone part alongside Walt Whitman’s recitation over a retrograde arrangement of the largo movement from Dvorak’s From the New World Symphony. As someone who’s played this symphony before, I would not have noticed the connection without the program notes, however, the timbre of the flue definitely reflects the waves. Throughout the piece, there was no tangible melody to hold onto and it was difficult to make out the words spoken by Whitman, although it was pretty cool to hear his voice. The piece was fairly short and ended with a fading out of the flute and electronics. I loved how Kojiro gave each ending silence the moment it needed for each piece to end appropriately.

The second piece titled “108 (12’)” was a piece inspired by the Silkroad number associated with Hindu deities, sins in Tibetan Buddhism, sacred stars in Taoist philosophy, interior angle of a pentagon, poses in Shiva’s dance, elements of Angkor architecture, temple bells ringing for the Japanese New Year, Vishnu’s temples, hyperfactorial of 3, etc., according to the program notes. The recording used the old schichijyunikou calendar of 72 events grouped into 24 sections and further organized by the 12 months in a year (summing to 108) to structure a comprovisation inspired by the 108 pulses in the opening section of the 18th century classical work. I personally found this piece hard to follow despite trying to count the 108 pulses in the opening. On a whole, I found this piece to be very complex, yet still noticed the Buddhist ambience he was trying to recreate with this piece.

The third piece was the only selection with just shakuhachi. I personally found this piece to be stunning. “Lullaby from Itsuki (4’)” originated from Itsuki Village on the Japanese island of Kyushu and dates back thousands of years to the Heian period. It tells a story of a young nursemaid sent away to be employed by a wealthier family. While she’s grateful for her job, she is nostalgic for her family. Kojiro embodied the melancholy tone that this folk tune required. He brought passion to the simple music, yet maintained the softness through the timbre and use of dynamics.

“…seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened…” followed and it was my clear favorite of the program. Kojiro introduced this piece by telling his own personal ties to the devastating Japanese tsunami in 2011. The piece was meant to reflect how opportunities to heighten our sensitivity to the human condition are the possible outcomes from the extraordinary disasters that remind us of how fragile our environment, manmade systems, and lives can be. The piece opened with low, deep electronic undertones that gave the entire piece a consistency and structure that I felt comfortable to hang onto. The rest of the piece felt like an intricate juxtaposition of textures as the delicacy of the flute hovered over the intensity of the throbbing drones.

“For Zero” opened with descending dyads in the computer, which continued for the rest of the piece. My ear eventually tuned this out as the piece continued. I noticed a clear prominence of the computer over the flute, which created a much more electric, modern sound from the pieces previous. The program notes were very helpful in understanding the process as it reversed into a different context, as the sound amassed into sonic material, finally ending with a fading of the descending dyads from the beginning. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea was noted as inspiration for this piece in which embracing zero as its own entity and as an equal partner to infinity. Again, the program notes provided a very interesting set of thoughts to question while taking in this piece.

Finally, the program ended with “(Cycles) what falls must rise (12’).” The piece was meant to encompass quotations from Sagariha—a principal work in the Nezasa-ha shakuhachi repertoire and often translated as “falling leaves.” It was meant to serve as a vehicle into descending quadrants of the cycle, while modes and rhythms lied somewhere between the foreign and familiar emerge to shape the ascending counterparts, reaching towards and concluding back again at the top, and continuing iterations. After reading the program notes, I understood the objective that Kojiro was trying to achieve. However, as a naïve listener, he lost me here. The piece opened with flute motives until the electronics come in strong and fast reiterating much clearer chords than in previous pieces. A melody appears in from the computer and is almost reminiscent of the Zelda theme song. In addition to the scratching and popping overlapping textures and jarring, high-pitched ending alternating between squeaky flute and ultra-modern computer tones, I found this piece hard to listen to.

Overall, I was very much pushed out of my comfort zone with this program. At first, I did not enjoy the timbre of the airy flute, but the sound grew on me as the program continued. The program was well balanced with pieces ranging in length. I thought the contrast between traditional flute and modern sounds on the computer was at times beautiful and at other times grating. I found Kojiro to be very well spoken—he carried himself very charismatically and had an impressive stage presence. While I may not have enjoyed his entire program, I can definitely appreciate his work and find deeper meaning in his pieces. Well done, Kojiro Umezaki.