Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tomoko Sugawara’s Kugo

It is hard to imagine a more fitting backdrop for Tomoko Sugawara’s curved harp concert than the art of Yoko Semoto, then on view at the Ippodo Gallery. Her striking tempura paintings on gold leaf backgrounds combine a contemporary compositional sense with classical forms. This is most definitely the case with Sugawara’s music as well.

Her Kugo, or curved harp, dates back millennia, but had essentially vanished from the musical world for centuries. Common to both ancient Buddhist and Persian musical traditions, it represents an archetypal link to antiquity. Even the Buddha himself in a prior incarnation (as Guttila) played such a curved harp, according to Professor Bo Lawergren, Sugawara’s partner in her kugo reconstruction, whose historical context is often interspersed throughout her live performances.

Whether hearing Sugawara live or on her latest CD, Along the Silk Road, it is immediately evident that her repertoire might be meditative, but it is far more engaging than mere background fare. Indeed, the opening track, “Archaic Phrase for Kugo” actually sounds quite modern in its use of space and intriguing melody shifts.

The following “The Waves of Kokonor” and “Wang Zhaojun” perfectly illustrate the epoch-spanning nature of Silk’s program. Based on Chinese Tang Dynasty era compositions, they survived for centuries as Japanese manuscripts that were eventually adapted in western notational style by a Cambridge University team in the 1970’s and finally transmuted into solo kugo pieces by Stephen Dydo, expressly for Sugawara. The shorter “Kokonor” is particularly effective illustrating the dynamic range she can bring to bear on the delicate instrument.

“Qawl,” a traditional thirteenth century Persian composition, nicely incorporates the percussive accompaniment of Ozan Aksöy on the frame drum, creating an insinuating rhythm and an evocative vibe. While Robert Lombardo’s miniatures, “Haikugo” I, II, and III, are indeed like haikus or etudes from the western tradition, they are perfectly suited for Sugawara’s sensitive solo interpretations. Perhaps Lombardo’s somewhat more abstract three part “Shukago” will sound the most like what listeners might expect to hear, thanks to the addition of Robert Dick’s mournful alto flute.

Probably the standouts on the tracks though are the concluding “Cantiga de María” No. 249 and 213, written by King Alfonso X of Spain as dedications to the Virgin Mary, again during the thirteenth century. While thought to exhibit the influence of the Moors to the south, one can also hear echoes of the renaissance troubadour in Sugawara’s attack, linking Silk to western as well as eastern traditions. With Aksöy added first on doubek and then frame drum, they have a surprisingly jaunty feel, which made for a perfect set closer for her concert at the Ippodo Gallery.

New Yorkers who took time out from the Tribeca Film Festival to hear Sugawara at Ippodo in late April were treated to a triple discovery: a remarkably accomplished artist, playing an ancient instrument made new again, in a tastefully beautiful space. Hauntingly elegant, Sugawara’s Silk (now available on the Motema label) sounds fresh and sophisticated, rewarding frequent listening with its exquisite grace.