Paul Kikuchi, a Seattle-based percussionist, composer, instrument builder and Feldenkrais practitioner, will be releasing the album “Flight Patterns: Open Graves with Stuart Dempster” this November as a CD and limited edition LP. The album features performances by Stuart Dempster (trombone), Jesse Olsen (guitar and percussion) and Kikuchi (percussion). Instead of the traditional studio setting, the album was recorded underground in the Dan Harpole Cistern located in Port Townsend.
Interestingly, the cistern — an empty 2 million-gallon vessel — plays an integral part in the timbres, harmonies and structures of the music performed. Because of its particular dimensions and materials (a circular space with a flat ceiling and floor supported by 12-foot pillars, all constructed of concrete), the reverberation time lasts up to 45 seconds, according to Kikuchi. Through electronic feedback and the use of amplification as well as sounds created acoustically, haunting pitch bends and layered, elongated notes are heard. “It’s almost like you took a regular piece of music and just stretched it.”
Hailing from Indianola, Wash., Kikuchi began his musical odyssey playing in various rock bands. He also studied with Howard Gilbert, former percussionist with the Seattle Symphony. Later, he attended Bennington College and the California Institute of the Arts. The composers Lou Harrison and Harry Partch remain lasting influences for Kikuchi. Both were pioneers in pushing the limits of modern classical repertoire. Harrison built his own American gamelan instruments, taken from the Indonesian gamelan counterpart, to be used in the Western classical orchestras while Partch devised a tonal system comprising 43 notes in the octave.
Kikuchi also draws inspiration from the Feldenkrais Method — like the Alexander Technique, it is a form of movement awareness that has helped actors, dancers and musicians in addressing injuries and enhancing the quality of their performance. In 2008, Kikuchi completed intensive training for certification as a Feldenkrais practitioner.
During his undergraduate years, Kikuchi taught drumming workshops in Sado — gashima, a small island near Niigata, Japan. While there, he spent some time with the KODO drummers (a local Taiko ensemble) and described their training process as thus: “Before you touch a drum, the first thing they have you do is switch your chopsticks from the dominant hand to your subdominant hand…and then you learn how to make your own sticks. And finally you get to learn how to the play the drums.”
Perhaps this experience offered fallow ground for Kikuchi’s more recent studies in Feldenkrais. Along the lines of the Taiko drummers’ routine, he comments, “It’s the everyday stuff that’s really powerful. [One is] more susceptible to injury if you have these habitual ways of [movement], such as using one side of yourself [more than the other].”
In describing how Feldenkrais might assist musicians in addressing injuries attributed to repetitive stress or postures, Kikuchi presents the scenario of a cellist: “He sits and plays cello pretty much sitting always behind [his] sitz bones, which caused [his back] to curve a little bit and caused pain in [his] cervical spine. [Moshe] Feldenkrais (founder of this method) would start bringing [the cellist] through the different postural options.” Kikuchi concedes that his habitual ways of playing led to “habitual musical phrases and habitual sounds I was getting from each instrument. The creative aspect [of this method] is what I find inspiring.”
Central to his compositions and recordings, Kikuchi builds his own instruments. Unlike the classical music world of instrument making, specific prototypes or models are not necessarily followed. Sometimes he may repurpose found objects or use elements of folk instruments as sources of inspiration. Kikuchi takes into account the surrounding acoustical environment or the inherent properties of the materials used for the instruments. He “finds inspiration from unique spaces” that carry meaning from its history as well as its function. For example, the cistern was designed to hold water and was an outgrowth of the military base during wartime.
In a milieu of increasingly specialized skills, Kikuchi might be considered a kind of polymath. As a composer, instrument builder, percussionist and movement awareness practitioner, he manages to integrate his different abilities and interests to forge an authentic voice in “Flight Patterns.”