An interview with Kazuo Imai by Hiroaki Akaoka
Photographs by Yuji Itsumi
In an epic, career spanning interview Kazuo Imai discusses the development of his work from the 1970's when he studied with two giants of the Japanese Avante Garde, Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, to his later Soloworks series and extended projects including Marginal Consort and the Kazuo Imai Trio. The interview provides a unique, inside perspective on some of the major streams in underground Japanese music in the late 20th to early 21st Century and one of its most distinctive artists.
This interview was originally published in G-Modern Magazine Volume 27, (Japan, June 2007). It was translated to English from Japanese for the first time ever by Taketo Shimada for Black Editions in 2020.
My first impression of Kazuo Imai - his stage presence is different from anyone, and he radiates intensity. He is one of the very few musicians who demonstrate an inseparable bond between iconoclasm and the inner strength it requires. His belief in his iconoclasm - a contemporary paradigm not many musicians deal with - is palpable. His remarks are extremely wide ranging, it’s as if he is trying to show complex layers of his accumulated experiences to music listeners who tend to subscribe to certain historic narratives (including this interviewer).
The two names we can’t ignore when writing about Kazuo Imai are Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, but his experiences with them aren’t inter-changeable, and his early development from more traditional jazz to free improvisation wasn’t linear. Right now we are experiencing a steady stream of past recordings by Takayanagi hitting the market, and I would like to point out that one of the more definitive views on Takayanagi are here in this interview. Imai’s speech is nonchalant but it sheds some light on wide ranging topics. We often start these interviews with short profiles of the artists being interviewed, but let’s skip that so you can get to the interview.
(Recorded February 2007)
* Translator's note: Akaoka and Imai use the honorific 'san' when referring to Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, for ease of reading in English it has been removed here.
Days of the Jazz Coffee House
- I’d like to start by asking why you didn’t get into rock music. I think many musicians who formed the foundation of free jazz in Japan started in jazz, but people born in the ‘50s such as yourself often got into rock music in their formative years.
Kazuo Imai (I): I started playing guitar when I was in middle school, and rock and folk music were very popular. We had a modern folk music club at the school, and they would cover the Brothers Four or Kingston Trio, and rock bands in our school played the Rolling Stones, so they only played cover songs. I was interested in their activities as a guitar player, but I couldn’t really
Kazuo Imai's "far and wee" album
is now available in a Deluxe LP + digital edition.
get into their music since I didn’t know any of the songs they played. I didn’t own any records since we didn’t have a stereo at home. I had a friend who played guitar, and he would show me, ‘this is how you play the intro to Satisfaction, or he’d say ‘this song is great’, and taught me how to play the intro to Whole Lotta Love, but always just the intros. Since I didn’t know how those songs would go after the intros, the greatness of the songs was lost on me, so I didn’t practice the songs with him. Anyway, I enjoyed playing guitar so I was always playing and I remember buying music magazines like Guts *. I went to see the movie Woodstock when I was 15. I thought it was about a peaceful hippy culture, and the music didn’t really impress me. Oh, I thought Richie Havens was really good in it. Santana as well. The scene where The Who smashes the guitar I thought was too theatrical and made me uncomfortable, probably because I was too young to understand the cultural issues around it.
* A music magazine from Shueisha that specialized in rock music and often included guitar tabs and scores of popular songs from the time. Its first issue was published in 1969.
- So that’s before you got into jazz?
I: Around the same time, a friend who was few years older took me to a jazz coffee house called Oreo in a neighborhood where I grew up. He was into bossa nova, such as Getz/Gilberto, but I preferred the type of jazz where they really play the instruments. I think Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime came out around that time, and I liked them better than typical rock music. Soon the owner of the coffee house memorized my face because I was requesting songs from Emergency! so much. That’s how I started to get into jazz, or music in general. What attracted me to jazz was its ad-libs. I think I was into the tension it provides. I have the same tendency now, I enjoy music with tension.
- I assumed the beginning of your music was free jazz from the ‘60s, not the electrified jazz you mentioned.
I: I didn’t have any chance to listen to free jazz back then so I didn’t know anything about it. But it was exciting to hear someone say things like ‘the epitome of jazz is its free improvisation’. When I became a high school student, I befriended a guy who was studying jazz guitar, so he taught me what he knew. He told me there are theories to jazz improvisation, so I bought a jazz theory book and studied it half-heartedly. It made me realize you have to know music theories to be able to play jazz guitar. The ad-lib looks free on its surface, but there are theories at its core and you play freely within that structure. I thought it won’t be easy to be able to play jazz guitar, but I knew I somehow wanted to be able to ad-lib. I’m still practicing even now.
- Your interest in jazz started with an intuitive attraction.
I: I think so. At the time, I was devouring everything they play at the coffee house, Miles, Coltrane, Evans, Monk… I was looking down and swaying to the music. I would study the album cover to soak in the information, just your typical customer at any jazz coffee house really. I think I preferred things with intensity and drive. I wasn’t really aware of free jazz per se, but I really liked the era of Coltrane when his songs got increasingly longer, albums like Ole, Kulu Se Mama and Africa. He would just keep going and going. I felt cheated if there were more than three songs on one side of a record (laugh). The songs don’t feel that long when we listen to them now, but at the time his ambition really came through.
Taj Mahal Travellers
- What are other important musical experiences you had besides the jazz coffee house?
I: It was in 1971, so I was sixteen then, I went for the first time to a rock festival at Hibiya Park’s open-air concert hall with a friend. There were so many bands playing all day, Zuno Keisatsu, The Happenings Four, Shinki Chen, and Shigeru Narumo, who’d play his guitar and organ simultaneously. Then Yuya Uchida, who was mc’ing the event, said “Next up is a group very much appreciated in the avant-garde music community.”, and introduced Taj Mahal Travellers. They all sat cross legged on the stage, made noise with bamboo sticks, moved some air with a zabuton cushion, played a violin, or plucked on a contrabass laying on the floor, they played like that for about an hour. They seemed very unique and impressed me the most at the festival.
- Were they very different from what you’d known until that time?
I: I thought they were pretty special. Whether it’s rock, jazz or folk music, they all have a certain structure and the music is performed within that parameter. Even some of the more experimental rock bands had drums and bass supporting their groove and they didn’t deviate from that formula. Taj Mahal Travellers focused on something else, they just made some sounds together and turned it into music. That was pretty refreshing to me… it made me happy because I was feeling uncomfortable about the fact that music required a certain set of rules. It was liberating to know you can make sound without any constraints and submit the result as music. I had no idea I’d be playing with them in the future.
- Did it influence your development after seeing them play?
I: It didn’t make me want to start making music like them right away. I didn’t know where to start, and I really wasn’t thinking of starting a group. I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with anyway, I was happy noodling with my guitar and looking for music to listen to. I went to Oreo almost every day since I started high school so I just wanted to be able to play jazz guitar. I wasn’t into rock music, I don’t think I had any particular band that I liked.
- There were some prog rock bands that incorporated jazz and improvisation around that time, were they of any interest to you?
I: They seemed very structured, like tracing a picture that’s already drawn, so they didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t feel much tension or passion in their sound I guess. I actually saw a Pink Floyd concert at Yoyogi Gymnasium when I was a freshman in high school. Some girl gave me a ticket, I wasn’t sure what to do with it but I didn’t want to waste it so I went. I didn’t enjoy the show that much (laugh). What I remember the most about the show is when they came out to the stage. They had a pre-recorded tape playing before the show, and they started playing to the tape as they came out to the stage. I remember lots of lights blinking. I was into the emotional side of music, so I thought using pre-recorded material was dishonest, and they didn’t improvise, so I didn’t have a good impression. I was a purist.
- It seems to me you were into this idea of liveness, one of the main focuses for both the Taj Mahal Travellers and the type of jazz you liked.
I: I guess so. I think I was interested in things taking shape right in front of you. That’s what I liked about ad-libs anyway.
Meeting Masayuki Takayanagi
I: That same friend who took me to Oreo asked me if I wanted to take guitar lessons with him, so I called the teacher. He said we should talk at one of his concerts, so I went a couple of times to his shows but it didn’t go past saying hello. I didn’t think it would work, so I visited the Yamaha Jazz School where Sadao Watanabe* was the main teacher. Then, unlucky for me, Masayuki Takayanagi happened to be there (laugh).
*Sadao Watanabe (1933-): A jazz musician who plays
the saxophone and flute. Nicknamed Nabesada
- Did you know anything about Takayanagi?
I: I had no idea. The first time I came across his name was when I read the pamphlet for the guitar school. Around that time, a friend gave me a ticket to a public viewing for a radio show called Nabesada and Jazz, I think he played songs from the album that was released around the same time. Takayanagi played on that record so he was performing with him. That was the first time I heard him play.
- From the LP Sadao Watanabe * ?
* Sadao Watanabe: Sadao Watanabe (CBS/Sony, SOPL-21-XJ) 1972
I: Right, from around the time when Sadao Watanabe was into African music. All the performers shook little shakers at the end of the show. African music was quite popular in Japanese jazz then.
- What did you think about the music?
I: I actually don’t remember much. Takayanagi looked like a strange old man sitting in a chair, his guitar sounded like it was going through a fuzz pedal (laugh). I had no idea what he was doing, and he didn’t join the others with the shakers at the end of the show, so I thought, what’s his deal? It’s interesting when you think about it, he recorded Free Form Suites* that same year but he was playing with Sadao Watanabe as well.
* New Direction For The Arts: Free Form Suite (Three Blind Mice, TBM-10) 1972
- You decided to take lessons from him as a result. Was it easy to adjust to his teaching style right away?
I: One of the first things he said was “I’d only teach you if you are willing to study music for the rest of your life”, and “Make up your mind by next week”. It was really nerve-wracking. I decided to study with him because I didn’t want him to think I was a quitter. I took his words seriously.
- I can’t believe he approached a high school kid that way, and on top of that, you decided to be his student.
I: Surprising (laugh). Takayanagi couldn't care less about age, and it was a group lesson so he treated us all the same. He threw his wild-eyed glares at me every now and then, and I’d glare back at him like whaddayawant. It took some courage on my part to do that, I was 17 after all (laugh). I have no idea what others thought of him. Not many people dropped out even after he said things like “I’d only teach you if you are willing to study music for the rest of your life”. There were probably around 12 people in the class.
- How old were the other students?
I: Everyone was older. I think I was the youngest in the class until I was 20 or so. I eventually became the lone remaining student after two years. They all kind of flaked out. I mean, it is kind of perplexing when the first things he said were “Don’t even think about playing commercial music”, “The study of music is expensive and time consuming”, and “You can’t support yourself if you want to play real music.” What can you do then? He also told us “You can’t stop coming to class until I say so”, and “If you quit in the middle, don’t tell anyone that you studied with me because it’d come back to haunt me” He said, “Don’t call me professor, people who get called that are up to no good”, so I always called him Takayanagi-san. I think the contents of his curriculum was the main culprit of everybody quitting.
- On one hand he said ‘study music for the rest of your life’ but he also told you not to play anything commercial, how do you reconcile those two?
I: I think he meant aspire to play music that sounds real to you, like trying to express your emotional reactions when you face social injustices for example. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what he meant at the time, but ‘real music’ sounded attractive. I didn’t think or understand how to make a living from music or anything like that. I was living with my parents, it wasn’t really a pressing issue for me. It eventually became my concern, it still is at my ripe old age. Anyway, one of his core beliefs were “I’m here to teach technique, I’m not teaching music." He wanted us to know that you ought to listen to music on your own. Listen to good music and read good books. Practice your instrument, listen to music, and read books - those were the three pillars of music study with him.
- Was there any recommendation from him in terms of music to listen to or books to read?
I: He told us to buy two things in the beginning, a music journal called Ongaku Geijutsu*, and Moments Musicaux by Adorno. I don’t think he recommended any music. Sometimes he’d play us some tunes when he had a record with him that someone happened to return to him. I remember Spirits by Lee Konitz, Svengali by Gil Evans and some Jim Hall records. I thought Konitz in Spirits was just brilliant. He never told us to emulate what he does though. He told us to emulate ad-libs by great musicians, and analyze the methods as well as their tendencies. It was the same way when he assigned us books to read. There are more details about his teaching method in the recently published collection of his writings Han Ongaku Ronshu**. To get back to what his lessons consisted of, he divided his teaching into two main sections, technique and mechanics, so we did a lot of mechanical repetitions. The technique is about how to express yourself, and the mechanics are about how to operate your instrument with precision. We used five books of etudes for classical guitar and we learned to play them with a guitar pick, it was a jazz guitar school after all. There weren’t any jazz songs to be found in those books so many students decided to quit. In Takayanagi’s mind, it was about learning precise picking techniques so you can deal with all kinds of music. It was about being a professional guitar player. It didn’t occur to me then, but I think it’s a good structure for learning how to play guitar. I’m teaching guitar now with this method and I like the simplicity of it. I hope it doesn't sound like promotion but everyone should try it. We also had a history class once a month, we used The Jazz Book by Joachim-Ernst Berendt as a textbook for the class. We can’t play jazz without knowing its history, free jazz is nothing special or difficult, it emerged as a form of progression and you can understand it if you understand what preceded it.
*Japanese music journal, published from 1946 to 1998
**Loosely translates to Collection of Universal Music Theories ISBN-10: 4901477293, 2006
I want to be clear, we talked about noise and free jazz, but he never taught us how to play them. I don’t think there were many students who wanted to play free jazz, but I was into it so we talked about free jazz a lot.
- So Takayanagi didn’t reject students even if their motive was to learn to play something he himself would criticize?
I: He didn’t do that. Occasionally he would say ‘this music is boring’ but he didn’t push his opinion on us. He left it up to us. His lesson was about learning the techniques of guitar playing. He also said you can be great at something insignificant. Most of the students didn’t last long though.
Being a Roadie
- When you think about the type of music scene in the ‘70s that Takayanagi was involved in, one can’t help but imagine it being cliquey (politically), and we’d think there were significant core beliefs in each of those cliques, so it’s pretty surprising that he didn’t force his beliefs on others that were close to him.
I: Yamaha Music School was like that, but Renjuku wasn’t. I’d imagine most of the students were affected by Takayanagi’s thought one way or the other since there were lots of discussions. I for sure learned a lot from him.
- Is it the way you think?
I: I think it’s the framework of how you think. He used to say things like “Music is an expression of an idea. An idea could be timeless but an expression should be molded to a generation.” and “You need to have your point of view on music, and it should relate to your world view.”.
- He didn’t force you to think like him, but maybe it’s kind of like ‘Children learn from their parents’?
I: Maybe. His radicalism was inescapable, and it affected some of us for sure, but most of the students weren’t really interested in talking about philosophy. They just wanted to be able to play jazz on a stage. But he didn’t expel students for that, he was giving us lessons for profit after all. I agreed with many of his views, but it wasn’t like you had to agree with him to learn from him. I also started to help him with his shows only a few months after I started taking lessons from him. So that was pretty big for me. It was the first show where he used the rotary amp from Yamaha, I think it was a concert for the anti-Vietnam war movement. The Yamaha amp was too heavy for one person to carry, so he enlisted some of us for help. And I became his regular roadie when his monthly concert series with New Direction Unit moved from Aoyama Tower Hall to Shibuya Jean-Jean*.
*A small theater in Shibuya. It opened in 1969 and closed its doors in April 2000. It regularly hosted
shows by Maki Asakawa, Akihiro Miwa, Noriko Awaya, Shuji Terayama, and Chikuzan Takahashi.
- So that became another learning venue for you outside of the lessons.
I: I learned a lot. It really blew my mind when I first heard him play in those concerts. I didn’t know he played music like that. It was in a music hall, so it sounded really expansive even though it was very loud. I saw Mass Projection there, and it was really superb. It made me unreasonably happy to know this kind of music exists in this world. I was listening backstage and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was the same when I first heard Taj Mahal Travellers play. I wonder why.
- You mean to say you’d never listened to any of Takayanagi’s music before that?
I: I really hadn’t. The only time I heard him play was at that Sadao Watanabe concert (laugh). In terms of his records, I knew about A Jazzy Profile of Jojo*, but that’s all I knew. I got hooked to free improvisation then. I didn’t think it was difficult or hard to understand.
*Masayuki Takayanagi: A Jazzy Profile of Jojo (Victor World Group, SMJX-10096) 1970
- You were both his student and a roadie at that point, did you have time to do anything else?
I: By the time I was a senior in high school I was helping him for most of the projects he was involved in, but he didn’t play that many shows though so it wasn’t too bad. All I thought about was playing guitar, I even took my guitar to a school field trip so I could practice and prepare for the next lesson. My life revolved around my once-a-week lesson with Takayanagi. I was also trying to learn about music as much as I could, so I was listening to all kinds of music.
- You were starting to expand your musical horizon.
I: He didn’t tell me what to listen to, but the music journal he told me to read, Ongaku Geijutsu, was my source of information. I even started listening to ethnic music, since they wrote about it as well as contemporary classical music. I often listened to radio programs like Gendai no Ongaku (Contemporary Music Hour) and Sekai no Minzoku Ongaku (Ethnic Folk Music of the World). Ethnic music programs by Fumio Koizumi* were very informative and I learned a lot from them. Sometimes I was able to wake up very early to catch Baroque Ongaku (Baroque Music), but that didn’t happen often. I also went to a bunch of concerts that I read about. Goethe-Institute Tokyo used to host free concerts on contemporary music, I remember seeing electronic music and bio-feedback music concerts there. I was able to listen to Indian folk music at the Japan-India Association. At one concert, an older gentleman said “that song had a pretty unique rhythmic structure”, and he taught me how to count the beats in Indian music. I probably stood out in my high school uniform. Since we’re talking about the books Takayanagi recommended – he told me to read an essay on jazz in Moment Musicaux by Adorno. Adorno basically defined jazz as a dance music, Takayanagi agreed with that notion, but he also wanted to define jazz as its own art form. He often said improvisational ad-libbing in jazz needs to be recognized as an art form. I thought about it constantly. I agreed with most of his ideas, because the ad-libs in jazz are what got me interested in the first place, and it’s so hard to do.
*Fumio Koizumi (1927-83): Japanese ethno-musicologist.
- That’s where everything kind of clicked – your early fascination and the music of Takayanagi.
I: Right, so I was able to listen to him talk about music without any problem. I thought Adorno’s writings are really interesting, I especially enjoyed reading his writings that dealt with musical and cultural issues. I found a bit of Takayanagi-ism in Adorno’s writing when he talked about the relationships between music, society, and people. I think the issue of the reification of music can still be relevant today, even though the music industry and other cultural industries are omnipresent and our societies are much more complex. I was interested in the whole Frankfurt School - which Adorno was part of - though people criticized them as being a bit formulaic. It’s so hard to be independent now, it feels like every conceivable type of music is kneaded into one big mound and interconnected. Your individual character and intention are almost invisible among other records in record stores, they are all numbers inside their database anyway… I think I went way off topic, sorry about that.
So to get back to ad-libbing in jazz, I never copied what Takayanagi was doing. He told his students to copy great ad-libbed passages by great performers and analyze them afterward. I think Takayanagi himself studied that way. He told us to listen to someone else’s work if we had time to listen to his music.
As for me, I was fixated on free jazz and improvisation, so I wasn’t too invested in emulating and analyzing the past greats. As a result, I still can’t play jazz properly.
- Was it more like he was someone who shared similar topics of interest rather than a teacher who showed you how to become someone you want to be?
I: That might be overstating it a little. He was a teacher and I was his student, but I think I didn’t drop out because there were some common interests we shared. I became the only student left in his class at Yamaha Music School after two years, so he asked me if I wanted to come to his private lessons at Renjuku, it didn’t make any difference to me so I started going to his class there. It was around the time when Kazumi Watanabe was taking his lessons there. He always referred to the whole school as ‘us’ at Renjuku, so I think he felt we were all in it together. At least that’s the way I felt at the time.
- Was there any difference in his teaching method between Yamaha and Renjuku?
I: It was pretty much the same. I continued with the same book of etudes we were using at Yamaha. I worked on my mechanics and techniques, and read the books he assigned. The history class was on a break at Renjuku when I started so there wasn’t any reading for a while, but it started again with the books he newly selected. I remember reading Takeshi Umehara*, Taro Okamoto** and Ken Domon***. We studied the Lockheed bribery scandal for about a year using different magazine articles. He wanted us to read the writings of Derek Bailey after that but we were all behind on guitar lessons so the reading class got cancelled again. Now that I think about it, I wish we continued with the reading class and read Derek Bailey. You mentioned cliques earlier, I think the reading class resembled a study group of some kind. We were also asked to write an essay after each class at Renjuku.
*Takeshi Umehara (1925-2009): A philosopher noted for his study of Japanese mentality and spirituality in relation to Japanese Buddism.
**Taro Okamoto (1911-1996): An artist who is famous not only for his paintings and sculptures but also for his outrageous one-liners.
A very beloved figure in Japan, so much that his sculptures were miniaturized and became vending machine toys.
***Ken Domon (1909-1990): A social realist photographer.
- That’s interesting (laugh).
I: His premise being it’s impossible to express yourself with music if you can’t even write about it. For him music was a way to express himself, so both music and writing are tools for the expression. I think he also wanted to know what we are thinking about as we work on our music, but it was a hard homework for me since I am pretty ignorant (laugh). The homework continued for about two years and it was really taxing for me, so I stopped writing it altogether when I realized I was spending more time writing than practicing guitar. He didn’t say anything. He knew my goals since we talked a lot about them.
Takehisa Kosugi’s Classroom
- By the way, was it right after high school when you start going to Takehisa Kosugi’s classroom at Bigakko?
I: I started when I was nineteen, so one year after graduating from high school. I knew a little about Kosugi since I was interested in Taj Mahal Travellers, but I got really interested in him as a composer through an issue of the magazine Yu that featured the works of Yuji Takahashi and Kosugi. ‘Catch-Wave, or a musical riddle, sound and silence in the speed of light, light and shadow in the speed of sound.’ ‘Music, in its essence, cannot be perceived through the human auditory system which can only recognize waveforms that are between 20-20000 cycles per second.’ So cool. I thought his theories on Catch-Wave and intermedia were fascinating. I met him when I was still in high school, when my friend’s older brother who was into experimental art introduced me to him. There was a kind of music listening seminar organized (and also lectured) by a composer Yoshiro Irino at a restaurant called Espace Jiro in Hibiya, the first time I saw Yuji Takahashi play the works of Isang Yun was there, I remember a program on Stimmung by Stockhausen there as well. Anyway, I was a member of that club. I met my friend’s brother when Taj Mahal Travellers performed at the club and he introduced me to Kosugi. He also introduced me to the works of many different artists, La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, event scores of Fluxus artists, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol, writings of Richard Brautigan, Buckminster Fuller and his Spaceship Earth, kraut rock bands like Kraftwerk and Can…. He knew a lot about contemporary art movements, especially about American scenes. I started to read Bijutsu Techo around the same time as well. Then about a year later, Kosugi had an exhibition at Matogrosso Gallery in Shinjuku, and I got to talk to him a little when I went to see the show. He told me he would be teaching a class at Bigakko, and asked me if I wanted to come, and I said “I’ll be there”. I was a doer back then (laugh).
- You kind of went with the flow.
I: Right. I knew I was a Takayanagi disciple, I think I decided to go because he asked me. I’m not sure I would have gone if I wasn’t asked. I was interested though, that’s why I decided to go. The class was held once a week, not at the Bigakko building but at Kosugi’s apartment. There were usually about ten students in that room.
- Was there any conflict between the two teachers? Or were you able to find your own space between the two of them?
I: Hmm, I at least told Takayanagi “I decided to join a class taught by Takehisa Kosugi”. He said something like “Don’t lose your perspective”. I don’t know how I did that actually (laugh). It wasn’t like I had a definite perspective of my own then. I was going to Takayanagi’s lessons as usual, as well as helping him out as a roadie. He probably didn’t have any problem as long as I was practicing and doing my homework. He also got to hear about what Kosugi was working on.
- It’s crazy to think you were only twenty years old at that point. We’ve only talked about four or five years of your life but it seems to me you met all the critical figures from that time.
I: I don’t know how that happened (laugh). There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it, just going with the flow I guess. I don’t think I was forcing myself on them, so let’s just say I was a doer. Thinking about it now, I must have been really lucky. It was kind of an accident that I ran into Takayanagi, and I happened to talk to Kosugi on one occasion. I’m pretty sure Kosugi didn’t even remember asking me to join his class, but I told him I would, and I joined his class, even though I was little worried.
It took me a while to get used to Kosugi’s teaching method, it wasn’t like how you’d study music at all. It was his first time teaching too. Basically, the class was about improvisational performance but that could mean a lot of things. Most of the students in the class were from compositional backgrounds, and I was the only performer. We spent a lot of time talking in the class. Once, I asked him about what he thought of Adorno’s pessimistic view of Plato’s Republic when Adorno basically said it is a ‘residue of the mustiest superstition’ when Plato talks about banning ‘soft harmonies’ or certain instruments like flute and the pan-harmonic stringed instruments’. He expanded the discussion into a talk about Plato’s theory of forms. I was just curious about what he thought of that little point. He said the reason why they prohibited Shinnai-nagashi in Yoshiwara during the Edo period was because it seemed to correspond with an upsurge of the murder-suicide rate in the area. It made us think about music’s power to affect people’s emotions. Hindustani classical music was one type of music he really enjoyed, and I asked him “but isn’t it a music for Hinduist?”. He came to the next class with a record of raga performed with bunch of bowls with water in them. He was always very logical when he spoke. This might be obvious, but we needed to make our concept very clear if we wanted to do anything back then. Especially in the avant-garde. I learned a lot from Kosugi about ways of constructing concepts. I was around Kosugi a lot, so he took me to many places. I was at his recording session with Steve Lacy and Yuji Takahashi, I got to help out at his concert with Michael Ranta and Toshi Ichiyanagi on one of the songs by Michael Ranta. Also, a couple of months after I started the class, I got to perform with Taj Mahal Travellers when Kosugi couldn’t make it to one of their concerts. He said you can go as long as you are performing, I felt really lucky about that. In fact, I enjoy that experience so much that I joined their performance even when I wasn’t asked to.
- Sounds pretty similar to what ended up happening with Takayanagi.
I: Maybe. Taj Mahal Travellers used to perform once a month in Shibuya, and we’d go out drinking after the show and I’d usually end up sleeping at Kosugi’s apartment. Pretty awful, I know (laugh). I feel really bad about it. He’s been so kind to me, I can’t thank him enough.
- It sounds like Kosugi was pretty easy going.
I: He was very open minded, but I have no idea what he really thought. It must not have been easy, he always paid my share whenever we went out drinking or eating, and I’d sleep over at his place whenever I missed the last train home. I behaved like a spoiled brat. I owe him a lot. I used to play guitar at cabarets, and he’d be delighted when I'd tell him I have to go play guitar in a cabaret after the class (laugh). He’d smile and say “I used to have a part-time job in a tango band”. He’d also make me work on my composition when everyone else was working on their performance. He often told me to focus on my own work, since it’d force me to think about my ideas. He also told me to organize my documentation so it’d be easy to answer when someone asks for something. He taught me a lot about a lot of things.
Between Two Masters
- I think it’s only natural to blindly trust a charismatic teacher especially when you are barely over adolescence. You weren’t like that though, and I think that owes a lot to who you are.
I: I don’t know about that. It’s pretty scary how self-unaware I am. Anyway, I think it was when Taj Mahal Travellers were touring Hokkaido, I told Kosugi that I somewhat equate learning a musical instrument to truth seeking. Then he told me "music can’t be the subject of your faith" and "a mentor-student relationship is not an ideal relationship, the student often tries solely to impress the mentor." I understand that completely. Kosugi’s teachings were often the complete opposite of Takayanagi’s, and my thoughts on how to proceed with my own work were in flux between those two polemics. I think how I tend to construct my music is influenced by Kosugi a lot. I talk a lot about Takayanagi because I started to play more guitar again lately. Back then, I was going to a classical guitar school on top of the lessons from Takayanagi. So sometimes, I would go study with Takayanagi, work as his roadie, go to the Kosugi classroom, play with Taj Mahal Travellers, learn how to play Bach and Villa-Lobos at the classical guitar school, listen to a lot of Isang Yun, Léo Ferré or Astor Piazolla, read the writings of Adorno at the school, and work in cabarets, I was such a busy bee, a kind of a music otaku.
- You attended the Kosugi class for a year, but you kept taking lessons from Takayanagi during that period as well?
I: Of course I did. Let me just point out it’s not true when people write on my bio that I was an ‘ex-member of New Direction Unit’. I joined them as a guest performer on few occasions, and they asked me to join them but I never did, that’s the truth. They would yell at me if people keep writing that (laugh). I’ve never been an official member of Taj Mahal Travellers either. They’d call me when someone can’t make it to their show and I’d be more than happy to join them, so I was more like an extra. It bothers me when they say I was an official member. I’d be in trouble with Kosugi as well. The reason why I started playing with New Direction Unit is someone from the band saw me play with Taj Mahal Travellers, and told Takayanagi I was playing viola da gamba as well as singing with them. I wasn’t playing guitar for them...
- A snitch (laugh).
I: Takayanagi said “I heard you were singing” at one of the lessons (laugh). I was surprised, since I kind of kept it secret. Then he said “I heard it was interesting, why didn’t you tell me.”, and “If you have time for that you should play with New Direction Unit as well!”
- That’s kind of surprising! I love that story.
I: Yeah, totally unexpected. I thought that the methods of improvisation between Kosugi and Takayanagi are totally different, and I didn’t think he’d accept anything other than his own. This one time, I got a call from him and he said “Hey, I want you to play a vocoder, I’ll pay for the damn thing”. He probably just wanted to tryout different kinds of sounds. I couldn’t do it, wasn’t brave enough. I think I should have done it now. I don’t know if it would have worked but I think I missed an interesting opportunity. I was still too fragile. I felt uneasy about joining New Direction Unit because I wasn’t sure about myself, I felt maybe my career would be pigeonholed in a certain way if I joined the band since I was his student and understood Takayanagi and his guitar playing. I felt like it was a life changing decision. It was surprising to know he was open to having vocals in his unit, I wouldn’t have thought he’d be flexible like that. Maybe he wanted to give it a try since I understood his ideas pretty well. Or it could be he just needed more skilled labor in his group.
He always told other students to work on their jazz ad-libs, but he stopped telling me that at a certain point. Things like the Second Concept*, he said “you don’t have to listen to music like that”, and I wasn’t his roadie anymore so I really didn’t listen to them. I wish I had.
*A group Takayanagi started in 1978. He called his free jazz playing method 'First Concept', and cool jazz playing 'Second Concept'.
Here, Takayanagi is telling Imai that you don't have to listen to my interpretation of Lee Konitz or Lennie Tristano.
- That’s interesting (laugh).
- He really trusted you.
I: I’m not so sure. I can be really careless sometimes, “Hey scatterbrain!”, he’d shout at me for handing him the wrong things. Once, I called him to say I can’t make it to the class because I had a 104 degree temperature for a couple of days. He asked me if I’d taken any medicine, I wasn’t taking any medications because naturopathy was pretty popular back then. He yelled at me, like “Go see a doctor and get a shot you moron. You’ll get better in no time.” (laugh).
- It sounds to me it was more than your typical teacher-student relationship.
I: You might be right, he really was a good teacher. Intellectually, I was shaped more by him than my biological father. I finished the book of etudes in six years, and on my own, I just started to look for contemporary classical compositions that I can play with a guitar pick and practiced them. Like I said, he didn’t say anything about the music itself, he only commented about my guitar playing. Then, he stopped giving me pointers on my playing near the end of my lessons with him, and started giving me other advice, like how to find your own voice in music. He told me it's the same method he uses. It’s not that big of a deal but it makes sense at the same time. I treasure it, and I think about it every now and then. He said, “Your rhythmic sense is pretty radical.” when I was playing a composition by Lennox Berkeley. Then he said “You don’t have to listen to Webern anymore, his music is already imprinted in you.” even though I like to listen to Webern’s music. He also said, “Listen to really long compositions by Mahler, bathe yourself in something that’s opposite from you.”, and “You need to experience an ugly love affair.”, I wonder if I seemed disinterested in love. I used to dislike Mahler but I am starting to understand his greatness as I get older and listen to him occasionally. I’ve yet to experience a disastrous love affair, so maybe that’s in my future. All in all, he was a great teacher who really knows his stuff.
Enough old tales? Maybe it’s getting too long. Should we talk about something else?
- Oh it's really fascinating (laugh). Let's shift gears and move on to more recent times. I think it goes without saying both Takayanagi and Kosugi cast large shadows on your career, but the music you've been making recently doesn't sound like their music. In this interview I wanted to delve deep into your biography first, then investigate the complexity of their influences.
I: I think it's normal to look for the similarities. I'm obviously influenced by them, and I'm sure there are parts of my music that are similar to theirs. But they are not my only influences. I've listened to all kinds of music, from improvisational music to contemporary classic, ethnic folk music, and many others. I'm pretty sure I am influenced by all of them. I tend to think of my music as a bricolage of other people's music, and I am mostly occupied with how those different elements connect to each other. In that sense, my contribution to my music is not that big, it's like a grain of rice. How I was influenced by them is something deeper, like how to think about music. People know I've studied with them, and it's only natural when I'm judged against them. If you are trying to promote my work, I understand you might want to exaggerate it a little since I'm not well known. But I don't think it's something I should delete from my bio, so it's there. They know where my music comes from even before they listen to it. (laugh). Anyway, I'm spending more and more time on Soloworks and Marginal Consort.
- You've released two solo albums so far. I thought I could still hear something that sounds like Kosugi's violin or Takayanagi like high octane improv maneuvers on the first solo album (How Will We Change), but the second solo album (far and wee) was brilliant, those traces of influences are mainly gone. It made me realize we need to focus more on you when we talk about your music.
I: Oh thanks. The album you mentioned, far and wee, it was realized because someone wanted me to do an album with only nylon string classical guitar solos. It's one of the instruments that's close to my heart and I'm happy with the album, but I feel I could do more than solo classical guitar pieces. Guitar solos can be pretty revealing and I enjoy them for that reason. It's also been compared to Takayanagi's guitar sound, and I think his sound is thicker, and heavier. I like that kind of dense sound, but my sound is kind of thin and sensitive. Someone told me "Takayanagi sounds like he's chopping bamboo with an ax, but you are more like shaving with a razor."
- I like that.
I: I often think about making something that doesn't sound like Takayanagi or Kosugi, or anyone else for that matter, and a classical guitar solo was one of the possibilities. I was amplifying my classic guitar when I was just starting to work on Soloworks, so it mixes well with other electronic sounds I was using. I couldn't get it to sound good so I ditched the amplifying and started to play the first half of my shows acoustic. In some of my shows the guitar can still be super loud, or sometimes I don't play any guitar. I often assign myself some homework when I work on Soloworks so I can test some ideas, actually, I had few of them when I recorded far and wee. I experimented with acoustics during the first two sessions, the first one got rejected by the label so only the second one made it on the record.
- You became very active post Soloworks. On top of Marginal Consort, you started a regular event with Tetsu Saitoh* called Hyakusai no Kidoh (A Hundred Year Orbit), another event called Sound Junction with younger generations of musicians, and the Kazuo Imai Trio where you play jazz standards with two sound artists. Do you think you are starting to expand on some of the ideas you've worked on in Soloworks?
*Double bass player. He passed away May 18, 2019. Imai wrote a touching tribute here.
I: That might be exaggerating a little. My thoughts on improvised music haven't changed much since I started some thirty-five years ago, I think it means now I have energy and opportunities to actualize some of those ideas. It is expanded into different forms because I'm trying to realize some of the homework I assigned for myself. I respect people who can focus on one thing, but I have too many things I want to work on. Soloworks tends to be a laboratory for me to experiment with ideas. I can do something really quickly when I'm by myself. I think I develop a lot of things that way.
- It sounds like you are intentionally leaving things unfinished and open-ended. Soloworks will continue indefinitely then?
I: I hope so. I don't attract big crowds so it hasn't been financially viable at all but I'd like to continue for as long as I can. It's also been hard to find venues since it can get pretty loud sometimes. As I continue to work on Soloworks, I catch myself thinking more about sculpting sound than music itself. It might be what they call a 'sound object'. I think Joji Yuasa's definition of music, "Music is acoustic energy shifting through time", is a simple and an apt definition of the phenomenology of sound. I think he could just say 'energy' since 'acoustic energy' sounds a bit too pedantic. I like to think of sound as vibrations, and I think the possibility implied by what Yujiro Nakamura said about sound and vibration is pretty exciting. He said something like, 'There are many conditions in nature that cause vibrations. Most of life-forms for instance are able to function through consuming an outside energy source, and that in turn starts cycles of metabolic repetitions. This simple rhythmic repetition becomes more complex in time, and it becomes autonomous as the rhythmic structure becomes more mature.'. He also said, 'If we can define vibration as a source of life-forms, then music, which is basically a sequence of vibrations, can be non-metaphorically defined as a type of life-form.'. I find this very exciting, and it makes me want to capture my practice more in terms of sound art than music.
- Your approach to me is more musical than that. The word 'sound' suggests a kind of objective distance, and your music is much more performative than Kosugi's for instance. The idiosyncratic uniqueness of Kazuo Imai is definitely there in your music. Some people think that type of idiosyncrasy is counter-productive to the original intention of free improvisation, but they are what makes up the character of musicians. What do you think about that?
I: I don't really think about whether something is music or non-music. Sounds are result of vibration, and the way in which the vibrations are sequenced determines whether it sounds like music or not. The decision is up to each listener, including myself. I'm pretty certain we are hearing different sound from the same source anyway, since we all have different shaped ears. I became aware of that fact when I hurt my ear and went to an ear doctor. I've always thought that being hard-of-hearing is caused by the amplitude of sound - but I was wrong to think that. We can only perceive a limited range of audio frequencies right? Let's say you have a difficulty with hearing lower frequencies, the whole tonality and pitch of the sound changes as if it's going through a low-pass filter. We really can't compare how we perceive sound and we all might have different ideas about music, so anything could be music or vice versa. I've listened to so much music from the past, so that might explain why what I play tends to be more musical. I feel that my job is to present that music-like thing in front of your eyes and ears, that's why I use the term object. The word object might imply something passive, like you are experiencing a random sound for a certain amount of time, so maybe I should say I'm interested in object, space, and time. I'd like to create a space where people share a focused, intense experience for a certain amount of time. Sound could be an object that is designed to keep that focus. It's not really about being interesting, having fun, or if it's done well or not, it could be about a time and space for people to think about something. So we could say I'm exploring different ways to think about the sequence of sound. In fact, the shape of the sequence might not matter that much as long as it is performed with conviction, it will become music if that's your intention.
To get back to your point about idiosyncrasy, I'm a performer first so I can't help if my proclivities come out when I perform. I even think it's important for a performer to openly express their personality and experiences. I for one try to lay all my warts and problems bare when I pat around to create vibrations that end up as sound, and that's probably the only way for me - as someone who participates in the exchanging of currency and product, eats fake food, kisses or cries - to release sound that retains a certain degree of conviction and strength. The conviction in your performance that I've mentioned earlier, it might come from whether you are fully expressing yourself like that.
My answers are getting too long... that's kind of why I didn't accept this interview at first. It's too late to complain about that now anyway. After all this talk, I'm starting to question my belief in improvisation and sound. Maybe there's something else other than sound. Yet, I still stick with improvisation and sound, I think it's because I enjoy them.
Old and New
- Thank you. I feel it's becoming increasingly harder to define legitimacy in improvisation. There are countless methods of improvisational styles existing side by side simultaneously and I can't really tell who descended from who.
I: Your notion of 'legitimacy in improvisation' sounds a little strange to me. European free improvisation* that emerged in the 60's, they formulated their unique style through their investigation of jazz and contemporary classical music, so you could say they created their style by opposing their direct predecessors like free jazz. We saw the emergence of the downtown scene in New York that featured John Zorn and many others more recently, and every generation had their own unique styles and methods. The civil rights movement might have encouraged free jazz from the U.S., while left-wing politics and ideologies were influencing free improvisation in Europe. Free jazz in Japan nearly died in the early 80's but it survived, and we might owe it to the bubble economy. Only a few people, such as Takayanagi, kept it going so it could be resuscitated. So I don't really know who or what is legitimate in improvisation. If there was anyone that clearly stood in opposition to European free improvisation, we might be able to locate the legitimate descendant, but who are we to say that European free improvisation is obsolete in the first place. By the way, I was surprised to find that call-and-response is still a big part of their repertoire when I played with Han Bennink and Barre Phillips, since I frowned upon that type of communication method in jazz from the beginning. It could be fun, it brings a sense of comradery among the performers, I understand its charm now, but I'd still look the other way.
*Mainly thought of as an outgrowth of free jazz and contemporary classical music.
Exponents include AMM, Derek Bailey, Gruppo Nuova Consonanza, and Fred Frith to name a few.
I was in France last year and saw Evan Parker and Fred Van Hove play. Technically they were amazing, but I couldn't sense any excitement in their sound. It felt very mechanical and European, I felt this is not the way I want to play. I really like them though, so I want them to dig deeper and be grandmasters of their crafts. One of my musical heroes is Luigi Nono. I think he stayed the course while people like Boulez and Stockhausen became increasingly decorative. He shifted his focus from politics to philosophy and started to use more electronic sound after the '70s but the consistency he displayed throughout his career is exemplary in postwar European avant-garde. His scores are very difficult to play, I feel like they question your ability as well as attitude.
Anyway, if we are to say that a legitimate successor could only come from an opposing point of view, then maybe it's hard to locate the successor because it's unclear if there's any conflict. Or, maybe this notion of legitimacy lost its meaning since there's nothing to oppose against. I'm sure you are aware of a type of music called onkyo* with its often very quiet music. Their home base was Offsite Gallery, ran by the husband and wife team of Atsuhiro and Yukari Ito, where it was impossible to play loud music because of its location, so we could say that necessity gave birth to this style of music. I think it's wonderful that it happened that way but it won't receive wider recognition because it didn't come from opposing something. Maybe there are many cases like that and that's why it feels like things are scattered right now. We could also say there are as many styles as there are people and end this discussion.
*Onkyo is a Japanese word for 'reverberation of sound'. The style of music onkyo-ha started to emerge in the mid-90s in Japan.
It focuses on the shifting of textures and tones more than melodic structures, and is often an amalgamation of techno, modern electro-acoustic music and noise.
- I agree that music like onkyo-ha is becoming more common, and I'm beginning to see the kind of veteran European improvisers we talked about performing with them.
I: I don't know who you are referring to by 'veteran European improvisers' but they probably want to communicate with the younger generations. It's probably more interesting to play with someone strange that makes no sense to you than someone your own age. They might also want to attract a younger audience. That nonsensicality might also mean it’s devoid of logic, and that might be a very contemporary phenomenon. It'd be interesting to find out.
- You can't always perform with like-minded musicians, but I'm seeing more curious pairings of musicians recently. It is an interesting situation.
I: I'm not sure what to make of it, but probably more organizers and curators are trying to come up with interesting combinations. Maybe they can't get people to come out unless they feature interesting lineups. They are trying to provide 'fun' experiences to their audiences. When someone tells me "it was fun" after my show, I think to myself "I'm not a comedian" (laugh). I think people are beginning to evaluate shows with some new criteria other than good/bad.
- I don't think they mean anything bad when they say "it was fun" (laugh). But to get back to the point you made about 'nonsense' and 'devoid of logic', I think more listeners are choosing what to listen to based on how the sound feels to them, so maybe the role of the language is shifting in music.
I: Maybe they don't feel the need to internalize the experience, I wonder how often they feel moved by music, or maybe music functions differently now. I feel both really honored and kind of nostalgic when people come up to me and say "I was really moved by your performance" after I play a show. I'm probably getting too old.
- There are a few mentions of modernism in the Han Ongaku Ronshu by Takayanagi, I mention this because I think some of the older improvisers we talked about were the epitome of modernism, both in terms of the purity of their music and the idiosyncratic nature of their performances, I think your attitude towards music exemplifies that as well. But it got passed on to the next generation and transformed after a certain period, I don't know if I can say post-modern, but we started to see more things that can exist without any substance or logic. You yourself kind of keep your distance from that kind of current music scene but you don't reject it either, and I think that attitude is pretty unique among your peers.
I: I don't know about the post-modern situations, but even though I said 'devoid of logic' earlier, I do ask performers who participate in Sound Junctions for the first time to submit a kind of essay. It doesn't have to be anything major, just some thoughts on their music, or their improvisational method, or about instruments they play. They often reflect on their music and write about what they think about it. Some people criticize me for this since I'm kind of asking them to define what they will be doing before their performance, but it's kind of like introducing yourself. I want the stage of Sound Junction to be not just a regular free-improv session but a space for collective improvisation with a group of idiosyncratic ideas, so I think it's good to organize your ideas and be more aware of yourself before participating in it. Often times, I can't picture their music from what they wrote but I can say there are those who really think about their music. So not all of them are rejecting language or ignoring logic, though most of them just write about their instruments and how they use them.
I'm more astonished by the transformation of listeners. I'm mainly talking about the kind of collector-types who write music blogs, I don't visit them often but sometimes I stumble upon them when I have to look up some information. They know a lot about different kinds of music, they probably know a lot more than musicians. It kind of worries me. Some of them dabble in music criticism but the content is often a little off, and I'm worried about people believing them. With the overabundance of information, it created a kind of situation where knowledge is like a database, so their knowledge about music is like a record store catalogue.
I played in a small music festival in Korea last year and I did a set with Dickson Dee who played a sampler, a saxophonist Kang Tae Hwan, and a traditional koto player from Taipei. At one point during our performance I went off the stage to where the audience was and played a kind of hard, scraping sound. Then, someone played a very similar sound and I couldn't tell what I was playing anymore. I found out later it was a field recording from Tibet that Dickson played in reaction to what I was playing, something he recorded deep in Tibet and the likes of which has never been commercially available. We were talking after the show, and we thought traditional ethnic folk music that is left untouched tends to be much more avant-garde than so-called avant-garde music now. So old can be new, we just didn't know about them. It made me think... I mean, when ethnic folk music becomes available to the outside world, it is part of art/music culture and becomes a product to be consumed by people who might not know a thing about the culture. The shifting of music styles we talked about, it's only understood within the communities who share the same value, and the shifts aren't changing anything fundamentally, and we might have to look outside of our culture if we want that fundamental shift. I don't know if we can make anything new from a stopgap improvement, and whether if it's pre-modern music, modern music or postmodern music we should look at them from the same vantage point. Music that sounds new to us now might have been around for a long, long time, especially with improvisational music.
- So it's more a matter of energy level than a stylistic shift from the old to the new. You weren't being negative about some of the 'grandmasters' we talked about earlier, but maybe they haven't been able to keep the same energy level as they move on to next stage of their careers.
I: Right. I tend to like the things with high energy as you know, and I find eroticism is lacking in contemporary music. I feel like music evolved from being performed live, and sometimes it moves you and gives you goosebumps. Some of those powers of music can be illogical and not really explainable, it might be hereditary and something that can't be taught. I don't think I could do that even if I tried.
- Your body moves a lot when you perform. Do you think the physicality of a performer can affect how the energy is transmitted to music?
I: I think so, but there are other things to consider. For instance, there are pianists who contort their bodies when they play, and others who play with their back straight, we don't really know which style is more physically demanding. I do think the strings vibrate more solemnly when you play with your back straight. It might be pretty obvious with an acoustic instrument, but I think the same applies when someone plays a laptop. They might be trying to hide the physical side of things with laptop music, but there are times I can feel the energy being transmitted through their performance. I look for intensity in my sound, but I'm not aware of how my body moves when I play. I think how you move your body can change the tone of the music, and you can change the texture of your sound by being conscious of your movement, but I've never thought about choreography first. I hate seeing videos of my performances, I do move around a lot.
Anyway... I try to keep my sound sharp as I continue with different ideas, but those ideas might be fragmentary and might not connect to one another, so I may be getting caught up in little details and not realizing I'm being swallowed up by a tidal wave.
- You devised a plan with a big picture in mind but ended up getting caught up in small details without really looking at the big picture?
I: Right. I think it's important to work on a series of ideas with a big picture in mind. I kind of feel like our generation might be the last one to work this way. I still feel pretty young at heart but I'm starting to sound like an old man (laugh).
- Oh no (laugh). I just meant our generation can learn a lot from looking at how you work. It's not related to playing music since I don't play any instruments, but I have a lot to reflect on.
I: When I was younger, I think I learned a lot from older generations, as I should, since I had mentors. I just can't quite pinpoint what I inherited from them. Some younger artists might play with older artists so they can use their stature to promote themselves, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Older artists might play with younger artists to get some new ideas. I just wish there was more dialogue between the generations. When they play together, they'd often finish their set and go back to where they came from, like, "Let's do this again, it was great!" They don't really talk about the issues that are common to them. I try to locate those intergenerational issues when I organize shows so we can talk about them, even if it's getting harder to find common problems that we all share. I don't know if I'd be talking with you if I didn't have those concerns. I want young artists to do well, make good music, I don't care if it's improvisational or not.
Marginal Consort / Playing with Tetsu Saitoh
- I would like to end this interview by asking you about the projects we haven't discussed yet. Let's start with Marginal Consort.
I: While working on Soloworks I thought that my method was almost turning into composing and I felt I needed to work within a group. It naturally led me to think about the collective improvisation that I left behind back in the day. I stopped because everyone tried to be considerate - to each other and where the sound was going, and that wasn't what I wanted to do. I began to revisit an idea I had about a group of musicians who just happen to share a space. I started to think about who I could start this group with. Then, I found out my old colleagues from Bigakko like Masami Tada, Kei Shii and Yasushi Ozawa were still doing things, Masami and Kei were performing mainly in galleries and museums. I thought, they must be crusty old artists unwilling to change their views after twenty years, forming a group with them would get me closer to my vision of an ideal collective improv group, so I got in touch with them for the first time in twenty years. I don't know if we sound good together, but our relationship is close to what I wanted. Don't you think they perform without listening to each other?
- They don't even look at each other. It's a pretty bizarre picture if you think about it. (laugh)
I: You can't play like that if you are a proper jazz improviser. We are a collection of selfish artists, so we aren't even trying to communicate with one another to begin with, they sometimes react to a certain sound as if someone bumped into you. Everyone is just kind of doing their thing. Tolerance to others and willingness to share are two of the hallmarks of this group. Our main concern isn't what we sound like, it's more about the structure and relationships. We don't particularly feel we have to try hard or accomplish something as a group.
There used to be this tendency to think of a group as a team in the past, like, 'the name on the front is more important than the name on the back' kind of thing. The intention of Marginal Consort is the opposite, we want to make clear who is performing, what each of us is playing, and where each of us are. It's about a group of individuals, how they share something and make something of their own at the same time. We can concentrate on our individual tasks that way, even if that makes us pretty predictable. (laugh). We can only talk about the result of our performances in terms of our inter-relationships, and the only extra task I have is to book shows. I don't think I'm the leader of this group, maybe more like a producer.
We were pretty quiet in the performance we did the end of last year (SuperDeluxe, December 25, 2006), but I really want everyone to move around more. I book large venues for that reason. I enjoy gazing at Masami stumbling around in the distance, to see things happening at varying distances during a performance.
- Like going berserk with his bamboo sticks (laugh).
I: I haven't checked with them, but we probably have different ideas about the group, but one by one, they show up when I book a show. It's difficult for me to talk about Marginal Consort by myself, because it's only what I think of the group. I'm not even sure what they think of the sound others make, they probably hear a bunch of sounds they don't like. Our sound might not be what everyone in the group likes, but that's exactly why it works. The only concern about the group at the moment is keeping up with our operational expenses (laugh).
- I understand (laugh). I'd like to talk about Hyakusai no Kidoh (A Hundred Year Orbit) next. It's been pretty active lately.
I: The Orbit started when Tetsu (Saitoh) said "We'll be fifty next year", and we thought we should keep playing together until our ages add up to a hundred. It adds up to more than one hundred now but we are still playing together. Tetsu only plays acoustic instruments, so I only play acoustic guitar with him. He took me along when he toured Europe even before we started the Orbit, and it's been a continuous thing since. When I play with him, I can play like I'm playing by myself, so he's a great partner to play with. He knows his music and plays like it, so sometimes he gets into a more traditional mode of jazz improvisation like call-and-response, I ignore that and play my thing, but he can keep going with his music because he has strong fundamentals. We can make it work because he can do his own music.
- Is that what you look for in people you play with?
I: It's hard to do that when I play with someone who's unsure of themselves. I can immerse myself in my own tasks when I play with him. I can only think of one other person like that, and that's Shuichi Chino*. We accept our different musical approaches and ignore them to a certain point, it's not that we don't listen to each other, it's like we are working in separate layers. So it’s possible to zoom out to get an overview, and we can integrate the layers if we wanted to. It's easy to perform with him because I know there are a multitude of possibilities. I also play with him in a group called Kage no Toki (Time of Shadows) along with Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh and Kazue Sawai. This group is more like a band to me, so he's my band mate (laugh).
*Shuichi Chino (1951-): A Keyboard player, composer, improviser, plays keyboard for Ground Zero.
Facing Jazz Head-On
- Let's talk about another project you've been involved with lately, Imai Kazuo Trio.
I: We haven't been able to perform as much as the other projects, but basically I started this unit to play free jazz. I've never really focused on playing straight free jazz, even though, as Takayanagi would say, it's my first love. I also felt like the kind of music with a strong emotional content was losing steam a bit, so I wanted to try my hand in it. I wanted to play a kind of Anglo-Saxon free jazz, like Paul Bley. In Japan, we often think of Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman when we think of free jazz, and even Takayanagi didn't actively pursue Anglo-Saxon free jazz, so it was hiding in plain sight.
I felt I've only been playing something extreme with guitar and I wanted to play some standard tunes. I wanted to play with a drummer and a bassist like an orthodox jazz combo, but I realized I didn't know anyone who would work with this project. So I changed my approach and decided to look for performers who don't play regular music - that's how I ended up with the two guys with their electronic instruments; Atsuhiro Ito*, who I mentioned when we talked about Offsite Gallery, he plays homemade instruments made from fluorescent tubes called the optron, and Manabu Suzuki**, he plays his homebrewed electronic system. I thought it'd be more interesting to play with analog electronics than laptops. Both of their instruments are barely controllable by design, so we have more elements of chance in our performance. I'm interested in how we come to terms with it mentally. This might sound weird, but if the history of jazz can be traced by following its stylistic shift through time, I'm hoping to create something that represents our time. We couldn't make heads or tails of it when we first started, but I think they are starting to find ways to play within this group. I think we are all getting better. I am starting to get the hang of playing normal guitar again. I was a little hesitant to play jazz standards onstage, but it helps me think about music and improvisation (laughs).
*Plays a homemade instrument made of fluorescent light tube he calls optron. He was also co-owner of
Offsite Gallery that people such as Yoshihide Otomo, Sachiko M, and Taku Sugimoto frequented.
**Electronic instrument engineer for musicians by trade. He plays his self-made electronic system in the trio.
- I think it's something we've always wanted to listen to, and it feels significant coming from you. Do you feel like you are bringing back the memory of the jazz coffee house?
I: That's not what this project is about, but I do play some standard jazz melodies and even attempt to ad-lib sometimes.
- You might render the melodies unrecognizable (laugh).
I: I think I have to get used to playing this kind of jazz. I don't know what to make of our performances, I'm playing this lively guitar while they are playing abstract electronic sounds. It's pretty hard to get into the rhythm, and it made me realize the importance of a bassist and a drummer. That said, I think we have to hunker down and play this way for a while. I really have to practice more.
- It sounds like a lot of work.
I: Well, they are not musicians in a traditional sense, so I have to build the tonal foundation and concise musical structure. There needs to be this contrast between their sounds and a firm musical structure, so it becomes more apparent what each of us is trying to do. It's really my first time facing jazz head-on (laugh). For me, I have to figure out ways to deal with melodies, we decided to tackle songs by Annette Peacock because of her un-harmonic melodies. It gets pretty muddy when I start to think about melodies and rhythms, but I forget about them when we perform, so I'm hoping we can make something bizarre and fascinating. There are many songs we can cover, so there's potential.
- We've talked about each of your projects, and it looks like you have different focuses for each of them, and to me, they all reflect who you are as a person.
I: In fact, I'd love to expand my horizons even more, I've pretty much focused on improvisation up to now, but sometimes I think about music outside of that.
I hated the feeling of being a guitar player in the beginning, and I was trying to avoid dealing with it up until the ‘90s. Taj Mahal Travellers often needed a guitar player but I didn't play guitar with them unless they asked me to. I decided to play both electric and classical guitar again in the '90s and that's partly the reason I started Soloworks. So I feel like my career started in the '90s. I also would like to explore playing more compositions. I play them sometimes, but I haven't dealt with Bach as a jazz guitarist yet. I heard Takayanagi told one of his students "Kazuo could be one of the best if he focused on playing contemporary and modern classical music.", even though I only practiced playing songs to get better at improvisation when I studied with him. Come to think of it, that's all I really did for the last two years of my studies with him so he might have thought I was no longer interested in improvisation. He passed away before I started Soloworks, so I couldn't have him listen to my music, it's my fault for being so slow. That's really my only regret, I want him to know I still improvise. It was surprising to know he thought I'd be a guitar player for contemporary classical music (laugh).