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Taikoz’s Ian Cleworth on the artist lifecycle, collaboration and new show ‘Seven Flowers’

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The flower is the mind and the seed is the technique. So said 15th century Japanese playwright, actor and theoretician Zeami Motokiyo, whose work Fushikaden serves as the inspiration for Taikoz’s new show Seven Flowers.

The idea came to ensemble co-founder and artistic director Ian Cleworth last summer, while he was reading the book.

“I was particularly struck by its first chapter, ‘Concerning practise and age’,” he says. “Zeami outlines the seven ages of an artist, or what he calls the seven flowers.”

The ages range from the first flower – age seven to 12 – to the seventh, beyond the age of 50. It’s a curious text, Cleworth notes, part poetic exploration of the artist lifecycle, part practical how-to manual outlining what to do and what not to do at various stages of life.

Taikoz artistic director Ian Cleworth

“As I read it I realised that within Taikoz, and our close associates, we actually cover the seven ages that Zeami talks about. So I thought, ‘Oh, this would be an interesting framework for a performance’.”

From that seed of an idea a full show has bloomed, which sees the ensemble, which specialises in playing new works centred around Japanese taiko drums and percussion, collaborating with guest artists from partners including the Sydney Children’s Choir. Each of the flowers will be represented on stage.

Cleworth himself joins Taikoz co-founder Riley Lee for the seventh flower, when “essentially you’re on the downhill run,” he wryly notes.

“He talks about this age as the place where nothing is done. I quite like that idea … you’re at the point where you really have nothing yet to prove any more, really. So you just go out there and do your thing.”

The show ends with Lee playing a piece which Cleworth says has an “intense stillness” about it. “It gives a nice arc to the program … I think it will bring everybody down to a very peaceful place.

“It’s kind of unusual for us. Often we finish with the really big, driving taiko number. I really wanted to subvert that idea with this program.”

While reading Zeami, in a happy coincidence Cleworth also heard Kinabuhi/kamatayon, which Western Australian composer Stuart James composed for Gamalan Gongs and electronics.

“Often we finish with the really big, driving taiko number. I really wanted to subvert that idea with this program.”

“The translation of the title is ‘Life Death’,” Cleworth explains, “and then, after reading Zeami’s words, an idea started to form of having Stuart’s piece, which is in five parts, functioning as a kind of chorus, much like the chanters who sit on the side of the stage in Noh theatre.

“I thought, ‘Oh this would work nicely, because it’s a nice musical contrast, the metallic sounds of the gongs, the electronic sounds, versus all of the skin sounds that we make’.”

All of this takes place against Bart Groen’s stage design, with artist Emma Hack – best known for her distinctive body painting work on the film clip to Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know ­– contributing artwork.

“She painted up one of our members and the drum,” Cleworth says. “Although, I must say that on the drum she used a transfer that she painted on, because the skin on one drum alone is worth $9000!”

Set design has become increasingly important to Taikoz in recent years, partly because recent shows have had “stronger through lines” than previously. “Not necessarily distinct narratives or anything, but just: in terms of ideas,” Cleworth says. “Intellectual and musical ideas that come together and form the program.

“Staging and lighting can really help enhance those ideas. We’re quite theatrical anyway in our performances … it’s a nice meeting of those different artforms.”

Taikoz: Seven Flowers plays the City Recital Hall, Sydney on October 18. Tickets: $59-$99 at

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