First, a picture of master shakuhachi player Akikazu Nakamura flashes on the screen next to the image and sound of flowing water, graceful notes flowing out from his Japanese flute.
Next, the images begin to quickly turn on and off as high-pitched computer generated sounds play, creating what Gene Coleman calls the feeling of a “racing mind.”
There’s a kind of acceleration of action that is taking place,” Coleman said. “You begin in a very calm place, and then the energy is building, it’s kind of like one thought can lead to a thousand.”
These sights and sounds are part of KATA, a music performance group featuring traditional Japanese instruments and choreographed karate who premiered components of their full performance at a webinar on Nov. 19.
Project collaborators discussed how the performance combines traditional music with modern technology and how the team has developed the project since its conception in spring 2019.
“People tonight I think are going to get first hand insight into this process,” said Miho Walsh, former director of the Asian Cultural Council. “You don’t really get a chance to be a part of this process where you truly get to hear from the artists in development, so this is very exciting.”
Panelists included Coleman, a Philadelphia-based composer and director, Adam Vidiksis, a music technology professor responsible for mapping the brain wave data to music during the performance, and Japanese musicians Nakamura and Sansuzu Tsurzawa.
As one of five performances scheduled for the 2020 Olympic Games, KATA was supposed to premiere on Aug. 1 in Tokyo, Japan, as a part of the Japan-US Creative Artists Fellowship Program. Because the Olympics were postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, KATA did not perform this summer.
The full performance involves an ensemble of a string quartet and other instrumentalists, two traditional Japanese soloists playing the shakuhachi, similar to a flute, and the samisen, which is a Japanese lute, and martial artists performing choreographed karate called Kata, Vidiksis said.
The martial artists wear motion sensors as they perform, and the Japanese soloists, Nakamura and Tsurzawa, wear brainwave sensor headbands as they play music composed by Coleman.
“We often think of technology as something in the future and these other things we consider in the past,” Vidiksis said. “The way in which we choose to use technology often supports traditional arts, they’re really intertwined and supporting each other.”
At the webinar, Vidiksis played pre-recorded videos that show how the brain wave sensor headband captures the signals the performers send out as they perform the music . During the performance, Vidiksis matches the waves to music, creating a soundtrack that reflects the brain wave movement from the musicians.
Nakamura said he thinks the use of this technology in KATA represents a new field of the arts and exploration of the unconscious mind.
“For my era, probably the most important thing of the arts is expressing our unconsciousness, I think this project kind of emphasizes this phase of the arts,” he added.
Coleman showed two video clips of the project’s music and visuals at the webinar to preview the full performance.
In one clip, listeners can hear the sound of Nakamura playing the shakuhachi overlapped with audio from the brainwave data and sounds of rushing water as visuals of Japanese characters and images of the Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Japan, quickly flip across the screen.
The other clip featured audio of Tsurzawa playing the shamisen while a martial artist performs Kata to the sound of the music, Coleman said.
“In this Japanese music, you have the idea that noise can be a very beautiful form of expression, not just perfect tones,” Coleman said. “It’s really something very powerful and unique.”
KATA will perform in person at Sakura Hall in Tokyo, Japan, on July 30 and 31, 2021, Marina Ballesteros said. This performance should coincide with the 2021 Olympic Games, but if the Olympics are canceled due to COVID-19, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts have said the performance will still happen.
“We definitely have gotten like the go ahead that this project will proceed kind of under its own framework since there’s so much going into it that we don’t know what’s going to happen with the Olympics at that time,” said Ballesteros, media coordinator and senior music technology major.
With many live performances cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual platforms can be a way to document music performances in a way that is still easily understandable to audiences, Vidiksis said.
“It’s really a big study right now in figuring out what we call unrecordable music and essentially making it recordable,” Vidiksis said. “That’s been a huge side of this, it’s always in the wings of what we’re doing in this project.”