Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

Liner Notes of the CD Pagan Hymn

The Road to This CD

written by Tetsu Saitoh

I have been thinking that the "failures" of the past can be rewritten as "successes." I decided to change the Singapore concert of '96 into something productive by making good use of the experience for the future. In the summer four years ago, at the Substation in Singapore, I was told, "Do whatever you like"--something which hardly ever happens--and I got a little too greedy. I invited Jung Chul Gi and Kim Jung Hee from Korea, Michel Doneda and Alain Joule from France, and Kazue Sawai and Kota Yamazaki from Japan, for three days of concerts. Two Malay musicians from Singapore (Zai Kuning and Effendy Ibrahim) also took part. I was the only one who had already performed with each of the other performers (except for the Malays), but without a general connection among all of the musicians, four days of rehearsal went by before we knew it. What with the mix of five or six languages making it impossible for the participants to communicate effectively in many of the collaborations; the flood of newspaper, magazine and radio interviews; the music school students coming to observe and requesting workshops; people saying they were going to videotape our performances to make a film; some saying "I've had it"; others saying angrily, "This isn't music"; the visits of the Japanese ambassador and the famous writer M--; the local staff members giving their opinions at every turn; and my position as the only one handling all of the complaints, it was a situation of total panic.

My vision was clear, but unfortunately it was too soon to try to realize it. In the end, on each of the three days we gave a completely different performance with different combinations of performers. In something so varied and chaotic, there is always a treasure to be found. It may not have taken shape, but I felt that I had definitely seen it. In March of '99, at the opening of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, I did a performance called Ombak Hitam. I invited Chul Gi from Korea, and Zai and two of his students from Singapore. The Japanese Butoh artist Taketeru Kudo, and a koto ensemble (consisting of Hideaki Kuribayashi, Noriko Tsuboi, and Ryuko Mizutani) took part as well. The performance was based on my original works "Stone Out" and "For Zai" (the latter of which uses Korean shamanistic rhythms such as kukkori, fururim, and onmori). With this experience, I felt that my Asian connection had come together to some extent. I thought that at least the participants had understood what I wanted to do.

Michel came to Japan in October of '99. We decided to do a month-long tour together. I thought that this might be a chance to deepen my European connection--a different road. I asked Chul Gi to come to Japan for a week, to perform with us in Hiroshima, Iwakuni, and Kyushu, and he came. It's strange how things happen. Coincidentally, Zai was in Japan at the time, to try to heal his grief over the unexpected death of his student Leonard, who had played with us at the Asian Art Museum. When we arrived in Hakata, Zai was waiting for us. In addition, Noriko Tsuboi, who lives in Fukuoka, offered to be our driver for the tour. Neither of them came to play, but they did in fact take part, and before we knew it our trio had become a quintet. Hiroshi Ogawa, who has been doing my recordings recently, joined us, too, and Shunichiro Morita of the gallery Kazuki in Hakata lent us his car. We became a caravan of traveling musicians of many nationalities--it was a crazy week.

I have known Chul Gi for about 10 years. Among the Korean musicians who I have met, he is unusually shy, with a scholar's reserve. Extremely knowledgeable about not only Korean peasant music but also shamanistic music, he is an important presence in the music world. Even now, when he has time, he goes to learn about music from the elderly people of rural areas. In the future he is sure to be regarded as a treasure house of extremely important knowledge about this music, which is not written down on paper. In the past we worked together on various projects: music for the theater (the premiere performance of "Hi no Kamen"), several CDs, and a brief tour with Fumio Itabashi and Kazue Sawai. He is a valued teacher to me, answering my hard-to-understand questions in detail. Unfortunately, communication with only my survival Korean can be quite frustrating, but he is patient with me. I am always filled with gratitude. On this tour, we saw aspects of him that don't usually come out. He sang imitations of Japanese enka; played ponchakku (a style of Korean music); turned white as a sheet when he misplaced his passport, and sang for joy when he found it; and at the wrap party on the last day (in Kashima, where we recorded tracks 2, 3 and 4), he even drank--unusual for him--and apparently got a bit rowdy. (Unfortunately, I didn't witness that--too bad!)

I met Michel in '94 at the Musique Action festival in Nancy, France, and we formed a group called 5th Season, consisting of Michel, myself, Barre Phillips, Alain Joule, Kazue Sawai, Hans Burgner, and Martin Schultz. Michel and I are both Scorpios, and somehow we hit it off well together from the beginning. The next year, our friendship was strengthened when we did a trio tour and made a CD with Alain Joule; and again in '96, in Singapore. But although we get along so well, we are, after all, a Frenchman and a Japanese. There are still many things we don't understand about each other. During the month of our tour, I experienced many feelings. Although Michel normally plays only totally improvised music, he fell in amazingly naturally with Chul Gi's traditional Korean rhythm. Not only that, but when he played with Shunichiro Hisada, a Noh musician who plays kotsuzumi (a traditional Japanese drum), his performance showed tremendous control. I felt that this was unusual for a Western person. The "sound" produced in Noh music is, in a sense, not "sound" as an element of music. To put it in an extreme way, I don't believe a Noh artist thinks of himself as a "musician." The sound creates an unusual space, guides dynamics, and strongly directs the Noh stage. Michel, too, is more concerned with sound itself than with music. In that sense, it seems to me there was an element that made it possible for them to play together. When I read comments written by people who came to our concerts, I found out that a lot of them felt there was a "Japaneseness" in Michel's playing. Maybe I was attached to an idea: I had been convinced of the truth of the "Japanese brain" theory about the right and left brain, and had made judgements accordingly. The theory is that Japanese use a different part of the brain than Western people do when they hear sounds such as music, noise, speech, and an insect's humming. There are many other "theories" which musicians object to, such as "Japanese are a unique race of people which likes noise; the sawari (a kind of sound) produced by the shamisen is an example"; and "Koreans use triple time because they ride horses, and Japanese use double time because they are a rice-growing people." In all ages and countries, music which does not favor noise has been the exception; and in Korea there are any number of rhythms besides triple time.

Zai Kuning was an artist in residence at the Substation when I went to Singapore for the first time. I was very impressed by his eyes, which gazed into the distance like an animal's. I believed that he had something very meaningful to say. He comes from a line of pirates or shamans originally from Sulawesi. Like many Asian artists, Zai is active in a variety of areas: he is a poet, artist, photographer, actor, producer, dancer, reciter, performer, and video artist. His work is more ritual than skillful self-expression. This may be why he often responds with a flat refusal to requests from around the world for performances. When Zai was young, he left home to live in the woods and on the street. A university professor discovered him when he was reciting a poem by the roadside, and an exception was made so that he could enter the university, where he studied theater, philosophy, and art. I heard that at the time of our 1996 Singapore performances, his father told him, "From now on, spend as much time as possible with Tetsu." Since then I have had several opportunities to play with him, such as our Japan tour, and our performance in Singapore of ghazal (a type of music), in which we played with his family's orchestra.

I met Noriko Tsuboi when she was staying at the home of Tadao and Kazue Sawai, as Kazue-san's student. This was in the period when Kazue-san was becoming interested in improvised music. Tsuboi joined my larged koto ensemble called Blue Poles of Lear, named after a painting by Jackson Pollock. She also participated in the recording of the CD of the same name, as well as in Eurasian Echoes, which was the first of my Asian projects. This was a large band consisting of percussion and string musicians who normally play Japanese traditional or court music, as well as Western music; and, in addition, four Korean percussion and string players. In the band, Tsuboi played Korean rhythms on the 17-string koto. After that she went to the U.S. to teach koto at the University of California at San Diego. She recently returned to Japan. In '99, Tsuboi took part in the performance at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; and, on the spur of the moment, she joined Zai's and my Japan tour.

These various connections, made over the past year, have brought this CD into being. They were not just encounters, or confrontations between different styles. It is true that the longer you know someone, the more things about them you find hard to understand. But because of such acquaintances I now have the great pleasure of discovering aspects of myself which I had not been aware of before. I do feel that I have to keep these connections going. In any case, I have to say that I am happy to know these people, and will continue to treasure my associations with them.

Tetsu Saito, January 21, 2000

English translation by Cathy Fishman and Yoshiyuki Suzuki

Last updated: March 30, 2000