Midori Takada @ Melbourne Recital Centre, Tuesday August 29

Lyndon web.jpg

“Emptiness is none other than form. Form, is none other than emptiness.” 

The concert hall is empty, but not for long. I’m not sure if it’s gonna be a 7.30 lock-out kind of situation, I know it’s a formalised sit-down affair, so maybe you gotta be on the dot or miss out. This is bad news ‘cause we’re on the wrong side of the Yarra at 7.28. We bolt down Swanston Street, racing trams and horse-buggies; Flinders Street Station streaks past - a high contrast blur; we almost accidentally attend the ballet; and finally we’re in the right foyer. You can tell it’s the right foyer because everyone looks like the kind of person who goes to see a semi-obscure Japanese composer toured by Red Bull Music Academy… they, we, all have very deliberate haircuts and broad, starchy trousers, spectacles. Mostly caucasian, we brandish bags, coats, sneakers and brogues in muted, pseudo-organic hues. It probably sounds nasty and facetious lumping everyone into this taxonomy. But it’s not an indictment. It’s just kind of funny. And we’re mostly - almost certainly - here because a quirk of the Youtube autoplay algorithm recommended us Midori Takada’s solo studio album Through The Looking Glass sometime in the last few years. Being a music nerd in 2017 is an absurd, but joyous, business. 

We’ve arrived in time, by the way. We lower ourselves into red cushioned seats and KRAKATAU emerge from the wings, waving cordiality before taking to their stations. 

Their first tune sounds is note-perfect, mood-perfect - it sounds purpose-built for tonight. For all I know, it could be. Mantra-like synth runs swirl over a sparse web of drum and bass utterances, eventually joined by slow and sensuous saxophone drones. Underpinning it all is a continuous sample of human in-and-exhalation, creating a soothing - if sightly uncanny - metronome for everything to be draped over.

They could have ended their performance there and it would have been a sufficient gesture - which is not to say the rest of the set was wasted, rather that it felt like a series of encores. They gracefully reveal a library of moods, from the jittery 7/4 lushness of "Apogean Tide" to the cheering (if slightly clunky) soft-fusion / dub closing jam. 

After an intermission illuminated by smiling, blissed-out faces we slide back into the theatre. The room is dark, save for the stage: spangled with lone cymbals on stands, floating in space like golden lilypads. Eventually a figure stalks on stage, crane-like, mallets in hand. She gently excites a triangulation of cymbals, weaving through them as if creeping through a resonant forest. And again, the cymbals sizzle, and MIDORI TAKADA makes her way around the stage, with the restrained but theatrical poise of a dancer. In this way, the performance of eliciting sound and the performance of visible motion in space converge. To distinguish between “dance” and “music” here feels petty. It’s simply a beautiful, unified chain of gestures. Between cymbal bursts, Takada recites seemingly mystic propositions, such as the one at the top of this article. Albeit lofty, these phrases don’t feel pretentious or obscure – in fact, they ring true by virtue of the performance that surrounds them. Emptiness – in this instance, silence and physical space – are as much Takada’s “forms” as the sounds she makes or the objects she places. Absence gives her performance its distinct minimalistic tenor, its haunting, sparse quality, and thus typifies its content.

Having said that, Takada’s hands soon get decidedly busy, and her soundscapes intermittently dense. She moves to the marimba – perhaps her most characteristic instrument – and begins a series of intricate and driving pieces which recall Steve Reich in their insistent, stoic elegance. Resounding with eighth-note delays and subtle dissonances, these works are not the evening’s most dramatic, but they’re arguably the most engrossing – so thick with harmonic detail and evocative potential.  At one point, Takada spells out her own visualisation: a tale of a coconut tree on a riverbank, remembered from youth, gone to ruin in the intervening years. It’s a simple but vivid monologue, rich with pathos and haiku-like minimalist charm.

Things get wilfully intense when Takada moves to the opposite corner of the stage, which boasts a large gong and a series of tom drums arranged at waist and head height. Beginning with simmering energy and building to a blistering crescendo in which she pummels the toms with dizzying full-body spins, it’s a virtuosic ode to the brute power of percussion. The ear is reminded of war drums, or the consonance between percussive resonance and the stormy rumblings of nature. The skill and complexity involved in delivering these thundering rhythms is astonishing, but showmanship doesn’t seem to be the goal at hand. Takada has lead as on a poetic trajectory from sparse quietude to full-pelt fortissimo, and now begins to lead us back down, returning to gentler dynamics and again to the drifting cymbal flourishes.

The whole performance, then, becomes a kind of symmetrical arc in which we glimpse elemental truths. Far from a mere display of ability, Takada offers us an oblique but fully-realized vision of a personal cosmology. It’s a thing of wonder, and serves to reinforce the growing feeling that Midori Takada should be considered alongside the great composers of minimalist percussion/spiritual music – names like Reich, Riley, Glass and Adams. We thank our lucky stars for Youtube algorithms, musically-minded energy drinks, and above all, the astounding creative forces in our midst.

Lyndon Blue