Improvised Music from Japan

Liner Notes of Brett Larner's CD

written by Tetsu Saitoh

In the beginning, music was rooted in its place of origin; it was created by and for the people who lived there. Traditional music, in particular, was closely connected to the foundations of its culture--the language, climate, customs, religion, faith, festivals and rituals, etc. In a sense, music was something that could not be--and should not be--moved. But with changing times and new modes of transportation, various forms of exchange began to take place. People and musical instruments traveled to different areas. Instruments are less adaptable than people, so when the shakuhachi and koto (which are native to the humid Japanese climate) are moved to a dry climate, special measures must be taken to prevent them from cracking. People, on the other hand, tend to seize the opportunities presented by new encounters in order to do things they would not have thought of before. In these encounters they find fresh surprises and discoveries. In the self which they thought they knew completely, they sense another possibility, which they come to regard as so irreplaceable that they are willing to risk everything for it. On this disk, two of the three people playing traditional Japanese instruments are not Japanese. As the result of a number of decisive encounters, they have immersed themselves in the traditional music of a foreign country. Knowing full well how difficult traditional Japanese music is to master, both have devoted themselves to fundamental training in this music. Canadian Brett Larner currently lives in Japan, and American Philip Gelb has visited Japan several times and continues his training.

In the biological world, mixed-breeds are stronger and longer-lived than purebreds. In the same way, music has been enriched by mixing. But we have had many unfortunate experiences. Over the centuries in which East and West have been "meeting," many attempts to bring together different ideas have failed abysmally. When Western civilization comes to a dead end, it turns to Asia and Africa. As we have seen from the superficial popularity of things like zen and yoga, people have a bad habit of attempting to escape the blocked feeling of their era by pursuing exoticism, Orientalism, mysticism. The recent explosion of "world music" is an example: under its rubric, huge amounts of money have circulated, a wide range of musicians and genres have been lumped together, and everything has been diluted. The promise of the new generation to which these two musicians belong lies at the point where this history is recognized and transcended.

It is very interesting that these musicians share the common theme of improvisation. It will be increasingly important in the future to think seriously about improvisation, rather than entertain irresponsible illusions about it. In particular, as these artists have chosen means of expression from outside their own race and culture, there must be things which they can only see from that perspective, and surely that originality will provide them with a new point of departure and new possibilities. What is the relationship between improvisation and the language and instruments of one's native country? Between improvisation and race? To what extent are people regulated by thought? To what extent is one limited by one's place of birth, one's era, one's body? How are the roles of the right and left brain assigned? To what extent do people own themselves? What is the self? What is music? What is race? What is culture? What is a human being? These problems inevitably come about. Sound is deeply tied to memory. It goes into and out of an area of memory that is not one's own, and thus the area transcends race and era and can become the common property of all human beings, as well as a hope. It is because of this potential that these musicians' work, at this time, is significant in many ways. Thus, they are not merely unusual people playing Eastern instruments, but important contemporary musicians who teach us essential lessons.

The two people whose influence led Brett Larner to enter the current world of music are his teachers, Anthony Braxton and Kazue Sawai. Both of these musicians have a unique approach to music and improvisation. The energy, freedom and creativity of free jazz are a double-edged sword: if you handle them poorly, you plunge into the opposite state--chaos, confinement, and the inability to create. Braxton works out various strategies to avoid this trap. The most distinctive feature of his work is his constant invention of ways for musicians to transcend individual talent and limitations while maintaining the freedom and performing drive indispensable to improvisation, and even while organizing chaos. Kazue Sawai's improvisational method, which can be called shamanistic, is to go deeper and deeper inside the individual human spirit and, having reached a certain point, to release everything, including the listener. She is at the very center of traditional Japanese music, while also being the greatest heretic. (This is in fact the true meaning of "tradition." It is the thin line connecting the points which make up heresy.) Her music/improvisation bring back to life the things that tend to be lost in contemporary music. Even if everything is written in a score, there is ample opportunity for improvisational performance. This can be understood if one considers the extent to which the will of the composer "leaks out" in the score. Sawai's playing clearly reveals that essence. These two very different musicians have something in common: a strong affirmation of their belief in music and in people. Influenced by these two masters, and based on his own varied experiences, Brett Larner will develop a new and original brand of music/improvisation.

The third musician playing on this disk is Shoko Hikage. Raised in Akita, a beautiful rural area far to the north of Tokyo, she is a well-adjusted person who loves singing and dancing. Having hesitated between dance and koto, she chose the koto. It seems she became interested in improvisation as a means to express emotions which she herself could neither name nor control. As a member of my now-disbanded koto ensemble, her delightful personality came out in a variety of situations. Because her playing style is based on a foundation of singing and dancing, it flows freely and naturally, without being showy. Once she danced through almost an entire performance--she didn't even touch the koto. Nonetheless, she was definitely "there," making music with everyone. Just as not all black people can sing the blues, not all Japanese understand traditional Japanese culture. It may be best to think of each person as an exception to the rule. Living outside of the country, Hikage is able to see Japan from a non-Japanese perspective, and plays with musicians who have fresh approaches. More and more she will present us with sounds that overflow with surprise and happiness. "Original, traditional Japan" may not be found in the past; it may in fact be another name for the imitation which today is made to serve as illusion. And it may be that Shoko Hikage, who studied for years with Kazue Sawai, understands this in a physical way.

All of the works on this disk are improvisational. Amazingly, the three musicians met face to face for the first time just 30 minutes before the concert, which was part of Brett Larner's tour. The first song sounds like a traditional work because the koto was played with a traditional type of tuning called hirajoshi; and on hearing this, Philip Gelb immediately adapted his playing style to it. For the other songs, the koto was retuned just before playing. The sound of water dripping, starting from the third song, was actually from a leak which occurred just then by chance. It sounds like the unexpected leak was welcomed as a member of the group, and the performers enjoyed improvising with it. In any case, a new experiment with various possibilities has just begun. This disk announces that beginning.

Tetsu Saitoh
Double bass player, composer

Translated by Cathy Fishman and Yoshiyuki Suzuki

Last updated: April 25, 1999