Japanese percussionist Kuniko Kato finds new sounds in steel
Japanese percussionist Kuniko Kato is bringing her steel drums to the Scotiabank Dance Centre tonight (April 15), but don’t expect to hear the kind of happy, lilting music you might encounter on a Caribbean cruise. Instead, Kato is exploring the sonic possibilities of an instrument that even in its unmodified state sounds like an otherworldly combination of gong and keyboard.
In her compositions Planet Earth and Can’s Club Mix, she’ll be adding amplification and additional tone generators to her custom-made steel drums, bolstering small sounds and, at the same time, inventing new ones on the fly.
“For the audience, sometimes they don’t feel the same sound as me,” Kato explains, speaking in careful, heavily accented English from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. “They can hear the sounds, even if I just play tiny sounds on the steel drum, but they don’t hear the detail of the sound. I’m really close to the sound, and there are a lot of dynamics and also resonances”¦ I can hear all those things, but the audience is getting maybe 10 percent of that. That’s why I use the microphones close to the sound—so I can bring the audience the detail of the sound in a way that’s really close to what I hear from the instruments.”
Kato uses a variety of modifications to expand the sound of her tuned, recycled steel drums, brazing metal rods to them or stringing them with piano wire to create resonances that she describes as “forever-ringing”.
“It’s almost like a guitar, you know,” she says. “Kind of another instrument altogether.”
In tonight’s Vancouver New Music–sponsored concert, the percussion virtuoso will get to explore a variety of formats. Kato switched to percussion as a teenager, after realizing that her small hands weren’t going to get her very far as a pianist, and she quickly became an internationally recognized master of the marimba and the vibraphone—instruments she’ll use in her version of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, which she rearranged with the veteran composer’s approval. But it’s clear that unconventional instruments are just as close to her heart: she’ll start her performance with New York City innovator David Lang’s The Anvil Chorus, a sonic tribute to the ancient art of the forge. And yes, it uses a real anvil.
“Playing Anvil Chorus is really like being a blacksmith,” Kato says. “I use a hammer, and an anvil which I took from a steel-fabricating factory. It’s a really big one, with a strong sound—not like something you can buy in a store.”