Noh limits: Evan Parker crowns potentials of Japanese theatre at Kings Place

parker-isso

Often described as ‘chanted drama’, Noh is a Japanese performance art in which music and theatre create something entirely different to western conventions of musical theatre. Highly codified, stylised and choreographed with enormous precision, the ancestral genre has an innate sense of both ritual and reverence, and everything from the positioning of practitioners on stage to their posture and demeanour is solemn. Tonight the concert hall feels very much like a shrine.    

Part of Kings Place’s Noh Reimagined weekend, this meeting of an ensemble led by flautist Yukihiro Isso and Evan Parker shows how the vocabulary of the Japanese art can powerfully cohere with that of one of the great champions of improvised music to have emerged from Europe. The resulting synergy leaves a delicious question mark hanging in the air about the cultural identity of all involved, for it would be far too glib to say that this is an East meets West affair. The flow and exchange of ideas suggest as much common ground as geographical differences, a manifesto of individuality within a binding universality.  

Parker and Isso are at opposite sides of the stage and between them a half circle of three drummer-vocalists sit upright with unflinching poise. From the moment the players assemble under the lights the defining visual image is one of statuesque rigidity. Backs straight, heads high and faces inscrutable with concentration they are akin to taut strings on an invisible bow that vibrates potently as Isso and Parker unfurl a wide variety of phrasing that moves from onrushing streams to more tangential trails concluded with a playful suspense. As flinty and piercing as ever, Parker’s soprano assumes the role of a kind of ghost bass next to the whirring, fluttering crescendos of Isso’s flutes, of which there are eight, one looking very much like a buffalo horn with holes drilled into its middle. Pulling each instrument from his waistband as a warrior would a sword, Isso moves with dazzling stealth from one key signature to another, the highpoint of his ingenuity being the moment he deploys three flutes in a hail of Rahsaan Roland Kirk multi-phonics that frame a charming nursery rhyme-like melody. Parker’s ‘undergrowth rustle’ vocabulary makes a suitably primal backdrop, as his explorations of timbre are as shadowy as they are luminous.

In another feat of virtuosity Isso draws a magnificently wild fortissimo shriek from a flute that is a howling wind to Parker’s running water. Some 46 years after The Topography Of The Lungs the saxophonist can still map deeply-evocative landscapes with a set of responsive partners.

Centre stage the vocals and drums are no less active, even though they burst into life amid lengthy silences that reinforce the stillness of the bodies on stage. Tightly gripped, the shoulder drum has a wavering pitch slightly reminiscent of the Senegalese tama while the hip drums clack like hard, dry wood. Most dramatically the players often produce an elongated, resonantly throaty cry accompanied with a stretch of the arm in absolutely perfect time, as if the limb is activating the vocal chord. As the legato warble finishes, the drum is sounded with all the gravitas of a judge’s gavel. Parker’s switch to the tenor creates a fascinating accompanying canvas as his lines swirl through a wide range of textures, thinning and thickening out to end on a percussive slap tongue that coincides to a split second with the beat of the drum. 

Then comes the moment in which the dramatic threads of sound and image are pulled together. Enter a dancer-vocalist with magnetic charisma, his whole body seemingly mechanised with tension to make every movement a statement of intent, from the turn of the neck to the extension of the arm to reveal a patterned fan, its half-moon shape contrasting with the straight lines of the costumes worn by himself and other members of the ensemble. His whole body becomes percussion. Staccato movements synchronise with vocal chants. Hefty stamps of the foot recall the fall of the stick on the drum. Gradually the other players blend seamlessly into the tableau as the choreography and shifting sounds become one mutable entity; the close harmonies of the flutes, occasionally recorder-like in their hark, and the swell of the tenor folding around the sharp tones and stretched sinews of the dancer. The audience holds its breath.

All of which underlines the natural lack of boundaries between sound and image when the performers have an understanding of, and affinity with, a range of disciplines, as if to play is to act is to dance is to sing. In a week when Parker has won a special Parliamentary Jazz Award it begs the question of what adventure the 71-year-old will pursue next. 

– Kevin Le Gendre

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