Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 10 - The New Age
Log 10 - The New Age

A conversation with Otomo Yoshihide
Sally McIntyre


The following interview took place in the RDU production room at the University of Canterbury on the 9th of March, 2000, at 4pm, and was broadcast on RDU 98.3FM at 6pm. Otomo played a live set in the genteel, classical atrium of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery at 8pm the same evening.

The performance was true to his insistence on incorporating process and randomness, as when, after the interval, a guitar which had been sitting up perkily on a plastic chair identical to those the audience were also, rather uncomfortably, sitting in (a subtle comment on the role of the spectator in making meaning from the music, perhaps?) fell down the stairs, the noise it made was blended quite seamlessly into the performance, changing the tone which had up until then been quite minimal into a more overtly noisy experience. I found myself truly thinking about the sound a guitar makes when falling down a marble staircase, something I realised with an odd wistfulness I'd probably never hear again. This moment, for me, encapsulated the feeling of immediacy and play in his work.

Otomo was not into spectacle beyond the level of standing behind a desk, letting the audience into "what (he's) thinking", by calmly manipulating CDs, fiddling with cables, hitting a gong or 'playing' it and its partner on his turntables, the metal scratching in an unearthly, almost unregisterable shriek, among long, washed out drones colliding in mid air, and sine waves bouncing around the walls, slowly losing momentum like the entropic tennis balls from ancient video games, which came to rest for a few seconds in a very personal and almost disconcerting way, whispering somewhere inside my head, just behind my ear (I checked later with other people, and they reported the same feeling of strange intimacy). This was 'head' music, on many levels.

An unexpected highlight was when, quite early on, white paint flakes began to fall from the ceiling like dandruff onto the shoulders of the audience sitting in chairs below. This sublime poetry of destruction was quite mesmerising, adding to the atmosphere of transcendental beyondness, while at the same time grounding it completely in the particularities of place. And also caused those of us who were sitting directly under glass skylights to peer up anxiously for a few seconds, until we relaxed back into the tensions the sounds were stretching around us. When I talked to him earlier in the day, Otomo gave the impression of being extremely involved on all levels with "(his) idea(s)".

He was very polite, with a roaming creative intelligence, laughed a lot, seemed relieved that I knew something about his music, and apologised a few times for his bad English. But, as part of the reason he makes the music he does is connected in some way or another to his ability to express himself, I've chosen to leave his English usage intact, as I found it so singularly expressive. It's a pity that his intonation can't be done justice through the printed word.

Otomo at the tables Trainspotters
[left] The man at work
[right] Trainspotters

Sally McIntyre: Otomo, you're here in New Zealand to play a series of performances in art galleries, beginning here at the Robert McDougall in Christchurch, and then travelling to the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington, and Artspace in Auckland. You have a long and involved history in Japanese noise music, emerging from the free Jazz scene in the '80s in Japan. Could you speak a little bit about that time, about your influences? You were inspired by the Jazz collagist John Zorn, I understand.

Otomo Yoshihide: The '80s? Yeah, yes, yes, in the '80s John Zorn lived in Tokyo. He has a small apartment and he made a lot of concert in Tokyo and yeah I was a middle 20 ages, and I had a lot of new music friend and we both go to the John Zorn concert, every night to see what he doing, so that makes him a really big influence... hmmm... not only John Zorn also I got influenced from Japanese free jazz, also Japanese punk stuffs...

SM: You also cite French Musique Concrete as one of your influences.

OY: Oh yeah yeah, it's not from concert, it's from the record of course.

SM: So you have quite a diverse range of influences and interests, which come
out in your music, which is very collage-based and quite concerned with samples, mixing and remixing. You tend to tear apart and reconstruct sound. It's quite an interesting approach, would you like to just talk a bit about what's going on there, what you are trying to do with that?

OY: With collage or sampling? Yeah, basically... originally I started with tape recorder, I mean big tape recorders and tape cutting, that was my first instrument. It was '70s. Around that time we never knew about what remix was happening, just, we said, collage were taped music, and developing, developing, developing, step by steps and, yeah, I did a lot of remix, sampling, last 20 years, and now, just too much, I start to change another direction, kind of post sampling. The last 2 years for me, a really big changing time, and I am thinking about after the sampling or after the collage, since... maybe you can hear tonight what I thinking...

SM: So you're moving away from the whole cut-up collage which has been such a feature of your work in the past. Toward what exactly? I understand that you're using a lot of very... almost pure sine waves, very minimal constructions. Are you going towards some sort of abstraction?

OY: Yes.

SM: Of course, your band Ground Zero was rather huge in the '90s in the
Japanese scene.

OY: Yeah... not 'huge' (laughs), not like pop music...

SM: Well, 'huge' in an underground way...

OY: Yeah, yeah, yeah... (laughing)...

SM: ...a big part of the Tokyo underground. Why did you feel the need to fold Ground Zero, what were you moving away from?

OY: Mmmm... now, for me, I never think about my past, so it's just my past. But, yeah, in the '90s I'm always thinking about how to do the Ground Zero, how to be the ground zero, but now I think it's just... past...

SM: Your music is based in a big way on process rather than product, so I guess it's following certain ideas to their logical conclusions, if there are logical conclusions in this sort of instance...

OY: Yes, that's right...

SM: So, in terms of that, we should talk more about your latest projects, with your partner Sachiko M, and also your film work... I notice you've done soundtracks to films such as 'The Blue Kite' and 'The Day the Sun Turned Cold'. How would your musical approach be different in film work?

OY: Yeah... it's really completely different. So for my feeling I have two different brains... one side for the noise music, one side for the film music. Of course sometimes the two different brains talk to each other, but it's really, I don't know why but, ah, when I make film music I always change my idea, like a switch switching from my own music.

SM: So it's music for other people, in some ways?

OY: Mmmm... yeah... I want to be like an actor, one of the actors in the films. I think the music is just one of the actors, so, the most important thing is what the director wants to do with it, then I try to think about my idea and join it together, so that's why my film music is very different from my other musics. But it's fun, it's really fun.

SM: While we're on the topic, do you have any particular film directors that you like?

OY: Yeah... lot of (laughs). I love lot of filmmakers, especially I love '60s Japanese movies, and '80s Hong Kong movies. I love them.

SM: I'm interested in your take on the whole DJ experience, because obviously, although you use turntables in your work, you're not a DJ, or not in any traditional sense of the word. What do you think of this interest in DJ culture happening with Techno now?

OY: Ahh... (laughs) I not really very know about the DJ scene, just only, I know only a few experimental DJ's, like DJ Spooky, DJ Vadim, and some Japanese experimental DJ's. I really enjoyed it, hmmm... But, basically, I don't know about Techno, I don't know about Hip Hop...

SM: You're coming from a different turntablist history, obviously, one that made up its own codes before the DJ phenomenon, perhaps in a similar or similarly inspired way to someone like Christian Marclay who interrogates the boundaries between art and music. You've actually collaborated with Christian in the past, haven't you?

OY: Yeah, yeah, the collaboration record will be released soon I think. We recorded two years ago and afterwards Christian make a lot of editing and then he finished last year, so it will be released this year I think.

SM: Do you see the turntable as a legitimate musical instrument?

OY: Mmmm... yeah. If you want, yes.

SM: I asked because you were working in your band Ground Zero almost like a DJ as a band member, not seeing it as something that was apart from or replaced that kind of musical setup... and tonight, maybe if people go along to see your performance they'll be treated to the spectacle of DJ as artist, in a way... I mean, you're creating something original and irreplaceable, not just replaying records...

OY: Yeah (laughs)... maybe...

SM: Your new band Filament that you're involved in at the moment is apparently quite notorious for having noisy performances - turntables without records, that sort of thing. Is that what we can expect from the performance tonight, or will you do something different?

OY: Some of the music is really connected with Filament tonight I think, because, for me, after Ground Zero, Filament is the most important project for me...

SM: What kind of ambitions do you have for Filament?

OY: Ah, basically Filament was formed by Sachiko M - she's my partner. Her ideas are always really radical and extreme... More than me! (laughs)... She makes me shocked always... And her idea is really a kind of 'no information' music. I mean, basically, my kind of noise music means a lot of information put in a small room, that makes noise. But Sachiko's idea is almost nothing. Just a little bit, just a little... One noise put in the small room that makes some effect for all rooms, that's the idea of the Filament, so I'm really interested in both ideas: too much information, and very little information.

SM: Both very relevant ideas in our age. It's an interesting question really: why make noise music in a world that's so full of noise, or information based around noise, already?

OY: Why? (laughs...) Why why why... I don't know why!... Really, naturally, I love the sound, I love the noise sound, but I really don't know the reason. Maybe, lot of people said, because Tokyo is very noisy, Japan is very noisy. Maybe yes, maybe not, but just... I don't know...

SM: I usually think of it in terms of the fact that we take a lot of sound for granted. Maybe it's a way of foregrounding sound in a form that makes people take notice of the things they are in contact with every day, that forces them to really focus on it in a way they just don't otherwise. I was walking here to the University this morning and the Cicadas were making this quite wonderful drone... it was quite abrasive and in a certain way beautiful. I also wondered if that would be anything like your performance tonight perhaps (both laugh). Do you want to describe a little bit about what people can expect at all?

OY: Mmm...

SM: They're one-off performances, aren't they? They're all different...

OY: Yep, yep... I'm really not sure, I don't know about, ah... always I'm not sure talking about noise or idea of the noise, so always I'm confusing when the interviewer asks me about this... So then I decided I didn't want to say exactly things about noise... Just audience have a possibility, many possibilities to think from my music. I mean, I say a lot of questions, I don't say any answers, because it's not testable, it's just a sound. Basically sound has no meaning, just people's brains looking for some meaning behind the sound. So I'm always interested in whether sound has some meaning, but the different cultures always have different answers and different questions, so I just decide I don't want to say exactly things about noise.

SM: That really raises an interesting question about cultural context. You've obviously done a lot of touring around the world. I've got your schedule here for the next couple of months and you're globe-hopping everywhere. Culturally, how do you find that your music translates? Would a Japanese audience get certain significances that a Western audience wouldn't, or is this not a valid question with a medium so ephemeral and languageless? From what you were saying before it sounds as though you feel the meaning is made in a very personal space for the listener... but do you see different reactions in different places? Does the music itself change depending on where you play it?

OY: Yeah... also, of course the audience is always different, even in Tokyo, if I play at the University, if I play at the Techno club, the audience is completely different... also, New York, London, everywhere, very different, but I just don't care, I just play my own music, and everyone has a different background, every audience has a different background, and that's an interesting point, before I start a lot of touring, when I came for the first time to Europe I just got something like a very fresh feeling, like 'Wow! It's a different culture!...', but now the touring is my life, so I'm never surprised. That's really a pity but for me everywhere is almost same, people's life is almost same, just the detail is different, so that's my idea. Maybe it's a really strange idea, of course the Japanese people's skin, your skin is different maybe, but for me almost same. It's a strange idea, but in the last ten years my idea has completely changed.

SM: It seems that all your projects have a similarity in that they are on some level playful, curious, in the one ground Zero CD that I've got and reading about your other music, you're following ideas, it's like this true experimentalism... you said in an interview in The Wire that at one stage you were studying Ethnomusicology as a student, and that you didn't know if you'd become a musician or an academic. Do you consider your approach to making music is in any way academic or theoretical, or is it more of an intuitive based thing...

OY: Yeah... I was in the University just one year... so I really don't know about... I'm not a mainstream musician, and by mainstream I mean I'm not studying composing, I'm not studying a musical instrument, I just researched Ethnomusicology for one year, but it was already 20 years ago! (Laughs.) So, yeah, my brain memory chip is so small... so, almost gone now.

SM: You came out of the Tokyo underground at that time. I was interested in how you see that scene at the moment. What's going on there?

OY: Still really quite interesting. My age... I'm 40 now, and my age group... like Ruins, like The Boredoms, like Keiji Haino still doing really great, and also a lot of young musician like 25 years old, 22 years old they start completely opposite of my idea... Some play very very quiet, very minimal. So that's really interesting for me, very fresh. I think Tokyo music scene really energetic and interesting, still really interesting, and the idea, the underground musicians' idea is I think very special, very different from London. I don't know why but the musicians all have no music education, because Japanese music education is so boring (laughs)... Just only classical music, only traditional music. They never care about Twentieth Century music.

SM: Sure, and do you think that does a good thing for the scene almost, giving it almost a kind of punk energy, a do it yourself freedom...

OY: Yeah yeah yeah... I think so... yeah, yeah, we just don't care about (laughs) education...

SM: ... it sounds really healthy actually (laughs) ... it must make for a good atmosphere to create in, a breeding ground for ideas... and your work, coming out of a self-directed scene like that initially, has always included a lot of other people. I'm interested in this project you did called 'Consume', which is like the ultimate collaborative project. Would you mind just speaking a little bit about that?

OY: Yep... it started four years ago with Ground Zero, and I was thinking about how the remix was a little bit like consumption, someone remixes the original music and it's a bit like an act of consumption, then afterwards someone remixes the remixed music, it's kind of a chain consume project. That's the basic idea. But now I know that the remixing consumed Ground Zero, so that's why Ground Zero was just gone, just finished after this project.

SM: So Consume was basically about remixing the remixing...

OY: Yeah, chain remix.

SM: Can there be an end to such a process, or does it just keep going?

OY: Now? No, it finished two years ago. Maybe some people are out there still, doing it...

SM: So what does the future hold for Otomo Yoshihide?

OY: My future? Oh, I really want to know... (laughs)... ah... After this tour I'm working with a Japanese film director, his name is Shinji Somai, quite a famous director, and he asked me to make a music, so next month I will make music for his film. Mmmm... then keep going touring everywhere... touring, touring... mmm... yeah, also I'll start making composition. I don't play just this, I make scores... I just released a composition called Cathode from Tzadik [on John Zorn's label - SM], and that's my new idea - it's a kind of combination of traditional instruments and electronics, so I'm really interested in joining very traditional instruments with electronics music, especially I'm interested in Ganaku music... It's a traditional Japanese music, and Ganak has a instrument called the Sho. I like the sound of the Sho, so I know one young really great Sho player, so maybe I will join him and make something new, a project with other musicians and Sachiko M and me and a few others. That's my future plan. I also start jazz, I play guitar, traditional jazz guitar, and join with a saxophone player, drummer... jazz format... Yeah, that's my new projects...

SM: I think The Wire described you as the 'hardest working man in the noise business', and that certainly sounds true...

OY: (giggles delightedly)...

SM: Yep. So Otomo, you can be seen tonight at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery at 8:00 and that's ten dollars to get in if anyone wants to come along and hear this really exciting Japanese noise. We'll see you there. Thanks Otomo.

OY: Thank you very much, thank you.


Sally McIntyre [Aries Tiger] is a writer and arts presenter and experimental sound/fringe electonica DJ on student radio in Christchurch.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room