Tatsuya Nakatani is a creative artist / percussionist originally from Osaka, Japan who has released over sixty recordings in North America and Europe. Residing in the USA since 1994 he has performed countless solo percussion concerts and has collaborated with hundreds of artists in international music festivals, university concert halls, art museums and galleries. His latest project is the Nakatani Gong Orchestra, which builds community ensembles performing on multiple bowed gongs under his direction, as recently presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Nakatani’s constant touring fosters the raw and fresh quality in his music, which can only survive through an open willingness to share energy, culture, music and self on a global human scale. His master classes and workshops at schools and universities, emphasize his unique musical approach and philosophy in creating visceral, non-linear music.
He has created his own instrumentation, effectively inventing many instruments and extended techniques. He utilizes drums, gongs, cymbals, singing bowls, metal objects, bells, and various sticks and bows to create an intense, intuitively primitive, expressive music of unusually strong spirit that defies category or genre. His music is based in improvised/ experimental music, jazz, free jazz, rock, and noise, yet retains the sense of space and beauty found in traditional Japanese folk music.
Seeing Tatsuya live is magic. So check out his schedule: http://www.hhproduction.org/schedule.html
[This interview was a mix of email followed up by Skype.]
Mothership: Your work ranges across genres—you’re a respected jazz percussionist, a new musician with roots in rock and Japanese folk music. You’re an itinerant musician, constantly traveling, playing solo and with others in all kinds of places from The Kennedy Center to home-made community spaces, collaborating with musicians playing everything from banjo to shinobue to balloons. In all of this, it feels that, above all, you’re an experimenter and improviser, always evolving your art through playing. What challenges or ideas have emerged from your music practice this week or month? What new problem or possibility are you exploring?
Tatsuya: I just played two shows this weekend and realized that I always have this ongoing concern about natural acoustics, reflection, and richness. Acoustic performers always depend on the acoustic conditions. Each performance is different, given the refraction, the frequency refraction of the room, that’s always challenging. But there’s another part of this, and this is not “new”-new but last week, I was communicating with a concert presenter in Philadelphia, and we were talking about doing solo percussion performances. And I was telling him about the way musicians have to work with various acoustic conditions and also about how we need to think about the length of our performance. Since I have been doing so much solo percussion performance, I started to have a good sense of the best length for a performance. Performance length is important; it’s a framework for the music, especially in a live concert when you are spontaneously composing, improvising while performing. It’s important to know what is the most powerful, what is not overwhelming and also not a waste, what is best in terms of time-length and the content. I’ve found that the best length is 33 minutes. And in a poor acoustic environment 15 minutes can feel like a lot for me. But in a very good acoustic space, 33 minutes can feel really short.
The sound, the performance, is also affected by the natural environment. Humidity is big issue for me that directly impacts the bowing capability for metals and all drum skins. Especially when playing in outdoor settings, I started to get a good sense of the best length of time for the performance. After dark, outside in nature, my instruments do not sound their best, as they are affected by dew. Under the bright sun, metal objects can reach high temperatures that melt all the rosin on bow or other objects. The dry air sound in California, Arizona, New Mexico or western dry climate areas distribute totally different frequencies out of my instruments. And in some wet areas, I have experienced sounds curving, sounds twisting like waves.
At the same time I realize that if there is a very poor acoustic situation, or poor climactic condition, it may not totally affect the music itself but it may affect performer mentally. This is the funny part about playing live—it’s really LIVE. We are live, so things depend on today’s condition, my condition, the audience or atmosphere changes each day’s performance, making it completely different. And returning to this conversation in Philadelphia, there’s one venue called “Icebox” in Philadelphia—it used to be a refrigerator space—and it has a pretty crazy echo there, and we were talking about me doing something in that space. So we decided that we will do a 2-hour solo percussion performance in June 2016. It will be improvising percussion. But I’m going to structure it a bit, going to compose structurally, with that space in mind, so I can more rely on the structure instead of everything being improvised. And that is new for me.
This idea of doing a long-length solo performance came to me last year. It’s when I was in Houston TX, and visited the Mark Rothko chapel. I went there with Michel Doneda, and talked with the person at the front-desk, asking if maybe I could bring a gong there to just try it out a bit. They let me try it (unofficially of courses), so I got to I play gong inside the Rothko chapel for a few minutes. Before, I did it, I was imagining the sound of the Gong Orchestra in the Rothko Chapel, but then I thought a different way—that I wanted to do a solo percussion piece in the Rothko Chapel instead. So that experience inspired me to do different live solo performances than I have been doing. Now I am imagining that the Icebox performance in Philadelphia will have an equally interesting sound as the Rothko chapel. The architecture of the buildings was not designed for acoustic purposes, but the results came out to be interesting to me in both places. So that’s scheduled now for June 15th this year. It will be a public performance, and I will record it too.
MS: You recently toured with Michel Doneda, right? How was that?
Tatsuya: The tour with Michel was great. He’s an artist I respect a lot. We understand each other’s sound, vibrations, techniques, and approaches. I met Michel back in 2001, when I was touring in France. A mutual friend, the percussionist Le Quan Ninh, found out I was in Europe at that time, and so he set up a concert with me, Ninh, Michel, Heddy and a couple of dancers in Toulouse. So that was our first meeting in 2001. I found Michel is a very special artist—he has a deep understanding of sound. There’s only a couple of musicians that exist in the world that I can work with in this specific way.
MS: It seems like you are on the road 75% of the year or so. (When you gave a workshop here last year, I recall you mentioning having a little kitchen in your van where you cook a steak, park somewhere you won’t be bothered, and enjoy drinking a beer and watching the sunset…) Can you say a bit about how your nomadic life and your encounters with others along the way enriches your music?
Tatsuya: Well, fortunately, I have had a nomadic mentality since I was at a young age, since high-school. I remember in high school I got a 50cc scooter, and that was like my passport, I thought, “I can go anywhere.” That mentality is still here. I came to this country and there’s a road, there’s a car. You can drive to California, Boston. Why people don’t do that? So touring a lot, that’s a kind of gift I got, it’s kind of like being a teacher, it’s something in me, it’s not exactly that I have a choice. And also it’s not easy to survive playing improvised music. Not too many gigs are available in one place. And when I moved from NYC to Easton PA, I decided to go more on the road. That’s the only way. Even when living in NYC, I was not able to play gigs every day. If I need to play more, I need to go on the road. Also I found out that when I go on the road, there’s wide range of open places, more and more places to play and chances to meet people; there is a lot of unexpected connections and more opportunities.
[As for the kitchen in the van] Well, we all need to eat well, and with my Japanese body, with my diet growing up, I found that the food here is hard on the body. I started to tour in the USA in the late 90’s, and I would eat whatever was available, eating cheaply as possible, fast food too. But this was not a good thing for me. If I was on the road for two weeks, I would come home tired and sick. That happened many times. So I started to realize why. So, now I eat “my food” when I am on the road, go to grocery shopping instead of go to eat at the restaurant. Try to find better ingredients organic as possible, ask audience ahead of time by Facebook, to donate their home-garden vegetables. I get home-grown vegetables, cook and eat. When I have time, I will try to find a spring to get pure clean spring water to drink. I often go exercise when I don’t need to drive a lot, go swim at YMCA, relaxes my muscles at sauna, the steam bath, and back on the road again. When you ask me about bumping into new things on the road: There are different kinds of musicians—some are always into new gear, new stuff. I like to work with stuff over a long period of time. I’ll work with the same cymbal for 15 years, until it breaks. I like to dig into the one thing until it’s broken and completely falls apart.
MS: Recently you played with Kawabata Makoto, who is also from Osaka. His work shares a sense of the deep play and reverence for sound that I’ve seen in your performances. I think you will be touring together in the US later this year. Did you know him when you were just starting out? What is it like playing together?
Tatsuya: I met him in 2001. I was a drumming for this rock band, Psychic Paramount, and that was the opening act for Makoto Kawabata’s band, Acid Mothers Temple, on tour in Europe. We were young and our interests were far from each other that time, so didn’t get much into it. But after a number of years, we met again and started to play together. And it was great. Just this past two winters, we played a total of 24 shows together in Japan. And it’s been an interesting thing, as he has had a kind of similar path to me. He’s a little bit older, four or five, years older than me. His music is self-taught. His interests and his discipline is very similar. I’m so happy to be sharing music with this guy, touring together. Our music works so well and there’s only one guy in the world like him.
MS: Did you study music at all formally as a kid? Or are you mostly self-taught?
Tatsuya: Mostly self-taught. I had a teacher when I was 18. I studied just a brief period of time with Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, a drummer from Japan. Yoshigaki worked with Otomo Yoshihide, Alterdstates, Rovo, etc. I was a student, but basically a roadie for him at that time. I mostly learned by watching him play—and he played every night with amazing musicians in Japan. He played drums very musically, great improvisation, great skill, and great musicianship.
MS: That seems like a more traditional way to learn.
Tatsuya: Yes. Some of Asian traditional ways of learning with a master can be hard, the way they treat younger people can be tough… But he’s a nice guy. He even keeps in touch with me now. He contacts me on my birthday, though I was with him for a short time, long ago.
MS: Can you share a bit about your “autobiography” of sound— Have any people or events in your life radically changed the way in which you approach music?” What were some key turning points for you as you moved into increasingly free/pure sound?
Tatsuya: My early 20s were a period of my life when I was not totally focused on music, I didn’t yet know what to do, and what I liked. Everyday life with various types of day jobs, and I was not seriously doing my music yet. At that time, I was connected with group of music friends who were organizing events and all types of ways of surviving earning money doing music shows. They got me a dance-hall gig that was about $100 per night with 5 stages, playing 50-80 songs/night. (At the end of the night I paid my $10 out to a band leader as a thank you for having me in the band, like a mafia tax system) I had no experience with this kind of music; I had never played that type of dance numbers, but I guess was playing okay. I couldn’t play like it should be, but I could improvise and play with songs just simply and nicely, keeping constant tempo and adding a little taste. They liked me little bit. But I was very clear about this gig, I thought it was the worst place to be as a musician. I felt it was a last stop for going to musician’s cemetery; it will kill your art. I did it for a few months, and all of us got fired by owner of the place. I heard they installed a karaoke machine instead of live band.
Some time after that dance-music period, I came to the USA without any really concrete ideas of what I wanted to do or even going to school. I just came to States to find out something. First, I landed in Los Angeles to kickstart my US life without speaking any English. I picked up some restaurant waiter job, cleaning tables and at a karaoke shop immediately after arrived at there. I found a Chinese-owned English as a second language school to start learning language. About a year after, I drove to Boston. I didn’t speak English well, but I was improvising that part, I started to finding music that I can speak, speaking music as a second language before being able to communicate in English as a third language.
Music life changed when I was in Boston in the 90s. There was a number of musicians that I met in Boston from the New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee, and the local musicians playing jazz, classical, improvised music, and they did local improvised musicfestivals, they formed different ensembles together, and I was pretty good at doing these things. I was in my mid-late 20s, a good drummer, percussionist, doing improvised music, and it was a great time to work with so many musicians. It was a great time. At that time, I met Greg Kelly, Bhob Rainey, and with those two guys, we formed a trio band: nmperign. They were doing minimalist music. Very silent. Minimalist stuff. So that is how I learned about sound and silence a lot at that time.
After I experienced performing minimalist music, I found that I was frustrated about it in some way. There was something huge missing about the dynamic life of being a drummer/percussionist. I set up a drumset, pulled out drums, stands and cymbal from several cases to set up for shows or rehearsals, but politically, in terms of minimalism, you are not really allowed to play drums. Minimalism in that way probably is more conceptional art than music. Drums can be loud or can be rhythmic, but ideally the type of sound, texture, silence is based on minimalist music. But I learned a lot about silence at that time. I experienced several times that audience applause was so much louder than our instruments on the stage. I also learned about the important natural habit of human ear. When there is a lot of silence, the ear opens. When it is loud, the ear closes somehow. Then I moved to NY in 2000, I started to play more on drumset base, started to play jazz, free jazz in town, in the subway, on the street, in restaurants, bars and concert venues. I remember playing in the subway or street, it was so natural things for me to do in the city as soon as I settled in there. I met a German bass player Peter Kowald, played and recorded with him as a duo. He introduced me to a festival called the Vision Festival. I started to play with all kinds of jazz musicians, improvised musicians and that was another turning point towards different music influences. During those 6 years in NYC, I started to be interested in play more Solo percussion and European style improvised music. I remember feeling that I am really not from the roots of jazz. NYC is really Jazz place to me. It’s the culture and history, so I realized myself, a young Japanese musician came from an Osaka suburb is not really from jazz, of course. I started working on my own improvised music. “My own” sounds kind of funny, but what I mean is that I started touring and playing more solos. Playing solo and also being able to play with many other musicians on the road. So it’s changed a lot over time. And now, I am turning now, a little bit, to think about noise. Noise music. All kinds of noise. And noise as a performing art. I’m very lucky to travel a lot and see different things, different musicians doing this stuff.
MS: Given your background in improve your refined sense of sound, when you say noise, what do you mean?
Tatsuya: Thinking about noise…I don’t know…It’s not coming from a classical or jazz or folk background. People invent sound sources to perform with. People make circuit boards and making [T. makes a white-noise sound], or they use guitar or another existing medium and hook it up to the boxes to make new, crazy noises. The noise, what I like is that it is personal, it’s got so much variety—each person has a completely different way of making sound art. I get bored of improvised music sometimes; people can sometimes start improvising in a certain way. So the noise is very much opening. And it’s a different kind of discipline too. To play an instrument, it takes 10 years, 20 years to get your chops. [He makes a gesture of using a violin bow.] But with noise, you can get a wire, get a board and then make a sound [T. makes a white noise sound ccrrrrrchhhhh.] Some of them are modified instruments, some invent a source from scratch,some use contact microphone, no input but there is electro loop to make a sophisticated sound, and some use laptops to program sounds. Sound inside of sound, layer and texture. All are like what I do and we acoustic musicians do. And the noise community is so [theatrically creative]–they wear different costumes, create different effects with lighting. It’s very attractive to me. I am also of course part of the improvising community. I can tell good technical players, who are always refining their technique. That’s cool stuff, I can see that too. But noise is kind of pure to me.
MS: On this note of pure sound—you have a deep connection with gongs. Your performances, your mastery, shows the hours you’ve spent with them. When did you first start playing gongs? What about bowing on gongs?
Tatsuya: I picked up the gong back in the late 90s. I bought a 25-inch gong from a music store in Boston. At first I was just hitting it, same as everybody does. It was an accidental kind of thought: ‘Maybe I can bow this.’ So I used a long bamboo chopstick, bent by heat, and I added a string, and it worked. And I then got a violin bow, and then my friend gave me an Indian sarangi bow, and so I started playing with that…So that’s how I started. There’s no proper percussion or gong bows I can buy, so I started to make them. I didn’t have carpentry skills. I learned from scratch. I like this kind of thinking too; it helps with the music too. I like making things, figuring out how it works, fixing things. For the gong orchestra I have to make a lot of things to make it happen.
MS: What qualities do you find most powerful or unique about the gongs in terms of sound?
Tatsuya: Some people say the feedback of guitar…Maybe you can say…I think most important thing is continuous sound. You can make this from percussion instrument, bowing the gong, and the notes, and for the live, especially for the live concert, the gong gives vibration. In the 90s I was using a gong, a cooking-pan lid, I was also bowing a brass candle-stand and it made a very high-pitched noise, and some Japanese singing bowls. I was bowing a dowel also.
MS: A wooden dowel?
Tatsuya: Yeah, I can remember that sound now. [T. makes a deep foghorn-like sound.] At that time, I started to understand sustained notes, the kind of physics of what can make a sound or not make a sound. Stryofoam, plastic, cardboard box. I found that bowing was a great idea. Bowing percussion is basically between attach and decay. So when you hit a cymbal, it’s ‘attack’ and then it decays. The bowing is happening between the ‘attack’ and ‘decay,’ so it makes a sustained sound.
MS: Can you share a bit about how these sonic qualities made you want to create the Nakatani Gong Orchestra? [The gong orchestra consists of local musicians and non-musicians that come out for a workshop and performance when Tatsuya comes to town.] You conduct this orchestra each time, so it composed or improvisational?
Tatsuya: Earlier we were talking about the personal character of musicians. Some people do many new things, they want new gear, new boxes, new cymbals, but I like to work with one thing for 10 years, for as long as it lasts. The gong is also one of my signatures, and the Gong Orchestra is another level of extended work. So I practice gongs, and I work a lot with them, so I know each gongs that I have, its sound, its habit, how they sound. I know each of my gongs well, but it’s impossible that I can make a live performance with all of them on my own. So NGO started by an extension of imagination of my solo percussion and getting influenced, helped by local artists where I visit. It’s a community-engaged project. Also after some years of Gong Orchestra experience, I found so much more benefit from the experiences. Gong Orchestra is a good tool to share sound with communities. People get involved; the participation is fun. It also creates meeting place for a mixture of cross local communities, making an amazing moment. Simple instruments make it possible to mix up musicians with non-musicians with different skill levels and backgrounds. Someone mentioned to me about the music concert usually perform by artist or master on the stage, with listeners sitting on other side. But I think that by involving the community, NGO is sharing in a different way.
So I practice, and I work a lot, so I know each gong, its sound, its habit, how they make sound. I know each of my gongs well, but it’s impossible that I can make a composition with all of them by myself. My knowledge is in the wind-gong, the flat gong—it’s called a Chinese wind-gong. I know all the sounds of my gongs, and I know how it should be. But it is impossible that I can make a composition on my own. So when I have a gong orchestra together, I have a picture in my head—a sense of [striking/bowing] that one [gong], then that one, [then] that one. But usually I don’t do that, usually it’s 90% improvised. I’ll think, in this moment—those two, then that one. It makes it more flexible, in a positive way, in a good way. I try to use accidents too. Some performers can’t do it, or can’t get a gong to make a sound, and I try to include those too in a positive way. It’s a kind of spontaneous community project, and it’s really time-limited in terms of rehearsal, but, it can all come together very well.
And the gong itself, it is already a good sound. It’s like a salad—the vegetables are good themselves. They already have a good taste. So if you add some olive oil and vinegar, oregano, salt, etc. It gets to be too much. When you just need a simple sprinkle of salt. And I can feel that too with the gong orchestra. Sometimes people push it too much, and then it changes the good taste.
MS: Do your solo recordings (such as Present Presence and PrimalCommunication) begin as improvisation that then become compositions? Or are these recordings also mostly improvisation?
Tatsuya: I am improvising, but it becomes a composition at a certain point. If you keep improvising, improvising, improvising, and you get to know yourself too well, so at some point you are improvising but you are composing.
MS: Do you go to a familiar gesture?
Tatsuya: Yes, familiar gesture, but what is the most important thing about improvising is freshness. Freshness or maybe something a bit fragile—but with composition, I become solid. So in composition I have a structure, such as in concert, I might decide to start with gong and finish with gong. So that part is composed structurally, but then in the middle I do whatever I want. That has more power in it, that makes sense for composing for me. I keep deepening and deepening the same basic composition. In solo playing you have to have reflection from the sound, from the people, from the acoustic environment. What is your limit? What is your more than limit? You know what tool you are going to use.
Composing is trying to control everything—space, sound, dynamics, how long each note will last for. And repeating things is part of this. I use same instrument for years, until it breaks down. And the same with my performing and improvising. Gong to start and gong to finish, but then I go so many different ways, so many mentally different ways. It may not seem to make sense. I want to be using what kind of tool, what kind of sound, I have to construct something good each time I improvise. I have my signature of sound. I usually don’t bring up people’s names as examples for my own process. But somebody told me about this, and I think about it a lot. Someone told me once that even if people don’t know jazz music, they will recognize the sound of Miles Davis. I don’t think it’s the phrasing or the way of playing. The sound is him, which is unbelievable to me. I want to be like that too. That’s my dream. For my sound to be me.
MS: I was just listening to your Present Presence, and the first track, Present Emergence, there are voices in it. It feels like music one might hear in a contemporary Noh play, in the sense of Noh as a between-space where ghosts pass through for a while. Which fits too, as I always think of sound as being between flesh and space. Anyway, I’ve not heard you use voice in your live performances over the years, so am wondering if this is something that you do only in recordings(?)
Tatsuya: I made the voice track for a purpose. I had been performing live as a sound-track for a movie, “Sanguivorous,” a contemporary vampire movie from Japan. I met this movie distributor through Ed Wilkerson Jr. from Chicago, we worked together at several museums in USA, making this live film score. It gave me a chance to work with voice and gong and experiment a bit. One of the shows I was asked to play at was in Baltimore called Otakon (a convention for Otaku generation, 60,000 young anime otaku kids get together there annually, look it up!) . I made soundtrack, which I perform along with live. I experimented, singing along with the gongs, performing live with my gongs. This is still under developed experiment and I will probably develop singing with Gongs later, near future. Like a choral group as part of the Nakatani Gong Orchestra.
MS: In the same album, I realized that another haunting sound—a sharp whispering sound something between wind and breath and the first stirrings of what could become a voice was likely the sound of you blowing through a cymbal on your drumhead. (That’s one of the coolest things to see live. I’ve seen a lot of music professors and geeky musicians freak out when you do that—so refreshing for people.) Anyway, I’d heard and seen this before in your performances, but the sound in the recording and in performance feels remarkably different. Both experience are powerful and distinct from each other. On the recording, the sound is like wind from another world; in your performances, it’s a wild, wise, energetic moment, because of how intensely you play—and how delightful it is to see a musician interact in totally out-of-the-box ways with the instruments. Your recordings are quieter; it feels that you are creating a place to dwell in for a time, a sonic landscape that a listener moves through, and it seems that you are mindful of recordings being a place of unseen presences. Whereas, given the intense energy of your performances, seeing you live feels more like the weather, because audiences can really feel the sound on the skin. (Especially given the reverberation of the gongs.) At your performances, we’re in the whirlwind and eye of the hurricane. Can you tell us a little bit about the difference in the process of your solo recordings and live performances?
Tatsuya: My opinion between live and recordings: Actually live performance—for example, live action-painting, I like the live action-painting, not for the finished thing on the easel, but, like playing music, [T. makes “chht, chht, chht” sounds of paint being flung] the live-action painting should be live, should be action and live and splashing paint everywhere, and then at the end of the set, all of the paint should go into the paper, and at the end, it’s all a dark pile of paint, no so interesting. The active part is what is important in performance to me.
MS: The moving moment is what is important in performance, not the ending?
Tatsuya: Yeah. We are live, so we listen not just from the ear, we listen from the air, from the body, from the skin, from the bone, from the eye, the nose, we feel it, we smell it. We feel it. So that’s the sound. And it’s also happening between human beings. Why do people go to crowded bars to drink. You can drink at home, it’s same beer. But they want to be live. It’s same way. The ending is important too. Once we start improvising, there should be experience the end sometime and then a going into the silence. But for the recording I think ahead more, create different structures. It’s not possible to create the same feeling as live performance in a recording. Especially with my work. And with recording I can do various takes. I can edit. I can put more reverb. But it’s not live. To some degree, I think that sometimes I should not make recordings. Nowadays it’s kind of strange, CDs everywhere, recordings everywhere. I go tour, come back with a bunch of CDs given to me by people on the road. But, of course it is important to document, to publish. So I’ve been thinking too that I might want to document the sound, to transcribe it [notationally]. I don’t know…I think about it. While it’s important to document and publish, I am more focused on performing live. It’s very important to me, I have to be live to be alive.
MS: Your work, given the vibrational qualities that you play with (especially with the gongs) has such a sophisticated sense of things emerging, things becoming, things resounding for a time and fading away. Your track titles seem to point to this too, with words like flux and fluctuation, emergence, presence, and fog path. Part of this is being a musician, being an experimental musician, and also the reverberation of the gongs. Part of it feels pervasive in Japanese aesthetics. I think of what Seigo Matsuoka said about Japanese aesthetics being infused with a sense of liquid transformation, of things shifting from nothingness to taking shape, what he called a “morphology of clouds.” And since sound is such a subtle form, out of all the arts, it feels like a musician can shine a light on the subtle movement between what is solid and what is formless—the sound and silence. As a musician, and the type of musician you are, this is what you are doing all the time; it’s the water you are swimming in. This interplay between silence and sound. So it may seem very ordinary to you! But even though it’s the water we are swimming in too, we just don’t see it much. And so it would be valuable to hear some thoughts about how this is for you. How does silence inform your music, or is it the other way around? Or something in between?
Tatsuya: Yes, like in poetry, like in visual art—the blank space. Because I always think about the silence and space. Yeah, I think about this a lot. This is more like, you know, I am kind of clear about this—notes have silence as part of them, the sound is in combination with the silence. A note is like this [flips his hand]; it has a back side to it. And that is the silence. You can’t just make a sound, there’s silence there too. You have to be aware of the silence to go to the next part. Sometimes when playing, my sound will get really busy, but, nowadays, I try to think more about the silence.
MS: A related question in this talk of silence and sound is that your music cultivates a whole other way of listening, a more intense and rich way of listening to textures of sound and to the silences in the sounds. I don’t know how to express this well, except through an example: I recently missed a Charlemagne Palestine show because I was out of town at a conference. However, at the conference a friend helped me catch the last part of a medieval Buddhist ritual music conference happening at Berkeley that weekend. I’ve seen performances like this before, but was so refreshed by the power and precision of a Korean performance in working with movement and stillness. Sudden clanging noises, sudden deep stillness. This stuff was 10th century or something, but it got me thinking about the deep intelligence of new music like CP is doing and you are doing—such exquisite tuning into sound and silence, using sound AND noise to become a kind of silence, and silence as a kind of sound. So deeply intelligent. Your work moves between chaos of clanging, the whispering sounds, the reverberant stillness, the long notes that feel like a thread pulled through a needle’s eye of silence.
Tatsuya: We were just talking about minimalists, and they also tried to flip towards the silence. They are also looking at the back side of the sound. If it is silence-based, if the sound is reduced, then everyone’s ear opens up. People become more focused on small sounds, no sound, open, close, open, close. In minimalism, you see the back side in the front.
MS: How would you say that your work is different than the minimalists?
Tatsuya: I don’t want to be a conceptual minimalist, it’s more of a school—there certain structures. There’s ummm…a “rule.” If you don’t do it that way—if you suddenly get loud—then they look at you badly, because they have agreed to play quietly. But I like this as a combination very much. It’s not about the rule. Improvising. If you can mix the loud and the silence. That you can go really loud and that’s effective too. Flexibility.
MS: Maybe it’s like noise music you were speaking about earlier…
Tatsuya: The noise—yeah—it’s kind of purifying for me. It’s cleansing. [Makes a gesture towards the top of his head, like rain falling.] And also it’s pure in that there’s no musical history there. It’s kind of annoying to think of which music school things are in, etc.
MS: Yeah, but you’re not working in a school. Just your own experimenting, it feels like. In your work, the reverberation, the gong, has silence and sound together at once. This is really hard to talk about.
Tatsuya: When I play sound, I push it. I am pushing and pulling all the time. The push and the people step back, and if I pull, people come closer. That is also good relationship with the silence or empty space. This is hard to explain. At my age, music tells me what to do. I decide, but it’s music—I just said “music,” but I mean the sound. It’s what the sound tells me to do. So it’s pretty powerful to me. And I don’t understand why, why it’s so intense. Why I have to do it this way. But there’s no way that I can escape.