Name: Takatsuki Trio Quartett
Members: Joshua Weitzel (JW), Rieko Okuda (RO), Antti Virtaranta (AV)
Occupations: Bassist, composer (Antti Virtaranta), pianist (Rieko Okuda), Shamisen and Guitar player, sound artist, curator (Joshua Weitzel)
Nationalities: Japanese (Rieko Okuda), German (Joshua Weitzel), Finnish (Antti Virtaranta)
Current release: Silke Eberhard & Takatsuki Trio Quartett's debut album At Kühlspot is out via 577 Records.
If you enjoyed this interview with the Takatsuki Trio Quartett, visit their respective homepages: Joshua Weitzel, Rieko Okuda, Antti Virtaranta
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
JW: My instruments are guitar and shamisen. In the context of a group such as Takatsuki Trio Quartett, it is very important for me to work with the possibilities of the instruments to create dynamic movement and tension in the music. The shamisen, for example, can make a lot of unique noises and really dense percussive textures, but it is really limited in terms of melody and harmony, which the guitar is great at.
I really like to play with the “baggage” that comes with an instrument, the history, the semiotics of its technique if you will. I think both shamisen and guitar are really great because they are so complex in their cultural meaning and history. But it is also important for me to disregard the tradition and meaning of the instrument at the same time, so it is a complicated relationship maybe.
RO: My main instrument is the piano. But, I also perform synthesisers, viola, and objects. I began to play the piano in my early age so that it is very natural for me to express my sounds on the piano. The synthesizer helps me to explore more in no-pitched or not well-tempered sound fields. The viola and objects also make me explore the acoustic field sounds. The combinations of electronic instrument and acoustic instrument inspired me to find myself in electro-acoustic music.
AV: I play on a small sized double bass that I originally bought to tour with a punky jazz trio since quality of tone was not so important since we were playing quite loud and with amplifiers. I eventually started to enjoy the instrument so much and for 3 years was working on getting it to sound good.
Now it is my main instrument, I like the fact that I had to work and explore the instrument in order to find a sound and a way to play it rather than just getting a good sounding instrument. I also feel that I know the limits and capabilities, and am enjoying the endless journey of finding what my bass can offer me. It's also a plus that dings and scratches don't bother me since it has no monetary value.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
JW: For me, improvisation is a working method to (collaboratively) compose music and this way of working has influenced almost everything I do. There is also a potential in improvisation that composition does not have and vice versa.
In my work, improvisation, composition and sound installation are all different approaches to work in a certain constellation. For example, composition and installation give me the possibility to address conceptual questions, but improvisation often is the beginning to raise these questions.
RO: For me, improvisation is the most connected to myself. To expand my ideas or to see overview of improvisation, I compose.
AV: For me the end result should be the same. As primarily an improviser I use composition to influence or direct improvisation. Usually when I find an interesting sound or idea in improvisation I will compose using that idea in order to expand the sound or idea. Then, after composing with this idea and exploring it, the return is that I have a vocabulary built for improvisation that requires no effort.
So, it's a cyclical process and I don't look at either one as better, both are just tools to create music.
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?
JW: There are some areas of materials that I work on for years and they give me a wide palette of abstract sounds to use. For example, I've worked for more than five years on techniques that employ blowing on the guitar or shamisen neck with circular breathing, which creates a quite interesting noise. But also, I work a lot on conventional playing materials, such as working out nice chord shapes or delicate dynamics. Ultimately, the contrast between these types of materials is something I really enjoy to explore.
RO: Overtones … or some noises that I am not playing on the instruments, but because of the combinations of what I am playing make the noises happen.
AV: Coming from jazz music, I didn't study composition so for me, I pick up books on composition and borrow concepts and take small pieces of it.
At this point I'm not interested in studying the great composers from the beginning, I like to skip and pick up some ideas and work with that.
For example, I really enjoy the concept of serial composition and how it is so systematic. This also leads me to listen and take ideas from composers that use a lot of patterns. Also, when I started listening to electronic music (IDM and EDM), I became fascinated with the quality of the sound and filter sweeps and grain textures. I try to apply these kinds of sounds and textures to my acoustic playing.
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?
JW: It is good to hear other musicians at all time, but sometimes its important to play with volume to a degree to be overpowered or overpower others deliberately. So while in general it is true, music knows so many exceptions to such a rule that I think general rules do not help here.
About the second statement, I also think that this is only partly true. Of course, it should relate, but its also easy to overdo relating to others. And relating to others must for me include the possibility to play very distinct from each other. Sometimes, the solution to an aesthetic problem in group playing is to bypass or challenge listening conventions. Much of the experimental music of the 1950s and 1960s addresses the listening conventions and proposes conceptual solutions for such interactions with listening. Sometimes it is good to keep those possibilities open as an improviser.
RO: I don’t think there are any rules in improvisation. If someone plays loud on purpose, I think that’s also their decision ... but if it is on purpose ... when we play as a group, we all want to play together. So, I believe we listen to, react to each other without rules. It just naturally happens.
AV: In general, I believe this is a little bit too traditional of a statement. I think improvised music has evolved so much and added so many elements that this statement I feel does not apply.
I played in a free jazz quartet for years where the concept was to always play acoustic, then at points the bass completely disappears. But through this experience I realized my role in these sections was to create the low frequency because when I stopped playing and the band continued, there was always a frequency range missing. In some settings I believe the role is just to create a subtle thing that cannot be heard but when it is not there you can feel something is missing.
And relating material to others is such a personal thing, playing against everyone else in the group is still relating, even choosing to ignore what the others are doing is relating to the music. For me the big difference in solo and group performance is the surprise factor, it is very hard to surprise yourself in a solo context, but in a group you always have to be aware of what is happening and make decisions based on others.
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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
JW: What I love about improvising is that I can really focus my attention on making the music work, and I think its this concentration that for me is ideal. There are few other situations where I can keep so focussed, especially since I tend to work on many different tasks at once all the time.
When improvising I am really in the moment from the first sound played. There can be occasions, where I briefly get distracted, but usually I immediately realise this and can re-adjust my focus while playing.
RO: I need to connect my mind and my body. Also, I imagine myself in the space to listen to the whole situation as ears from outside. My whole body becomes a big sensor and my mind connects the situation and myself.
It always helps if my mind is clear and ready to surf in the space and sounds. If my body is too tired or not focusing in the situation, that is the biggest distraction. I am trying to find “the” way to enter into the state, but I am still experimenting.
AV: I trust in what I have practiced and worked on enough that as soon as the music starts I can let go and things will happen. Sometimes it can be challenging with others but I believe that you should never adapt to the other musicians playing. In the end I trust in my work and experience and can just flow.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
JW: I listen carefully and try to play the right stuff at the right time. That sounds simple, but I like simplicity.
RO: The decision is made wether my sound has meaning or not at the moment. The meaning could be only for myself or in relation to other artists. I actually just follow what I am hearing.
AV: My decisions in a live context really come from my experiences in music. Since I moved to Berlin in 2011, I have at very busy points played 5 or more gigs a week. From this amount of experiences playing in different venues with different musicians I have learned to accept things.
But for me I like to focus on the Improvisation or the piece as a whole and make shapes for the whole performance and enjoy figuring out what shape is happening
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
JW: Basically, sound is what I do, space is where I do it and performance is how I do it.
For me personally the most important aspect of art in general is the social context it is working in. Many spaces call for a special awareness of performers for the situation that is created with the performance and for the acoustics, and I always try to get the best out of the room and the situation.
RO: The relationship between sound, space, and performance is one. For me, these elements are feeding each other to create the best atmosphere to share with people there. I like to work with first impression and inspiration after the impression.
If it is with a group of artists, I like to hear / see / feel others’ opinions. The moments of interaction create unique approaches. I really like that.
AV: All spaces have a sound and performance is using the space. Usually, I try to see what works for the space and usually figure out what sounds really nice and more importantly what really does not work.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
JW: I think improvised music ultimately exists in its best form live and in front of an audience, and it must keep a possibility of failure at all time.
RO: It doesn’t change much if I am in front of an audience or in the studio. I always try to achieve a shared experience, either with people or the place.
AV: Because I'm so involved in improvised music, live and studio are almost the same for me.
The one thing I like in the studio that you cannot do too much live is to try and play the same way or the same thing over and over. In the studio it can work very well because in the end you only select the best take.
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?
JW: For me personally there was this moment when I finally realised that doing a “normal” job is not working for me and when I accepted that I should be a musician and artist.
RO: It is hard to tell ... but my first breakthrough was in the USA. I was playing mostly standards, but I met free jazz players like Marshall Allen, Calvin Weston, and Eliot Levin etc. in Philadelphia. When I started to play with them, that was my first breakthrough.
AV: It is hard to say because everything evolves constantly. Maybe my solo performances with effect pedals.
I was playing this set many times in a 1-year-span and always wanted to record it. My solo set was using effect pedals and a small guitar amp which was situated opposite of me. It was a dialogue between the bass and the effects. It was special since my strategy in rehearsing for it was to really map out what sounds could go where and it became a big web of ideas going from one to the other. I felt it was always creative and free while still having every element mastered under my fingers.
Unfortunately, I never recorded a version of it and now I have moved on from that and trying to recreate it would not be the same since it's already so far in my past.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
JW: I once joked with my brother-in-law, who is a hospital doctor, that I am so happy that my job – unlike his – is not about life and death.
RO: I cannot answer this question. It depends ...
AV: Music's beauty is that it is so open. The listener can decide how they interpret what happens. I'm sure my life experiences influence my music, but in the end I just do my thing.