a conversation with otomo yoshihide
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
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.
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
SM: So you have quite a diverse range of influences and interests,
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?
SM: Of course, your band Ground Zero was rather huge in the '90s
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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 10, winter 2000