Midori Takada, Milton Court Hall, gig review: 'Jarring and provocative'

The Japanese percussionist, known for her belatedly revered classic, 'Through the Looking Glass', gives an esoteric, theatrical performance

Jochan Embley
Friday 29 September 2017 17:30 BST

Midori Takada is a performer of immediate gravity. When the applause at her appearance on stage dies down, she pierces the quiet by conjuring a ringing sound, and the crowd here is taken. The concert that follows comprises 70 minutes which are at times esoteric, and at others viscerally theatrical, frequently crossing the border between music and abstract performance art.

There’s a certain air of mystique around the Japanese musician, partly owing to the ghostly poise with which she moves around the stage, and also because of her atypical rise to prominence.

Her musical career began as a percussionist with the Berlin Philharmonic in the late Seventies, but an itching curiosity led her to abandon it, travelling to Africa and absorbing the continent’s rhythms, and then returning to Japan to form the Mkawju Ensemble – a venture which, judging by the two albums it produced, could’ve achieved real fame were it not for the financial constraints which soon derailed it.

In 1983, she released her debut solo album, Through the Looking Glass, a four-song masterpiece which is at once lucid and dream-like. It’s variously labelled as “ambient” or “minimal”, with easy comparisons drawn to Steve Reich and other Western titans, but it’s an exceptional release. Composed, recorded, overdubbed and mixed within two days, featuring everything from the gamelan to, legendarily, a coke bottle, it’s a surreal, vivid portrait of an album, both serene and drivingly intense.

Despite all that, it failed to capture attention upon release. But, through word-of-mouth among discerning crate-diggers, and a peculiar quirk of YouTube’s autoplay function which sent huge numbers of ambient and minimalism listeners towards it, the album has become a belated classic – culminating in a much-anticipated reissue by WRWTFWW Records and Palto Flats earlier this year.

A faithful rendition of Through the Looking Glass, however, is not what we have tonight. Rather, it’s a dynamic, dramatically splintered performance, drawing on her virtuosic skill as a percussionist, and her later work within the realms of theatre. Cymbals are dotted around the stage, standing like satellite dishes, with a marimba behind them, but it’s the gong at which Takada starts. She jabs, scrapes and pounds to at first summon something sounding like the creaking bowels of a metallic ship, which eventually into a dizzyingly loud screech.

She then creeps to the front of the stage and speaks for the first time, delivering a sparse recital of a “Hannya Shingyo”, a Buddhist mantra, while periodically hitting each of the cymbals. It’s a disconcerting, almost surreal opening section, but nerves are soothed by the marimba pieces which follow. “Another Story” is repetitively melodic, while “Mkwaju”, a piece from the Ensemble, feels frantic and somewhat improvisational, but is hypnotic nonetheless – it’s probably the closest thing we get to Through the Looking Glass.

“Chang-Dra”, a composition from Takada’s 1990 collaboration with Masahiko Satoh, Lunar Cruise, is played entirely on tom-toms. It’s fiercely arrhythmic, with Takada spinning around to face the various drums, playing with unerring accuracy, power and focus.

With such difference between each component of tonight's performance, it is hard to not come away feeling slightly jarred. Perhaps that's exactly Takada was after. And perhaps, like Through the Looking Glass, it's the kind of performance that would benefit from repeat listens. Such a luxury we most likely won't be afforded, but still, this was an intense, provocative show.

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