Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6
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An Introduction: Renku Performance

Renku Performance is the taking of a poetic art and tradition and adapting it to a performance venue in which music, dance, and poetry combine to produce an interarts collaboration. Multimedia effects or acts of ritual can be added to enhance the overall dynamics of the presentation. In essence the modern idea of Renku Performance is the brain child of Tadashi Kondo who very early in his career saw the possibility of combining different art forms into a cohesive whole to bring people of different cultures and traditions together. To quote Tadashi, “Renku Performance on stage is a modern experiment, and it is substantially different from the conventional Formal Renku. The primary difference is that Renku Performance is an interarts fusion, with a poetic text being the shared score.”

In world history and literature, the idea of dance and song at sacred ceremonies has existed for centuries. Many ancient cultures either for ceremonial or religious purposes included music, dance, and verse to tell the stories of their myths through the ritual of performance.

Tadashi has done research on the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, the American poet, essayist, and naturalist, who lived in the 19th Century in Concord, Massachusetts. Because of his research of Thoreau and his understanding of nature, Tadashi came across a score by the avant garde composer, John Cage, who in 1976 wrote a very different kind of musical composition using images from the journals of Thoreau. Cage experimented with the idea of linking images like in a renku to be interpreted as themes played by an orchestra. This was the first attempt of translating the renku form into music.

In Cage’s score the various drawings taken from Thoreau’s journals spread across bar indicators that allow a free interpretation by a conductor and the musicians. Different sections of the orchestra respond to the Conductor’s signals for musical interpretation. The Conductor may indicate a certain instrument or instrument section to interpret the visual images as drawn by Cage from the Journals. In essence images from the journals take the place of standard musical notation. Cage had a vivid imagination and was schooled in the Eastern arts and philosophy, so when he chose the renku form for his piece, it was to present a new approach to combine the literate and visual arts into the musical domain.

In 1996 Tadashi met with three artists from the Boston area. Allen LeVines, a pianist and composer, Tiger Akoshi, a jazz trumpeter and arranger, and Arawana Hayashi, a choreographer and dancer. He formed a group known as Z*A with Mr. LeVines, Ms Hayashi, and Tiger Okoshi. The vision behind this group was to use the art of renku to bring people together beyond cultures and artistic genres. To quote Tadashi Kondo again: “The Earth is the only Utopia we have in the whole universe, and its reality is undeniable. It holds the entire eco system including human beings, and maintains its unity all by itself…The 21st Century demands us to restore the sense of one-ness with the Earth and our original relation with the universe. Z*A is a medium to promote this awareness through exploring the universal value shared among artists with different cultural backgrounds.

1 In 1999 Tadashi came to Boston as a visiting scholar at Harvard for more than a year. He brought the group together with the exception of Tiger Ogoshi whose musical commitments were too demanding at the time. He was replaced by Yumiko Matsuoka, a singer and arranger, who along with Allen LeVines was on the faculty of the Berkelee School of Music. This somewhat new Z*A Group began a year long endeavor to create a renku performance piece that would incorporate their ideas.

In February of 2000, their kaleidoscopic mandala piece was presented as a renku performance concert at Lowell Hall, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was the first time that this type of collaboration of the arts was ever done. It included a multimedia presentation with slides of English and Japanese translations on a screen at the back of the stage. The burning of incense along with a flower and tea ceremony presentation by William Tipton Thrasher was added before the performance began.

It’s important to understand the genesis of renku performance because it represents a new approach to the performing arts, as we know it today. There have been attempts to transform, for example, grand opera into musical theatre, and musical comedy into dance theatre, but the idea of renku verse into a collaborative art expression had never been tried or done before.

In 2001 Raffael de Gruttola, a haiku and renku poet, asked his son-in-law, Peter Zay, a cellist and composer, to write a trio for violin, cello, and voice using a renku piece written by Tadashi Kondo and Mr. de Gruttola, for the voice part of the score. This piece was performed at a Haiku North America Conference in Boston in June of that year. (see inserts).

In 2002 Arizona Zipper and Bob Richardson performed a jazzku of non-sense syllables used by musicians and singers who scat jazz compositions. This goes back to legends of the early blues singers who would just hum musical notes often to accompany themselves on guitar. It was made popular by Louis Armstrong who would scat musical ideas sometimes after his trumpet solos or the songs he would sing. This scat piece by Zipper and Richardson was written without musical accompaniment; however, it was performed by Arizona Zipper and Raffael de Gruttola at a summer stock playhouse in Maine with percussion instruments. The above scat presentation was performed for the 2nd Boston Alternative Poetry Conference at Lesley College in Boston. In essence renku verse can be read and accompanied by musicians easily as they improvise on their instruments.

In 2003, The MetroWestRenkuAssociation (MWRA) comprised of the poets: Raffael de Gruttola, Paul David Mena, and Brett Peruzzi, using a new form of renku called “bluenotes,” wrote a renku called Walking Blues in which they used used a blues singer and dobro player, lloyed Thayer, to accompany them in performance. (simplyhaiku.com/index).

Also in 2003 Kawamoto Kihachiro, a Japanese producer of animated films, used renku in a production called Fuyunohi: Winter Days in which he gathered a group of artists from around the world each to produce a vignette of animation based on tales of Basho. These vignettes were strung together as you would link ideas in a renku.


2 The examples above are just a few of the possibilities in the use of the renku form to create a renku performance. Other groups have experimented with renku because of its openness to include the many different art disciplines. The renku form lends itself easily for expression through the electronic media as a means of performance as well.

Raffael de Gruttola