Live Last Night: 'Tradition/E-Novation'

Some electronic music is pretty and delicate, but much of it is intentionally harsh. So it made sonic sense that "Tradition/E-Novation," a program of new Japanese e-music Friday evening at the Freer Gallery of Art, began with the shamisen. This three-stringed instrument, a Japanese cousin of the banjo, has a tone that's nearly as cutting as a synthesized shriek.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Bending prolonged vocal notes above the swift retorts of his shamisen, Mojibei Tokiwazu V performed a Kabuki theater song. The "V" after the musician's name indicates he's the fifth in his ancestral line, and the tune he played is even more venerable: It's from 1784, centuries before the concert's second-oldest selection, which dates to 2004.

Violinist Mari Kimura performed three pieces rooted in Western classical music. During "Subharmonic Partita," her own composition, Kimura moved up the fretboard, producing deeper pitches than is usual for the instrument. For "Active Figuration" and "Full Moon," she supplemented her violin with electronics, summoning eerie but not unprecedented sounds. (The Kronos Quartet and alt-rock violinist Andrew Bird have also strolled this path.) On the closing "Pluck-Land," another Kimura original, the violinist was joined by Tokiwazu's shamisen and such computer-generated elements as a heartbeat thump.

The interplay was lively, but the piece was less audacious than the show's other duet, between Tokiwazu and composer Tomomi Adachi. Based on a 19th-century Kabuki song, "Odorimbisha" was transformed by live electronics, partially controlled by Adachi's arm movements. Japanese shifted to English, manly voices became cartoon chirps, random clatter recalled John Cage's work and Adachi's cries suggested Balinese monkey chants. This winningly exuberant mash-up seemed to have room for everyone's traditions.

-- MARK JENKINS

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 15, 2009; 3:54 PM ET Live Last Night
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