Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Taiko & Architecture

Eugene Taiko on stage at the 2013 Obon Festival in Eugene (all photos by Jerry Gleason)
Some of you know that I am a member of Eugene Taiko, a community-based Japanese drumming ensemble. Since joining the group in 1989, taiko(1) has been a big part of my life and my sense of identity.(2) It’s the principal means by which I express my cultural heritage, something my family largely suppressed in the wake of their experiences during and immediately following the Second World War. Taiko drumming energizes my soul and body, connects me with the local Japanese-American community, and provides me with welcome relief from the stresses of my professional life. 

Eugene Taiko is one of the hundreds of modern kumi daiko ensembles located across the U.S. The term kumi daiko refers to the freestanding percussion ensemble style of taiko, which is distinct from the traditional drumming used in folk, Shinto, or Buddhist festivals in Japan. In fact, taiko drumming in the form most familiar to western audiences is largely an American art form of recent vintage, its origins only dating back to the 1960s when Seiichi Tanaka formed the first kumi daiko group in San Francisco. Today, kumi daiko is equally popular in Japan, which is home to several of the most renowned touring groups, among them Kodo and Ondekoza.(3) 

Most North American taiko groups are comprised of people like me who are anything but professional musicians. We play taiko for the reasons I stated above and also because the performances are such powerful experiences. The booming drums literally shake you to your core, drawing their energy from the earth itself.(4) Every piece is emotionally intense; each composition uniquely exciting. The tradition and rigor of taiko are held in common by all groups and yet each ensemble has its own personality. 

Eugene Taiko performs "Hachijo." That's me on the right.

Architect-blogger extraordinaire Bob Borson recently tweeted the link to his 2011 post “Harmony,” in which he wrote about the significance of music in his life, particularly during his formative years, and its influence upon his becoming an architect. Music likewise played a big part during my youth. Besides the obligatory piano lessons, I was also a quintessential band geek, mastering in turn the clarinet, saxophone, and ultimately the trombone. Regrettably, I left this side of my life in the rearview mirror when I entered college and architecture school. However, like Bob, my appreciation for music—its structure, process, and power to move us—would never really wane even though it would be many years before I could again describe myself as a musician. 

Goethe famously described architecture as “frozen music.” Countless architects, musicians, philosophers, and theorists before and since his time have attempted to define the parallels and common structures of the two arts. A quick Internet search yields an equally vast set of results. Among the most articulate of these, the following quote from one of my favorite writers on architecture, Charles Jencks, stands out: 

“. . . music and architecture have been intimately joined by a cosmic connection, the idea that they both are generated by an underlying code. This order, revealed by mathematics and geometry, was first espoused by Pythagoras who lived in southern Italy, and it led to many Greek temples designed on proportional principles revealing not only supreme beauty but the music of the heavenly spheres—either God or nature. 

“As abstract art forms based on rhythm, proportion, and harmony, architecture and music share a clear cultural lineage.” 

The website provides another excellent essay on the congruities between music and architecture: 

“Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti said that the same characteristics that please the eye also please the ear. Musical terms such as rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, dynamics, and articulation refer both to architecture and to music. Rhythm in music is patterns of sounds in relation to a beat; repetition of elements - openings, shapes, structural bays- establish regular or irregular rhythm in architecture. Musical texture refers to layers of sounds and rhythms produced by different instruments. Architectural texture appears in different materials. Harmony is balance of sound or composition and balance of parts together. Proportion is relationship between parts; in music it is distance between notes or intervals. Dynamics is the quality of action in music or in a building’s facade or mass.” 

Taiko drumming relies mostly upon rhythm alone to communicate subtle nuances and deep emotions. Additionally though, taiko is very much a visual art form and in this regard the parallels with architecture are reinforced. Choreography is an essential aspect of every taiko performance. So too are colors and patterns. As with every taiko group, Eugene Taiko rigorously emphasizes form or kata. We systematically practice to hone our technique. Our elusive goal is the attainment of formal perfection through outwardly smooth and simple means. Formal perfection, especially when achieved with seeming effortlessness, is also a Holy Grail for architects. 

Ever since taking up taiko, I’ve mulled over what is common between taiko drumming and my love for architecture. I do think both pursuits appeal to me in ways that are more alike than different. Fundamentally, the beauty of both is grounded upon the foundations of tradition, their play upon order and structure, and the joy they are so capable of generating. I can’t imagine my life now without either. 

If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to see a taiko performance. Better yet, you need to see Eugene Taiko perform! Check out our website at, follow us on Facebook, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. We almost always have an event on our calendar and most of our performances are free and open to everyone. 

(1)     Translated from Japanese, “taiko” literally means “great” or “wide drum.” 

(2)     Fellow architect Ken Nagao formed Eugene Taiko the year before. He invited me to one of the group’s practices and I was instantly hooked. I joined as one of the youngest members of ET; I’m somewhat astonished by the fact that I’m now the oldest of the bunch. Taiko can be strenuous; most of the original members retired from the group because assorted physical ailments took their toll. I hope to stick with taiko as long as my body will allow me to. 

(3)     Both Kodo and Ondekoza have performed in Eugene. True to the nature of the close-knit taiko community, both groups embraced Eugene Taiko upon their visits to Oregon: in 2001 ET warmed up the Hult Center audience for Kodo, and Ondekozo taught us the popular taiko standard “Hachijo” when they visited with us in 1990. 

(4)     Practitioners of taiko consider their drums living things, members of the greater natural world of which we’re all a part.. Eugene Taiko has christened each of its drums with names such as “Mizu” (water), “Kokoro” (feeling), and “Ume” (plum blossom).

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