Interview with Taku Sugimoto, Tetuzi Akiyama & Utah Kawasaki
6 May 2001, Tokyo.
The improvisational music scene has in recent years undergone a number of shifts including a move to an introspective style of performance. Band-standing and virtuosic displays have given way to quiet contemplation, the cracks in the media opened up and displayed. Japanese improvisation is central to this shift. The music being produced has taken on a quiet simplicity as opposed to its well known cousin 'Noise Music'. The noise of the 1990s music scene has been turned down and is now played with a new purity of sound and production. That is, these artists have put away their sense of individual expression for an extremely minimal approach to sound. They use record players without records, samplers without samples, synthesisers without volume, guitars with which very few notes are played, mixing desks without inputs. The sound is pure, quiet and very listenable.
Taku Sugimoto has been playing guitar since high school where he developed an interest in jazz, free improvisation and avant-guard music. He has a long history of involvement in the band scene in Tokyo including being a member of Piero Manzoni, Ghost, and Hikyo String Quintet. He has played with Tetuzi Akiyama in a duo since 1994 when he made the shift from loud and dense guitar to extremely quiet acoustic guitar, filled with silent pauses. This style has earned him international attention as it is both beautiful and fascinating to watch and listen to him play. He co-founded Off Site with Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama in 1998 and has released a large number of CDs both as a solo artist and as a group improviser playing with the likes of Günter Müller, Erik M, Keith Rowe, Kevin Drum, and Annette Krebs. (www.japanimprov.com/tsugimoto/index.html)
Tetuzi Akiyama performs mostly with guitar but also favours electronics, turntables, viola and self-made instruments. He has played since he was very young, later becoming interested in free improvisation and classical music. Akiyama developed his improvisational style using a guitar prepared with various tools to pull an array of unique audio out of his instrument. He formed Madhar in 1987 and has since been in a number of groups including Hikyo String Quintet, Nijiumu (with Keiji Haino), Sutekina Tea Time and Mongoose with Taku Sugimoto and Utah Kawasaki. He co-founded Off Site with Nakamura and Sugimoto in 1998. Akiyama has an extensive list of CD releases. (www.japanimprov.com/takiyama/index.html)
Utah Kawasaki is the youngest of the grouping being born in 1976. Since 1994 he has been playing an analog synthesiser. His first solo CD was released in 1997 and he has since had music released on 6 CDs. In 1998 he formed Mongoose with Taku Sugimoto and Tetuzi Akiyama. The band plays improv constructed from very quiet sound fragments. (www.japanimprov.com/ukawasaki/index.html)
This interview was conducted in a strangely large café in Shinjuku. The café was very straight up and down with string quartet music played loudly in the background.
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Caleb: Since I have all the members of Mongoose here maybe we should start by talking about that grouping. When did Mongoose begin?
Taku: It began in 1998.
Caleb: And it is a band, you play songs?
Taku: No. Kind of concept. Very quiet… Sort of ambient music. The music even comes from sounds from outside.
Caleb: And traffic… (Mongoose has had complaints from the audience in the past about their music being too quiet to hear, to the point where traffic dominates.)
Taku: If the club is close to the street.
Caleb: How did you come to play in Mongoose?
Taku: Utah and I were members of a band. The band played John Zorn's piece Cobra [run by Otomo Yoshihide]. We were frustrated playing Cobra. He [Otomo] tried to make new sound using the Cobra project - blues.
Caleb: But Mongoose is not a game piece?
Taku: No not a game piece. But we are dreaming of playing Cobra with the band.
Tetuzi: You know the mongoose eats the cobra.
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Caleb: Taku you used to play loud guitar?
Taku: About 10 years ago in several projects… many. I was an occasional member of Ghost - I played cello. I played standards and improvisation. When I was 18-19 I started to play improvisation and I started to play guitar when I was 15.
Caleb: When did you start to play quiet guitar?
Taku: Difficult to say because when I started to improvise I played quiet music and I began to focus on quiet music 5-6 years ago. But occasionally I played loud music after this time - once a year. I had a tour in England and Otomo asked me to join his set, noise music. I played feedback. If someone asks me to play it's ok.
Caleb: Tell me about your reasons for playing so quietly?
Taku: I think it is more radical way now. Modern noise music. Noise music at this time is getting common so I want to escape. Small noise.
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Tetuzi: When I was around twenty years old I was in a band which was half improvisation and half composed, kind of rock improvisation. After that I started the band, free-improvisation three piece - At first that band was called Madhar and at first it was acoustic guitar, clarinet, hand drum from Nepal, violins and harmonica. We used to play in a park every week, at midnight. After that the winter came, it was too cold to play outside so we went in studio and I played guitar and the other two guys played drum and bass.
Taku: Not drum'n'bass.
Tetuzi: Drummer and bass player were kind of beginner. Drummer had some experience but not professional and the bass player he didn't even have basic technique. So we started that in 1987. That band hadn't been going recently but now we are going to continue, we made 4 cassettes. Around 1993/94 I thought I was going to make string quartet of violins, viola and cello. At first I asked my friend to play violin but he wanted to play cello and he introduced another violin player. My drummer from Madhar he was 1st violinist but no one had viola so I brought one. He joined [Taku]. At first it was quintet two cello, two violin and viola. [Hikyo String Quintet] Noise and odd harmony, after that we did some rehearsal and a live concert. After some sessions it melded slowly. After some concerts he [Taku] quit the band and offered to play in a duo [with me]. [simply called Akiyama-Sugimoto]
Caleb: Were those bands jazz style improv? Or more like European free-improv?
Tetuzi: Not European.
Taku: It doesn't sound like that sort of free.
Tetuzi: I threw out all the free-technique when I started Madhar. I decided to play from nothing, from zero.
Caleb: At the same time you were in noise bands as well?
Taku: Sometimes we played very noisy.
Tetuzi: Sometimes quiet sometimes very noisy. I think at the same time I joined a band called Nijiumu, Haino's band with another member called [Takashi] Matsuoka. Haino came to see Madhar and he asked me to join. I played in 4 or 5 live performances. Only live performance, that band had no rehearsal.
Caleb: Is your role in the band finished?
Tetuzi: I don't know but maybe. I have gotten no call from Haino.
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Caleb: Utah what is your history?
Utah: Short history. I started when I was 18, seven years ago. I played modular synthesiser. Making cassette tape to sell in shops. I play only this sythnesiser. I have no instruments. I don't have any keyboard with that synthesiser.
At first my music is more ambient music. Now it is more kind of noise music. I started music to play techno music but I can't play techno music. Because I have no sequencer and no drum machine.
Taku: Abstract Techno.
Utah: So I must start ambient music.
Caleb: Do they still have an ambient tent at dance parties in Japan?
Tetuzi: I thinks so. Loud techno and ambient time.
Utah: I want to play ambient but I can't.
Caleb: [Utah] How did you get in touch with Taku and Akiyama?
Taku: We have played for a long time - from time to time. So I asked him…
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Caleb: What is it you want to hear with your music? When you sit down and make music what are you listening for or trying to produce?
Tetuzi: I am testing every time, I am experimenting. I don't know what kind of sound will be made. I have no time to practice. But before the first live performance of my DJ style (2-3 years ago) I was in my room, I was experimenting on turntable with aluminium. I was using aluminium sheet to cover guitar amplifier speakers before that. To get some noise… I like that material so I bring it to the turntable from the guitar amplifier.
Caleb: The turntable style is very similar to your guitar style. The guitar's pick-up becomes the turntable needle and contact mics. The turntable you perform is no longer a record player nor even a DJ device.
Tetuzi: I do not play any records. If I use turntables I don't play any vinyl. I like it as it is not an instrument to me, just musical object to get sound from. Even now I don't know how many sounds it makes, how many tone colours.
Caleb: Keith Rowe talks about his guitar being a noise generator rather than simply being an instrument, a guitar. Is your turntable like that? It is no longer a turntable but rather a noise generator.
Tetuzi: That is why I don't play vinyl. The DJ always plays records and scratches. I didn't want that kind of playing. I thought the turntable player was percussion, gong sound comes from the turntable, not like a record player.
Caleb: Taku is your guitar like a noise generator?
Taku: No. Just guitar. I have a different idea to Keith Rowe. Guitar must be guitar for me.
Caleb: What about when you play with such things as polystyrene stuck into the strings etc? [a previous evening Taku had played his guitar by pushing balls of polystyrene into the strings and dragging it across the instrument. 30 April 2001. Absolute Antenna Special: Tim Olive (guitar), Taku Sugimoto (guitar) and Atsuhiro Ito (optron sound system) at Off Site in Yoyogi, Tokyo.]
Taku: That was a little different way for me. I like to listen to the electronic music and I would like to produce electronic sounds from acoustic material. I am trying now to do this.
Taku: I never lay down the guitar, because the guitar has history.
Tetuzi: It is not formal to play a guitar or on tabletop. I think he likes guitar and the instrument.
Caleb: What do you think Taku about being compared to Morton Feldman in reviews and articles about your work?
Taku: I think some of the sounds are similar but the idea is different. I feel more familiar to Christian Wolf. I would like to focus on quiet music… That is not quite right, silence is most important.
Tetuzi: I think it is difficult to play quietly, and it is difficult to play loud in Japan. Real loudness is hard as the space is limited. If I want to play loud it is limited. I don't think it's loud. The room is too small and the PA is limited by its size. I don't think it is loud.
Caleb: In a lot of writing about the sort of music you are all making they try to make metaphors. For example, in The Wire David Toop compared the duo of Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M to fish and also states "…perhaps this gets close to being an aural equivalent, though it's an anthology of surgical laser needles, halogen glare, epileptic neon, near-death light bulbs, and cathode-ray tube emissions rather than Turrell's epiphany of natural light." Writers seem to have trouble coming to grips with this sort of audio and revert to a need for metaphors and mistaken comparisons. How do you feel about this sort of reading and the use of these images.
Taku: No image. I would like the people who are listening to the music to decide.
Tetuzi: Sometimes I do like. Story like thing.
Caleb: When you play your synthesiser Utah. What is your method?
Utah: I play synthesiser in wrong way. Input into output, output into input. Making feedback. Maybe like David Tudor.
Tetuzi: My image of synthesiser not like Jean Michel Jarre sound. His synthesiser doesn't sound like anything, not like a piano. Sounds like what you have never heard before.
Caleb: Avant-garde music in the middle of the century was played in a similar fashion, >> input/output. It seems like at the present moment much of that early stuff is being re-listened to and taken much more seriously than at the time it was produced. What are you listening to? Do you listen to avant-garde. Or new computer music.
Utah: I only listen to popular avant-garde music such as John Cage. But not so much. My music is like new computer music but I use old technology.
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