In the beginning there was sound: a high tone sustained so constantly that human hands surely could not be producing it. As the lights came up slowly, Midori Takada tread onstage lightly, her cloven slippers betraying no sound. She held a tiny bell in one hand; with the other she encircled it steadily with a wooden dowel: the source of the peal that announced her arrival with the solemnity of ceremonial ritual.
Not long before, a buzzing queue awaiting entry had stretched through the front doors of the Kitchen, spilling out onto 19th Street. Inside, listening to the audience that faced an elegant display of cymbals, tom toms, a marimba, and a gong onstage, you overheard animated gab about mushroom trips and movie development deals.
Takada, a Japanese percussionist whose eventful career started in the 1970s with an orchestral debut in Berlin, has at 66 suddenly become a buzz-worthy commodity.
Journalists and collectors alike can recite her path to this point: a change of heart about the values embedded in western classical music; an immersion into Asian and African disciplines; membership in the Mkwaju Ensemble, a groundbreaking pan-cultural percussion group. What changed her fortune drastically was an algorithm: one that took hold after someone uploaded a copy of her 1983 solo album, Through the Looking Glass, to YouTube.
A spellbinding set of four pieces performed on marimba, gongs, reed organ, Coke bottles, and more recorded in just two days, Through the Looking Glass fused the manual-repetition patterns of American minimalism with rarefied atmospheres akin to Brian Eno’s “Fourth World” aural expeditions. Marketed in Japan as a classical release, the album fell on deaf ears. But when YouTube’s recommendation engine unearthed it for admirers of kindred sounds, demand skyrocketed. Original copies eventually traded hands for more than $1,000.
Reissued last year in a joint venture by New York label Palto Flats and Swiss imprint We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want, Through the Looking Glass became a belated best seller. Takada toured Europe soon after. Now, she’s on her debut U.S. tour, having played Los Angeles, Chicago, and Moogfest in Durham, NC, prior to her Kitchen date. (Takada presents a second New York show at Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn Heights on May 23, sharing the bill with ambient producer Huerco S.)
Those who came into the Kitchen anticipating some variant of that album’s mellifluous tranquility might have been perplexed initially by Takada’s presentation, which at times had as much to do with Japanese dance, martial arts, or Buddhist ceremony as with music. Her extensive recent work in theater was abundantly evident. To start, she roamed at length across the surface of a gong; relaxed wrists and woolly beaters produced a wash of rumbling vibrations and overtones, while rubber super-ball mallets elicited a chorus of moans and squeals.
Takada moved with sweeping gestures and feline grace among cymbals spread across the stage like a satellite array, halting at times to punctuate with taps and splashes her solemn recitation of a Buddhist mantra. Taking her place at last behind the marimba, she offered two pieces in succession. Four soft mallets purred in contrary rhythms in the first; with harder mallets she locked into the acoustic equivalent of Berlin school sequencer grids in the second, “Mkwaju,” from the ensemble album of the same title.
An eerie interlude on bowed waterphone preceded the evening’s most athletic display: “Chang-Dra,” a dramatic drum solo from the 1990 duo LP Lunar Cruise, led jointly by Takada with keyboardist Masahiko Satoh (and also newly reissued). She panned across tom-toms arranged conventionally before her. Two more drums, mounted at eye level to either side, let her incorporate taiko-like gestures and cross-sticked flourishes.
In two final pieces, one for marimba and another for cymbals, Takada made her only use of special effects: a subtle digital echo that turned her spare, simple gestures into gossamer lattices. Having struck her last notes, she extended her arms dramatically out to both sides, holding the pose as the lights were extinguished.
In its way, Takada’s esoteric presentation had the same otherworldly feel as a Cecil Taylor solo performance in its sustained focus, discipline, and imagination, if only briefly in velocity or aggression. And as had so many unforgettable Taylor recitals, Takada’s ended with a benediction in the form of a brief encore: a lyrical marimba solo that helped to guide a vibrating audience back from its heightened state, gently down to earth.
Midori Takada performs at Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn Heights on May 23 at 8pm; murmrr.com
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