Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

Liner Notes of the CD Koh-kan: Live at Seitan Ongakudo

Seitan Ongakudo and How this CD Came About

written by Tetsu Saitoh

It's been just over a year since my relationship with Seitan Ongakudo began, but I feel as if it's been much longer. I've had the opportunity to do a solo performance, with Zai Kuning as guest; a duo with Hisada Shunichiro on kotsuzumi (a type of Japanese drum); a duo with Ino Nobuyoshi on bass (with Zai Kuning as guest); and this duo with Michel Doneda. When I played with Hisada-san, his amazing concentration created an extroardinary space; and in the performance with Ino-san, the feeling was as relaxed as if we were doing a comedy routine. Both performances were filled with unforgettable moments. The acoustics in the hall are fantastic, and we're able to put our all into the performance, free of needless distractions. Afterwards, as there is time to talk with audience members, we can exchange ideas with a variety of people. In addition, there is a surprising custom--after the encore, everyone sings together! There aren't many places where you have the chance to sing the songs I've played--"Defune," "Sakura," "Shabondama," and the one after this performance, "Akatombo." (Michel played it, too!) People like me usually find this kind of thing quite a challenge. When I hear about a musician with a rather difficult character taking part in this custom, I think my reaction goes beyond "Oh, I see" to "Wow." After playing with great intensity for nearly two hours, this kind of chorus teaches me the futility of "self-expression." If all went well, the performance that day should have transcended self-expression to become "good playing."

I first met Okuda-san a year and a half ago. As my music was very different from any she'd heard before, she seemed a little bewildered, but something about it appealed to her. Her comments--"It seems to have something important to say," and "The tone quality is good"--were extremely gratifying. Hearing that she and her husband had built a hall and produced various types of concerts before and after her battle with a serious illness, I had the feeling she must be very strongly motivated. This intuition proved to be absolutely right. My conversations with Okuda-san and her husband go beyond music to philosophy, art, history, religion, nature, and color theory. The Okudas have also given me a formidable assignment: they want me to play or compose Japanese songs. For many years I have thought that I would like to do this someday, so I have started to collect materials about Motoori Nagayo and so on.

When I played with Hisada-san, the Okudas responded to the world of near-craziness we created with cries of "Fantastic!" I thought, "Michel might be well received, too," and so I arranged this performance, sensing that they hear sound just as it is. To find a hall that will put on a concert like the one on this CD, almost completely devoid of obvious added benefits such as famous musicians, "comfortable" music, or stereotypical "entertainment value," you need to offer special conditions. In this duo tour with Michel, great care was taken regarding venues. Somehow I am convinced that if we had played in places where our goals were not understood, it certainly would have been terrible, and no one would have been happy. From my prior experience, I believed the formula that a concert audience resembles the concert organizers, but in fact each concert was a challenge.

The day before this performance, I had two bows restrung in preparation for the intense playing to come, and we started off from Tokyo in the car. I was thinking, "In many ways this will be a challenging three-week trip, and I want it to be a success! I want to find the keys to meeting the challenges!" When we got tired of the long drive, Michel sang at the top of his lungs to Léo Ferré and Jacques Brel CDs. We arrived at the hotel in Katano city late at night. The next morning, I greeted the Okudas with a cry of "The prodigal son has returned--with a strange foreigner! I'm looking forward to working with you again." As always, flower arrangements, paintings and so on were arranged with meticulous care. The hall has a woody warmth and is almost entirely free of straight lines. The superlative acoustics buoyed Michel's spirits as well as mine. In the morning Michel the "nature boy" climbed the mountain behind the hotel, and scraped his arm when he fell down from an excess of happiness. He loves this kind of setting, full of warmth and nature. In France, too, he avoids the city and lives in the countryside, where he grows vegetables in his own field.

The curtains in the hall, usually closed, were opened for our concert, which was held in the daytime. To document the performance I set up the DAT (which became the source of sound for this CD), and before we knew it, it was time for the performance. The hall was filled all the way to the second-floor balcony. Well known (or so I'm told) improvised music fans who had seen the information on the Internet came from Okayama, Himeji, and Kobe. For those who had never heard improvised music before, I had written a kind of program, but I wondered whether they would read it and whether they would like the music. My worries were piling up, but in any case it was time to start. At times like that, all you can do is play with your heart and soul.

This CD includes the entire concert of that day, except for a solo by Michel and one by me; the encore; and the song "Akatombo," which I mentioned before. The first number of the actual concert was placed in the fifth spot on the CD; otherwise, the order of the performance was retained. All of the music is free improvisation.

  1. Kaze no Michi: At first the bass is played as a percussion instrument; it is "prepared" by attaching various objects to it. The last part of the piece features an Indian instrument (a gift from Zai) which is something like a prototype of the harmonium. (I used it in the performance at the opening of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, in March '99.) The rhythm heard about halfway through the piece is a Korean shamanistic rhythm, like the onmori or the kukkori.
  2. Kaze no Aya: This starts out with both of us playing in a rather "normal" way, but changes continually at a dizzying speed, conveying a sense of ever-changing color.
  3. Kaze no Inori: I play the rhythm called fururim, from Korea's Chindo island, on the gong, and Michel plays the sax as if it were a Korean piri or hojoku. During our European tour of '95, I gave Michel a hojoku made by Kim Suk-Chul. Michel has a deep admiration for Kim Suk-Chul, as I do.
  4. Kaze no Yorokobi: I play the bass in various ways here--not only pizzicato (plucking) and bowing. When I hear the grating sound now, I feel it resembles the sounds of the womb, of which Michel and I heard a recording. The other parts of the number, too, seem somehow to have been liberated and gone off to different places.
  5. Kaze no Majiri: We played this all the way through without using any unusual techniques. There is a part in the second half where our sound is completely in sync. I remember my heart was pounding when this happened.

The following day, just as we were about to leave the hotel, the Okudas phoned and said they would like to talk with us more. We met them at a cafe and chatted. Since it was our first day off in quite a while, they recommended we do a little sightseeing in Kyoto. On their suggestion, we stopped by a gallery to see an exhibit of works by Kajima Shozo. We met the artist and had a wonderful time with him. (I already knew his son, who did the sound engineering on my previous CD, Ohrai, and came to hear this concert as well.) The Okudas have been acquainted with Kajima-san since last summer; on the day of the concert, one of his painting/calligraphy works dominated the entrance of the hall. Through these providential circumstances, it came about that Kajima-san did the calligraphy for the jacket of this CD. In addition, Okuda-san found the word koh-kan ("communion") in Kajima-san's book, and chose it for the title. When we went to the Ongakudo to pick up the car on our return from Kyoto, Okuda-san showed us one of his own recent paintings. I joked, "It would be great if I could use that for a CD jacket." My wish came true amazingly quickly. So many things "communed" to bring this CD into being.

I have every expectation that through this CD, more "communion" will happen in various times and places throughout the world. Thank you, Seitan Onkagudo, and best wishes for your continuing evolution. Thanks to everyone who came to listen. And thank you, Noguchi Yoshihiko and Shimizu Jo-on, for your support.

TETSU SAITOH, December 9, 1999

English translation by Cathy Fishman and Yoshiyuki Suzuki

Last updated: March 30, 2000