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Piano and koto meet in 'Strings and Serpents'

Piano and koto meet in 'Strings and Serpents'
Ai Kajigano, center, with Andy Milne, at left, and Benoit Delbecq, right, perform during a rehearsal for "Strings And Serpents" at the REDCAT. The artists were eager to explore intersections between jazz improvisation and traditional Japanese music. (Christina House / Christina House)

"Strings and Serpents," which was presented at REDCAT Sunday evening, combines an intrepid Canadian and French jazz piano duo and an adventurous Japanese koto duo with everyday video animation and exotic Aboriginal myth and maybe a few other things I missed. Cultures combined and cultures collided, but mostly cultures were content to accomodate one another.

A value of art, and the one so overlooked by diplomats, is its ability to serve as a petri dish for cultural experiment, for finding common purpose and what works and what doesn't without anyone getting hurt. No one got hurt by "Strings and Serpents," which was commissioned by CalArts and is currently touring the country.

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There was some messing with the piano strings, "preparing" them by putting objects on or between the strings to percussively alter the sound. That became the most useful point of sonic similarity between piano and the plucked koto.

The big picture, though, was ambiguous. Pianists Andy Milne and Benoit Delbecq and koto players Tsugumi Yamamoto and Ai Kajigano were eager to explore intersections between jazz improvisation and traditional Japanese music.

The role of Japanese video artist Saki Murotani, now based in Canada, was to bring in the notion of the rainbow serpent, the enormous Australian Aboriginal deity that created the rivers, oceans and mountains when it tread the empty Earth, and from which also sprung Earth's species.

The musicians worked through a number of numbers, none named or mentioned in a worthless, short program note. Cultures relate best when there is information and knowledge. For this endeavor, it was up to the audience to figure out what was happening.

There were wonderful moments, but they were only moments and mostly they had to do with the instrumental textures. The typical approach began with a rhythmic pattern or an atmospheric sound, well suited to both piano and koto, then added melody or smooth improvisation or lush harmonies.

The West seemed to dominate the East. But if the men at their keyboards had more sway than the ladies at their kotos, the main reason was because the piano is less adaptable. Pitches on the keyboard are fixed, whereas the koto can play in non-Western scales that to us are microtonal.

But the koto players were sly. Sometimes when playing in unison with the pianos, a koto might bend the pitch minutely in such a way as to make the piano seem to be doing so as well.

The real problem, though, was a lack of experimentation. Rather than cultures clashing in an effort to make new discoveries or produce hybrids, the quartet stuck with conventional models. Everything felt on firm ground. Rhythmic groves were insistent. Improvisation was tame. Options remained limited.

But the sound world, itself, proved ear-catching. The pianists were adept at changing the piano preparations on the fly, which I've never seen done so fluidly. Those preparations mean some notes sound normal and others become pitchless pings and thuds. Improvising around them creates harmonic and melodic potholes.

Milne, a fluid improviser, was impressive at skirting interruption. Delbecq, more a master of unusual effects, dove into the emptiness, leaving room for koto sounds to fill in for him. Meanwhile, the koto players pretty much did their thing, vaguely Asian and vaguely not.

The Rainbow Serpent never really reared its imposing head. Murotani's colorful CGI graphics were a New Age-y representation of creation. Earth-like circles exploded into chemical elements, abstract graphics and finally a circular keyboard that became a kind of musical space station in the cosmos.

The challenge of the two duos together, now that they have found a multicultural middle ground in which to work, is to find an avenue for their original voices to sing. At this early stage, the strings still imprison the serpents.

Follow me on Twitter: @markswed

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