Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

Liner Notes of the CD
Solo [Contrabajeando]

written by Tetsu Saitoh

About the Music

I. A tango by Astor Piazzolla which was composed for the great contrabass player Kicho Diaz. Piazzolla continues to guide me in the musician's life.

II. Another tango by Piazzolla. I included a phrase from "Los Mareados" for Mr. Ramon, whom I admire a great deal.

III, IV. In these pieces I played two of my favorite rhythms from Argentine folklore (zamba and carnavalito). I created the charango sound using a plastic board.

V, VI. I have been listening to Brazilian music (choro, samba, etc.) for a long time. This music is necessary to me. I made a device to imitate the sound of the berimbau or cuica. In songs 1 to 6 I played the music of South America. I feel the same kind of charm in all of these pieces. In the big swing of the two-beat rhythm I feel the music's physicality and its closeness to the earth.

VII. I heard this melody sung in the unique Mongolian way. The melody was used by Kazuo Kikkawa in composing a piece for contrabass, violin and flute, commissioned by Keizo Mizoiri. I once played the piece with Masami Nakagawa and Shiho Tejima. Here, while playing I imagined the vast plains of Mongolia (although I've never been there), and a type of Mongolian stringed instrument which has a sculpted image of a horse head at the top.

VIII. My connection with the southern islands of Japan began all at once in 1996. I recorded on Ishigaki Island and at the seashore on Iriomote Island (Yaeyama Yugyo--JAB 01/02; Panari--JAB 03). I also played for a theater group on the main island of Okinawa. From these experiences I came to realize that the tides around the Okinawan islands flow directly to the Korean peninsula, and not to the main islands of Japan. Here I used a five-beat rhythm to connect Yaeyama folklore with Korean folklore. (I have been very involved with Korean music for the past five years.)

IX. Here I played two pieces (which I composed for a theater group) as a set. They are based on an image of people walking silently in single file, on a journey to a distant place like Eastern Europe or Central Asia.

X. I composed this piece for the Forum Event at Aichi Arts Center. I was deeply impressed when Shichiseikai, a vocal group made up of seven monks from Kyoto, chanted the melody of the final section on a stage 50 meters high. They liked this Lydian scale melody (similar to a Gregorian chant), and sang it in an amazingly fluid way.

XI. Four gongs, each in one of the four corners of the space, were played by the producer, the artist whose works are shown at this gallery, the sound engineer, and their friend. These gongs were specially made in Korea in different sizes and materials. I clearly remember how they echoed one another in complex patterns. After setting the sound level on the recorder and pushing the button, the engineer hurried to his corner to play.

XII. To me, this is the most engaging and absorbing of the Bach cello suites. It always gives me a feeling of eternity.


Rieko Koyama, who created the jacket art for my 1996 CD Stone Out, has her own gallery in Iizuna Highland. The building which now houses the gallery was built by the former mayor of Narashino city, Mr. Takashi Yoshino. He went to see Ms. Koyama's solo exhibition and thought he would like to exhibit her works permanently. Eventually, the gallery came into being. A true art lover, Mr. Yoshino also writes books, teaches, trains musicians, organizes concerts, and loves to drink. This area is known for its cold climate, and normally the gallery is closed from November to April; but he opened it especially for the recording session.

One day I stopped by Takasaki Bass Shop, where I often go, and saw an outstanding instrument. The man who was going to buy the bass had canceled, and it was going to be sent back to London. Without thinking too much about it I started to play it, and I was really amazed. This was clearly on another dimension from any of the basses I'd ever played or heard. The low sounds were especially unusual--I jokingly said that they nauseated me. Takasaki was kind enough to let me borrow the bass. This was only three days before the recording date. Normally, it's impossible to make a recording with an unfamiliar instrument; but I absolutely wanted to play this one. To be honest, though, over those three days my resolution wavered. The shape of the bass was very different from that of my own bass, so I didn't feel confident about getting the pitches right. At one point I became pessimistic, and thought I should bring both basses to the session; or that I had to play my own bass because I had been playing it for so long, whenever and wherever I went, as if it were one with my own mind and body. I thought, "Isn't it cowardly of me to play another instrument just because it's so good?" But in the end I decided to play only that one, because I thought I would never have another chance to play such an instrument. Ferdinand Gagliano, the famous Italian violin maker, made contrabasses for only three years. Now there are only two authentic Gagliano contrabasses in the world. This is said to be a historic instrument which could very well be kept in a museum. Naturally, it is very valuable. I had my car checked, and prepared a thick mat to put the bass on, to prevent any damage to it. It moves me deeply that such a perfect instrument was made over 200 years ago. On the other hand, I wonder what kind of person I am, to be so thrilled at the idea of playing this rare instrument.

Some people may claim that I played this instrument in too unorthodox a way. I would answer by saying that, as you can see from the fact that I'm particular about using gut strings, I want to play it as a "folk" or "ethnic" instrument, closely connected with the earth and the woods. Originally, playing a stringed instrument meant pulling a bow of horsetail hair treated with pine tree rosin over sheepgut strings. I know very well that if I were to put steel solo strings on this bass, it would have the elegant sound of a cello or a viola.

It was unusually cold at the recording session. My little fingers began to freeze up. On top of that, just when I made up my mind to start recording a piece, some construction began near the gallery. It was an unforgettable session. Recently, the way I play has been changing. At this session, I decided to play "tunes" (not so-called improvisations). It isn't my nature to work out one tune after another, so I may not be well suited to this type of recording--but this is what I am doing now.

Thanks to the producer, there are many pieces here which have roots in folklore. I love all of them. In addition, the sound engineer, who has played contrabass in an orchestra, has an acute, profound understanding of the bass and the bassist. I think the sound quality is exceptional.

Tetsu Saitoh
February 8, 1997