Name: Taiko Saito
Occupation: Vibraphonist, marimbist, composer, improviser
Nationality: Japanese
Current Release: Satoko Fujii's Underground, an album featuring Futari, Fujii’s duo with mallet virtuoso Taiko Saito, is out via Libra.  
Recommendations: “In Praise of Shadows,“ an essay by Junichiro Tanizaki;  and “Sea Lady,“ a beautiful piece by Kenny Wheeler.

[Read our Satoko Fujii interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Taiko Saito and would like to stay up to date on her music and activities, visit her official website. She is also on Facebook, and twitter.  

When did you start writing/producing music, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started composing and improvising when I was studying classical music in Tokyo. My former professor, Keiko Abe, is a not only a pioneering marimbist, she is also a unique composer and free improviser.

Many composed contemporary works include improvisation sections, which I couldn’t understand and interpret at the time. I didn’t know how to improvise, or more precisely, I knew nothing about music without sheet music.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

My music and my sound are always developing. I continually meet people that powerfully influence me. I’m also strongly influenced by nature.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I was born in Sapporo, Japan and have been living in Berlin for more than 23 years, longer than I ever lived in Japan. Still, when I talk to myself, I use Japanese.  Some audiences think my music sounds Japanese.

There are probably many Japanese influences swirling around in my subconscious.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

Moving to Berlin and starting to play Jazz.

Before I left Tokyo, I packed all classical sheet music into boxes and left them at my parents‘ loft. I decided to stop playing that music and began to learn Jazz and improvising.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

My first instrument was the marimba. I changed to vibraphone when I started to improvise and compose.

Seven years ago, I met the chief of marimba manufacturer KOROGI. They made the most beautiful, wonderful marimba for me. It took about half a year to find the best wood for me. This instrument totally changed my ear.

Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?

I’m constantly exploring the sounds of marimba, vibraphone and other percussion instruments.

At this point, I’m particularly interested in the acoustic resonance of any instrument.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

I like to meet musicians for jamming and drinking coffee. Many musicians have studios in Berlin, so it’s very easy to meet and play music together.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I wake up at 6 a.m.,  make a Japanese breakfast of rice and miso-soup, and pack a German style lunchbox for my daughter and a Japanese bento box for my son. After they go to school at about 7.30 a.m., I make fires in two fireplaces, then I do yoga and exercise.

I work at home on my computer and piano, or I go to my studio which houses marimba, vibraphone, piano and other instruments. I arrange my schedule around the time my kids arrive home, so my daily life blends my musical and personal lives pretty well, but sometimes when I’m with them, my kids complain that my thoughts are elsewhere.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

A 2019 tour of Japan with Satoko Fujii. She is my role model. I really admire and respect her. I asked her to play with me as a duo. During the tour we talked a lot about our lives and experiences. We didn’t talk much about how we play music, we just played and listened to each other.

These experiences of call and response with each other were very fresh and powerful. It was a great experience and we made a wonderful recording, Beyond, released in 2021 by Libra Records.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Just improvising on marimba, vibraphone and piano. Mostly on marimba. After a long tour or working on projects, I always play my marimba feel like I’ve come home.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

To practice new, contemporary music is always hard. Sometimes it’s depressed or hurt me emotionally. But most of the time music gives me a lot of energy and joy.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

Talking about diversity and working for SDGs are very important to me. I’m afraid sometimes when I talk with a man who is physically bigger and stronger.

I’m always happy to play with other women in large ensembles or orchestra. I like to wear kimono as concert dress. But I don’t think about SDGs, when I play music or compose.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I sense acoustic sounds from ear, skin and organs. The higher the tension in the acoustic space is rising, the more I get the concentration of this sensation.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

When I compose, I listen to my inner voice and try to write it down as notes. When I play music on stage I focus on the sounds, which I hear inside and outside myself, and try to react to them. I feel the energy of tension that arises between the sounds, players and listeners. I particularly like to raise this tension of the acoustic space through improvisation.

On the social and political side, I'm a Berlin-based yellow immigrant Japanese woman and a mother of two children. I don't have German citizenship, because I can't have multiple nationalities under Japanese law. So I can’t vote in Germany, but I pay taxes.

I like living in Berlin and the working situation as an artist is better here than in Japan. In addition to my musical activities, I am also active in IG Jazz Berlin e.V., an apolitically active association working for a sustainable future.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

In the last 7 years my brother and my duo-partner passed away. I didn't know what I had until it was gone.

I feel happiest when I spend time with my children. I think music helps us to share those feelings with others, and makes us feel at peace.