I believe music making to be an expression of humanity transcending culture, place and time. This was confirmed for me while studying shakuhachi in Japan: despite being in an alien language, notation system and set of aesthetic values, my brain and body seemed to function just as they did when I played Brahms as a clarinettist. The commonality to both was music, these mysterious actions in time that produce beautiful emotive sound. And now as I compose for Riley Lee, Taikoz and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, I forget such notions as “East and West” and concentrate on finding a singular human expression encompassing the exciting and diverse set of forces at my disposal.

Lachlan SkipworthLachlan Skipworth. Photo © Nik Babic

And what a palette! A few notes of Riley Lee’s shakuhachi caused me to pack my bags and run to Japan to find the source of these hauntingly nuanced melodies. And the raw power of Taikoz’s rhythms have long beckoned to my inner percussionist. More recently, I have adored delving into the endless colouristic possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra in my compositions. This opportunity to bring them all together excites me no end, despite the various logistical challenges it presents. For example, the sheer volume of five taiko drummers will obliterate a full orchestra, from which the violins alone will drown out a shakuhachi!

But what of the musical material itself? I worked carefully to devise melodic patterns and harmonic areas that emphasise the shakuhachi’s beauty without sounding overly “traditional”. A workshopping process with Taikoz’s Ian Cleworth continues to refine my beat patterns and polyrhythms so that the physical form of the drummers is visually captivating.

The orchestra acts as a mediator between the two, allowing the shakuhachi player’s exhalations to move as waves through the orchestra and intensify into the ominous roar of the taiko in full flight. We hear the sounds of nature in the orchestra, placing the shakuhachi ‘outdoors’ as it was originally played by the komuso monks. Gusts of wind and rustling leaves emerge, while subtle harmonic backdrops come and go, eventually forming towering cluster chords to match the force of the taiko. Flashes of woodwind colour respond to the piccolo-like shinobue, and of course, a “full-ahead” rhythmic drive pushes the piece to its thunderous heights.

Lachlan Skipworth’s Breath of Thunder will premiere in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Taikoz and the SSO at the Sydney Opera House February 22 – 24.