Improvised Music from Japan / Tamaru


Interviewed by Hideho Takemasa
English translation by Makoto Oshiro

Can you tell us about when you started out in music, and when you began improvising and making acoustical compositions?

About "When I started out in music", and "When I began improvising and making acoustical compositions". I strongly feel that both of these differ very much from "What I currently do," so I'll briefly explain only the points that are essential. I don't ordinarily think about what kind of path I've traced through in the past. I don't think that it's necessary.

I think that the essential point from the period when I started out as a musician is that I began playing a musical instrument at a late stage of my life. The first musical instrument I played was the bass guitar, and I was over 20 years old at that time. I was suddenly exposed to a lot of information.

I was assisting the sound production of a friend's theatrical troupe, and during that I began using synthesizers, sequencers and multi-track recorders to make music in ways of so-called "Desktop music". I've always been a pop music lover since I was young up 'til now, but I'd already realized at this time that I didn't have the talent for it.

When I was about 30 years old, I began to do solo performances in front of an audience. At first, I remember trying out many different things, but after a short time I decided to improvise throughout the whole performance, and moreover to mainly play the bass guitar.

I think I've explained enough about the past.

What caused you to develop your current play style of the bass guitar?

I slowly arouse long tones of the bass guitar using volume pedals, and feed these tones to sound processors programmed to generate long interval delays. I repeat this to blur the breaks between the sounds that I feed to the sound processor, and create a seamless drone type sound. Currently, this is my main style. I managed to reach this style through trying out various things that came to my mind.

Sometimes I make minor changes, such as increasing or decreasing the number of sound processors, but I've been continuing to perform in the same style for a long time, basically using the same settings. There are two reasons for this.

One reason is because this style raises questions for me. I think that it's all right to say that expressions such as "I make new discoveries at each performance," "I don't get tired of it," and "It still interests me" are all types of "question raisings". This setting asks me to consider the relationship between my performance and the actual output of sound, and how I breathe during the performance. Moreover, the mysterious changes of the microtonal harmonies, overtone structure and positions of sound caused by the superposed delayed sounds seem like a dialogue with something unpredictable. Also, there are many things that make me reflect about issues concerning the position of improvised actions, such as the fluctuation of tonality/non-tonality and the sense of a beat, or the construction and departure from a dramaturgy created by a continuous sound.

The other reason is that I deal with my style very carefully because I feel the danger that sometimes the search for a new expression sidesteps and is replaced by an obsession to renew a style. But in spite of that, I think some things change as a matter of course, and some things must be changed.

Currently, when we look at you as a musician, it seems that you seek out how to make strong expressions as an instrument player rather than making onkyo approaches.

By perceiving unknown sound textures, unknown emotions are evoked inside me, and that would be my "onkyo approach." I guess there are sounds that I make within that realm, and sounds that I make in a larger realm which includes that. Either way, my challenge is to definitely not end up satisfying myself just by making pleasant sounds or unique sounds.

In my music, I focus on what I feel, and how I want to be rather than what I want the listener to feel, and that stands out especially during an improvised performance. Also, for works done on recordings, I think that I am very conscious to create something that makes me feel strength in some way. It will be nice if the listener receives "Something more than just a pleasant sound or unique sound" as a result of that, but I think that all of that can be achieved only "as a result".

Some people call your style "Ambient", but you deny this categorization.

Yes. I've already explained the reason for that in my answer above.

As a listener, I frequently favor listening to Brian Eno's ambient works. However, I have almost no interest in the music of so-called "self-professed ambient musicians," and I strongly dislike music such as "healing-music."

The issue that I face in my own performances is, that it won't make sense for me to do this type of music if I'm not mentally keen. This kind of music is not performed to make a living, or performed on request from another person. The necessity to perform is only within myself, so if I fail to maintain my faithful attitude or tension, or perform as a routine or by following a procedure, my mental keenness will become dull - and as a result of that, my intention to perform will weaken. I think that the listeners will sense this weakness.

I've never seen you record your performances. Are you not interested in recording your performances and listening to them later?

I don't have much interest in that. Sometimes the staff of the place that I perform at, or the promoter of the concert will record my performances, but I don't frequently record my concerts on my own and listen to those recordings later. First, I have no desires to collect past records, and I don't like to have recordings made out of an aimless habit gather up. I always want to reduce the amount of equipment I take to the places where I perform as much as possible, so I feel that the preparation for a recording is a burden, and the feeling that I have to press the Record button before the performance is a distraction.

In the first place, I don't normally listen to this type of music at home. I listen mostly to pop music in my living room. I think that is the largest reason.

Many improvised music records are made out of collections of concert recordings. Aren't you interested in making records out of the satisfactory live recordings of your concerts?

If I would do something like that, I would probably plan a live recording on purpose to release it from the beginning. I'm not so keen about the idea of having a CD coming out incidentally as a result of my concerts.

When I release a CD, I create it out of motivations such as to do a sound experiment that interests me; for example, like making a CD that has only sequences recorded on it because I want to listen to a pleasant sequence. It has to be something that I strongly desire. At my live performances, my desires are frequently satisfied once the performance is finished.

In your past performances, you've used your own handmade speakers. At a concert at Off Site, right before it closed down, you used a unique pair of speakers that had their speaker units faced down towards the floor and paper pipes that extend straight upwards, and at another concert you set a suitcase with a woofer inside at the back side of the room.

That's something I do as a part of trial-and-error experiments. I gain experience and sort out my know-how, and put myself not only in situations where the results are predictable, but also in situations where the results are unpredictable. I want to take things lightly, or more likely don't hesitate in trying out many things from now on as well.

I know that my handmade speakers are not hi-fi, and ready-made speakers would be better if I simply want high quality sound, but through that type of selfishness, of putting an idea into shape, there is a part of me that tries to think about or search for something while making such things. In the end, it's a dialogue with my own self.

Can you tell us how you began the group Installing with the other three, Tadahiko Yokogawa, Keiichi Sugimoto and Masahiko Okura (Okura left the group at 2003)?

I wanted to have the experience creating music not only as a solo musician, but also by being inspired by the talents of other musicians. However, I felt that in my realm of activity, the chances to meet other musicians were mainly at improvised sessions, so I started this group based on a concept that arose from the wish to perform with permanent members collaborating on the basis of an elaborate process.

I thought it would be nice if the group could achieve new expressions while grasping the meaning of physically playing an instrument in a digitally-based sound environment, so I chose and asked the members to participate from the point of view of that they are musicians who have originality as instrument players, and also have the talent as sound creators.

Musically, I was thinking about having compositions that widely allow improvisations as a base, and accept non-linear beats or stretch the moments of improvised performances within a timeline that stretches broadly as in Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music).

How did you end up releasing the album by Installing from Headz? Are you making another album?

I made several offers to some labels that I had acquaintance with and also to some that I didn't, and Atsushi Sasaki was interested in it. I wanted many people to listen to the music of Installing even more than my own music, so I thought it would be better to release it from a well known label rather than releasing it on my own.

The members are already having meetings about releasing the second album, and although the timing hasn't been decided yet, we're planning to make it. I'm not sure how it will come out, but I personally have opinions about the quality of performance even more than with the first album.

When I talked to you in the past, I was surprised to hear that if you don't have any concerts or recordings to do, you don't play your instrument. Many musicians want to play their instruments every day, and some musicians say that they feel anxiety if they haven't touched their instruments even for 3 days. I think that in many cases, the joy of playing an instrument and the discoveries made through that links to the activities of a musician. I thought that maybe you're deliberately trying to separate your performance from that.

Firstly, I don't do what people normally call practice. I don't practice as a mean to improve the accuracy of the procedure of my performances or to improve the functions of my physical performance, and I don't think that I will be able to provide a good performance for an audience if I practiced hard. However, on the day before a concert, or at an earlier time on the day of a concert, I check to see if the electronics, such as the sound processors I use, properly work at home. During that process, I sometimes find myself playing the bass guitar for a while. That's more like my hands enjoying the process, or caressing the instrument.

If I may add a few more words, the performance of Installing is composed to a certain degree, so I practice for this until the actual stage.

About playing my instrument, my house is not large, and therefore I have my instruments and equipment normally put in storage, so this situation has a large influence. I make a living out of work that has nothing to do with music, and the relationship between my "normal" life and my activities in music is weak.

However, when the day of a concert draws near, there is something in me that rises. Or, concerning recording productions, during my ordinary life, I sometimes find myself concentrating on a blur thought that might lead to a theme. I can only explain to you that I treasure those moments.

Returning to the content of the question, in my case, I don't deliberately separate the joy of playing an instrument and the discoveries made through that from my performance. I don't ordinarily spend of lot of time on those during my "normal" life, but I haven't had any problems so far.

For the year of 2006, you performed for 21 times. You've told us that you've reached your style through the process of trying out many ideas. Now that you have many opportunities to perform, do you intend to seek these types of discoveries mainly through your live performances?

Not only at performances. Sometimes I come up with an idea that might develop into something when I am performing, but it's only an idea at that point, so I test what will actually happen at home. On those occasions, my interest in music comes before my living, and I end up taking out the instruments and equipment that I have in storage.

I have some questions about your collaborations at live performances. When you played duo with the contrabassist Suzuki Kentaro, you held your bass guitar and didn't make a single sound for about 10 minutes after Suzuki began playing in a style that contained many silent blanks. During that performance, I thought that this performance could conclude as a duo performance, even if you didn't make a single sound until the end.

That was probably Kentaro's solo. I think that we had a discussion that the two of us would be on stage, but he would play first and I would join him after about 10 minutes. Some improvisers emphasize the silence and blanks between the sounds, but I don't do that.

When I play in improvised duos, I don't play a dialogue type of improvisation that exchanges calls and responses with the other person. Of course I hear the other person's sound, but it's not a creation of a picture that forms reactions. This doesn't mean I ignore the other person and make sounds. It's hard to put into words, but I see it as something between "listening" and "not listening" to the sounds of the other person.

How do you communicate with, and what do you consider when you collaborate with artists who work in the fields of video/film, such as video artists and shadow picture artists?

For the most part, there are no arrangements made beforehand with these artists. Therefore, it's almost the same as what I said about improvised duos, meaning that I think of it as something between "seeing" and "not seeing" the projected image made by the other person.

Usually in movies or dramas, for example, music that sounds sad is inserted into a sad scene, and that's efficient because it obviously conveys a message, but the chance of something new being made at that time and place is very small. Some types of fixed directions limit the realm of an expression. I think that it's better to carefully remove these.

Sometimes you use cymbals in your improvised performances. Does this mean that the bass guitar is not an absolute basis for you, and that although you have obtained some of your musical experience by playing the bass guitar, it is not difficult for you to replace it with another instrument?

I have no absolute basis, but I'm used to playing my current bass guitar, and I think that many of my ideas are premised on the assumption of playing this instrument.

I'm not so eager to change instruments. The reason is as I explained at the beginning of this interview. I play the cymbals as a part of trial-and-error experiments just like my handmade speakers, as I explained earlier.

Can you tell us about the two labels you run, "1040 (ten-forty)" and "1050 (ten-fifty)"?

The first release was my own album Meiousei from 1040 in 1995. The next was Ami Yoshida's Spiritual Voice, and these two albums are the only releases made from 1040. I considered Meiousei and Ami Yoshida's album as acoustical compositions.

In the scene that I was experiencing at that time, the methods of presenting an acoustical composition turned out to be concerts of improvised performances as a result, and I felt that things were mixed up and that the quality of many of those improvised performances wasn't good. Therefore, I established the label "1050" because I wanted to seek out a new improvisational music scene in Tokyo apart from those acoustical compositions. That was when I encountered Taku Sugimoto's performance, and I was thrilled because I felt that it was just what I was looking for, so I produced the compilation CD Intercity. Besides me and Taku Sugimoto, Akifumi Imaizumi playing the guitar in a drone style, Masahiko Okura playing the saxophone, and Kozo Ikeno playing the trumpet each participated by solo on this album.

Since then, 1050 has released my solo album Basso Continuo, and the miniCD Saraswati by Installing.

Some people ask me about the names of the labels 1040 and 1050, but they're not words that I picked up from anything. These names came from an idea of enumerating meaningless numbers.

Some of the tracks on Basso Continuo have titles that evoke certain scenes and sentiments, but does that mean that the titles don't link the scenes and sentiments to the sounds?

It doesn't go the same for the titles of the labels and the titles of the songs on basso continuo, but for Basso Continuo, the titles don't link the scenes and sentiments to the sounds. I think that a title should not explain a song. When I give a title to a song, I want it to be something that functions as a catalyst when that word is cast into the abstraction that the story of sound conveys. If someone thought of that as an explanation, I think it would be very uninteresting.

Most artists who have interest both in improvisations and acoustical compositions try to do both at the same time. They draw laptops that originally have distance from the human body in the direction of an instrument, or they take in the sounds of an instrument they played by improvising into their compositions as materials. The peculiarity of your activity is that you continue to do both, but clearly separate them. But when hearing your improvised pieces and acoustical compositions, it is convincing that both are made by the same creator. Can you tell us about your concerns about separating the two, and what the two have in common.

Whether the improvisations and acoustical compositions are separated or mixed, I think that there is no problem as long as the quality is good.

Personally, I might be saying something very conventional, but an improvised performance is a challenge of a real time expression that cannot be recreated, and an acoustical composition is a challenge that has a high degree of freedom in time and method, and I simply just want to create something that I like either way. At an improvised performance, I feel the qualification as a musician and something that would be called musicianship inside myself.

What do both have in common? I've stated much about my intentions and attitude throughout this interview, so I feel that I've already answered this question. If I were to add something, I'd say that I think I prefer romantic things.

About Uran!disc. You hand out the recordings with no charge and moreover you don't list an artist name. I think that this method shows your awareness of issues about how people receive and listen to the work.

Uran!disc does not always stick to "handing out recordings" and "not listing the artist's name" as policies. What it sticks to is its policy of taking no charge at sales, and this is also stated in the name Uran!disc (The word "uran" means "not for sale").

To make a long story short, just like my handmade speakers, Uran!disc is a part of my trial-and-error experiments.

Even though I produce and sell a piece of work, the amount of sales is very small. So why not distribute the recordings for free? The action includes this punkish state of mind, but at the same time it is a realistic way to take care of the issues of production fees and the stock that occupies my closets.

But I've come to think that I want to find some value in this action of free distribution and not do it for promotion, and this is a large transition point for me. This is not about passing on music from the creator to listener face-to-face. Uran!disc might have that lateral view, but that's only a part of it. I think the largest meaning in distributing for free is that I don't have to hand out the recordings to someone I don't want to and I don't have to hand the recordings out when I don't want to. When I came up with the idea of free distribution, I found freedom existing in that action because it is free distribution. Originally, I could have had that freedom, but I was busy following the format of the realm of mass products even though I was a small product, and I didn't notice this. Once I stand in this point of view, I can carry out actions like making an album with sound only, and not list the creator's name, list the name of the creator when I want to, make a piece that is extremely short in duration or make only one copy without any hesitation, and I've begun to feel that it's natural to desire putting myself in actions like those where the results are unpredictable. When a musician releases his/her work, there are the listeners who are other people. But I still think this is a dialogue with my own self.

However, I don't think that all of my music production has nothing to do with the format of the realm of a mass product. For example, I want to seek for a way to have many people listen to the music of Installing, and in that sense I think that there is no need for an integrity that limits my own actions.

A great deal of your activity has been in Tokyo, and you must have many opportunities to meet people who continue their activities in independent fields, who are not limited only to artists. If you have something you feel through having relationships with these people, please tell us about that.

There are many people who continue to do consistent activities at places I don't know.

So I feel that the number of these people is much more than I've imagined. Out of that number, I have opportunities to join with some of them, or each of us has each other play at our self-organized shows, but there aren't so many encounters that change the content of my music.

Could you tell us about your activities in the future?

For Installing, it is as I described elsewhere in this interview. For my solo activities, I have concrete ideas concerning the production of albums, and some might be distributed from Uran!disc.

For my concert activities, I haven't constantly done very much until now, but I feel that I want to decrease the times I play a little. However, things like these change, so I can't predict how they will be at the time this interview has been published.

March 19, 2007

Last updated: May 5, 2008