18.1.11

Otomo Yoshihide

Following on from my last post, this is the interview I did with Otomo, after the Filament set on December 8, 2010. He was gracious, gentle and immensely inspiring. I am constantly amazed at how many artists/curators/even historians seem to close down, shut themselves off from new things and challenges, or else find themselves at a loss, after a certain while, unable to process new things. A while ago I read an interview with Rosalind Krauss, who admitted to sometimes not knowing what to do with contemporary practices. Krauss, whose critical writing on the minimal, conceptual and other experimental movements in art in the 60s and 70s has been so crucial. I found it hard to understand, and I say this without judgement. Staying open seems to be one of the hardest things in the world. Even the most remarkable thinkers can come to a standstill, an impasse. And even the most daring artists can find themselves dragging their feet through paralysing mud. I went to see Anne Thérèse de Keersmaeker  + Rosas perform at Sadlers Wells a couple years ago. Early works of hers, like Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, have been hugely influential for me – the rigour and simplicity and strict aesthetic were profound. And yet the new works she showed – after a long lifetime of artistic endeavour – were really flat, floppy, boring.
How do you keep moving forward? How do you maintain that initial strength of purpose and vision and challenge that drives you when you're young and unknown? Talking with someone like Otomo, who has somehow managed this very feat, is like ice-cold water and a blast of arctic air. It both shakes you and pushes you onwards. Someone who, at his age and with his CV, can say that some of the most influential artists in his life are people 2 or 3 times younger than him. An improviser who has played with practically everyone in contemporary improv but has no problem with suddenly singing a folk song and is constantly looking to first surprise himself, going beyond any established vocabulary or boundary. It's not easy to do and he does it with such simple humility and self-effacement. A great artist.

Photograph: Shoko Ishikawa

When did you and Sachiko M start performing as Filament?
In about 1997, 1998.

That’s a long time to be doing one project.
Yeah, but we only perform a few times in a year. 

Do you prepare the performances a lot?
No there’s not much preparation - the events themselves are what we do.

You work on so many different projects and participate in so many different bands... What is the idea behind Filament?
Most of the ideas are from Sachiko. Basically I just follow her. We talked a lot about what we wanted to do with Filament, particularly at the beginning. I really wanted to create a big distance from my past work. So that’s why I tried to forget my musical skills. For me that was fundamental. And then things changed – I can find a lot of things within these tight parametres. For me, what we do isn’t minimal music. There is so much there.

You’ve given yourself a very small set of tools to really explore or dig at.
Yes, it’s something very different than when I play guitar. But at the same time, there’s something very similar too between Filament and typical music. 

What do you think is similar?
If you were to look at what Filament does through a microscope, it would probably look the same as typical music would. But of course it’s also really different. It’s difficult to find the words to explain what makes it similar. I find explaining my work really difficult, even in Japanese. If I play jazz or rock or pop music, I have to think about vocabulary or some kind of music language. In Filament I don’t need to think about vocabulary or musical identity. And that is the biggest difference. For me Filament is more open, and really difficult, because I really have to escape from any kind of music vocabulary. Playing with Filament has been and still is the most difficult point, the biggest challenge. Even though we’ve been playing for over 10 years now, it’s still challenging, because it’s very easy to develop a vocabulary when you play something. After a few minutes, a vocabulary comes up. So I always have to try to escape. 

How do you escape? Do you use different tools?
No tools are not so important. I could probably now play guitar with Filament. It’s not about escaping from typical instruments anymore. It’s more about focusing on time and space and mapping out sound in my brain with real space. Trying not to think of the timeline, even though, of course, we cannot escape from the timeline, but it’s about really always trying to forget it.  I don’t know if it works or not, but I try to not decide with words. It is a physical experience. If I find some kind of word that explains the sound, that immediately brings meaning and that is a problem. I’m always looking to escape from words.

How does this kind of work modify how you work on songs or composition?
It really affects me. It makes me more open when I play typical music. It makes it easier to both stay with melody and at the same time escape from it in other layers. Filament is really fun, and makes working on other music really fun too. I would say Filament is the most extreme side, most influential work in everything I have done. 

That’s saying a lot – you’ve done so many different things! Can you talk to me about your recent exhibition at Art Tower Mito: Ensembles?
That is very different but there is also something very similar to the way Filament works. In Ensembles I invite lots of different people to participate, but I don’t try to control them. Rather, I set up a working space for them and then they do their own thing. That’s the basic idea. And this is a bit simliar to the way we work in Filament. 

You set up a system and step back.
Yeah. In Ensembles I also try to escape from vocabulary too – music and art vocabulary. Sometimes I really don’t like the art world or its manners. 

Yesterday you were telling me how influential Horio Kanta, Umeda Tetsuya and other young artists like them had been for you. You mentioned Kanta’s machines for making a really badly played drum sound…
Yeah, I love that sound. Kanta, Mori Yuko, Umeda Tetsuya – those artists have the same kind of idea as Filament. So for me it’s easy to understand what they do. Their work really pushed me to start doing installations and working in space. 

Watching you perform, I’m struck by how much you wait and listen, in much the same way as those artists do. Expectation plays a vital role in your practice.
When I play with Filament, working with Sachiko, I don’t need a response system, like in free jazz. I can do anything and she can do anything and we can join together. There is no need for a back and forth – it’s not a conversation. And yet, we can still work together. In Ensembles it’s the same idea. We don’t need any kind of typical question and answer. We work in the same place, at the same time and we let things happen. If you do something, if they do something, then something happens. We wait, we don’t need to control. And that’s a lot of fun.

Who are the most influential artists in your life?
Masayuki Takayanagi, the Japanese free jazz musican. And British improviser Derek Bailey. And lots of other artists too of course. Improvisation has been the most influential idea for me. Not only in music: in life, as a means of surviving. 

Do you find you are able to listen and take a lot in or do you sometimes have to close yourself?
Yes of course, sometimes I need to shut everything out. It depends on my physical condition. But most of the time, I find it really easy to open my eyes and ears. Especially in the last 5 years – maybe I’m getting old. I have been working with handicapped children, which has completely changed my ideas. I can’t control them very much, it is chaos, and I just watch and listen to them. I can find a lot of music there. So this has really changed me – maybe even more than Derek Bailey!


Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, Anne Thérèse de Keersmaeker

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