Umezaki Links Past and Present

Brandon Wong | Staff Photographer

Brandon Wong | Staff Photographer
Playing the traditional Japanese Shakuhachi, Kojiro Umezaki moves his audience into a tranquil state.

The Claire Trevor School of the Arts presented its annual Gassmann Electronic Music Series at Winifred Smith Hall, featuring musician, composer and new UC Irvine professor Kojiro Umezaki, on Oct. 15. Umezki, who presented his riveting program “Alternate,” showcasing the beauty of the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute. Like a painter, Umezaki wields his Shakuhachi to create one unifying masterpiece that heightens the senses.
Umezaki grew up in Tokyo, where he took traditional instruction on the Shakuhachi. His multinational background might be one of the reasons why he puts the Shakuhachi in a more modern context without discarding the traditional repertoire. For many, the Shakuhachi is quite unfamiliar. However, this traditional Japanese instrument has a history dating from the seventh century. It was often used by the monks of Zen Buddhism to exercise Suizen (blowing meditations). On Wednesday, many got to listen to Umezaki’s warm and earthy melodies.
Inside Winifred Smith Hall, the soft buzz of conversation floated everywhere as many took their seats. However, as soon as the lights were turned down, the room quickly filled with silence and a distorted photograph was projected on a screen. The photo became clearer, illustrating several individuals in a shopping mall in Japan. But the photo faded away, and the soft sounds of drums made an abrupt stop, leaving the audience anxiously waiting. Suddenly, a melancholic melody resonated, and Umezaki stepped forward from the left flank of the stage as he played a heart-wrenching tune.
The richness of the Shakuhachi conveyed the sad story of a young girl who has been sent to live with wealthy relatives. While the young girl is grateful, she still yearns to see her family again. Slow-fast, slow-fast the lullaby proceeded, heightening the sense of loneliness as it resonated in the air. As the song ended and the applause slowly died down, Umezaki warmly welcomed the audience, introducing the different pieces throughout the program.
One of many beautiful folk tunes played was Kyorei (“Empty Bell”). This marvelous folkloric melody had a sense of ease, and a wave of tranquility descended upon the room. And like the monks before, the audience was taken to a meditative state, where midterms, classes and the outer world ceased to exist. All that mattered was this out-of-body experience that seemed to suspend time and matter. As Umezaki’s notes became bolder, the piece reached a climatic finish as a sense of clarity unfolded.
At the program’s closing, Umezaki dedicated a piece to the crowd called “Alter.” Like the title promised, the audience soon embarked on an alteration of the sort. The Shakuhachi bellowed softly like a whisper as it curled and caressed the senses. The talented Umezaki fully submerged himself into this brilliant piece, leaving the audience in rapture. The melody’s tempo began to take speed as a gust of wind raged in the background via computer. Soon, the crash of unrelenting waves blended within the mixture, creating a dynamic trio. And as calmly as it all began, the wind, waves and the Shakuhachi seemed to settle down, leaving a soothing and almost therapeutic experience.
“Alternate” not only embraced the classical repertoire of the Shakuhachi, but sought to modernize it with the addition of electronic media.
“It’s not good enough to keep this [Shakuhachi] as an artifact in an art museum,” Umezaki said. “I want to incorporate the contemporary with the traditional, to create a new language.”
With his new innovations, Umezaki, one of several new professors in the music department, is a powerful force to be reckoned with here at UCI.