With the release of Keiko Higuchi's new album Vertical Language on Black Editions, Alan Cummings spoke with the her, discussing moving to the US alone as a teenager, her explorations of jazz, and the traditional forms of butoh and nihon buyo, as well as her love of voice and connecting music and movement. They also discuss early encounters with Yoko Ono, the No Neck Blues Band and Keiji Haino and her expanding works with groups Kyohansha, Archeus and Albedo Gravitas.
Alan Cummings: Where were you born and brought up?
Keiko Higuchi: I was born in Tokyo, but not in the central part. My family moved around the city a few times to different neighbourhoods, and I was brought up there till I left at the age of 15. The area I lived in was really tranquil back then, with all these fields and barns for pigs.
AC: What was your first memory of hearing music that fascinated you? Was there music around in your childhood or in your family?
KH: I don’t know. I guess I was just like anyone else. My mom used to take me to see musicals sometimes. There was enka and commercial J-pop stuff around on the TV and from my brother’s record player, and karaoke too since we had a machine at home. But I can’t remember the first piece of music that really stuck in my memory. There was bon odori [the percussion music played at the festival of the dead in the summer] music too, of course, but that didn’t grab me because I didn’t like to dance in public. I’m a perfectionist so I’d get anxious about making mistakes! I should mention that I was a swimmer, a real hardcore one, and so I was only focussed on that till the age of 12. Later on I remember getting records by pop idols at Christmas, which I am pretty sure I was psyched about. But in spite of that, I really cannot say I was really interested and definitely not fascinated. In junior high school, I started listening to American or British pop and rock, and I remember liking The Beatles, Bon Jovi and other stuff just like everyone else.
But for me, it was always my love for the act of singing itself. I just adored it. Later I came to love music in general, especially anything that was different or obscure. But even when I think of it now, it is not easy to differentiate what I enjoy, get interested in or moved by.
AC: When did you first start to study music?
KH: When I was eight or so, I took some electone (Yamaha electric organ) classes, since a friend was studying piano with the same teacher. The electone was a keyboard instrument with bass pedals. Quite wicked stuff. I went to some guitar lessons with my friend, too, which I dropped really quickly when I realized how hard it was to stretch and move my fingers.
AC: How did you come to move to the States?
KH: I moved to the States when I was around 15, by myself. I went to a boarding school so my tuition was paid for by my parents, and they were supportive and all that. I went to high school in Oregon first, but then the next year I moved to a different one in Seattle, WA. It’s a long, strange story, so let’s not get into it.
AC: What did you do in the States in terms of study and performance?
KH: After high school and college, I finally ended up at a music school. That was in Boston and that’s where I started performing. I sort of wanted to do “performance art” at first, so I was doing movement and things like that too. I guess I still do, in a way. In school, I was doing all sorts of things. My high school was really good and it specialized in arts and environment, so I guess that has had an influence on me as I was growing into who I am.
As I said, I’d loved singing as a child, and it came very naturally to me to get into studying that. I first started taking vocal lessons privately while I was in high school. My first voice teacher, Sue Carr, was super good. She was teaching all sorts of people, like vocalists from the grunge scene to people doing musicals and people like me. After I graduated, I planned to go to Cornish College in Seattle and I got accepted. But then I came back to Japan to save some money for the tuition, also I’d sort of got bored with the shallow relationships I saw around me. When I returned to the States, I ended up going to a community college in Seattle.
That reminds me, I was taking all kinds of classes there and I also took some classes at a photography school. I had only one credit left to get, chemistry at the community college, but I really didn’t dig it, and I’d got a bit fed up with the artsy community environment there, so I moved to Boston. I ended up in a classical composition program in Boston, even though I was a jazz vocalist. Hahaha. I dropped out after one year, but I was still taking private lessons in theory, piano, and vocal. I guess I wasn’t really a school type, where I had study with a whole bunch of people.
AC: Can you tell me a bit more about your original impetus to perform? Where did that desire come from?
KH: As I said, I played electone concerts sometimes when I was a kid, and I loved singing karaoke in front of people since I was very, very young. I was quite outgoing and all that. Of course, it made me nervous to play the electone in front of people, but singing was a different story. I sang at the graduation of my high school in Seattle. Pretty much everybody, if they wished, could do something on stage for the graduation. I sang a song called “Calling You”. But even before that, speaking of enjoying music or being interested or fascinated, of course, I was listening to all sorts of music. When I was in high school, in Seattle, it was when grunge and Nirvana was happening, and I was still a minor, so I was going to under-age clubs. Lots of hardcore, skater music, too. There were also hippies back then. So, music of that, and music of this, here and there. And there was this place called OK Hotel, which was a good one for minors so I used to go there too. One day, I saw Jay Clayton (who is an amazing jazz singer but also has done work for John Cage’s Four Walls, the singing part) singing Billie Holiday tributes, and she totally blew me away. She’d taught at Cornish College, and was the reason I wanted to study there. Even before that, I had been exposed to some jazz, and I thought that I had that path to go into the jazz field if I were to continue music and singing, but Jay Clayton totally opened me up. She was singing songs, but her voice sounded like a scat trumpet, like she’d become the instruments. Damn, it was intriguing and fascinating. I think that was my first exposure to a performance where I could relate myself to someone singing on stage.
AC: What sorts of music were you listening to when you started performing in the States?
KH: When I started playing out, I was listening to free jazz, avant-garde music, contemporary music, and other things. I still enjoy listening and seeing free jazz, perhaps more than that of free improvisation. I like to feel the energy. And I always enjoy listening and seeing something that is completely new or at least that seems new to me. I also had a very good friend, Yolanda Stratter, who owned a record / bookstore called Disk'overy in Boston. So, she always had kept me some good stuff on the side. But really, I was open to all sorts of music, so my house mates were playing rock or pop or goth or whatever, which I also enjoyed, and I had another elderly friend, Sidney Kanegis, who owned Kanegis gallery, and he took me out to a zydeco show, and when MIT had a show of gamelan music, then I went. In Boston, with the Harvard archive and all those record stores back then, we were pretty spoiled with movies, music, literature.
AC: When did you come back to Japan?
KH: I came back in ’98 after spending about 10 years in the States. I was already performing around Boston and NYC, mostly in a band called Saturnalia that was led by Jonathan LaMaster. It was a free improv group and we had cello, banjo, double bass, guitar, and me on voice, trombone, theremin and sampling. The line-up varied, sometimes just a few people and other times six people or so. We released one CD and we had a track on a compilation.
Anyway, around that time I started to run into visa problems and that was a headache. But I’d also started to be drawn towards Japanese things, like dance and literature, and of course new and traditional music. I felt like I wanted to go back to Japan to probe where I had really come from. My dad had been adopted and that made me want to look into my ancestors and the whole family tree.
AC: What sorts of Japanese things had you started to get into?
KH: I cannot recall exactly what, but butoh was definitely part of it. Then when I first saw Yoko Ono in Boston, that was spectacular! She was just screaming, screeching “Oh, Oh, Oh”. It really encouraged me. And also when I saw a performance by No Neck Blues Band for the first time in Boston, and Michiko performed, wow, it really blew my mind and just left me with this sense of excitement. Then all of a sudden, the way I moved and used my eyes changed. I felt as I started behaving more as a Japanese, perhaps I was being pretentious, but I was even more so being like Americans, so I started feeling myself, my own roots then. Then when I went back to Japan, I started taking traditional dance lessons and went to butoh workshops a few times too.
AC: Could you talk a little more about what you got out of studying nihon buyo (Japanese traditional dance) versus studying butoh? They're both dance forms, of course, but for me nihon buyo always has this very tight relationship with language (with the words of the pieces), whereas butoh has not so much of a relationship with language. I wonder how these two approaches have fed into your music and performance?
KH: For me, anything traditional, at that time (around the time I’d decided to come back to Japan and after returning), was intriguing and I wanted to absorb it. And I believe both forms did a great deal for me. Well, butoh is not traditional, but anyway, I remember I was quite fascinated by seeing Sankaijuku back in Boston for the first time, and I really felt the life and death theme from their performance.
Later, studying and knowing more of (butoh originators) Hijikata, Ohno and of butoh itself, I was very much drawn into that too. So I took some workshops and later I just happened to collaborate with a butoh dancer, Imre Thormann, who was a pupil of Kazuo Ohno and who was living in Tokyo. I worked with him in his performance, “burnt soil” (https://youtu.be/hjfGxh0Zwhs) which we performed in Switzerland and also at Jean Jean in Tokyo. It was a great experience working with him for some good years, and he taught me a lot about the body. I also studied Noguchi taiso, and I had some lessons with the Roy Hart people in Boston and France. I still adapt things like exercises and training when I work with my body too.
Even with nihon buyo, I didn’t really have any “language” issue like you mentioned. I could be careless about it, I guess, like how I approach my cover songs. Or even that was fascinating too — feeling how skin lays on the surface, how to make my hands look soft like female’s and not at all about jumping and looking great but more with inner feelings and how the bones connect and stand and all the physical structural relations in movements and all.
AC: I'm curious about whether it was your years in the US that inspired this sense of need to find your roots?
KH: Definitely, I think that being in the US inspired me to go back to my roots, but they had always been the same. I even thought that the character I had become was created or built while I was in the States, but after spending 20 something years in Japan now, I feel that my family has been a great influence on me. You know, I left to go to the States all by myself, even though my parents supported me, it was me who decided to go. It took me a few years to persuade them. Many people have told me that decision took courage, and surely it did, but I have been thinking about what it was that made me do that? What was the drive? It must’ve been coming from the character we share in our family.
AC: Were you doing performance-art style performances when you came back to Japan?
KH: I wanted to utilize my voice in performance. So, after all that with performance art, I figured it was not easy, especially financially, to do that in Japan unless you get some kind of grant from wherever. But I didn’t want to do that, so my focus went fully onto music. I was still “performing” on stage, too, but I remember when I asked Keiji Haino to play with me and my friend, Greg Kelley, when he came to Japan right after I came back to Japan, I wanted to do something experimental, so I hung strings with some weights at the end of each, amplified them, and I plucked them to make sounds for that show. I think I was singing too. But before that, Mr. Haino insisted that I shouldn’t do anything too performative, I guess he meant like movements and stuff, which are not purely to make sounds, so I didn’t, and I also played trombone with game calls, and he brought some horns of some sorts for the show and played that with me, too. It is too bad that I didn’t record it. Back then, it was not normal to record all the shows… you know. Not everybody owned a cell phone then.
AC: How did you start finding places and people to play with when you returned to Japan? Did you already have some connections in the improvised music scene in Japan?
KH: I asked Michiko of NNCK for some places to visit first. We had become friends after that first show I saw at the Middle East in Boston. (Ghost was headlining that show). We played shows together in NYC along with Tamio Shiraishi and Sabir Mateen and those guys. So, she had given me some names and places, and that was where I started, too. Back then, you had to walk around to get information about shows. But I guess it could’ve been better than now where we think we get info on what we want and all, without realizing it's all controlled with algorithms. Happy good old times.
AC: Could you talk a bit about how you think about the connection between physicality and musical performance? How important is physicality in your approach to making music? Has your understanding of that connection between those two things changed at all over time?
KH: For me, working with the body, breathing and connecting the two, plays a huge role when it comes to vocalizing. I have to feel my breath, let the energy go through my body. And sometimes I intentionally block it when I want to project certain sounds or voice. Thus, for me it is very important to work with my own body. And this is how I work with my students too, in order for them to free their natural voice. Of course, I also check the placement of tongue, how the jaw opens and so on, too. If you know about anatomy in work with voice, it is not only about the mouth and throat. You will find that whole body is involved. So, from that point of view, my approach hasn’t changed at all. Well, I can say that I haven’t been using it, in order to mean anything, but I use it to perform. Hmmmm. How can I put it? I am not using it to act or show any movements, but all the movements are related to my singing and vocalization.
AC: I am also really interested in the way you think about time. There are some sections on the new record that sound like they have been overdubbed or multi-tracked. Do you ever use those kinds of techniques?
KH: I've never done that and I never will, probably, because I have no strong idea of how my work should be done. In other words, I know nothing of my final product. I only can do what I can at the time of my performance, and that is the final product, pretty much. I have been using virtually the same stuff when I play: looper(s), digital reverb, delays and volume pedals. I have been using them since the first “Love Hotel” solo album and also for the free improv sessions. More than 10 years. Over the years, I have changed or added some new pedals, but nothing really to modify my voice.
For this new album, I didn’t record live but the procedure was quite similar. I recorded in a venue during the daytime, and I took one to three takes for each track if there was a theme or ideas, but anyway, I added nothing after that. Exactly the same as my other albums. I never overdub because I am coming from improvisation with jazz background, perhaps. So, what you hear is my loops and delays. I sometimes feel as I play all the same everywhere, so if you think I have changed something in my approach, then I am lucky. Perhaps, the only time I did a studio recording for my solo project is the work Ephemeral as Petals where I recorded my part first (my voice and piano, of course with no overdubs) and added the guitar and drums to my tracks. That was the only time I did that. This time I recorded in the studio, but then me and Louis Inage on bass played together and that was it.
AC: Finally a really basic question, but can you say something about the different groups you have been performing with over the past few years? Like Kyohansha, Archeus, and particularly Albedo Gravitas. People really seem to dig that one. I'm interested particularly how your long-evolved sense of self in solo performance relates to other performance contexts.
KH: I always tend to have ideas of what I want to do when forming a new band or group. For Albedo Gravitas, I knew I would feel comfortable touring and being with Sachiko and playing with her was always exciting—- another voice and she even plays electronics and instruments. Wow. We could do both acoustic or louder shows anywhere. And later it came natural to ask Shizuo Uchida to bring a different depth to our sounds.
As for Kyohansha, I wanted to play the drums where I sing like a garage rock band. Now our sound is nothing like that, perhaps, but my first intention was to sing MELODY in a crappy way back then too and I also didn’t want a bassist who PLAYS! So that was how it’s begun. Ah, the reason why I started playing the drums was because I always had something to say about drumming. Well, not always, but so I figured, in order for me to say things, I thought I should rather be able to play it. And now I think the way I play them is somewhat like the way I play the piano. I don’t play the piano to accompany my singing. They are equivalent. Or they, my voice and the instruments should be in equal relationship in my music. Perhaps that is something I picked from studying body, and working around it. And butoh and nihon buyo. Of course, I am very physical when I play instruments, too, but that is not all, but the way I perceive things could be all intermingling. So like I said, that can be said for my other projects, too. I don’t know if I like other musicians to play musically with me. I mean, to support what I do, because I don’t support the others. Of course, I play with them and for each other perhaps, we are playing on the same sphere, we are in equal relationship. Not like “okay you are the rhythm section and I am the front person”, kind of stuff. That is why I came into free improv. But I am sure, I am playing something of “music” for me to make sense or not to make any sense.
For Archeus, I don’t remember it well now, but I think I wanted to do something like “archaic, pseudo-trad music” with TOMO on hurdy gurdy. We had tried playing duo in the past, and it was quite an interesting experience for me to play drone and improvised music with him and so to “reduce” rhythmic action and add a touch of something in sound, I asked Shizuo again for this one too. Of course, they must’ve had more or different thoughts for us to be a band.
For me playing solo, when I've felt felt like my piano and I cannot do enough, I've played with my foot on the piano, but there have been some tunes I didn’t feel quite right about even with my feet up. I wanted something more in space, sound-wise, so then I asked Louis to play with me. But I still do the very first attempt all by myself, and when I start hearing his sound in my head, I ask him to join me.