In the early part of the 1970s, Ondekoza members trained both their bodies and their minds as they prepared to take their unique form of taiko performance around the world. Even as they were learning folk arts like Chichibu Yatai-bayashi, they were also engaging in physical activities like running marathons. In 1972, just 9 months after they began activities, they ran their first New Year’s Marathon, and in October participated in the 25th Sado Long-Distance Relay (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 12). The next year, they participated in the Tokyo Ohme Marathon.

Finally, in October 1973, the group made its musical debut as an attraction at the 6th World Industrial Design Conference in Kyoto, performing “Yatai-bayashi” in front of an audience that included many of the group’s stockholders (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 53). Building upon that performance, the group gave a total of 10 performances that year at similar events, such as the Kyoto Craft Fair. They gradually ramped up activities in the following year, giving an increased number of performances while continuing to run marathons across Japan. The two endeavors combined in April of 1975 as the group embarked on its first world tour. In a feat that has since become the stuff of legend, members participated in the Boston Marathon, then upon arriving at the finish line jumped up onto the stage and began to play. Soon, Ondekoza’s name became known not just across the United States but around the world.

Members’ participation in the Boston Marathon – and subsequent performances across the Boston area – not only helped to increase general knowledge of the group’s activities, but also helped the group to meet new friends and collaborators. Among those in the audiences of Ondekoza’s Boston performances was Ozawa Seiji, the Music Director of the Boston Symphony with whom Den Tagayasu had become acquaintances in the years leading up to Ondekoza’s United States debut. This friendship would become crucial to the growth of Ondekoza when Ozawa introduced Den to Ishii Maki, a Western art music composer who had spent several years in Berlin in the 1960s studying twelve-tone technique under pupils of Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential composers of the 20th Century.

Following an early 1960s encounter with shōmyō (a type of Buddhist chant found only in Japan) and gagaku (Japanese ritual court music), Ishii began to investigate the potential for blending Japanese and Western musical techniques. He experimented with the inclusion of Japanese musical elements into a Western classical music setting, seeking to “incorporate various devices which establish contact between the idioms of western and eastern music” (Ishii 1997, 27). One such work in which he explored this concept was “Sō-Gū II,” a juxtaposition of gagaku and Western orchestral music in which music for the orchestra and music for the gagaku ensemble are performed simultaneously, premiered in 1971 by The Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (under the direction of Ozawa Seiji). Among the many techniques Ishii used in his search for a new form of musical expression blending Western and Japanese elements was an increased emphasis on percussion instruments, so important to Japanese music but relatively under-developed in Western classical music until the beginning of the 20th Century. He was particularly interested in “the intrinsic, elemental power and the richly expressive potential of these instruments” (Ishii 1997, 53).

Ozawa’s introduction to Ondekoza was fortuitous for both parties, for even as Ishii was become more and more interested in percussion music, Den was contemplating a collaboration with Western orchestra. Den invited Ishii to visit Sado and write a new piece for Ondekoza. Ishii accepted the invitation and spent six months on the island with group member, where he “devised new techniques totally unfamiliar” to Ondekoza members and “requested them to practise until these techniques had entered their very blood and bones” (Ishii 1997, 57). Not only was this was a completely different experience for the members, but it was a major step forward for contemporary taiko performance in general. To that point, the majority of taiko music had been influenced by Japanese folk and theatrical drumming, with the occasional jazz elements finding their way into the world of Oguchi Daihachi and Osuwa Daiko. Ishii, however, brought in a wide variety of Western art music elements, resulting in one of the most unique works in contemporary taiko repertoire: “Monochrome.”


The culmination of the six months of collaboration between Ishii Maki and Ondekoza, “Monochrome” – officially titled “Monochrome, for Japanese Drums and gongs, op. 28” – premiered at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in February 1976 as part of the music festival Panmusik Festival Tokyo (founded by Ishii). “Monochrome” was a major breakthrough in the development of taiko music; not only was it the first time that an outside composer had written music for a taiko group, but it was the first work written by a Western-trained composer. Ishii’s approach to music was quite different to what the Ondekoza members were used to; among other things, it was the first time they had encountered what they called “a Western music-oriented approach, with rhythms different from traditional taiko, as they tried to embody a musical form of expression” (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 58).

“Monochrome” is written for seven shime-daiko, three nagadō-daiko (indicated in the score as “Chichibu-Daiko,” hinting at the influence of Ondekoza’s “Yatai-bayashi” arrangement), two ō-daiko, and two large gongs () hung on metal stands. In most performances, however, the section involving the ō-daiko is not played, indicated as “Version B” in the printed score. (Ishii 1989)

The beginning of the piece is characterized by moments of quiet that built up to extreme loudness, with quiet ostinatos (marked pianissimo) that are marked by occasional accented rhythms that gradually build up to mezzo-forte before dropping back to near-nothingness. These accented rhythms vary according to the player, resulting in an intricate combination of sounds in which all seven players fit within a larger rhythmic whole:[1]

Published by Moeck Verlag und Musikinstrumentenwek (Ishii 1989)

Published by Moeck Verlag und Musikinstrumentenwek (Ishii 1989)

The ostinato section transitions into one characterized by elements more commonly found in aleatoric compositions, a style in which parts of the performance are left to chance. Ishii uses the concept of “chance” in multiple ways in “Monochrome.” After the opening ostinato, there begins a slight alternation of the quiet rhythm, as each player accelerates and slows down the repeated ostinato before returning to the original tempo. The resulting imbalance is almost unnoticeable at first, but as more players move out of the ostinato and began manipulating the tempo the strict metric feel that has dominated the music to this point is disrupted. In a following section, meanwhile, each drummer lets their bachi bounce quietly on the stick head, the resulting rhythm determined by the manner in which gravity works on the drumstick and resulting in a sound similar to rain.

Meanwhile, in two later passages in the section, Ishii makes use of a common aleatoric compositional practice by having players choose from seventeen different rhythms that combine volume hits, hits on the drumhead and the rim, and rhythmic variations (the rhythms that are used in the second grouping are seen below). The order in which the rhythms are played is left up to the individual, as long as they play them for the designated length of time and do not repeat the same pattern until they have played all possible options.

An aleatoric passage from "Monochrome," listing seventeen musical gestures from which players can choose

An aleatoric passage from “Monochrome,” listing seventeen musical gestures from which players can choose

Movement into the final section of “Monochrome,” coming out of the second grouping of aleatoric rhythms, is signaled by a move by three players to the nagadō-daiko, where they begin a passage influenced by “Yatai-bayashi.” The remaining shime-daiko players continue their aleatoric patterns for a time before one by one settling into the ostinato from “Yatai-bayashi.” Meanwhile, each nagadō-daiko player first performs individual variations on the “Yatai-bayashi” ō-nami/ko-nami sequences – albeit, not improvised as in “Yatai-bayashi,” for Ishii has written the desired rhythms in the score – before eventually synchronizing their playing, building up to the end of the piece.

The final measures of "Monochrome." The top three lines are played on nagadō-daiko; the bottom three, shime-daiko. (Ishii 1989)

The final measures of “Monochrome.” The top three lines are played on nagadō-daiko; the bottom three, shime-daiko. (Ishii 1989)

“Monochrome” was unlike anything performed before by taiko ensembles in the history of the art form. The inclusion of aleatoric elements brought Western classical musical practices into the taiko world; the rhythmic construction, dynamic considerations, and other compositional techniques were unlike anything else found in the repertoire. Furthermore, the sonic dimensions of a performance of “Monochrome” is unmatched; each loud hit of the shime-daiko that passes between the players, each quiet interplay between accelerando, ritardando, and a tempo, is affected by the acoustical properties of the performance space in which the piece is heard, an approach used by composers of Western art music but one that had never been a factor in taiko performance. Furthermore, a performance of “Monochrome” often includes theatrical elements only possible in concert halls, as different sections are accompanied by changing in lighting. The opening, for example, is dimly lit, with the lights getting brighter as the players increase the dynamics of their playing and dimming again as the dynamics go back down, and spotlights are often used to bring attention to particular players or instruments.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of rhythms taken from “Yatai-bayashi” – both the ostinato and the ō-nami/ko-nami sequence – was a continuation of Ishii’s attempts to meld Japanese and Western musical elements. Unlike previous attempts in which Ishii juxtaposed different elements in simultaneous performance, however, within “Monochrome” he made the Japanese elements part of the overall rhythmic scheme of the piece. This is particularly evident in the latter section of the work when three drummers move from shime-daiko to nagadō-daiko. The stands on which the nagadō-daiko are placed – as well as the rhythms used in the section – help to identify the elements as having been taken from “Yatai-bayashi,” but they are means to an end, musical ideas to be used for a greater musical purpose rather than elements to be contrasted with another musical idea (although, for a time, the aleatoric section overlaps with the “Yatai-bayashi” quotation).

The Legacy of “Monochrome”

“Monochrome” brought Ondekoza – indeed, taiko in general – into a new musical world, helping the group to be recognized by a wider audience interested as much in “modern music” as in “Japanese music.” Hayashi Eitetsu holds this development in high regard in relation to the continued evolution of taiko repertoire:

Musically-speaking, I believe that the minimal rhythmic elements presented in their bare essence as in minimalism, the rhythmic syncopation of the nagadō-daiko, and the dynamics that grow from softest to loudest had a strong impact on contemporary audiences and thus was accepted. That form of presentation is nothing that had been expressed by Japanese taiko to that point and was a landmark event. That characteristic, through “Monochrome” and the technique of contemporary music, spread even further musically. (Personal communication, December 2012)

Ishii would follow up “Monochrome” with “Mono-prism for Japanese drums and orchestra,” taking many of the same ideas of “Monochrome” and applying them in an orchestral setting; the taiko ensemble is accompanied by an orchestral score that is at times atonal and integrates elements of aleatoric composition. The piece debuted in 1976 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, with Ondekoza and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ozawa Seiji (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 59).

“Mono-prism” was not the end of Ishii’s exploration of taiko performance, however. In 1981 he wrote “Dyū-Ha” for Ondekoza’s successor group Kodo. Then, in 1985, he wrote a ballet entitled “Kaguyahime,” with the orchestra comprised of 8 taiko, 8 percussionists, and a gagaku ensemble. He again makes use “Yatai-bayashi,” both in terms of rhythms and the Chichibu yatai-bayashi stand.

That same year, he also composed a follow-up to “Mono-prism,” “Mono-prism II,” for taiko and percussion instruments:

Through these works – especially “Monochrome” – taiko entered into a new realm of performance; Ondekoza was performing not just folk music, but art music as well – that is, music that is written down (a score for “Monochrome” has been published, a rarity for taiko repertoire) and utilizes advanced structural and compositional techniques. Others have followed in Ishii’s footsteps, bringing together the worlds of taiko music and Western art music. In 1983, Miki Minoru composed “Marimba Spiritual” for marimba solo and three percussionist. Each of the percussionists plays a variety of instruments, but the main section of the piece features atarigane, shime-daiko, and nagadō-daiko. It even hearkens back to “Monochrome” through the use of “yatai-bayashi” rhythms. On Miki’s website, it is stated that “The rhythmic patterns for the second part are taken from the festival drumming of the Chichibu area northwest of Tokyo,” but the rhythmic feel is more like Ondekoza’s arrangement.[2]

The inclusion of taiko in a symphonic context continued even today, championed by composers like Matsushita Isao. With compositions like “Hi-Ten-Yu,” a concerto for taiko and orchestra (written for Hayashi Eitetsu), he has continued the work started by Ishii, bringing taiko to new audiences and bringing the gap between Japanese and Western musics.

Works Cited

 Ishii, Maki. 1989. Monochrome for japanese drums and gongs op. 29 (1976). Celle, Lower Saxony, Germany: Moeck Verlag und Musikinstrumentenwek.

Ishii, Maki. 1997. “”Nishi no Hibiki, Higashi no Hibiki” – Futatsu no Otosekai kara no Sōzō, Kujū 「西の響き・東の響き」ー二つの音世界からの創造・苦渋ー.” In Sounds of West – Sounds of East: Maki Ishii’s Music —Striding two Musical Worlds, edited by Christa Ishii-Meinecke, 12-69. Celle, Germany: Moeck Verlag + Musikinstrumentenwerk.

Kodo Cultural Foundation. 2011. Inochi Moyashite, Tatakeyo. -Kodo 30-Nen no Kiseki – いのちもやして、たたけよ。-鼓童30年の軌跡ー. Tokyo: Shuppan Bunka Sha Corporation.


[1] In this passage, noteheads with stems down represent quiet continuation of the ostinato, while those with noteheads up are accented notes (notated with accents in the beginning of each passage, and continued per the “simile” marking above each line).

[2] (accessed November 28, 2015)

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