Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

Essay by Tetsu Saitoh

The following are excerpts from "The Transition of Tetsu Saitoh" (written by Tetsu Saitoh), published in Japanese in Jazz Hihyo (Jazz Critique) quarterly magazine, No. 86 (1996, first issue).

When I went to Buenos Aires in 1986 as a member of a tango band, Osvaldo Pugliese came to meet us at the airport. Mr. Pugliese created and developed the two-beat Yumba, a type of music which astonished and fascinated me. During that period of time I had been told that my rhythm sounded too heavy when I played four-beat music, and I was sure that I didn't have a good sense of eight-beat rhythm either. But my natural feel for playing two-beat rhythm surprised the musicians in Buenos Aires, who said, "Why can you do that?" Now two-beat and sixteen-beat rhythms are my favorite, and I am also attracted to combinations of two- and three-beat rhythms--preferences which were reinforced by my experiences in Korea.

In addition, I am very much influenced by theater. When the theater group TAO asked me to be its music director, I initially refused because I had no interest in theater. But they were very persuasive, and I finally accepted. In each production I played the music that I wanted to play, and communicated with the staff and actors. In this position I needed to communicate with many people, which thrilled me and gave me a sense of fulfillment. I never imagined that my relationship with TAO would last over eight years and influence me so much that it would change my music.

Through my relationship with the world of theater, I have met various people who have made an impact on me. When I went to Warsaw for a performance in 1995, I met the artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. Her works transcend individuality, emotion, and likes and dislikes. Not only do they make you feel the reality of the concept of "here and now," but they also shake you up by recalling old memories. She has this kind of power and impressive vision. She is a shamanistic artist.

Another time I participated in a workshop with severely handicapped people who moved to the music, it seemed, for their very lives. In the discussion after the performance, one man asked me why I had chosen the bass. I gave an answer, and he said, "The piano can only make one sound between do and re, with nothing in between, but your instrument can make an infinite number of sounds." For someone who has difficulty moving a centimeter, the space between half-notes on the instrument, the centimeter is as infinite as the world. When I thought about that, I realized that just a half-note can be the entire world.

Radical and surprising things have been attempted in music. Various techniques have been presented that make use of accidents, create chaos, or develop new kinds of feeling through technology. Many methods for transcending the self have been tried. When I played music with Kim Suk Chul, a Korean shaman who plays traditional Korean instruments, I discovered another method--relaxation. Normally, a jazz musician can play improvisationally for thirty minutes at most. His playing time is determined by his stamina. As the performance continues, it takes a toll on him physically. He plays music to express himself, and the performance doesn't exist if he doesn't play. In contrast, the performance of Kim Suk Chul and his group lasted for many hours, and they seemed to be in better and better physical condition. When I participated in their performance, I felt happy and satisfied just being there, even when I wasn't playing an instrument. I realized that in his performance he easily went beyond self-expression.

Since 1994, my relationships with European musicians have been rapidly strengthening, thanks to the bassist Barre Phillips. This may have been a rather late start, but I want to do things that are possible only because of my various experiences in Japan. Now that I am ready to tackle concepts of rhythm, melody and harmony that I once disregarded, I have a strong desire to create music that can be sung. In the future I'd also like to direct stage plays and dance performances and handle the music for a movie. There are many ways to express yourself musically, even if you don't play an instrument. (Recently I finally realized this.) I'm also very interested in serving as a bridge to bring together Korean musicians and shamans and European musicians. And of course, there must still be many undiscovered treasures in Japan.