Expanding within sound, how nothing completely stops moving

In June of 2021, Keiko Higuchi and Louis Inage sat down to discuss the creation of her new album Vertical Language , the idiosyncrasies of Higuchi's artistic practice and the intersection between tub boats, Noh theater and the Black Lodge.

Photo by Kazuyuki Funaki

K: I was wondering what you thought of the work we did for our new album (“Vertical Language”), and your general take on my approach to music…


L: For me, touring together was huge. [1] I knew a few things about you before we played together, but I think listening to your “Love Hotel” CD was the first real exposure I had to your music. I thought it was great.

L: It felt like music made from a rootless perspective. A rootless music that came from outside Japan, almost like the blues. It was really something.


K: I was thinking about Noh recently [2] and was reminded of what you’d said, about how you’d described me as rootless.

L: Yeah, I think it’s an accurate description. That was my first impression of “Love Hotel.” You know how big jazz fans, people who actually play it, express themselves through their renditions of standards or what not? I didn’t get that kind of feeling from your album at all.


K: Right, ‘cause it’s not jazz.


L: I know you like jazz, too, but what you do is totally different from the typical jazz musician playing a solo, or improvising or trying to introduce some kind of musical change, like, who cares about that, right? Like they’re saying, “Here’s where I’m coming from.” Don’t you feel like there are a lot of people like that?


K: I don’t know…


L: Well, I’m not sure, but when I first heard your music I felt like it had nothing to do with any of that. It felt like an isolated music, with obscure roots. Something truly original, where “Keiko Higuchi” is the only image that rises to the surface. And many of your tunes were covers! So I felt like I hadn’t heard anything quite like that before. And on top of that, you improvise. I don’t think your music can be discussed in typical critic-speak, you know, referencing genres like bop or free music or whatever.


K: Well, my stuff has changed. Or, I should say, I’ve changed it.


L: And then there’s your sense of rhythm and speed. It’s different from a typical interpretation. It’s not quite jazz, either.


K: Well, “Love Hotel” especially…


L: It was very unique. And it still is, even today. I don’t want to make a misleading statement here, but it’s [reminiscent of] Mike Bloomfield’s guitar work back in the days of great racial discrimination in America. His guitar style had a real sense of non-belonging, born of a very particular environment. When I first heard your stuff, I thought it was so interesting and unique, totally unlike anything I’d heard before. And I hadn’t seen any of your improvised performances at that point, either. It really left an impression. And then we played a few times together, right? I could be wrong, but I felt like your solo song-based work contained the true essence of experiencing your music.


K: I felt like improvising let me work my way back to singing songs again.


L: I heard your song-based material first, and I was really taken with it. I’ve never asked you to improvise with me, right? I’m just not that interested in it. I’m not an improviser, and I’m not that interested in collaborating with you in your improviser mode, only ‘cause I was so taken with the other work you do.


K: Very interesting. Incidentally, is working with me different from the other work you usually do?


L: It’s completely different!


K: Interesting! Well, that’s not something I could have known.


L: The first thing you taught me was really important, and I still remember it vividly. You taught me how to use the body and the breath.


K: That’s right!


L: That sense of expansion, of concentrating all the way down to the tips of your toes. How to feel “ma” [Japanese word] or “negative space”, and feel connected to your limbs. To feel things like your breath and your pulse, not “the rhythm.”


K: That’s always where I go…


L: Right, ‘cause that’s where it comes from. Take a song with words, for example. The words are just an extension of the whole concept of the song. The lyrics are one particular outward flow.


K: That’s why I called the album “Vertical Language.” At first, I thought people might misunderstand the title. But I really feel like contemporary music flows in a horizontal way, like a waveform. I feel like my perception of music is somehow different from this contemporary approach. And when the music flows like this [waves her hands from right to left in the shape of a waveform], it’s not that I always let things fall vertically, but more that I react with a kind of “zukin, zukin”[3], depending on the moment…

L: I know what you mean. I think the concept of verticality is crucial. It expands space and slices it vertically at the same time.


K: Yeah. I’d really like to do something more multi-dimensional next, like with a diagonal or forward-facing slant. That’s how I landed on Noh [4].

L: Those sorts of interests lead many to Noh.


K: Perhaps. And in terms of not having any roots…I’m not interested in ghosts, but sometimes you meet spirits from the past suddenly, you know?


L: Yeah. So time’s been vertically extended. And if we imagine cutting through time like slicing a cake, we might find vertical chords or a vertical system [of sounds]. With a piano, that could be a chord or a cluster of sounds.


K: Exactly. So if I make a sound like this [makes ringing chord sound], it’s about what expands within that sound. I feel like everything’s become so clean, and music’s no exception. But I’m looking for the noisy remnants. Not just noise as in “noise music,” but things that get in the way, or that are typically considered unnecessary or unwanted. I tend to find those things the most precious. You saw the video I made recently, right? [5] For the most part, I kept that video completely “untouched.” I didn’t fix any sounds or anything else in the mix. From my perspective, many of the images were “in the way” or unwanted. But I felt it was important to leave it all in, and I feel the same way about music.

L: Yeah, and in that sense, I felt like that video was really “you.” I was moved by it and I totally got what you were going for. When you slowly stood up at one point I was reminded of Noh’s horizontal and vertical movements and compositions.


K: Yeah. I read somewhere that, even in Kabuki, when an actor enters the stage via the hanamichi, or the bridge running from the audience to the stage [6], the actor’s movement is really important…

L: Definitely.


K: That if you’re only viewed from one perspective, it’ll end up the same as Western theater. I felt like that explained many things for me, too. And I think I probably shouldn’t have played the upright piano so much in the video.


L: Maybe.


K: But there aren’t that many available, so I wanted to use one!


L: Right.


K: When I use my voice, I’m very much aware of the space behind me. Because the voice doesn’t just project from the front…


Love Hotel (Bishop Records, 2008)

L: Yeah, and I think this brings us back to our earlier conversation about the solitary nature of your work, in terms of the obscurity of its roots, and its lack of a clear home base. I haven’t followed your career closely, so I don’t know if you’ve studied Butoh or done any kind of movement training. I don’t know what you’ve been influenced by. But as far as your physicality, it seems to me that you’ve developed your own thing. You might use some other other [traditions’] methods, but I think the world you create speaks to all you’ve experienced as a human, and to what you’ve been through. And in the end, I think “Love Hotel” leaves the listener with that kind of impression, that it’s a world unto itself.


K: I think, in the end, I might just be circling back to “Love Hotel.”


L: Well, I don’t know about that.


K: That project was about the human form, and about a projection of people passing through my body. So, my body was just a framework, and in a way it related to all the photos I’d taken over the years using fixed point observation. Like, “I stand here, and people continually pass me by.”


L: You told me about that concept before, but at that point I’d already heard the “Love Hotel” CD, so it didn’t quite line up with my initial impression.


K: And then there’s Noh…


L: Right.


K: And the Black Lodge. [7]

L: There’s a writer named Kenji Nakagami. He’s a construction worker. And in the middle of his physical labor, he turns into a sort of hollow log. I really like that sensation. Where your physical self turns into a sort of shell, and you feel a sensation like wind blowing right through you.


K: Yeah, yeah. Voice is like that, too. Like, without [manifesting that state], you can’t penetrate.


L: I think it’s the same for voice and piano, where your body can achieve a sort of hollow state via deep concentration. Almost like shedding skin. So I know what you mean, or at least I can relate based on my understanding of Nakagami’s work. The human form hollows out and acts as a medium. And when the wind blows, it shakes, or resonates. You mentioned resonating at one point, right?


K: Someone watched the video I made recently and afterward told me he felt like I’d “sung with my entire body.”


L: Coconut. [8]

K: Yeah.


L: Yeah, Coconut’s like that. I get it. I love Keiko Higuchi’s “Coconut.”


K: Well, I change it each time…


L: The way that husk floats, and it’s not even a fruit. Something lost has run ashore. We don’t know if there was any intention behind the action, but as a phenomenon, it resonates.


K: The body is like that, too. A long time ago I used to meditate, and it was the same thing. Nothing completely stops moving.


L: Some things do.


K: I disagree. At least as far as physical sensations go. No pain or itch remains unchanged forever. Those sensations are always changing and moving around, and I think it’s probably the same with the voice.


L: You mean the way you personally experience it?


K: Yeah, yeah. Like an instrument. Instruments change every day. Koto and shamisen, too. They’re sensitive to humidity and so on.


L: I think you’re probably just as integrated with the piano. I’ve never heard you play koto or shamisen, so…


K: I just play them for fun, as a sort of ear training.


L: But yeah, that feeling is always…well, it was hard at first. Your stuff was different from the music and rhythms I usually play. When we’re not touring together, we might go a few months or even a year without playing together. But when we tour we have to play in just a few days time, so it was helpful to get something in advance. A tour like that is probably typical for you though. Never playing the same set twice is normal for an improviser, right? It was fun for me.


K: But when I’m in a new country, I want to play their music, you know?


L: Like that Italian song in Italy!


K: Oh yeah, I remember that! But I don’t think anyone picked up on it. (They performed an Italian song titled “Amarilli.” An excerpt from that night can be found below)

L: I was like, “What song is this?” It was nerve wracking! But being in that environment, and in that situation, and with that piano, that’s when I started to put myself in that framework, in my mind. I’m not actually there. But I imagine how I should reorient myself in each location, and which direction I should face. And then I play. I think I was first able to do that in Milano.


K: How was recording “Vertical Language” for you? We had those two sessions.


L: Well, especially that one at the Knuttel House…


K: I remember you talking about the rhythms in Black Orpheus.


L: I was tired! It was really hard. If you go into it concerned with the count, you get completely absorbed, like entering a matrix. It was really puzzling. And truly vertical.


K: Yeah, there was a very strong suction power…


L: Absolutely. And there was nothing horizontal about it. Or parallel, like, “Line this part up with this part and move on to the next.” It was all vertical. But there also wasn’t a uniformity to it, either…


K: I thought of it as something like “Sátántangó.” [10]

L: At any point, you can jump ahead vertically, or move slowly, or whatever…


K: Yeah, it’s like [making sound] “zween, zween.”


L: The waveform we discussed earlier is completely different from this one. That waveform suited you quite well. I think that’s why it felt so comfortable…


K: Yeah, it was really something.


L: It was pretty difficult for me, but in the end it was about listening to the piano, and the voice…


K: You keep saying that.


L: I don’t know if I should describe those moments as “vertical expressions” but with voice… With a piano and so on, sound flows, right? You hear one chord followed by another and you hear it horizontally. But a song breathes. The breath moves in and out. And I adapt to that shape, and join in. It might be hard for someone in the audience to imagine, but when I'm on stage with you, I really sense that breath.


K: The breath also goes [making sound] “zween.”


L: Yeah. And I don’t get this same sensation during other performances, even improvisational performances. I’m a bit more attentive when I play with you, but in a different way than during improvisation. That said, I don’t do much improvisation, so I’m not really sure. But with you I do feel I have to do more than simply listen to what you’re playing.


K: Yeah, I feel the same way. Many people think I’m “not listening” though.


L: Not listening to their playing? I find that hard to believe.


K: I always listen extremely carefully.


L: I know you do. I feel like it comes together when you go above and beyond simply listening, so I try to get to that point, to get fully absorbed. Like getting picked up and carried by a blowing wind. But that Nirvana song was a real challenge. [11]

K: I know you had trouble with that one for a long time. But that one’s not on the album, and I don’t plan on ever putting it on one of my albums.


L: I think it’s similar to what I was saying earlier. I was just saying how I felt intuitively about that piece. But I’m able to assimilate with your voice and breath comfortably. It takes some time, and it can be scary. If you imagine a swaying tree, I might be an apple hanging from a branch about to fall. But the sensation is something like, “Well, it’s ok, this tree’s just gotta sway.”


K: Really? I felt like you became a tree, too.


L: It was like that before but, well, it’s fine to feel rooted, too. It’s similar. But it’s a challenge once you’ve gone that far. But I’m not talking about simply playing tunes. If you just wing it when you’re playing a tune together, it’s hard to sway together. And I don’t mean in terms of a “groove.” And it’s not like we’re trying to completely destroy a composition when we play it, right? The most important thing is your serious engagement with the music, your stance as a musician, and the shape of your (Keiko's) sound itself. And I think you got there on “Love Hotel” and in a way you may have returned to the approach you had back then. In a way, I’m not sure I sense that the music’s changed all that drastically since then. I remember when we first discussed playing together, I told you that I wanted it to be a piano and voice performance.


K: You did?


L: You forget everything.


K: It’s true, I do! [laughs]


L: You asked me if I’d like for you to play drums, but I told you I preferred piano. This was before we’d ever played together. And you were like, “Ok, sounds interesting.”


K: Really? I don’t remember that at all.


L: You were like, “Well, what is it that you really want to do?”


K: That must have been a different person.


L: And then I said, “If I’m going to accompany your piano and voice, I’d like to play bass.”


K: I’m so grateful to be able to play with you because you put your best effort into everything you do. I imagine I’m difficult to work with, so I never ask anyone to play with me.


L: I think initially my impression of your playing was based entirely on listening to your CD, so I didn’t really have a sense of what it’d be like live. That was my first impression of your work, so it really had an impact. Even now, I feel like that CD represents your sound.


K: My sound has changed quite a bit though.


L: It has, like how you’re singing in Japanese. Actually, I also found it interesting how people tend to think of acoustic instrumentation, like an upright bass, as more emotional. And how singing in Japanese and playing acoustic instruments can lead to some misunderstandings.


K: Huh, you think so? Like, generally speaking?


L: Yeah, I think that’s true with acoustic instrumentation. I play the electric bass. And it makes me wonder what the heck a word like “emotional” really means.


K: Hmm, I think it’s a bit slippery with the voice. Like, when a performer screams, the audience feels pain. We all have a voice, so we tend to see our own reflections in a vocal performance.


L: In general, I think it’s the same for bodies. In terms of trying to expand yourself, bass players do the same thing. It’s the same sensation of extension. It’s not quite concentration, more like your concept of verticality, an extension of one’s own body. And in the case of voice, people are only accustomed to a certain range of expression in their daily lives, so they react in a personal way when they hear a vocal performance that goes beyond that range…


K: I wonder if the first reaction people have to a mixture of “colors” is fear, or dread, or disgust. Personally, I crack up when I encounter unpleasant situations.


L: Yeah, I wonder. I think people tend to process the unknown in a negative way. Japanese people might be particularly prone to that. They’re afraid of the unfamiliar.


K: I get super excited when I encounter something unfamiliar. And performance is the same thing. I feel like the mistakes are filled with opportunity. I mean, they’re not really mistakes, more like moments where I’m like, “OK, I just did that, but what am I going to do next.” I love those moments.


L: Right, so that’s why you can’t look at these things horizontally. Like with traditional music…


K: Exactly. It’s like with the noise and “unwanted” stuff we talked about earlier.


L: Things change in an instant, and expand with each moment. Looking at it the other way around, within that expansion…


K: When I first mentioned this expansion theory, you tried hard to figure out how to do it on the bass. It’s the same with the piano. It’s a percussive instrument, with sustain. The voice is the same…


L: Right, that’s why I stopped trying to use distortion to achieve that extension…


K: Yeah, I remember.


L: I remember you writing somewhere, “Do it to the limit.” At the time I thought there’s no way this is going to be easy. [laughs]


K: I think it was something like, “Go beyond the limit.”


L: Right. “How far beyond the limit can you go?” I thought to myself, “Keiko’s really scary.”


K: Hahaha.


L: It must have been the note you wrote for the Kissa Sakaiki performance. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like “Okesa” [traditional folk tune they performed] had that sort of sway to it.


K: Yeah, a sway, and also a connection to an unknown land.


L: Right, and remember how during “Okesa”…


K: We had a sense of floating, didn’t we?


L: Like back in the old days people were supposed to be standing and rowing on the waves, right?


K: Hahaha.


L: Weren’t they scared?


K: No, you’ve got it wrong. I thought people used to sit and row.


L: They had to stand up at some point.


K: Who?


L: There’s a photo of it.


K: The people sent off to Sado Island?


L: The boatmen.


K: Oh.


L: So, it must have been frightening. I saw that photo when I was a kid, and I remember thinking, “There’s no way anyone could reach the island in that tub.”


K: I took a ferry from Niigata to Sado Island once and got seasick.


L: Of course. And people used to stand up to row, you know. They had to. That’s the key right there.


K: Musically?


L: Yeah, in your case. Very typical of you. I feel like you’d ask him, “What the hell are you doing?”


K: Yeah, but that’s to get to a place I can’t yet see…


L: Right. And then there’s the direction of the wind, and the light. The sea must’ve been rough, too.


K: For one of the songs, I feel like I told you to “play as if you’re a leaf in a river.” In any case…[looking at her notes]. Oh, great. I’ve got some notes on the idea of expansion. When I talk about a song, I’m talking about the skeletal framework of the body [12], just like we discussed earlier. And I’m also talking about something like the sand play therapy they use in psychiatry. I’m always trying to go beyond and get outside of that framework. But everything originates from that framework, so I started with a song, you know? But I never memorize a tune. I always have the score in front of me. People have asked me why I still use scores for songs I’ve played so many times, like My Funny Valentine. It’s cause I never memorize it. I can see how most people would just memorize it, but I don’t want to. I want to have the score in front of me, as if it’s sand play. I actually train myself *not* to memorize lyrics and melodies.

L: I use scores as guides. I get nervous without them in front of me. But if I check them too much, I can fall behind, or totally go off track.


K: But what about when I make a mistake and move in a completely different direction even before that? Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that, the conversation might run too long. I had another question I wanted to ask though. Do you remember the photo session we had with Mr. Funaki for “Vertical Language”?


L: The one at your place, right?


K: Yeah. I think we ultimately decided to use the photo of me sitting on my motorcycle for the insert, but remember the other photo we took lying down on the concrete? Do you remember why I asked him to shoot that one?


L: No idea. The one where we’re lying down, right?


K: Yeah. I wonder why I asked him to shoot that one? I don’t think we’ll have much use for that photo outside of this album, so I think I’m gonna ask Peter (Black Editions) to use it to promote the record. You know I’ve been thinking a lot about horizontal and vertical [elements] in music. I also wanted to work with lines, like the lines painted on the ground in parking lots to indicate where bicycles and motorcycles should be parked. The idea of being inside a box, inside a square parking lot, and the lines within that box.


L: That was last year, right?


K: Yeah, last March. There are some images in the album where my eyes are closed, and others where they’re open. But I was lying down in those photos, so my face is kind of stretched out. Even there, there’s a kind of “parallel movement” from the front to the back.


L: Your solo is great, too. The part when I’m not playing.


K: Well, I don’t remember much of that album anymore.

 

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