Sumie Kaneko and Gamelan Galak Tika Connect Japan, Bali and the Avant-Garde for MIT’s World Music Day

Posted on November 15, 2016 by Amelia Mason

When the Japanese koto and shamisen player Sumie Kaneko was invited to perform with Gamelan Galak Tika for MIT’s World Music Day, she was elated. Kaneko—who holds a degree in traditional Japanese music from Tokyo National University as well as a jazz vocal degree from Berklee College of Music—is an omnivorous musician with a diverse cast of past collaborators: jazz musicians, classical percussionists, contemporary dancers. But a Balinese gamelan ensemble would be a first—and Kaneko was already a fan of Gamelan Galak Tika. “I’ve been dreaming about it,” she says. “I went to their concerts, as an audience [member], so many times.”

The gamelan is a collection of mainly percussive instruments—gongs, metallophones and drums—that, with the help of a large group of mallet-wielding individuals, produces rhythmically complex and bracingly cacophonous melodies. Gamelan music is an integral part of Balinese Hindu worship, and today it is practiced around the world with a wide range of attitudes toward the tradition. Gamelan Galak Tika was founded by Ziporyn at MIT in 1993 and has always contained an experimental bent. “Aradhana,” the piece that the ensemble will perform with Kaneko on Dec. 3 at Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, is one that Ziporyn originally composed for gamelan and pipa, a Chinese lute. In adapting the piece for Kaneko, he hoped to harness the textural particularities of the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument with a banjo-like twang, and the koto, which resembles a horizontal zither with a pure, metallic tone. “The piece has two different sound worlds. The first half is all about clarity and resonance, which the koto provides,” Ziporyn said. “In the second half, I’m using acoustic non-western instruments to make a kind of noise music – so the shamisen’s jangly sound is perfect.”

Kaneko’s relationship with traditional Japanese music began at an early age. Koto was one of many instruments, including violin and piano, that she studied as a child; she stuck with it, she says, mainly because her koto teacher was less strict than her other instructors. Shamisen was a required part of her studies at college, but Kaneko left both instruments behind when she moved to Boston to study jazz voice at Berklee. “I wanted to forget it and start from zero, and study jazz. I was singing all those American Songbook songs—‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ that kind of stuff, at the voice department at Berklee College of Music,” she says. “No one would listen to me because, you know—who wants to listen to me? I had a very strong Asian accent, and I look Asian, and I can’t scat at all. I couldn’t improvise at the time. Who would listen to me?”

Casting about for something that would set her apart, Kaneko decided to give koto and shamisen another try. She asked her mother to ship the instruments from Japan. “I started arranging all those American Songbook songs, like ‘My Favorite Things,’ with koto and shamisen and bringing it to the voice lab [at Berklee]. And they were like, ‘Whoa.’ That was the first time [other students] got jealous about me. Finally, I have something special that they can’t do.”

Kaneko’s musicianship has since evolved well beyond arranging jazz standards for traditional Japanese instruments. Her new album, “Dead of the Night,” treats jazz as a canvas upon which a vast palette of ideas may be splashed—shamisen-inspired melodies, Japanese lyrics, nods to rock and avant-garde. At the (free) World Music Day concert, which begins at 4:30pm, she will perform a selection of traditional material as well as the world premiere of a solo piece written for her by Ziporyn, part of a suite based on Buddhist poems and ideas. The title, “Shiki Soku,” is a reference to Buddhist scripture that translates to “Form is Emptiness.” After the concert, the World Music Day festivities will move to Lobdell Cafeteria in the Stratton Student Center, where audience members can enjoy Indonesian and West African food and a performance by MIT’s Senagalese drumming ensemble, Rambax.

“[Kaneko is] a very committed and disciplined musician who also has a lot of lyricism and feeling in her playing,” Ziporyn says. “What I’m finding with these pieces is that she is a very unassuming musician, but can quickly come to the core of something without me saying it.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Gamelan Galak Tika gathered in a small room in the MIT Museum building to rehearse for the concert. People trickled in, shucking off their shoes at the door and padding across the carpet to sit behind rows of ornately-carved instruments with gleaming bronze keys. Kaneko sat in the middle with her shamisen in her lap and her koto laid across two stools. Gamelan music is built around intricate polyrhythms that crisscross in and out of phase with one another, and Ziporyn’s piece was tricky. “I don’t even know what a measure means,” someone muttered after a particularly difficult passage.

That, says Kaneko, is one of the great pleasures of playing with the gamelan ensemble. “Aradhana,” she says, is a “thrilling composition. It’s very challenging for me.”

Once the ensemble got going, though, it seemed to pulse along with its own momentum, a clamor of rhythms clashing and converging with improbable regularity. When the piece ended, with a decisive chime, it was the sweetest triumph for feeling like a miracle.

For Kaneko and Ziporyn, experiencing such moments with musicians from other backgrounds is the whole point. Both say that collaborating is one of the things they like best about their vocation. “You realize there are all sorts of different ways to approach music,” Ziporyn says. “And that opens you up.”