In a Word... Kiyoshi Nagata and Charles Hong on collaboration
Understanding Drum Language
Nagata and Hong discuss their upcoming performance at Harbourfront and the challenge of collaborating across different musical styles.
by Kallee Lins
Kiyoshi Nagata, the ensemble’s artistic director, is Canada’s preeminent taiko soloist who has been performing in a career that spans three decades. His principal studies were with Daihachi Oguchi (as artistic director and performer of the Toronto-based, Suwa Daiko from 1982 to 1992) and with Kodo (as an apprentice from 1993 to 1994). With the assistance of a Chalmers Performing Arts Training Grant in 1999, Kiyoshi studied classical percussion with Paul Houle at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Since 1998 Kiyoshi has taught a credit course in taiko at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. In September 2003, he began teaching a public course at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. For eight years, he instructed two community groups, Isshin Daiko in Toronto and Do-Kon Daiko in Burlington, which he helped establish in 1995. Kiyoshi is also regularly invited by universities and taiko groups to conduct workshops and present lectures. In 1994, Kiyoshi founded the cross-cultural percussion ensemble, Humdrum, whose debut Toronto performance was ranked fourth in Now Magazine’s “Top Ten Concerts of 1995″. He has composed and performed taiko music for dance, theatre, film and radio and continues to collaborate with artists from all genres of music including traditional Japanese instrumentalists.
Charles Hong, the Artistic Director of Jeng Yi, has been drumming and dancing since 1990. From 1992 to 1996, he apprenticed under Kim Duk Soo, master drummer and leader of the world-renowned group SamulNori. Charles Hong returned to Toronto in 1996 and soon after founded Jeng Yi. He has also studied with Dong-Won Kim, a specialist in the music of Dodang Kut, a shaman ritual practiced in the central region of the Korean peninsula. Besides his work with Jeng Yi, Charles Hong has also worked in dance, music, and theatre productions. He has performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival, Canada Dance Festival, and the McMaster University Concert Series. He received the 2008 Dora award for Outstanding Sound Design/Composition in the dance category for his musical work on Soojung Kwon's original choreography Choonengmu, a dance work performed at the 2008 CanAsian Dance Festival. He is also an instructor of Korean drumming at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto and at York University, Department of Music.
CHARPO: Is this the first time you’ve collaborated on a show?
NAGATA: We’ve known each other since university and we’ve played together on a handful of occasions, but this is the first time our groups are coming together.
CHARPO: You work in two different styles—Japanese taiko and Korean drumming, respectively—what is it like to create together?
NAGATA: I think the greatest challenge, but also the greatest joy, is kind of understanding each other’s drum language. A lot of people might assume that Korean music and Japanese drum music might be quite similar because they're both part of East Asian culture, but actually, our cultural drum history is quite different from each other. So, it’s about trying to find the common ground to explore how our rhythms work together.
HONG: I find that even when there are similar time signatures we might work with, there are slight nuances in the swing, or in the feel, or even in the accented beats that provide a challenge, but also material to work with.
CHARPO: Has there been a particular structure to your collaboration for this show?
NAGATA: We’re trying to work on about four group pieces. Basically, it’s been half-half where Charles has introduced rhythms or pieces from their repertoire, he’s played it for us and we use that for the basis of a new composition, or vice versa.
CHARPO: It sounds like it’s been a really organic creation process.
HONG: Ya, and I think that’s the way both groups work with our own ensembles. With any kind of new composition it’s quite organic and there’s a lot of improvisation. The best ideas kind of float to the surface and then you make it into a cohesive piece.
NAGATA: And we don’t notate any of it, so it’s just kind of playing around and recording our sessions and then, after Charles and I have met, we both go back to own groups and teach them the rhythms we’ve been working on. Fairly soon our groups will come together and we’ll start putting all the pieces together.
CHARPO: How large is the ensemble when both groups come together?
HONG: It will be five on my part.
NGATA: And five for me, so 10 total.
CHARPO: Are all of your performers primarily drummers? Do you have dancers working on this show as well?
HONG: We also do a particular dance. Our primary activity is drumming, but we do the ribbon hat dance. It is hard to explain… so people, please come to the show to understand what that is.
NAGATA: And then in our group, we’re drummers, a couple of flute players, and one of our members plays a string instrument and sings. So combined you’ve got drumming, dance, singing and melodic instruments.
CHARPO: I know Nagata Shachu works in Taiko drumming, specifically. Is there a particular style of drumming that Jeng Yi performs?
HONG: Usually, what I try to tell people is that what we do is traditional Korean drumming, but some people might call it neo-traditional. It comes from the folk tradition, primarily. There are three large genres, which are shaman, court and folk. Our roots are in the folk, but we dabble in the other forms also.
CHARPO: I’m curious about your performers. Do you always work with the same group of musicians?
NAGATA: My group has been together for over 15 years, but over the course of those years, my group members have changed. The longest standing member has been around for 10 years. I think 10 years, six years and five years, so they’ve all got some good experience under their belt.
HONG: My group members, except for one, have all really started out as apprentices under me, and so they’ve been learning for at least 10 years and have been performing with me for the last six to eight. The most senior member has been playing with me since I started 20 odd years ago now.
CHARPO: Is there a particular way that your musicians communicate with each other while they're playing?
HONG: We do some things that we call traditional pieces and then we do some original compositions by our group members. It really depends, some of them are composed, so there’s some counting involved. We don’t read scores when we perform, but often one of the instruments will take the lead instrument role. And they’ll have signals to say that we move onto the next section, onto the next rhythmical structure. Some of the pieces are often just strings of rhythmical structures, though there’s semi-improvisation within those structures.
NAGATA: It’s similar with my group. We have the traditional pieces which you learn and you practice over and over again, and then we have our original compositions which are very structured, so everyone learns a part and we practice and get it all together. Within certain pieces there is room for improvisation, and during those cases someone improvises and they’ll have a cue, or a visual signal, or just a big shout to move onto the composed piece again.
HONG: Building rapport is very important because after awhile you just know when that person will give the cue because of a slight body motion. You can always get good musicians playing together, but you can’t substitute the rapport you build over the years of continuous practice with each other.
NAGATA: Oh, totally. Anytime we get a new member it takes several years for them just to get that chemistry. Once you know each individual person, you get to know that “this person falls behind a bit,” or “this person has a tendency to rush,” and then we follow each other better when we know each other’s strength and weaknesses.
We put a lot of time and consideration into the flow of the show, the presentation.
CHARPO: What can audiences expect to see at your show on June 13?
NAGATA: The way the concert’s divided is that my group will play four of our own compositions and Jeng Yi will play four of their compositions, and then we’re going to play four compositions together. From the audience’s perspective, they’re going to get to see pure Japanese drumming, pure Korean drumming, and then the hybrid.
HONG: We try to show pieces that will showcase what we do well. Obviously, one of them is going to be the ribbon hat dance, one will be a traditional piece and one will be an original composition.
NAGATA: We put a lot of time and consideration into the flow of the show, the presentation. We work with a lighting designer, so the lighting gives a little more context to the music that we’re playing and sets the mood.
HONG: We always aim at making our shows theatrical events more than just concerts. I know Kiyoshi’s always paid attention to transition and also costume. It’s very much a multidisciplinary show. Kiyoshi, on your part as well, because you have different singers and sometimes you incorporate movement and dance and choreographed stagings.
CHARPO: Are these styles originally theatrical forms? I imagine if I saw them in a more traditional context, they’d look very different.
NAGATA: For Japanese drumming, the original context was in festivals—to be played for the gods to ask for rain, for a bountiful harvest, things like that. So, you would see Taiko performed more outdoors as a religious offering or a ceremony. Over the last 50 years, Taiko drumming has become a performing art in its own right. There are hundreds of groups that perform their own compositions. It’s gone from the festival to the stage.
Your feel of swing is very different from my feel of swing in terms of Japanese and Korean drumming language.
HONG: The Korean drumming style also follows that same narrative where it used to be played outdoors by large groups of semi-amateurs; they were farmers who played the role of musicians during certain festivals and life events. Then it became, to use a term that’s often used, concertized. Musicians enhanced the repertoire and enhanced the technique. It’s become a genre of its own in Korea. Now, I never want to copy what they do in Korea, so I put my own artistic sensibility into it.
NAGATA: Even though it’s evolved to the stage, I think both of us try to respect the past. We pay homage to where it comes from originally. It’s not totally removed from its origins. Hopefully when audiences come to see us perform they get a glimpse of where this music came from.
HONG: What I always say is, I feel I have a responsibility to make the audience “smell” Korean.
CHARPO: Have you been surprised at the sound you’ve found through your collaborations?
HONG: Ya, I think so, because like most musicians we’ll start by saying “What’s the time signature?” or “What’s the structure?” and then we realize we have to calibrate the swing in some parts or at least the accented notes.
NAGATA: Ya, that’s been really interesting because we both say, “Ok, let’s play this rhythm with a swing” but it’s such a big turn. Your feel of swing is very different from my feel of swing in terms of Japanese and Korean drumming language. But then also there’s been really cool surprises where he’s played something and it’s so familiar to me. I’ll say, “Oh, you know what? That sounds exactly like one of the songs we play rhythmically.” Sometimes there’s real similarity in what we do as well.
CHARPO: How did the idea for this collaboration come about?
NAGATA: Like I said, Charles and I have worked together throughout the years as individuals. My group for the last few years has been presenting three concerts a year as part of a concert series, and one concert each season focuses on a collaboration. I thought this was a perfect opportunity. We’ve always wanted for our groups to work together.
HONG: I do want to say that I have to thank Kiyoshi a lot for inviting us to do this. When he first made the proposal I said, “Ya, I think it’s about time.”
NAGATA: We’ve known each other for over 20 years probably. It took us 20 years.
CHARPO: Anything you’d like your audience to know going into this show?
NAGATA: For people who have never seen either Korean drumming or Japanese drumming, I always tell people don’t be afraid that it’s just a drumming concert. It’s more than that. You don’t have to be Japanese or Korean to enjoy this show. It’s theatrical, it’s visual, it’s melodic, there’s dance. We take our music very seriously and I think it’s enjoyable for people from all walks of life and all ages too.
CHARPO: I understand you run community drumming classes as well. How can CharPo readers find out more about getting involved with your music?
NAGATA: Best way is just through our website: nagatashachu.com.
HONG: And www.jengyi.com. There’s always that thing called Facebook too.
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