d8b8/1243826123-tanaka_cropped_resized.jpgThursday’s Music in Time program featured the unique sounds and talents of Yumiko Tanaka, a leading virtuoso of the shamisen: a traditional Japanese instrument. A charming and diminutive lady, her appearance was striking — thanks to traditional makeup that made her look something like a Geisha.

I’ve described this instrument before as Japan’s answer to the banjo — and (as director John Kennedy told us), you find very similar instruments as far away as Africa — where the modern banjo originated. A three-stringed instrument, it produces the same general sort of sharp, twangy tone when plucked, and it has a similarly small body and long neck. It’s played by means of a large (compared to a pick) ivory plectrum.

But Tanaka got much more than just those kinds of sound out of her shamisen, especially in her first offering: a mostly improvised number that she called Impromptu 09 — offered here for the very first time anywhere. And she “played” her instrument in any way you could possibly imagine EXCEPT in the conventional manner.

It lay face-up on a bench in front of her, and she leaned over to manipulate it with all manner of devices: what looked like a loose shamisen string, a small metal bowl, assorted sticks, a bow, a guitar pick and a sort of Japanese capo that she slid up and down the fretless neck to alter pitches (among others). She got all kinds of buzzes, burps, clicks, loud pops, moans and shrieks out of it — and not all of them sounded musical. She even produced vaguely “conversational” tones … amazing!

Her remaining pieces all employed mostly the usual performing methods — usually accompanied by her own vocalizations, done in the traditional Japanese fashion that sounds “singsong” to most Western ears. I heard it as kind of a rough Japanese equivalent to what we call “Sprechstimme” (speaking voice) singing. But my Japanese concert buddy hastened to assure me that her vocal style was an ancient art unto itself.

Hidaka River, a traditional piece, seemed cast in a sort of Japanese “minstrel” style, as she sang of an ancient legend while “interpreting” the story with her shamisen. In the world premiere of composer Sachiyo Tsurumi’s Snakes, Eggs, she counted aloud (in English) as she played: a common practice that helps the player concentrate and stay on track with the music. She also altered her tuning constantly (here and elsewhere), as in the Western music practice of “scordatura.”

For me, the most revealing piece was yet another world premiere: Yuji Takahachi’s Hamlet to be or not. (Yes, Virginia, they like Shakespeare in Japan, too). The story was told in snippets from the play, beginning with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, and ending with his brutal takedown of poor Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery!” Tanaka switched back and forth between Japanese and English in this one, enabling me to put understandable words and music together for the first time. Once I knew just what she was singing about, her playing — with its reflections of the story’s emotions — suddenly began to make a lot more sense to me.

Then came A Monster, by veteran composer Michio Mamiya, setting the fanciful tale of a monster gobbling up “five thousand little whales” — after roasting them over Mount Fuji, then washing them down with the “drinking cup” of Japan’s largest lake. Tanaka had a lot of fun with that one — and so did we. Finally, she offered Yagura Drum Performance, but with no vocal element this time (and no drum, either).

From beginning to end, it was a mesmerizing experience — and a fascinating peek into the beauties of a foreign culture. Tanaka’s main mission at the festival is backing up the festival run of puppeteer Basil Twist’s “Dogugaeshi” at the Gaillard’s Exhibition Hall, beginning May 30. But I feel personally blessed that Kennedy snagged her for his ever-worthwhile series, too.

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