ABOUT THE ALBUM
There is an intersection between nostalgia and ritual, where we can reminisce about ancient times and places which are distant from our present lives, but very close to our hearts – that place for me defines the Japanese notion natsukashisa, often translated as "nostalgia" or "a yearning for". Living in Japan for close to a decade, I fell deeply in love with various traditional musics that instilled in me a sense of natsukashisa just from hearing one note. My fascination with this feeling inspires my compositions for this album.
To anchor the intangibleness of natsukashisa, I bring in improvisation, a musical concept I am obsessed with. I continue to emulate individuals from the worlds of jazz, Indian classical, contemporary classical and beyond who are able to spontaneously create fully formed, emotionally resonant music, often over complex rhythmic and harmonic structures.
This album is a snapshot of my ongoing journey to seamlessly meld these two worlds—the natsukashisa of old Japan with the intricate and thoughtful acumen of musics from around the globe.
Néo (pronounced neh-oh) is the name of both the album as well as the ensemble that is performing the music with me. The characters for Néo 音緒 can be interpreted as "sound cord", the "beginning of sound" or even "unified sound". Appropriately, Néo also sounds like NEO, suggesting a new approach to these ancient instruments.
It takes a particular combination of physical and musical disciplines to play the music on this album. The drummers basically need the strength and stamina of an athlete to play the taiko to their potential. On top of this, the musicians must be able to execute and improvise over complex rhythms and forms - experience in either western classical music, jazz or other rhythmically sophisticated types of music is essential. Finally, the musician must have an understanding of the cultural and historical background of the instruments to express the feeling of natsukashisa in their sound.
For this album, I am joined by Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate and Sayun Chang on taiko, voice and percussion. Barbara is a very active percussionist on Broadway and the jazz/rock world of New York City, Fumi has a masters degree from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and Sayun Chang and active percussionist who has expertise in Taiwanese aboriginal musics. I have been working with these three over many years, adding to their abilities with techniques and knowledge of Japanese traditional and contemporary music. Sumie Kaneko, a graduate of both Tokyo Arts University and Berklee School of Music, joined us for a few tracks on koto and singing.
The album was recorded, mixed and co-produced by longtime friend Marc Urselli, a Grammy Award winning sound engineer, whose artistry at the board and discerning ear were invaluable to the creative process.
1) BLOODLINES 一族
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#6), atarigane | Barbara Merjan - taiko | Sumie Kaneko, Fumi Tanakadate- voice
Bloodlines was written for another ensemble of mine that explored the personal histories of the musicians through recited text with composed and improvised music. This instrumentation of this arrangement is that of a typical hayashi (festival ensemble) consisting of taiko, fue and atarigane, but the composition consists greatly of improvisations over a somewhat atypical repeating set of rhythms (four groups of seven beats followed by two groups of five).
2) DREAMS 夢
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#8), ojime, bells | Fumi Tanakadate- taiko, kagurasuzu, voice | Sayun Chang- tatuk, taiko, voice
So much of the rich traditional music of Japan, the music that accompanies Noh and Kabuki theaters especially, deal with the world of Yugen (幽玄), roughly translated as "mystery" or "profundity". The narratives often blur the lines between that of the conscious waking world and the world of dreams, of spirits. This piece is a modern take on that essential aesthetic component of Japanese music. The lyrics of the song are nonsense- tori can either sound like "bird' or "gate" for example. The opening section is reminiscent of gagaku court music, the second section features the musicians singing the same slow melody while simultaneously playing a quick five beat rhythm underneath. The middle section features the tatuk, a percussive instrument used by the Atayal, Taroko and Seediq Aboriginal people from Taiwan, mixed with rhythms often associated with the obon dance. Flutes and bells seem to imitate the sound of birds and the wind.
3) PRISM プリズム
Kaoru Watanabe - nohkan | Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko
Although the three drummers and the nohkan flute all playing in rhythmic unison, shifting subdivisions and odd placement of phrases obscure the four beat pulse rhythms like light being fragmented through a prism. The improvisations are over highly unusual ji or base patterns extracted from the original melody.
4) KAGURA GURUI (DUO) 神楽ぐるいデュオ
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#5), ojime | Fumi Tanakadate- taiko, kagurasuzu
Kagura, or God Music, come from ceremonies that celebrate Shinto gods. For my interpretation of this music, I layered multiple tempos of the same typical Kagura rhythm on top of each other creating unusual polyrhythms.
5) CHIRU 散る
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#5) | Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko
The word chiru, meaning to scatter or fall apart, is often used to describe cherry blossoms in Spring, falling gently from the trees like snow, covering the ground in white and pink petals. This composition is about form and the potential beauty found in the deconstruction of that form. I wrote this piece while a member of Kodo, performing it as a duet for many years. In this version, we have three taiko players, each playing multiple drums who, using aural and visual cues, improvise freely to spontaneously create and discard roles for themselves within the ensemble.
6) TOGETHER ALONE
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#8), ojime, chappa | Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko, Sumie Kaneko - koto
Written for my wife, Mari Nakano, it features a simple melody, improvisations and various iterations of an eleven-beat rhythmic cycle. Originally written for a different ensemble with a much lighter overall sound, this piece has grown to become much heavier and intense, with multiple sections for improvisations, intricate ensemble interplay, metric modulation, sudden changes in dynamics and sonic density.
7) IKI 息
Kaoru Watanabe- shinobue (#3), uchiwa, voice | Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - uchiwa, voice | Richie Arbas, Kami Jones, Ariana Kim, Marc Urselli- voice
A young man named Eric Garner was strangled to death by authorities while repeatedly saying "I can't breathe". In 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged as a result of the murder of Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and a contemporary response to a long history of systemic racism still rampant in this country. Being a new father, I considered the world that I’ve brought a child into- one with nuclear reactors spewing gallons of radiation into the oceans daily, rampant guns violence in the US, endless wars, the slow destruction of the Earth.
For this composition, I asked friends to contribute their voices, representing various languages, cultures, nationalities, all reciting "I can't breathe", to a steady pounding on the uchiwa daiko, a fan drum traditionally used to accompany buddhist chanting. The phrase is spoken incrementally louder as it is repeated for many minutes, without even pause for breath. While painful, exhausting and terrifying to perform, this piece is ultimately a meditation for peace and a better world.
8) KAGURA GURUI II 神楽ぐるい２
Kaoru Watanabe - ojime, chappa, atarigane, kagurasuzu | Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko, chappa
9) SHINOBU 梓乃舞
Kaoru Watanabe - shinobue (#1, #6), ojime, binzasara, kagurasuzu, bells | Sumie Kaneko - koto and voice
This composition is a lullaby written for my daughter. As a new father, in order to maintain a semblance of a practice routine while spending hours a day cradling the child, I would hum gentle improvisations in a fifteen beat rhythmic cycle. Eventually I wrote some of the melodies down and turned it into a song. Just like her, the piece is at once calm, playful, mischievous and inquisitive.
Kaoru Watanabe- shinobue (#3), taiko, bells, gongs | Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko, bells, gongs
I have had the great pleasure of visiting Miyake, a small island south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean and studying their traditional festival music with local. The Tsumura family, perhaps the most prominent bearers of the legacy, has graciously given me permission to use elements of their tradition for this album. In this re-imagining of the music, I play a folk song from Miyake, Kiyari Uta, on shinobue. As accompaniment to the melody, the taiko play traditional rhythms but with the base pattern turned inside out, almost as if the rhythm was backwards, thus the title.
11) KAGURA GURUI III 神楽ぐるい
Kaoru Watanabe - ryuteki, ojime, chappa|Barbara Merjan, Fumi Tanakadate, Sayun Chang - taiko
12) ONE 壱
Kaoru Watanabe- hyoshigi, shinobue (#4 kotenjoushi), kagurasuzu, Ojime Daiko, uchiwa daiko, okedo daiko and shimedaiko, nohkan and ameuchiwa
This solo piece was original conceived for a performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a massive stone structure with ceilings 124 feet high, where the sound of the taiko and fue echo up and out in an incredible way. I wanted to explore the notion that the cathedral as well as the Japanese instruments I play, are all designed to create a sense of unity between an individual to their God, their culture, their beliefs and with the world around them.
Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten
Ayako and Haruka Watanabe
The Nakano Family
The Watanabe Family
The Tsumura Family from Miyake Island
Mochizuki Saburo and the Ishizuka Family
Silk Road Ensemble
Jason and Alicia Hall Moran
Barbara, Fumi, Sayun, Sumie, Marc, Richie, Ariana and Kami
Sound and mixing engineer: Marc Urselli
Produced by Kaoru Watanabe and Marc Urselli
Recorded at Eastside Sound, Sept, 2015
Album design by Mari Nakano
Photography by Daniel Torres
For Mari and Shinobu