Symmetrical Soundscapes

Sukeroku Taiko made major contributions to the world of contemporary taiko performance in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing together festival and theatrical music in compositions written to be played in a wide variety of spaces, from cabarets to store openings. However, in the same manner of its predecessor, Shin On Daiko, in the early 1970s Sukeroku Taiko ran into financial trouble. Meanwhile, the original members were beginning to pursue other interests, performing less and less with the group. Ishizuka Yutaka – who started the path towards Sukeroku Taiko when he answered a newspaper ad in December 1966 – had entered into the Mochizuki school of hōgaku performance, eventually receiving the stage name (natori) Mochizuki Saburo in 1972. Likewise, Onozato Ganei became a student of Tosha Yuho, a hōgaku performer that he had met on a concert tour, and in 1977 received the natori Tosha Kiyonari (Mogi 2010). Additionally, Kobayashi Seido was focusing on his family’s business.

Eventually, an overextension of the group’s capabilities led to the subsequent reforming in 1974 under the overview of Imaizumi Yutaka, a former bon daiko champion who had joined the group shortly after its founding in the late 1960s (Mogi 2010, 40). The group was renamed the Sukeroku Taiko Hozonkai, and this re-centering allowed the group to continue operation. In 1977, it performed at the first “Nihon no Taiko” concert at the National Theater, performing “Oroshi Daiko,” “Shiraume Daiko,” “Matsuri Daiko,” and “Yodan Uchi”; the performers were Kobayashi Seido, Onozato Motoe, Ishikura Yoshihisa, Imaizumi Yutaka, Ishikura Kazukou, and Ebitani Yuichiro (Mogi 2010, 40).

However, there arose creative differences between Kobayashi Seido, who was in the spotlight as the chief performer of the Sukeroku Taiko Hozonkai, and Imaizumi Yutaka, who was in charge of group management. In 1982, these differences reached a breaking point: Imaizumi reorganized the Sukeroku Taiko Hozonkai as Sukeroku Daiko, and Kobayashi founded his own group, Oedo Sukeroku Taiko. Among the performers that accompanied Kobayashi over to Oedo Sukeroku Taiko was an American who had just begun playing with the group the previous year: Kenny Endo.

Kenny Endo

Kenny Endo had begun playing taiko in 1975 with Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles, one of the first taiko groups in the United States. He soon moved to San Francisco, starting a career as a jazz drummer but also studying taiko with Tanaka Seiichi at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka had studied with both Oguchi Daihachi and Mochizuki Saburo in the late 1960s, and passed the performance traditions of Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko to his students. Eventually, driven by a desire to “go to Japan and really seek out where the roots are, and what kind of music it came from,” Endo decided to travel to Japan (personal interview, June 29, 2010). His first stop was Nagano Prefecture, where through the recommendation of Tanaka he had the opportunity to study with Oguchi Daihachi. Then, in 1981, he moved to Tokyo, and – again, based on Tanaka’s recommendation – began studying with members of Sukeroku Taiko.

Kenny Endo performing with Sukeroku Taiko in 1982. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

Kenny Endo performing with Sukeroku Taiko in 1982. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

When Kobayashi Seido broke away and founded Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, Endo followed, performing with the group for 5 years until 1987. However, he did not limit his studies to contemporary taiko performance, but also pursued the study of other musical forms in which taiko are used. He studied hōgaku within the Mochizuki school, first with Mochizuki Saburo and later Mochizuki Tazaemon (who in 1988 became the fourth head of the Mochizuki school and succeeded into the name Mochizuki Bokusei) (Endo 2011). In 1987, he became the first non-Japanese to receive a natori (professional stage name) in hōgaku-hayashi, thereafter known within the hōgaku world as Mochizuki Tajiro.[1] At the same time, he also joined the Wakayama Shachū performance troupe and studied folk performance art of the Tokyo Shitamachi area, studying performances arts like Oedo sato-kagura (Shinto theatrical music and dance from the Shitamachi area) and Edo kotobuki-jishi (a regional form of lion dance).

Kenny Endo performing Edo-bayashi at the Karasunori Matsuri in 1988. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

Kenny Endo performing Edo-bayashi at the Karasunori Matsuri in 1988. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

In the summer of 1986, Endo toured the west coast of North America along with a small number of Japanese performers, including Hayashi Eitetsu, a founding member of the group Ondekoza who had moved to Tokyo in 1982. Drawing upon his diverse performance experience and the musics he was studying in Japan, Endo performed a unique set. He presented several selections from hōgaku-hayashi, performing on the ko-tsuzumi alongside Hosoya Masashi on ō-tsuzumi. He also performed an arrangement of Sukeroku Taiko’s “Shiraume Daiko” and “Matsuri Daiko” for ō-daiko, ko-tsuzumi, and fue, accompanied at times by a lion dance.

Audiences not only saw a wide range of Japanese taiko performance in these concerts, however, for they were witness to the emergence of a new type of taiko performance. Hayashi and Endo both performed individual solo sets before coming together for a joint second half. During their sets, each presented their own compositions in addition to previously existing works. At a concert in Oakland on May 11, 1986, Endo presented “Ancient Beginnings,” a nearly-twenty minute duet for taiko set and saxophone featuring former San Francisco Taiko Dojo member Russel Baba on saxophone, written in 1984 when Endo participated as guest performer for the Kotosono Dance Ensemble’s tour of Egypt.

“Ancient Beginnings” was the first of many pieces Endo wrote in the 1980s for taiko and melodic instruments; in 1986, for example, he wrote “Spirit Sounds” for ō-daiko, shinobue and jushichigen (a koto with 17 strings). Through these and other songs, Endo was able to collaborate with a variety of artists in a multitude of settings. In one 1987 concert at the Hoshoji Temple, he performed alongside musicians playing electric and upright bass, shakuhachi, and saxophone; meanwhile, a 1988 concert at Stella Studio featured collaborations with fue and shamisen players. Such solo activities were an extension of other performance opportunities he had, such as performing with big bands in Tokyo like the Music Magic Orchestra.

Kenny Endo performing with the Music Magic Orchestra in 1988. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

Kenny Endo performing with the Music Magic Orchestra in 1988. Photo by Chizuko Endo.

However, Endo did not simply explore ways of integrating taiko and melodic instruments, but also composed pieces for taiko alone. Within these works, Endo could express his emerging performance identity as a soloist, bringing together the many different forms of music that he was studying. He was not only a jazz drummer and a member of a taiko ensemble, but also a student and performer of hōgaku and Edo-bayashi. In 1985, he used these diverse experiences as inspiration when composing the work “Symmetrical Soundscapes.” Not only did this piece reveal what taiko could accomplish outside of a large ensemble, setting the stage for the solo endeavors that would come to dominate Endo’s performance activities, but it also demonstrated how Endo himself was evolving as a musician.

“Symmetrical Soundscapes”

“Symmetrical Soundscapes” was originally composed as a duet “for two taiko players performing mirror imagery through sounds” (Endo 1994). As the vague nature of this description suggests, the instrumentation for the piece is a bit fluid. An early performance on August 28, 1988 at the Stella Studio in Tokyo, for example, took place with each player using just a single shime-daiko. However, since early on Endo has expanded the work in numerous ways. Even in a duet form, performers often use more drums. In a performance on August 22, 2015, for example, members of TAIKOPROJECT added two okedō-daiko and a nagadō-daiko to the mix:

Meanwhile, in other performances drummers make use of a large rack of uchiwa-daiko:

Endo has also arranged “Symmetrical Soundscapes” for by more players; this arrangement most commonly takes the form of a quartet, but occasionally it will be expanded even further. In one video uploaded by Endo to his YouTube channel, taken from his 2010 35th Anniversary concert in Los Angeles, Endo performs the piece alongside three members of the group On Ensemble and soloist Kaoru Watanabe in a rare five-person version:

Regardless of the instrumentation and number of players involved, the music of “Symmetrical Soundscapes” is usually the same. It has two sections, both incorporating a combination of composed rhythmic sequences and improvisations, featuring rhythms that both draw inspiration from and outright quote the musics that Endo was engrossing himself in the 1980s.

Most performances open with the players hitting an uchiwa-daiko held in their hands, moving around the stage as they play to take advantage of the freedom of movement permitted by a handheld uchiwa-daiko. They begin with a series of hits akin to a do-don oroshi: a roll-like in which each player hits twice (the “do-don” in the name), getting faster with each hit. After the peak oroshi (roll) speed is reached, following a moment of silence, the drummers start playing a series of interlocking rhythms. This segment introduces two major signatures of “Symmetrical Soundscapes: interlocking rhythms, and the borrowing of rhythms from other musical genres.

The phrase borrows from hōgaku; to be more specific, it is a quotation of a rhythm from nagauta, a song form featured in kabuki. In hōgaku, this rhythm is divided between the ko-tsuzumi and the ō-tsuzumi, but in “Symmetrical Soundscapes” it is simply divided between the different players. The two-person version of this rhythm can be seen in the transcription below, where the top line represents the first drummer (A) playing the equivalent ko-tsuzumi part, and the bottom line the second player (B) the ō-tsuzumi part (02:47 in the sextet YouTube video linked above):

part 1 opening

When there are more than two performers, the phrase is divided amongst pairs. In some performances, these rhythms are played straight in time while in others there is great flexibility to the beat. In either instance, the combination of high and low sounds and difference between long and short notes allows the rhythm to stand out.

In including these rhythms, Endo is drawing upon both his experiences in Oedo Sukeroku Taiko and his studies of hōgaku-hayashi; however, his direct quotation of nagauta rhythms goes beyond the typical usage in Sukeroku-style pieces. In “Oroshi Daiko,” Sukeroku Taiko members took thematic inspiration from “Ichi-ban Daiko” from kabuki, but they never outright quoted from that piece. Through a direct quotation of nagauta rhythms, then, Endo, t took what Sukeroku Taiko members had begun to the next level.

Following a series of variations of the nagauta rhythms, the performers begin a section described by Endo as “solos intertwined with images of mountains and valleys” (Endo 1994). First, they play a sixteenth-note ostinato rising from soft to loud and back down to soft:

mountain ostinato

They then begin to improvise, one player accompanying the solo with the ostinato while following the same dynamic contour (04:50 in the YouTube video). The soloist cues the end of their improvisation by returning to the ostinato, playing the first two sixteenth notes of each beat. After another repeat of the ostinato, again divided between the players, the next drummer begins their improvisation. Once everyone has finished their improvisation and again performed a series of the ostinato, they briefly pause before moving into the second part of the piece.

While the first part of “Symmetrical Soundscapes” is built upon interlocking parts largely derived from hōgaku, the second takes its inspiration from not only hōgaku but also festival music; however, in this instance it is a wider range of festival music than what can be seen in Sukeroku Taiko works. While Endo does include Edo-bayashi elements in the piece, he also brings in festival music from across Central and South America, a nod back to his drum set roots. A series of fast rhythms played in unison opens the second section, providing a completely different sound than what had come before (06:26 in the YouTube video):[2]

part 2 opening

The first two measures are played primarily on the shime-daiko with quiet, nearly unheard notes filling in the space between the primary notes (the primary notes being those notated in the transcription above), a practice that draws from Edo-bayashi technique. Meanwhile, the third and fourth measures feature a rhythm that, when divided between high and low-pitched drums, suggests the sound of Brazilian samba; to be more specific, it represents the interplay between the high caixa de guerra and the low surdo in the bacteria percussion section of a samba ensemble. Emphasizing the Brazilian feel even further, some performances also include two eighth notes on a low drum on beat four.

After a repeat of these phrases, followed by a series of measures filled with offbeat rhythms, a pattern taken from Edo-bayashi signals the beginning into another series of improvisations:

Edo-bayashi transition rhythm

Unlike the relatively free improvisation of the first half of “Symmetrical Soundscapes,” the second half features strictly timed solos: the players each play one four-bar solo, followed by two cycles of two-bar solos, and then four series of one-bar solos. Another quotation then marks the movement out of the improvisation: this time quoting an Afro-Cuban son clave. First comes a unison 3-2 son clave, followed by followed by three measures of player A playing a 2-3 son clave while player B continues the 3-2 (07:53 in the YouTube video):[3]

son clave

This immediately transitions into another series of rhythms derived from hōgaku-hayashi; more specifically, the rhythms are from “Chakutō,” “a short taiko piece accompanied by a Japanese vertical flute traditionally played to open the curtain.”[4]

In the version found in “Symmetrical Soundscapes,” a rhythm called the shagiri is presented first, followed by another phrase known as the age (07:58 in the YouTube clip). A series of largely off-the-beat rhythms follow, again divided between the players, before the piece ends with a strong unison hit:

Chakuto quote to end

The Unique Nature of “Symmetrical Soundscapes”

“Symmetrical Soundscapes” stands apart from much of the contemporary taiko music that had been composed up until that time. It was in its first incarnation a duet, a rarity in a world characterized by works for large ensembles. This began to change in the 1980s, however, as performers such as Kenny Endo and Hayashi Eitetsu started exploring performance options for taiko soloists. As they did so, they need to write new works to support their artistic endeavors. Yet, duets were rare even at that time, as soloists tended to write either for themselves or for larger ensembles.

Beyond its origins as a duet, “Symmetrical Soundscapes” is also unique for the diverse musical inspirations that Endo brought into the piece. The presence of hōgaku-hayashi and Edo-bayashi rhythms demonstrates Endo’s experiences in the world of the Sukeroku style, continuing the influx of these styles into contemporary taiko performance started by the members of Sukeroku Taiko in the late 1960s, but Endo himself was studying these art forms, thus adding a more direct link to the source. At the same time, Endo hearkened back to his experiences as a drum set player with his inclusion of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms. While was not the first time that non-Japanese rhythms had been integrated into a contemporary taiko piece, it was perhaps the first time that they were so obviously stated; the combination of rhythms and high and low-pitched taiko in the beginning of the section, for example, clearly evokes a Brazilian samba.

It could be said that “Symmetrical Soundscapes” is a reflection of Endo himself, combining the varied musical experiences that he has accumulated into what has been called “a new and refreshing sound combining his Eastern and Western backgrounds” (Kageyama 1986). This mixture of influences would become a defining characteristic of his concerts and his compositions. In concert, Endo often features both contemporary taiko works and repertoire from hōgaku. Over the course of a performance, Endo may play ō-daiko, taiko set, and tsuzumi, revealing the depth of musical skills and experiences that he has accumulated in his 40 years of performance. At the same time, Endo continued to compose songs that brought to the forefront his various influences, both in small- and large-scale situations. ”The Calling,” composed in 1995, is an ensemble work written for ō-daiko, shime-daiko, ō-tsuzumi, shinobue, and nohkan; inspired by the music of hōgaku, it features – amongst other signature elements drawn from the music of Japanese theater – extended use of kakegoe. Endo took the integration of hōgaku elements one step further in “Moonwind,” an understated ō-daiko solo (as compared to the typical loud, forceful ō-daiko solo) in which he utilizes not only rhythms taken from kabuki music but also different drums of drumsticks used during kabuki performances.

Endo wrote “The Calling” and “Moonwind” after he left Japan in 1990, when after 10 years in Japan he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. There, not only has he continued to explore new hybrid compositional and performance styles, but he has also championed the inclusion of traditional drumming styles in a contemporary taiko teaching environment. In 1994, Endo and his wife Chizuko founded the Taiko Center of the Pacific, where they teach not only the Sukeroku style of taiko performance but also older performance traditions like Edo-bayashi. At the same time, he also founded the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble as an additional performance outlet beyond his solo activities. Performances by the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble are as much as reflection of Endo’s diverse musical experiences as his composition. A concert may feature an Edo kotobuki-jishi (a lion dance native to the Shitamachi area of Tokyo), “classic” Sukeroku Taiko pieces like the “Oroshi Daiko”/”Shiraume Daiko”/”Matsuri Daiko” suite and “Yodan Uchi,” and modern pieces composed by Endo like “Symmetrical Soundscapes.”

From one perspective, Endo’s activities are a continuation of those endeavors begun by the founding members of Sukeroku Taiko in the 1960s, meshing festival and theatrical music in a performance style presented in a multitude of settings. At the same time, through the inclusion of his drum set experiences he represents another branch of exploration on the contemporary taiko performance tree, a cross-cultural demonstration of how taiko can be used in a more diverse musical performance situation. Thirty years after its composition, ‘Symmetrical Soundscapes” remains unique in the contemporary taiko performance realm, a testament to the wide breadth of musical influences incorporated by Kenny Endo.

Works Cited

Endo, Kenny. 1994. Eternal Energy: Kendo Taiko. CD.

Endo, Kenny. 2011. Aatisuto intabyuu, Vol. 07: Kenii Endō アーティストインタビュー Vol. 07: ケニー遠藤. Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten.

Kageyama, Yuri. 1986. “Following the drumbeat: Percussionist pursues his ancestral heritage.” The Japan Times Weekly, June 21.

Mogi, Hitoshi. 2010. “Oedo Sukeroku Taiko 大江戸助六太鼓.” Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 36:34-41.


[1] (accessed October 22, 2015)

[2] Following the model in the original handwritten score for “Symmetrical Soundscapes,” the transcription in this excerpt indicates the different sounds that are to be played in this section – high, medium, and low. This is different from the earlier transcriptions for this piece, which indicate differences between player assignments but not pitch. This beginning of the second half of the piece is the only part in which pitch distinctions are important to the understanding of the piece, and are always followed by musicians in performance.

The original score has this section divided by player and not by pitch (both playing the middle notes, player A the high, and player B the low). However, it appears that this practice has not been followed since the late 1980s; rather, all musicians now play the rhythm, dividing it between high and low pitches.

[3] The terms 3-2 and 2-3 refer to the grouping of the notes: a group of 3 then 2, or a group of 2 then 3.

[4] (accessed October 22, 2015)

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