How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
The shamisen is basically an acoustic instrument, and moisture must be avoided because of the leather covering the body. So, the performance is always very much influenced by the condition and the acoustic of the space. I always try to highlight the harmonic overtone and the noise when I perform, so I attach a pickup mic to the shamisen, and I also use an air mic to amplify the sound which is almost inaudible. If the space is wide or has poor acoustics, I try to be particularly careful about the sound check.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
There are lots of materials inside me and outside of me; my own feelings and mood and the condition of my surroundings; the acoustic properties of the space, the quality of the sound device and the sound engineer, the condition of the instrument, and also the condition of the audience, other performers, etc. Everything is transformable and stimulating for me. The most important element might be the acoustic condition. I often hit on many new ideas when the acoustic is very nice and when I can hear every detail of the sound from the instrument and from the audience. When the co-performer plays an interesting improvisation for me, his sound will be stimulating for me as well.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
I basically agree with that rule, but it is not so interesting for me if I have to listen to every detail of the sound from the other musicians and relate to other sound all the time. It is sometimes fun when everyone is moving in the same direction and suddenly someone bursts out and breaks the situation. I think it is not necessary for everyone to relate to all the other sounds from the beginning to the end.
But it is true that we have to be very careful about the sound from another musicians and careful about the relationship with other members in a group improvisation, because “improvisation is communication” for me. At a solo improvisation, I can be much more inside myself. But I have to pay attention to the relationship between the previous sound and the current sound and the next sound inside the structure of the whole piece. And I sometimes feel the mood from the audience on the stage. That is also a kind of communication I think.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I don’t adhere to my own originality when I improvise, because my instruments, the Gidayu-shamisen and taishogoto, are very unique and rare in the improvisation scene, and there is no other improviser who performs the Gidayu-shamisen with the voice so far. So when I find some new sound or new idea by chance, it instantly becomes something original. But I always find it by accident, so usually I cannot do it again and fix it as my original vocabulary.
Recently, the electronic music scene has been inspiring for me. I can discover new vocabularies and I can adjust them to my performance on the shamisen or electric taishogoto.
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion and what’s your approach to performing on stage? How do an improvisation and the recording of this improvisation compare?
I often have to meet a silent demand from the audience or the character of the venue or the musicality of the co-performer when I perform on stage. To be honest, I’m often not honest to myself and not natural on stage. Sometimes, I have to be very hot and loud, sometimes I have to be cool and quiet in accordance with the situation, especially depending on the musicality of the co-performer if it is not a solo gig. I think a good venue, a good audience, a good sound engineer and a good co-performer constitute a good live performance. But I have no idea what is good or not. Just “what I did at that moment” including my approach, that is my improvisation. And the recording is the same for me. On a recording, I have to meet the demand inside myself at that moment, that’s it. I cannot compare a live performance with the recording of that performance.
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
Music cannot be completed without the listener. The listener as a performer or as an audience might be the first priority of music rather than the performer, because the listener can feel any sound or even silence as music.
How do you see the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema most importantly - and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
As you know, the visual arts are much more direct than music for most people. So if the music is not alone and accompanied by visuals, it becomes something completely different. You must process a lot more information and stimuli. So you cannot concentrate on the music to an equal degree. Then again, music can invade or affect the visual arts, especially cinema. Cinema could never work without music - except the experimental one.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
In Japan, only the underground music scene is not suffering from commercialism. Of course, even underground musicians need PR to make an audience aware of their gig or sell their CD. Some musicians can ask journalists to write articles about their gigs or about their CD in the jazz magazines or overseas music magazines if they are popular musicians or when they have some connections. But only very few underground musicians have these opportunities. And only a few big names can be picked up by influential music sites on the Internet, because it is too rare and unusual for improvised music to be featured there. So almost all musicians themselves post announcements about their gigs or CDs on the gig guide site or twitter or Facebook.
Regarding music journalism, the improvised music audience is not that big as you know. We don't have a lot of press which specializes in improvised music, and we don’t use PR companies to raise awareness. So I cannot say anything about this topic. Even the big names like Otomo Yoshihide as a composer of major cinema productions or TV programs cannot gather big audiences when he performs at improv gigs. So I think music journalism hasn’t be able to change the way the audience perceives improvised music so far.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I want to form a comedy music band including a singing or dance act by each member, and mix or confront normal pop style music and improvised music, or Japanese style music and western style music, or vocal and instrumental, or music and theatrical performance.
It will be very interesting when the time will come when even popular music will become completely free without copyright in the future.
More information on Yumiko Tanaka can be found on her page at Japan Improv,