Fall Free for All: SF Taiko Dojo and Kronos Quartet

SF Taiko Dojo /Courtesy

A Taiko Dojo player furiously strikes the taut skin of a massive, central drum, his arms blurring in their speed. His master concentrates over a tinkling instrument. All around them, the rhythmic pounding of drums creates the tattoo of a heartbeat. This is San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first Japanese drumming group of its kind in America, pumping away in Zellerbach Hall as they have done every year since 1986.

Kronos Quartet, another San Francisco-based performing group, later commands the same Zellerbach stage. This quartet, however, does not fan out across the capacious stage like the martial artists, and there’s only one percussive instrument to speak of. It is used sparingly. The instrument of preference here is the bowed string: two violins, a viola and a cello compose the ensemble. Kronos Quartet has brought its renowned string quartet compositions to the global stage for 39 years.

How can two such seemingly disparate groups come together on the same stage within a mere hour of each other? On the one hand, there is Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, leading his nearly 45-year-old Taiko group in the visceral Japanese drumming art form (the entire group is comprised of more than 200 students; over 10,000 students have passed under Tanaka’s tutelage over the years). On the other, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Jeffrey Zeigler play music from all over the globe, be it Serbia, Mexico, Syria, or China. The key uniting factor for performance groups of such high caliber is Cal Performances, UC Berkeley’s very own commissioning, presenting and producing organization. Cal Performances boasts the distinction of being Northern California’s largest, multi-discipline performing arts presenter. On Sept. 30, the third annual Cal Performances Fall Free for All featured both SF Taiko Dojo and Kronos Quartet.

Talking to the leaders of each respective group, one gets the distinct impression that they’re as pleased to perform on the Zellerbach stage as Cal Performances is to have them. “Next year will be Taiko’s 45th anniversary and we will be here two days. Dojo’s always honored to be here because we have a lot of connection with Cal Performances; we’ve been here for a long time celebrating the anniversaries,” said Heidi Varian, co-author of The Way of Taiko. Varian assists Grand Master Tanaka in leading the SF group.

Harrington, violinist for the Kronos Quartet, feels a similar bond to Cal Performances. “Cal Performances has commissioned a number of our pieces and co-commissioned them and it’s been a really great relationship for us. Actually, the first Fall Free For All – we were the very first concert on the very first Fall Free For All. It was thrilling. You felt families. And to me that’s the best,” said Harrington.

This fulfilling collaborative relationship succeeds, according to Harrington, partly due to the influence of Matias Tarnopolsky, director of Cal Performances. “Matias is absolutely an amazing spirit. I’ve had some really great conversations with him about music, about what our responsibility is now as musicians,” Harrington explained. “With the advantages that [Kronos] has — I feel responsible to trying to give something to our audiences that they can’t find anywhere else, only through the world of music and only through these bowed strings that have this amazing history. For a little while we get to be a part of that tradition.”

Grand Master Tanaka feels similarly about his art’s power to communicate. “Taiko Dojo is a way to communicate [between] people, like telepathy. When our concert starts, we have no conductor. You have to conduct yourself. It’s communication between you and the drum.”

Varian added, “The essence of Taiko is not just the playing of percussion instruments. It’s also the self-discipline of mind and body and the spirit of complete respect and unity among the drummers.” This aspect of harmony and manners, called “rei,” is evident in the Taiko Dojo performance.

Harrington sums up the essence of events like Fall Free for All, whose setup — concurrent performances spread all across the Cal campus — allows for wandering and exploring of the rich diversity in offerings: “Every experience leads to another one in music,” he said. “It’s just thrilling.”

Event details:
What: 2012 International Taiko Festival
When: Nov. 16 and 17
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco

Kronos Quartet doesn’t perform at Cal Performances in Hertz Hall until February 5, 2013.