Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

Tetsu Saitoh Interview

The following are excerpts from "An Interview with Tetsu Saitoh," published in Japanese in Jazz Hihyo (Jazz Critique) quarterly magazine, No. 75 (1992, second issue). The interview was conducted and edited by Yoshiyuki Kitazato.

Since about the time I put out my first CD (in 1986), I've been doing work in conjunction with the theater group TAO. They did an outdoor play called White-Whiskered Lear, Part II, in which the mad King Lear wanders around a plain. The themes are battle, the sea, and so on. I've been interested in the koto since I played with the 17-string koto player Hideaki Kuribayashi and the standard koto player Kazue Sawai. I also really liked the low sound of the 17-string koto. So I decided to put a lot of kotos together, to look like the sea. The instrument really makes you feel its presence. The koto setting resembled the Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles, and everything fit in with the play.

I started the String Quartet the day after I saw a play produced by the Polish stage director Tadeusz Kantor. I also formed an orchestra by adding Japanese court instruments to the String Quartet, because I was aiming for a Kantor-like approach to music performance. When the stringed instruments are played strongly and intensely, all the instruments sound the same. All of the musicians I brought together for the String Quartet had become aware of this through their own experience. We started out by rethinking instruments whose strings are bowed and plucked to make sound, so we tried all possible ways of playing. All the group members enjoyed that. In this way, I was able to lessen slightly my complex about playing a Western instrument. We were relaxed in dealing with free improvisation, because we are of the generation which doesn't expect a great deal from it. None of the members thought that free improvisation actually gave you the greatest freedom. So we started by trying out all the sounds and ways of playing that were available to us, and found out this wasn't such a big deal. This realization was our starting point. We thought the ideal was that none of us ever feel we didn't know what to do or what situation we were in. This worked well for us.

I feel that my originality--in other words, where my origin is--is important. When I've played outside Japan, some people have said to me in a serious way, "You're Japanese. Why do you play jazz?" To my mind, I wasn't playing jazz. Other people said that the more chaotic my playing was, the more Japanese it sounded. I think it was this kind of experience that led me to seek my originality, and inevitably I came to adapt traditional Japanese instruments to my music. Traditional Japanese instrumentalists understand me better than jazz musicians do.

I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as a member of a tango band. I played with Osvaldo Pugliese there. For a long time I had loved Astor Piazzolla's music. At that time I was thinking a lot about rhythm, so I realized that the sense of the beat in Piazzolla's music is based directly on folk music--the milong by the Atahualpa Yupanqui and so on--and also shares a deep-rooted Argentine rhythm with Pugliese's Yumba music. Piazzolla's music is called international modern tango, but that isn't all it is. I think his music is really in the mainstream of Argentine tango. I wanted to throw my own improvisation and noise into his music. I didn't just admire him, I also wanted to challenge him.

When I was learning to play jazz bass, I was told that my beat was off and that it was too heavy. At that time I heard a Korean musician, and I was excited because I realized that my sense of rhythm was the same as his. In 1991 I played with the Korean musicians Kim Dae Hwan and Kang Eun Il, and this was the second time Korean music made a big impact on me. My entire sense of rhythm fit in perfectly with theirs. In the performance with Mr. Kang, I would challenge him with a noise-like sound and he would react with his own noise-like sound. Even if the sound he made was really noisy, it didn't irritate me because it was a noise I liked. That's when it became really clear to me that there's a kind of noise that's different from the noise you hear at a construction site or the sound of cars, and that I prefer the former kind. I think of it as the noise of acoustic sound, or a noise that emerges in a location where you have a view of the vastness of the Chinese or Eurasian continent. The background is immense. This is the kind of sound you produce to identify your tiny self in the universe. If you were in the middle of a vast plain, I don't think you'd make beautiful belcanto-type sound. When you're in darkness, or facing the sea, or looking at a big blaze, you shout to confirm your own existence and produce a weighty noise.