Ryan Scott: Maki Ishii Live

Toronto-based percussionist Ryan Scott and the renowned Esprit Orchestra (conducted by its long-standing Music Director Alex Pauk) pay tribute to acclaimed Japanese composer Maki Ishii (1936-2003) in a special recording featuring North American premieres of three Ishii Percussion Concerti. Though the three works share a specific focus, they're at a general level representative of the composer's desire to combine the avant-garde Western compositional ideas he acquired during his early studies (in Tokyo and Berlin) and the sound palette of Japanese traditional music, to which he turned his attention in the late 1960s. In three works he composed during the ‘70s, for example, he integrated the shakuhachi, gagaku, and Japanese drums into orchestral contexts.

The opening piece, “Saidoki (Demon),” (1989-1992) provides a remarkable showcase for Scott's musical prowess, given that it concentrates on improvised solo passages featuring three Cidelo Ihos, metal sculptures created specifically to be played in the piece, and a range of wooden (bamboo) and skin instruments created by Scott himself. In this third part of the symphonic work Floating Wind (1992), the emphasis is on the final syllable in the Saidoki title such that the “ki,” which means demon, denotes the “ki”-demon of the Saido style. Initially aggressive and boisterous in tone, the music's character softens when the orchestral elements emerge, as if the agitated demon's soul is being soothed by the presence of the enveloping forces. It's a short-lived temperance, however, as the piece's closing third again returns us to a state of hyperactivity, as if each of the conflicting sides of the demon are engaging in a struggle for supremacy.

The middle work, “Concertante” (or, more specifically, “Concertante for Marimba Solo and 6 Percussionists”) (1988), finds Scott playing a five-octave concert grand marimba accompanied by six Esprit Orchestra members. Over the course of the twenty-minute setting, the relationship between the two parts is at times harmonious and complementary, with the percussionists providing a colourful backdrop to Scott's soloing, and at other times is antagonistic, with the two sides locked in conflict. Shifts in mood, tempo, rhythms, and dynamics hold the listener's interest in spite of the percussion-only arrangement, as does the timbral contrast between the warm tones of the marimba and the shimmering sparkle of bells and cymbals. Though such an instrumental arsenal could lead to bombast, the musicians largely opt for quietude in a piece that benefits all the more from such a nuanced handling.

That restraint carries over into the eighteen-minute final piece, “South - Fire - Summer” (1992), which, again, despite having the potential for overkill, is surprisingly fragile. Orchestral accompaniment is used sparingly, more as painterly atmosphere, with the spotlight clearly on Scott's marimba playing. The music expands beyond passages that are plaintive, even funereal, in character to robust episodes where piano and the full resources of the orchestra are exploited, with strings and horns providing a dense mass against which Scott's marimba playing is juxtaposed, and once again, the East-West fusion accounts for much of the material's ear-catching quality. Here and elsewhere, Scott and company do Ishii and his music a great service in helping to bring attention to a composer much honoured in his homeland (in 1999, for example, he was awarded the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honour by the Emperor of Japan) but less well known to North American audiences.

December 2011