Working like an investigator — Otomo Yoshihide and Erwan Keravec interviewed by Mats Gustafsson

Some 150 years separate the first appearance of a turntable in a concert hall from the application for a patent for a new type of instrument designed by a Mr. Sax. True – that covers a few generations. But that is nothing compared to the distance in time to the oldest preserved bagpipe from the 15th century.


Mats: How important is the past for you, the previous history of music?

Erwan: I grew up in traditional music. Traditional music is the music of heritage. Traditional musicians receive this heritage and they have to decide, in the world of the XXI century, what they have to play, what traditional culture can be today and to convey it to the next generation. We don‘t have to forget the heritage but we need to project it into this century.

Otomo: I look at myself as living between interpreting the reality around myself and interpreting the experience of the past. Music is the same as my life, there is no difference between the two.

M: How much inspiration do you draw from former generations of players for the music you want to work with? What is there to learn from the older generations?

O: I got a lot of things from older generations of Japanese free musicians like Masayuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe. I also got a lot of inspiration from American free jazz and European improvised music. Not only this, probably also a lot of things from the older generations like philosophy, and from Japanese language, good things and bad things… but I can’t say that all those things are only a result of the past.

E: In 2007, I recorded a CD “Urban Pipes“. This album tried to show the bagpipe as a universal instrument and to imagine music for solo bagpipe that would not evoke its cultural origin. This meant modifying traditional playing and modes and working on the bagpipe sound and harmonic strangeness beyond strictly melodic parameters. But there is something that I’ve kept: the power, the projection of the sound and the immediacy of the playing.

M: Erwan – what made you start playing such an ancient instrument? And how did you develop your new techniques?

E: As I said before, I grew up in traditional music. So, what I saw and heard when I was young were all the instruments of Breton traditional music; bagpipe is one of those instruments. Usually, the bagpipe plays the melody but when I started playing with improvisers, I had to change this habit. I worked on my instrument like an investigator, looking for all the sounds it could possibly produce.

M: Otomo – you are considered a pioneer, one of the 1st generation of turntable players. What made you start playing the turntables? How did you develop your technique?

O: My father was an electric engineer. My mother was fond of music. That’s the big reason why I started to play music with electronics. Turntable was one of the important tools, but also tape recorders, radios, handmade oscillators and amps. I used all kinds of cheap electronics as musical instrument when I was a teen in the 70’s. Of course I got a strong influence from Christian Marclay and the Music Concrete by the French and Japanese composers when I developed my turntable techniques.

M: Are there still new techniques to find on your respective instrument? How can it be further developed?

O: Yes! During the last 15 years I have spent a lot of time trying to find the way on my guitar. I also tried to find ways of dealing with my turntables without using actual records. Sound installation is another way. Also I am now travelling to other Asian countries. In particular, I often go to Southeast Asia, this is a very different context compared to my own history. It is not always easy for me to get an instrument to work with, so I have to rethink how to make music under these conditions. So, yes, it is necessary for me to find new ways.

E: It’s still possible to find new techniques, but, I’m not sure that it is the most important aspect. It’s more important to find the music using these techniques. Because a new sound is just a sound if there is no consideration of how to make use of it.

M: Did you ever have a teacher on your instrument?

O: Masayuki Takayanagi was my teacher, especially when I played guitar, but most of the time I did not have a teacher.

E: When I started learning the bagpipe, it was not taught in conservatories or music schools. It was taught by nonprofessional musicians/teachers. After this period of learning, I discovered contemporary music practice with the musicians I started to play with: Jean-Luc Cappozzo, Be.at Achiary, Arfi. They are my “teachers” too.

M: What kind of music inspired you the most to become the player you are now?

O: Kayoukyoku – that is the Japanese Pop music from the 60’s and 70’s. Improvised Music and Free Jazz. Also music by Toru Takemitsu and Duke Ellington.

E: For me it is free music, contemporary music, traditional music. When I played in traditional music I played in a band who had met a jazz big band, La Marmite Infernale, from l’Arfi. This meeting was, for me, the first time I had to improvise. It was a strange situation for me because I had never improvised before, but it was simple and obvious…

M: What single composer inspired you the most to become the player you are now?

E: When I started to develop a new music for bagpipe, I decided to commission a composer. At that time, there was a piece which proved to be very important for my decision. It was 280 mesures pour clarinette by Georges Aperghis: sound,form, organisation of the music… A greatpiece!

M: Do you see a new generation emerging? Working on the same instruments as you, going musically in the same direction? Or in a totally new direction? Is there a new generation at all?

O: I do not know much about a new turntable generation. However there are many interesting artists in the new generation, such as Tetsuya Umeda, Yuko Mori and others.

They are not like traditional musicians and not like sound artists, but for me they are real musicians and they are making new stuff.

E: There’s a new generation of bagpipe players now, a very good generation of players. Teaching is really different today. Teachers are professionals and very competent. But they all play traditional music or combine it with rock; they are not really into contemporary music.

M: When it comes to written contemporary music, is there a generation of composers that you find particulary interesting and inspiring?

O: I still don‘t understand… what is ”contemporary” music? I just live with the music. And I get in contact with the music that I am interested in. I look it up.

E: Not really a generation, not really a composer, but I really like the music of Philippe Leroux for his way of thinking, or Wolfgang Mitterer for his powerfulness, or Susumu Yoshida for his patience…

M: Do you have a vision for the future when it comes to contemporary music and how it will work? On a level in society? And esthetically?

O: Yes, but it is better not to explain from the musician’s perspective. It is all about improvisation.

M: Improvisation has always been an important tool in compositional works. Perhaps most music anyway has ist origin in improvisation (!). How can free improvisation feed and inspire contemporary composers to work in new ways and directions?

O: I am not interested in ways of thinking, that draw boundaries between composition and improvisation. Of course it is a very important thing, especially in European music history. But I am not only part of European music history – I have to think about my own history.

E: By improvisation, we can imagine a music which cannot be written down and the interplay is therefore very important. I think composers and improvisers have to work together more and more closely.

M: Do you think that future generations of contemporary composers as well as interprets of that music will deal more with free improvisation in the future? Will free improvisation play a more important role in contemporary music in the future?

O: For myself, I do not need the categorical boundaries. I can only say: people need improvisation. But composition is also a good idea.

M: Did you collaborate a lot with perfomers of contemporary classical music in the past? How do you look at it – is that something that works for you – to combine your music with the music and esthetics of a contemporary classical ensemble?

E: After “Urban Pipes”, I decided to go further with this new approach and to call on the attention of contemporary music composers. Now I’ve commissioned and premiered 11 solo pieces, 4 pieces with 2 singers (soprano, baritone) and one piece for 4 traditional instruments. For the last piece – a piece by Bernard Cavanna for bagpipe solo – it was the first time I combined my work in improvised music with the way of thinking as a composer. A very interesting situation of playing indeed.

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