Oz Asia Festival. Space Theatre – 13 Sept

The production of Koan is actually a sampling of five contemporary Japanese classical composers concluded with a performance of the title composition by James Cuddeford.

The Oz Asia commissioned work, Koan, is actually the third in a list of titles of the same name from composer Cuddeford. Aptly named Koan I, Koan II and now Koan III, this production is curated by the concert master of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Natsuko Yoshimoto.

The performance showcases a range of styles, including Zen music, as well as many well-known composers such as Hosokawa and Takemitsu, offering the audience a tasting program before getting to the main event – Koan III

A koan is a problem or riddle in the practice of Zen Buddhism which does not have a logical solution, and is designed to assist the practitioner in achieving focus – think of the Simpsons episode where Lisa asks Bart “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

In this series of musical compositions there is a major focus on the overtone scale, with sustained excitement of a string, bell, drum or bowl allowed to completely dissipate before the composition continues. The use of overtone scale ‘creates an elevating feeling. Our senses naturally follow rising overtones’ (Roots of musicality: music therapy and personal development, D G Perret)

The first piece ‘Nesting of Cranes’ was informatively described by Akikazu Nakamura before he began to play. Nakamura is a Shakuhachi virtuoso (the Shakuhachi being a bamboo flute with a large diameter approximately one foot eight inches long, originally from China and later modified in Japan in the 16th Century). Nakamura’s intensity and performance focus was second to none, and his immense skill on his instrument was apparent.

‘Vertical Time Study III’ followed, played by Bernadette Harvey on Piano and Natsuko Yoshimoto on Violin. The short staccato rhythms and musical attacks were a great contrast to the wistful number before it. Both performers demonstrated an exceptional level of expertise on their instruments.

The third piece entitled ‘Mai Bataraki’ incorporated an amazing array or percussion played by Claire Edwardes. Nakamura accompanied valiantly on the Shakuhachi, but this was the most frustrating composition, feeling like it was constantly trying to get started, and never seeming to end.

‘Paraphraseology’ was a wonderful opportunity for Edwardes to demonstrate her incredible skill on the Marimba and ‘Rain Tree Sketch I and II’ was passionately played by Harvey on the piano.

Each piece took you on a winding journey through its musical narrative, leaving you feeling relaxed and alive. This was contrasted however, with a 21st century desire for pace and energy which didn’t often come out in the compositions, leading to frustration and anxiety.

The juxtaposition of the instruments was always interesting but often unpleasant. The awkward melodies, uneven rhythms and dissonances make this music an acquired taste for a more discerning listener, or Zen practitioner.

The final and long awaited performance of Koan was introduced by Yoshimoto with a reading from composer Cuddeford on the meaning of the work. Yoshimoto explained that the staging of the piece was as crucial to its performance as the instrumentation and that the arrangement of the musicians, like the arrangement of the music was a visual representation of the juxtaposition represented in the work. Starting with only Percussion and Piano, both Shakuhachi and Violin were slowly introduced. Sharing solos and playing in duet, trio and quartet, the piece eventually climaxed in a hair raising high pitched crescendo. Cuddleford has composed a lot of silence into his works, and Koan III is no exception. Allowing the ring of a cymbal or the vibration of a string to completely subside before continuing was a common element in the work.

Many audience members were overheard describing this production as ‘interesting’, a term which sits particularly well for me. I neither enjoyed it – nor disliked it. Indifference is not necessarily a bad thing in this instance, I feel educated from watching the show and having read about it in more detail. Would I sit through it again? Probably not, it’s just not for everyone.

Paul Rodda