Idobata Kaigi 01
Taku Sugimoto ✖️ Ryoko Akama
Taku and I met one sunny morning in Nishi-Magome, Tokyo, and holed up in a brightly lit family restaurant. Over several cheap coffees, we casually talked about a range of topics that exposed his—both ironic and challenging—spirit. This conversation presents a real-life depiction Taku, demonstrating his personality and musical thoughts in tandem. There is no exaggeration nor deception here; only trustworthy facts about a man who exists in this city.
Ryoko (R) I would like to start with your background. What made you come to play this kind of music? How did your music career begin?
Taku (T) My background is in rock music.
R You were interested in rock music at first?
T Yes, I was making rock music, though it wasn’t typical rock music, but more noise rock.
R When was that? You were a junior high school student?1
T No, I was barely interested in music when I was a child.
R Even in high school?2
T Not at all. My music grades at school were always 1.3
R What did you like?
T I liked nothing. I just loved “thinking.”
R You were a rebellious boy.
T Yes, very much so.
R You were already establishing the Sugimoto character then.
T Yes, I was already talented at being contrary. I was thinking about everything philosophically during that period, but I was not aware of philosophy as a field of study.
R Just thinking like a philosopher.
T Yes, a thinker.
R Were you thinking, “This world sucks…”
T Nothing revolutionary like that. Something like, “What is 1?” or “What is the eventual boundary between I and others?” For example, if a part of my skin falls off, that part perhaps becomes part of others, and so on.
R [You were thinking like this] since your primary school years?
T Yes, and still now.
R How did you deal with your thoughts?
T I did not solve anything. I just loved thinking.
R Didn’t you, for instance, start searching for books at libraries?
T I liked books, but just the usual kids’ books.
R Kids’ books? Non-fiction?
T And I watched the usual kids’ TV programs.
R Did you read books like Momo?4
T Nothing at all. To be honest, I was a little brat.
R Watching TV and reading mangas.
T Yes, watching TV and reading mangas. I didn’t study at all.
R Where were you brought up?
T I was born in Tokyo. My father’s company was in Matsudo, Chiba. I’m not sure until when, but we stayed in Matsudo until the middle of my kindergarten period. After that, we were back in Tokyo.
R Where in Tokyo?
T Setagaya-ku, Tokyo. Do you know Kyodo?
R Ah, yes. My brother used to live there for a while.
T There is the Tokyo University of Agriculture, which is a little walk from the station. Our house was near there.
R Your parents still live there?
T Yes, my parents still live there, though they have moved within the same town.
R Were you born into a normal family?
T I think so. They owned a chunk of land, but it was not profitable at all. The land is gone now because of the inheritance tax. My parents are now living with my aunt in a two-family house in one corner of the land with a small garden.
R What was your relationship with your family? As you said, you were a sullen boy who enjoyed thinking.
T My boyhood was nothing special. I remember my family was quite strict. My dad hit me a lot, and I used to think about murdering him.
R Is he still alive?
T Yes, we have a much less malicious relationship now, but I don’t have the urge to see him either.
R That is similar to my family story. The difference is that I am very close to them now.
T My mum was rigorous too. She experimented with different methods of education at that time. I went to swimming lessons and English conversation school, etc. I took English lessons for a few years when I was in primary school.
R That must’ve been quite rare then.
T The female teacher was so beautiful, which is all I remember. I was lewd.
T I remember her name even.
R You were in love.
T With Miss Hiromi Ogawa.
R So, you enjoyed learning English.
T I hated it. The first junior school term report was 1, even though I had been taking lessons for three years. I had learned nothing.
R A super dropout. Was it the same at high school, too? Actually, did you go to high school?
T I was properly enrolled in the Japanese education system up to the notorious cramming for the university. I planned to enter the university, but it was much harder to enroll at that time than now. The score 1 on an English report was not enough, but my mum’s young brother—my uncle—was a translator. Do you know Mitsuhiko Tanaka?5
R No, I don’t.
T He is currently involved with nuclear-related publication works. He used to be a design engineer specialising in nuclear power stations, but later on, he became opposed to it. He has released quite a few books from publishing companies like Kousaku Sha. I really liked him, and still do. He taught me English between junior high school and my university entrance exam. Thanks to his effort, my deviation value at the high school exam increased to sixty-something.
R You improved.
T I took only three subjects, English, literacy, and math, but literacy was a nightmare. As a result, I couldn’t pass five high school entrance exams.
R That surprises me. And music class?
T I didn’t take music at all.
R No interest at all? Art as a subject?
T My interest in those topics eventually started in high school. I knew I would fail to earn credits if I took music, so I didn’t choose it. But, once there was no more music in my school curriculum, I thought of studying guitar. Remember, I was a contrary boy.
R What was the general public listening to at that time?
T It was usually folk music or something similar. I was hardly interested in music, to be honest. I was more concerned about the shape of the guitar than the sound.
R An electric guitar?
T The first one I got was a folk guitar.
R A folk guitar as a first choice.
T The next was an electric guitar, which was around 20,000 yen in a pawnshop display.
R A frequent pawnshop visitor since then. (laugh)
T Well, I was a buyer, to start with. I exchanged several unwanted properties for it, but it made me so happy. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
R What were you into at the time?
T I was into American rock music. I enjoyed that.
R American rock was the starting point for you?
T Yes, it was. British rock investigates formal beauty. I love the sloppiness of American rock. I was not interested in forms.
R Did you ever consider going to the U.S.?
T Yes, when I was a child, but it was only a dream.
R What has shaped your current music style?
T I wonder that too.
R Tell me as you remember.
T The music I listen to has changed over the course of my life. I had friends who were into progressive rock when I was a high school student.
R Progressive rock. I liked that, too. For me, the starting point was The Beatles, gradually shifting into progressive rock. Progressive rock has such idiosyncrasy that attracts us. It is a bridge we cross while establishing our music background, moving from one field to another.
T I definitely think so. Particular bands such as King Crimson collaborated with a number of free jazz musicians. Those bands progressively led me to listen to other music, but there weren't many records of that genre in shops yet. I used to buy every possible record of free jazz or free improvisation. There were only a few that were available in the jazz section at the basement of Disk Union in Shinjyuku.
R The scene wasn’t popular at that time in Japan.
T The demand for the music must've been very small. Records in that section gradually increased in number, and I kept buying them whenever I had money.
R Did you pay attention to Don Cherry?
T Yes, I did listen to him.
R How about listening to more traditional jazz?
T There was a time when I did, but I never liked it.
R What is the border between your likes and dislikes?
Taku Sugimoto in his early 20s
T Generally speaking, I don't like any jazz, even free jazz. I preferred listening to Duke Ellington and music of that kind. Those guys’ musical sense entertained me then, but I don’t even listen to them now.
R I was talking with Suzuki6 last night, who told me that Japan lacked wind instrumentalists in the improvisation scene.
R Yes, it surprised me too.
T I find these Japanese old men in the improvisation scene, or performers more towards free jazz, quite squalid. They are like fleeing soldiers. I don’t like their sensibility.
R Fleeing soldiers? They seem like hippies or social dropouts to you?
T That’s right. Something like that. A little filthy, right? Not sure if they are really filthy, but I just imagine it.
R (laugh) Let’s go back to our subject. Do you think there’s a lack of wind players in Japan? Suzuki wished there were more diverse performers, which bewildered me as I always thought Tokyo as a city overflowing with artists.
T Anyway, I am not interested at all.
R In the improvisation scene?
T Not the jazz and free jazz scene. Recently, improvisation is returning as an inspiration to me.
R Let’s go back to your background. You said you were into progressive rock.
T Yes, it brought my music career to the next step.
R Did you belong to any rock band?
T When was my first band experience? Sometime around the middle of ’80s. I played something similar to free rock with guitar and drums.
R You played drums?
T No. I was the guitarist. I formed a duo with a drummer, sometimes including bass. We made songs, too. Do you know a band called Ghost?
R No, I don’t.
T It’s a Japanese psychedelic band. The leader and I used to make songs together.
R Were you more of an entertainer onstage, standing and moving around?
T Yes. I still play in rock bands like that.
R Where do you perform and with whom?
T I play with several groups, but no group is as active as they should. Nowadays, I like making songs that take the mick out of people.
R You recently tweeted that MMM’s7 performance was wonderful.
T It was superb.
R Your tweet triggered my memory. I contacted her and Uri Nakayama to invite them to the festival I was organising in Miyagi prefecture just before March 11, 2011. I love her musical sense. It’s just great.
T I went to see her performance near my house. As I introduced myself as Sugimoto at the entrance, the singer paid for my drink. I felt so guilty and bought the singer a drink later on. There was hardly anyone in audience, but it was so great that I cried a little, due to from some worries I had in my personal life at that time.
T It was a rare experience with music; a first.
R I am always curious about not only her music but also how her voice releases those peculiar frequencies.
T The intonation of her voice is incredible and superb. I love singers with certain intonations, you know, these early blues singers. I still get a thrill listening to Elis Regina’s voice from the highest stage of her development.
R I was moved by her music from the very first time I heard it. It was only on YouTube, but I could imagine her powerful presence as a performer. I want to hear her in real life so badly.
T She, as a person, is like a plucky mum. I like the gap between what she is as a person and how she sings as a performer.
R So, your band activities primarily deal with making and playing songs, right?
T Yes. I make and perform songs. A rock song is just a template.
R It’s not a composition on paper.
T I do make paper scores.
R Scoring rock music on paper?
T I can explain my ideas much clearer.
R I’m surprised by that. That is quite modern, right?
R I presumed rock music is more taught verbally as opposed to when they produce score books.
T It’s much easier for me in that way.
R In the past as well?
T Yes, always. Hang on, I didn’t write a score when I was in the first free rock band, which was more like “Shall we play like this?” “Cool!”
R But you tend to write scores now. So, how did your musical taste move to its current state from rock music? I know that you work on a variety of music projects simultaneously, including your so-called…
T Quiet music?
R Yes, quiet music if that’s what we agree to call it. (laugh) What made you start writing what I call experiential music, a field of music with no beginning or end, or music beyond time? Do you remember any specific event? You can give me a typical anecdote like “… then I encountered Cage’s music …” (laugh)
T Nothing like that.
R Did performing with someone make you change?
T I’ll tell you one thing. Because I was getting bored of loud noise, I stopped playing guitar in 1994 and began fiddling with cello. I didn’t practice at all, but just used it as a noise generator. I formed a duo with a saxophone player, but sooner or later, I got bored of it again. I stopped all at once, but I am afraid my memory is vague.
R You stopped making music completely?
T I didn’t stop it. Let me remember… It was my reset period. I hardly touched any instrument apart from the occasional guitar practice. Ah, that reminds me of something… Then, I was asked to play guitar for one recording session. This brings me to a funny story. I was keeping my guitar leaning against the fridge, by the side of the fridge.
R You left the guitar for a while?
T I didn't play or even touch it for a while. Anyway, I zipped the case open and realised the inside was totally black. I didn’t remember my guitar being such a colour, but I soon realised that the black was all cockroaches. My case had become their nest. Even I was freaked out by that.
R That’s horrific. What happened to it?
T A warm and comfy nest for insects.
R What happened? It’s a disturbing story that makes me sick. Did they all fly out of the case towards you?
T Sorry to make you sick. They didn’t fly out. They were only small babies, so I quickly dragged the case outside. I don’t mind cockroaches but that was quite an experience. I cursed, “Give me a break!” But then, I took that guitar to…
R Did you continue using it?
T Of course I did. I have sold it since, though it was a rare model that I valued a lot. The cockroach event was a trigger to start playing again. That’s what I remember. Maybe… At that time, I had a part-time job as a building cleaner, but it didn’t pay me enough to live. I also had to have yet another job excavating archeological sites. That was the hardest job ever. There is nothing to intercept direct sunlight on those sites, so it was hell in summer.
R Manual labour.
T More than just physical labour. What a strong sunbeam! I collapsed twice.
R But, it paid well.
T Not at all, about 7,000 yen per day.
R That is hell.
T But, the work shift is flexible. That is all. My life was so busy. I’ll tell you another funny story.
R Go on.
T I had no time to practice guitar at all. I came home, drank a bit, and slept like a dog.
R Typical days and nights from hard labouring.
T Even if I was exhausted, I had to get to work the following day. I needed to do something about it, and decided to take my guitar to the worksite so that I could practice during my break time. I became friends with the team’s professor who actually loved music. We got along and played music together during our break. But, you know, you always encounter stressed oldtimers who do not accept this kind of change in the work environment. They think, “This new face is very different from the others and has changed our work atmosphere.” This made my relationship with the team very complicated. But, never mind these crazies. What was important was that, during this time, I had a brief moment of plucking a random sound inadvertently on my electric guitar. That time suddenly became quite precious. In retrospect, it was an accidental harmonic or overtone. For the first time, I thought these small sounds were very interesting. Since then, I have investigated music with quiet events.
R You are the pioneer for your music.
T Yes, I cultivate it all by myself. It’s never been a case of “I listened to something that changed my life.” By accident, I got into tuning systems and other, related, matters in music.
R Were you already familiar with certain contemporary music or wandelweiser music?
T Cage and stuff, yes. I am talking about early ’90s here, so none of wandelweiser music was in the media yet.
R True, but wasn’t there any communication with these people yet?
T There was in the improvisation scene. Later on, I got to know musicians like Radu [Malfatti] who was improvising quietly around that period.
R Were you already improvising with musicians during that time?
T Not yet.
R Not connected to the scene yet?
T Not yet. I was much closer to the rock scene.
R Immersed in rock music, not yet meeting with Suzuki san.
T I hadn’t met Suzuki san yet.
R But, you were moved by the accidental ping! on your guitar, and your music followed it afterwards.
T Yes, but all by myself.
R There were no comrades.
T Yes there was. That’s Captain.8
R Of course, Captain.
T We were close with each other. He occasionally performed small sounds as well as the total opposite.
R Was he in the rock music scene?
T He wasn’t playing rock but appeared in everything else, including noise music and performance art. He did things like putting contact mikes around the neck and drank water.
R Various event pieces.
T I remember that I gave him a demo CD that contained only quiet sounds, which he thought was very uninteresting.
R Uninteresting! Is Captain your senior?
T A year older.
R He verbally said it was uninteresting? Do you still have the CD now?
T I do.
R I want to listen to it.
T It was a first album-length CD that was very quiet. Nothing more. Half a year later, he listened to it again and told me that it actually was quite interesting. I’ve known him so long, nearly 30 years.
T I used to work at a convenience store where I played Velvet Underground and other weird rock music all the time. His parent’s home was right behind the shop.
T Yes, it was amazing. I played everything obscure, including music by Sun Ra. There weren’t even shop uniforms.
R If I hear Sun Ra, I will definitely shop there.
T I even played classical music and my own CDs. It was such a great job. Sometimes, customers bought advance tickets for my concerts.
R Perfect freedom.
T I loved that time in my life.
R It wouldn’t happen now.
T Definitely not.
R They play this kind of music only [pointing to the BGM in the restaurant].
T One day, Captain asked me if the music playing was Velvet Underground and Nico.
R At the store?
T Yes, the convenience store I mentioned.
R You are collaborators because of the Velvet Underground and Nico.
T Yes, the Velvet Underground and Nico.
R And your relationship continues now. Captain was also pushing for a fresh element and direction.
T I’m not sure of that. It took two years for us to cross paths again, as far as I remember. I had known him before he talked to me, though. I saw his face everywhere, holding a guitar. I wondered who he was.
R It was the 1990s?
T No, it was still the ’80s. 1986 or 1987.
R In your early 20s.
T Just turned 20.
R A young Taku with Captain and rock music. How did you get involved with Improvised Music From Japan or did you simply start improvising? ? I once read an article by Otomo Yoshihide, in which he mentioned you. That’show I got to know your name.
Taku Sugimoto with Tamio Shiroishi, Tetuzi Akiyama, and Sean G Meehan, in his late 20s
He explained in the article that performing with you made him experience the positive feeling of not performing in performance for the first time. It’s a blurry memory, but he respected Taku’s improvisation method.
T That’s when we were still on speaking terms.
R You are not now? (laugh)
T Not at all.
R That was a period when silence in music was being discovered and evaluated as a new thing.
T Some people are quite political and want to involve everyone in their ideas. But, once someone criticizes, they would return with their own critical eyes. I wrote a little comment that would touch their heartstrings towards that kind of attitude in a magazine.
R A criticism about silence?
T Toward the onkyo scene.
R I feel with a nostalgia for that name.
T Nothing has changed since.
R Did Otomo coin the term?
T No, it was coined by a record shop owner.
R Were you a part of the onkyo scene?
T I was told I was.
R I remember hearing the term often, but I was not sure what genres part of that scene. It targeted a large area of music from Japan. A strange phrase.
T For example: Off Site.9
R Yes, I know Off Site.
T I fell out with them at the end. Some people said that quiet music evolved due to the extraordinarily small size of Off Site. It was concluded that the space was so tiny that musicians had to take care of the volume. But, that wasn’t how the quiet music scene started. Anyway, some composers had been working with small sounds already by then.
R Right. (laugh)
T On the contrary, you see, it is much more revolutionary to play quiet sounds when you can also make big noises.
R That’s right. Being quiet is not a question of concerning others. When onkyo was often talked about… The term is not used any more, right?
T I don’t think so.
R There were so many artists from Tokyo, such as Ami Yoshida, Sachiko M, Akiyama, you, and so on. The genre accommodated even electronica and ambient music. How did you observe your position within the scene?
T I’m not sure where I was positioned.
R Was your notion of quiet music already established?
T Nothing is established even now. I see myself as a fledgling musician, always.
R How about making alternative scores and working with particular people?
T I was doing some events involving Off Site. That was how I started to work with these compositions, with or without melodies.
T No, I normally ask people to collaborate. I asked several people to compose and chose performers to play these pieces at Off Site. Before that, I was in an improvising trio with Captain and Toshimaru Nakamura. But, I wanted to do something besides improvising, so I quit.
R Did you also select any classical and typical compositions by Cage, Cardew, or a similar type to perform?
T I had no intention to play old scores.
R For example, researching Alvin Lucier’s pieces based on simple harmonics or frequencies.
T I never work like that. I did organise one event with Radu’s compositions in 2001 or 2002.
R Through Radu [Malfatti], you discovered the European scene.
T Definitely, through Radu.
T The most memorable experience was with Antoine [Beuger]’s composition. Do you know the one based on Spinoza’s book?
T I saw the live performance.
R By Radu?
T No, by Antoine himself.
R In Japan?
T In Austria. I believe it was organised by Radu. It was only a five-hour performance, but I mean, five hours! It shocked me. It’s not a shocking piece but, also, so shocking if you know what I mean. I haven’t experienced anything like that since. The venue was in the woods, and I was the only one in the audience.
R Was it an open event or a private concert?
T It was just me.
R Was it advertised?
T I am sure it was. There were two more audience members for the second half of the event.
T No sound, no people.
R Almost nothing.
T Almost nothing.
R But, there was everything.
T Yes. There was everything. That’s right. During the performance, the door behind me opened slightly. I don’t remember if it was Radu coming in, out, or something else. Anyway, how I experienced that noise at that moment did not sound anything like what I had ever heard before.
R You remember it vividly.
T I will never forget it. It made me understand that I could do something like that with music.
R When was it?
R When did you meet Radu for the first time?
T The first time was in 2000. I’d already known and enjoyed his music.
R His improvisation?
T As well as his composed pieces.
R Radu was already composing works without many sounds.
T Yes, he’d already stopped improvising when I met him, though he has now started again. He was pursuing music of the very minimal.
R Why did you visit Austria that time?
T Because of my concert.
T I hadn’t performed with Radu yet, just meeting with him often.
R Did the temporal sensibility you felt with the door noise overlap with your past experience, or was it a completely new experience with noise?
T Both. I have gradually come to appreciate that moment, though it was a very important one.
R Did you get to work with wandelweiser composers since then?
T Yes, but I despise imitation. I always want to cultivate music by myself. Everyone was performing less and less sound around that time, but I didn’t like accepting anything without criticising.
R It’s good to have a critical mind. Suddenly, wandelweiser was recommended as an established music genre.
T Yes, it became quite popular.
R Around 2010 or 2011? People began accepting music from Manfred [Werder], Michael [Pisaro], Radu, you and so on.
T No music from me is yet accepted.
R It’s like a pop culture phenomenon. I think its popularity has calmed down. Did you feel a radical change in wandelweiser’s popularity over a certain period here? It was strange in the U.K.
T I don’t think so, but those who improvised criticised wandelweiser music around 2002. People denounced it as utterly boring music. Only I found it fascinating.
R What’s the current public opinion?
T To be honest, there are wandelweiser composers I am hardly interested in either, though I’m not mentioning their names.
R You say your music and wandelweiser are very different.
T I think so, but I somehow receive a lot of wandelweiser-related offers.
R Because people acknowledge you as a part of wandelweiser.
T I never belong to anything.
R I know you don’t, but you have been categorised as belonging to it.
T That worries me.
R Tell me the main distinction between wandelweiser and yourself.
T As different as you and me. Everyone is different, and that is the most important thing.
R I know some composers are feeling detached from the term, wandelweiser. Terming is a strange activity in music.
T One automatically becomes wandelweiser once his works are published on the label.
R Basically, it is a symbolic term for reviewers in order to explain something.
T A word count in a review can be reduced by using such a useful term.
R If your work is not wandelweiser, how do you describe your music? How do you answer if an uninformed person asks what you do?
T That is always a problem. I think about it a lot, but there is no answer. Expressing it as “music with the least sound” does not help anyone create an appropriate image. They would perhaps think I am talking about bossa nova music. Once bossa nova is mentioned, it’s ultimately impossible to continue the conversation. I possibly ask whether they know John Cage or not. That’s as far as we can try.
R I know. Your music is far away from Cage’s, but Cage can be a great reference. Explaining this music to others is a never-ending puzzle to me.
T Someone, who came to my bar, said to me that he’d watched Cage’s TV program. I didn’t have TV, so I didn’t know what he was talking about. Anyway, he said that he presumed my music must’ve been like Cage’s. I think it’s enough to leave the matter like this.
R iTunes will often categorise this kind of music as classical. I often see even my works as classical rather than experimental music or others. It surely happens just because the CD has musicians who perform traditional instruments. Do you ever consider your music as classical?
T Of course not. Some contemporary music such as Stockhausen and Boulez are classical contemporary music. I have no interest in it or ever listen to it, though I must admit that there are a few pieces I quite like. I used to be attracted to composers from the former Soviet Union. I still put on their CDs occasionally. It may have something to do with the political depression era. The Leonid Brezhnev era produced many crucial compositions.
R Cage or Feldman?
T Cage is a little different. I like Feldman works. Normally, music you experience at concert halls is not my cup of tea. Neither is jazz music. Recent jazz, especially, has become academic. I am never interested in academic music. Hence, I got rid of these two categories of music from my life. I have no sympathy for systematic music. Songs sung by old men on the street are far more inspiring.
R I cannot agree with you more.
T Intonations of voices in daily life are musically fabulous. Greetings like “irasshaaaaai” 11 are often sung with various intonations. I love these musical occurrences. Another is an alarm like the one on the bus. In Europe, a melody line consisting of two pitches goes up, ping ping. But, in Japan, the second pitch always goes down. (Accidentally, the restaurant had a calling alarm that had the second pitch lower than the first.)
R A melody goes up in Europe?
T On top, European tend to choose very low pitches. The alarm in Budapest underground goes up in very low pitches and in perfect 4th. It’s terrific and shocking. That of trams in Zurich goes up in major third. Mostly, their melodies go up.
R I never paid attention to it.
T Once you start noticing this kind of daily music phenomenon…
R Unendurably fun.
T Unendurably fun.
R A nerd.
R The idea is beyond music. It concerns one’s listening sensibility, the existence of sound, the relativity between the self and sound, space created by performers, sound immersed by performers intermingling with the space. It is the music that is spatial.
T My composition, if compared to architecture, is like constructing or designing a building. I don't decide the details inside, such like how people and tables are coordinated. That part is not my job, which means that I don’t pay attention to silence in the same way Cage investigates it.
R Right. You make possibilities?
T It can be said like that. I have thought of my music like that for a long time.
R You wrote an article about Marcel Duchamp for us.12 I often hear Japanese sound artists and musicians dividing sound works into: more towards visual art and more towards music, and grouping people depending on who graduated from university and who you work with. I wonder if you consider yourself as more towards music though you also integrate visual experience?
T Absolutely music. Clearly music.
R It’s about sound.
T Yes. It’s about sound even when it’s not about sound.
R You were dropping papers one by one when performing j/ from 3+3=3 at the concert last night.13 So, I ask whether there would be a difference for your paper performance to be done digitally if a sound result was the same?
T That’s a difficult question. I am afraid that my performance should be done by physical papers.
R You emphasised the concept?
T I’m not sure if I call it a concept. I do performances visually and aurally as an entertainer. To be honest, the paper event did not happen like I wanted. I originally intended to photocopy the score laid out on top of each other until the image of the score faded out. But, the image was still available even after I spent money to print 30 papers. I couldn’t spend more money. I wanted to show the graduation of the fading image to the audience, getting thinner and thinner, adding the sound caused by falling. That was my service. In another nasty word, I wanted to entertain the audience as a performer. My performance process was different at the concert from the rehearsal. I had a snare drum, in slightly tilted position, on top of a mandolin on the floor, so that papers would make clear sound as I dropped them onto the snare skin.
T I think it’s important to pay attention to performance.
R A performance spirit.
T Yes, the performance spirit.
R It is, after all, more than making sound.
R You take care of sound and vision as well as concept.
T When I make sound… How should I put it. For instance, you place a score in front of you. If you are able to read, the score allows you to make sound out of it, which is music. But, placing the score is a visual action. You’ve just done one visible action. Does it make sense?
R Kind of. I find it interesting that listening to music with your eyes closed or open gives a different experience.
R Nothing better or worse.
T My eyes seem to be mostly open. I am often cheeky enough to even read books. I once read that a real meditation must be made with your eyes wide open, which I found very fascinating.
R I’ve read that somewhere as well. To speak of extremes, a seated meditation would not be counted as a real meditation.
T I agree. I understand that zen is to absorb everything around you.
R Living is already zen, paying attention to your life. You know noh theatre asks audiences to cherish all senses.
T Yes, seeing and listening.
R Falling asleep during a noh performance is allowed. Their day program contains different theatres, including noh and kyougen. You can tune into the performances or contemplate on your own thoughts. It's a long and slow event. Noh theatre is so entertaining when the performances are superb, whether you’re asleep or awake.
T That’s right. The moment when you wake up from a sleep and you realise the scene has only changed slightly is so exquisite. You just wonder how long you have fallen asleep, a second or half an hour.
R I admire noh’s tempo and its slow flow. Your music seems to examine a similar sensibility.
T Others have said that, but not me. I only make music, constructing a frame only.
R Do you also work on an external of the design?
T A sharp question. Of course. Last night’s score by Wakana instructed dynamics. My question was how we set up a mezzo-piano dynamic–in relation to what. For example, mezzo-piano for a performer here is relatively quieter for another performer there. How do we solve this? It can only be discussed relatively. Dynamics are already relative to start with then directions are added and have to be taken into consideration. What do we prioritise when concerning mezzo-piano, piano, forte, etc.?
R Is this a question for the performer or composer?
T This can become the composer’s crucial question.
R Wakana must’ve learned a lot by discussing it last night. It was her first composition, right? I liked the piece very much.
T Refining these kinds of details without refining too much creates a great composition.
R Composers like you, Manfred, or Michael Parsons tried to move away from concert halls, making the outside into a stage.
R You perform outside?
T I don’t do that often. Manfred does.
R Okay. Do you think, in this kind of performance environment, the audience is not important?
T I was influenced by Manfred on this question. I enjoy his philosophies.
R How did it all begin?
T I have not changed the direction of my music to that end.
R But, you perform together outside. Do you enjoy it?
R Do you need an audience when performing outside?
T Music never needs an audience. Wanting an audience means hoping for a financial result or asking for sympathy. Men used to just sing and enjoy it, though I’m not sure if music was ever only for fun. Anyway, the main significance of music was simply to entertain, or maybe, pray. The idea of music has changed. Music is now a production so, consequently, audiences are needed. Audiences are important only to pay musicians. If not for money, I don’t care how many there are in the crowd. That is the essence of music.
R So , you wouldn’t perform in front of an audience if you were paid one billion yen?
T Yes, but that would be because I want to be appreciated.
T Audiences are good, but I perform even if there is no one.
R Doesn’t matter if there are 0, 10, or 100 people.
T Not at all.
R Have you always felt that way?
T Always. To be honest, I wouldn’t enjoy if 100 people were attending. I prefer around 15.
R Interesting. Didn’t you have as many as 100 at the recent concert in Switzerland?
T Only 20 at most, which was a great size. I would want more people only because they pay money. Another advantage of having more a bigger audience is when you think of supporting and disseminating your field of music to the next generation.
R You care for that?
T I don’t enjoy caring about it. I actually dislike it. It is not fun, but I do it as my duty.
R Was that one of the reasons you started Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble with younger musicians?
T I wanted younger people to do something and guide the future.
R A generational exchange?
T That is a little exaggerated. But, I like the ensemble members to lead the future. I am just helping Wakana’s ideas, giving my opinions. She is a great leader and performer. I trust her.
R What is your reaction toward the new generation, young people as you say, after collaborating with many musicians?
T I am never interested in the musical sense of old men. I despise specialty.
R (laugh) There are only old men around here, that’s right. There aren’t many ladies.
T Of course, some wandelweiser composers are different. They have a young sensibility and plenty of vitality. Young people are much more responsive, right? I always feel that.
R I wonder why. Their energy and spirit?
T I wonder why, too. Maybe their undefiled attitude? Maybe I want to be surprised? Also, when you are in the field for a long time, you tend to suck at authority. I hate authority.
R You prefer performing with the ensemble members than with experts.
T Definitely, but there are undeniably some performers I am always happy to collaborate with.
R I cannot write this in the article. (laugh)
T Let’s write it honestly. I don’t perform much with anyone anyway.
R You do! With Manfred, Stefan [Thut], etc.
T I like works by Manfred and Stefan. Performing with them is as much fun as with the ensemble. It’s a matter of sensibility.
R I am very fond of Stefan’s compositions.
T His music grows on you.
R I love his superb compositional talent veiled underneath and his humility. He and his music are not even slightly egoistical.
T Performing with them is more fun for me than performing with improvisers in many senses.
R You have released so many CDs with improvised musicians such as Otomo.
T Quite a few.
R Something already felt different between you and him from the beginning?
T Yes. I felt detached with musicians like Günter Mülier and Keith Rowe. These improvisers from England, though I quite liked AMM, have a fundamentally different point of views from how I play.
R Do you ever think that you naturally sympathise with the ensemble members because of your nationality? Japanese have similar sensibilities.
T Not sure of that. I don’t know.
R For example, if you mention ma, they would, to some extent, understand what you are talking about.
T I have never had Japanese-ness in me. My parents were very modern during the Showa era and never had tatami at home either. They were the parents who took their children to English conversation school. No Japanese music was available in my life. Anyway, I don’t like Japanese culture, such as jyoruri or Japanese music. I prefer traditional Korean music. Shamisen and traditional Japanese music are so mawkish. I am unable to relate to any emotional work. Noh is the exception. I love its abstraction.
R I can see that your works are not emotional because you are quantitative.
T I love maths.
R I sense very little literacy.
T I like haiku, though, which is not completely about emotions. But, I am not fond of Basho Matsuno who is kind of soppy.
R You don’t like Basho.
T I like dry-ness.
R You prefer dry works.
T Yes, dry. It has to be abstract.
R You like dry food.
T Dry food? I am not talking about food.
R The same in terms of music?
T Yes. I am interested in a notion of ma but only in the world of noh.
R Ma in noh is different from ma in jyoruri or kabuki?
T Different. Ma in noh is the most abstract. After all, I love the music of noh, which I have been listening to on the radio since I was young. Going to performances is a recent hobby. Drum’s gradual rhythm shifts are just breathtaking.
R Yes, marvellous.
T Super marvellous.
R Listening to noh orchestra sometimes makes me cry and shiver. Don’t you find that sensation in nagauta?
T For me, the other is warabe uta.14 I had several nursery rhyme books at home and could sing all of them. I was thrilled by them, though some songs are crafted out and had various versions. Warabe uta influenced my collaboration with Moe.15
R Is the duo with Moe ongoing?
T We performed together once last year, which was the last event. I am working on another vocal project with only microtonality.
R With Moe?
T Not with her. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to complete any of the songs. I am writing a series of melody lines in the hopes of applying particular unisons to my guitar and vocal.
R You are working on it now?
T Yes, I am eager to get on with it. I would like to use my aesthetics fully, adding just a little logical element. This project uses my aesthetics.
R Not much reasoning.
T Just a little. I want to make it work, but it’s taking a lot of time.
R With a female voice?
T Yes, with female.
R You never work with male singers?
T Male singers are somehow so squalid. I don’t use them.
R How about the singer from MMM…?
T I considered it actually, but I should not involve her with my project. I shouldn't intrude on her. She is a fine singer without anyone.
R You don’t want to bring her to the dark side of music?
T That’s right.
R You like noh singing but not nagauta singing. But, you prefer female singers when it comes to your compositions.
T Recently, I prefer noh’s shouting actions by women.
R I remember you saying that. You see female noh, too?
T There are plenty of female acts nowadays even as shite16 and in noh orchestra. Some frequent visitors dislike the new style, but I am perfectly fine.
R Are they young artists?
T Young artists as well. Haruna Okamoto, who plays a shoulder drum, is amazing. I’m telling you, she will be famous. People will respect her. She is still in her 30s, but has a great voice and rhythms.
R Where does she perform?
T At the national noh theatre. I’ve seen her three times.
R Amongst men?
T She had finished an apprenticeship in the national noh theatre course. Post-trainees make programs occasionally with more established performers once every three months. Those programs are as cheap as 1,000 yen, so I go and watch them often. She is a future star.
R I didn’t know female artists are seen in general noh theatre.
T It’s more open now. Foreign performers are apparently having professional careers in noh, too.
R Japanese women's social progress and release from the ban.
T Of course. One can be a noh actor even if he’s not from the noh family now.
R That’s right. It’s a positive development.
Taku Sugimoto at Ftarri, rehearsing with Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble, 2016
T Sumo wrestlers are mostly foreigners now, which I find a little disturbing, but it can’t be helped. It’s a trend.
R You watch sumo too?
T I used to. Sumo’s shoutings like “Nishii [west!]!” have thoughtful intonations.
R Do you plan any collaboration with traditional music performers?
T Not interested.
T I don’t find any reason to do so. I leave them alone.
R Is it because you are in different genres?
T Their instruments can’t be brought into my practice. Traditional drum would not work well in my music. I’d rather use something else, such as castanet, to create the same effect.
R Because your compositions are more familiar within a Western music trajectory? For example, how would you criticise November Steps by Takemitsu?
T I never think of it as a good work. It didn’t inspire me, but the piece was perhaps crucial for that period. I definitely think making new music with instruments everyone can recognise is more interesting. Everyone knows cello, guitar, and castanet.
R Musical objects that everyone knows.
T Yes, so-called instruments without special characteristics. Highly versatile instruments.
R Well-used and the usual choice.
T Yes. When a Japanese drum is used, it is too distinguishable and perceived right away as Japanese drum.
R Okay. But you are fine with a bassoon. You perhaps favour Western tone colours.
T Yes. This music is inaugurated in Western culture, so a new idea should be generated within that. This is how I dislocate my ideas.
R But you are influenced by noh theatre, too.
T I enjoy it, but am not influenced.
R So, you try similar ideas you’ve learned from noh music with instruments that aren’t particular to noh.
T That’s why I make castanet compositions that gradually slip out of rhythms.
R I was aware of that work. I want to listen to it. You are fascinated by castanet.
T I like to make new pieces on the same idea.
R Do you still perform these scores?
T Too many times, even in the home of the castanet, Spain, with some flamenco castanets.
R With how many performers?
T There are variations, from easy ones to hard ones.
R I sort of understand what you mean when it comes to using traditional instruments. I study shamisen. My friends have asked me why I never learn the instruments in my compositions.
T Learning traditional instruments is fine. I would like to do it one day.
R Japanese instruments are very far from my music practice. Though I’m not sure how I would put it either. It feels disgraceful to use shamisen in the contemporary, because I respect my master very deeply. In the traditional world, you are forever a disciple. You have to keep paying an attendance fee when you perform onstage at certain programs. Being onstage is an opportunity for you to learn and develop, and you must appreciate the chance. I am perhaps resisting the use of such preserved instruments in my personal practice. I felt the same when I was learning sitar, though I did use it for my shows occasionally when I was young. But, I constantly suffered from an inferiority complex as a disciple to my teacher. I am sometimes too thoughtful. I think these instruments are too sacred to be altered in usage.
T That idea, I don’t get it. I love mashing up sacred elements, trampling it and making it trampled.
R It seems that you simply don’t use these instruments due to tone colours.
T Whether a certain instrument is leveraged fully or not is because they are different.
R I find that Ko (Ishikawa)17 uses his instrument proficiently in various projects.
R You made a piece for the album with Rhodri [Davies] and Ko. What was the title? aka to ao.18
T Yes. Despite the fact that you hear only one tone, which continues and ceases in turn, the structure of the piece is quite complicated mathematically. I have written another song for him.
R Have you performed together?
T I have performed together as Ko wanted a score for the duo. But, if I can freely choose instruments, I select harmonica or melodica without any hesitation.
R If a shamisen player asks you?
T I am not writing for her.
R For a Japanese drum?
T No way.
R For a noh singer?
T No way. I don’ t do piano either.
R You don’t like piano?
T Not interested. I don’t listen to piano music. Maybe because my mother used to play piano. If ever I had to, I would write a piano piece that can be performed by anyone, never for a maestro.
R I understand. Have you never dealt with any pianist at all?
T It can’t be helped sometimes, as piano often is a part of an ensemble. I just would not write if a pianist asks me to compose for a solo. As I say, I will write a piece that can be played by anyone. I do have a few ideas, such as using only the highest three keys, gradually staggering in rhythm.
R I prefer high keys on piano to low as well. You like a light decay in sound.
R You hate enka.19
T I don’t like it.
T That depends on who. Shinsui Akama from Miyagi prefecture is a wonderful singer. You can find him on YouTube. He is utterly amazing.
R You watch YouTube?
T Of course.
R Does he sing folk songs from Northern Japan?
T Songs of fishermen, etc. His songs are superb. It is the voice he has.
R Does he compose his own?
T No, he sings folk songs. It’s a way of singing that distinguishes minyo from others. I try out some folk songs from Okinawa, too. I like folk music.
R Any foreign folk music?
T I am not that knowledgeable, but I enjoy folk music from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Romanian, Hungarian, or from Basque in Spain. There are a number of great singers around there. I definitely like this kind of music more than jazz or classical.
R Thank you for telling me a lot of your personal history, as well as fun stories today. Finally, I’d like to ask who you think the most interesting composer or performer is at the very moment?
T Catherine Lamb as a composer.
R You told me the other day too.
T I even have a sense of rivalry.
R A sense of rivalry! She would love that.
T She is my rival who makes me want to write more beautiful compositions. Her works are very beautiful. Our aesthetics are on the same wavelength.
R She performs viola. Perhaps, you are going to collaborate…
T When it comes to it. Naturally, one day.
R What do you want to challenge next?
T The vocal piece in microtonality. I am looking for the singer. I’m looking forward to finding out whether microtonality is ever competent with perfect solfeggio or not.
R When do you compose?
T I can never tell when my sketches start. I keep ideas everywhere that eventually become connected to each other. I rarely sit down at the table.
R Do you ever sit down?
T Yes. My final scores are handwritten.
R Do you have sketch books?
T Yes, sometimes for arranging notes and so on. What I really do is mathematics. I use several calculators. I examine and match overtones laid out on my sketches. You are right. I am definitely quantitative.
R How rganized are your sketch books? I was once astonished by the meticulousness of Frey’s sketch books.
T Mine is only full of doodles.
R If I ask for a bunch of sketches for a particular song, will you be able to dig them up easily?
T Yes, I can. I used to use graph notebooks in which I kept filling in one dot by dot. When they were filled in black they were ready to be played. These sketches are kept safely, but I also throw in some sketches.
R Do you write things down immediately or retain ideas in your brain for a while?
T I keep them in my brain, nearly 90%.
R Don’t you forget?
T Not at all.
R That is why you are good at missing trains and stations.
T That’s right.
R You are a living composer. For you, are performing and composing equally important?
T I’d rather compose.
T I like performing, too. There’s no use in working only on your own stuff. I need to find new effervescence and discovery. Wakana has recently said this as well. It’s no good to keep ideas in here [pointing at his brain]. This is why we do Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble. I’ve decided not to include my pieces in the ensemble repertoire, though I do want young people to perform my works somewhere else.
R Young people?
T I have my own rules. I don’t perform my compositions in the ensemble concerts, but I may ask the ensemble members to perform mine for my other projects. The ensemble should challenge ourselves with only new compositions that are not necessarily known. We should continue performing pieces by emerging artists. How do we do that? Let’s talk about it during another interview.
R That’s a great ending. Thank you very much. See you at the next interview one day.
1 A Japanese junior high school for students between 12 and 15 years old.
2 A Japanese high school is for students between 15 and 18 years old.
3 1 is the worst score out of 5 in typical school reports in Japan.
4 A fantasy novel by Michael Ende, published in 1973. The story talks of the concept of time through time thieves and a child.
5 A Japanese translator. More information.
6The owner of the record shop, Ftarri, in Tokyo.
7 MMM, read as mee-mai-mo, is a Japanese singer based in Tokyo.
8 The Japanese guitarist, Tetuzi Akiyama.
9 A sound gallery and concert space run by Atsuhiro Ito and Yukari Fujioto at Yoyogi in Tokyo between 2000 and 2005.
10 calme étendue (spinoza), 1998. More information.
11 Welcome greeting in Japan meaning “welcome” and “how can I help you?”
12 His article, “A brief note on Door, 11 Rue Larrey,” is on reductive journal THREE available here.
13 He performed Manfred Werder’s piece j/ composited for the album 3+3=3 on melange edition, 2015.
14 Japanese nursery rhymes.
15 A Japanese singer, Moe Kamura, has released several duo CDs with Sugimoto.
16 Main roles in the noh play.
17 A Japanese sho player. Sho is a Japanese instrument consisting of 17 slender bamboo pipes.
18 Rhodri Davies, Ko Ishikawa, Compositions For Harp And Sho (Hibari Music: hibari-09: 2006)
19 A Japanese traditional style ballad/pop that used to be popular in the last century but its popularity has decline recently.
20 Japanese folk songs.