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Pipe Down: Tashi Wada Interviewed
Tristan Bath , August 21st, 2019 07:21

Ahead of his appearance at Meakusma Festival, Tashi Wada talks to Tristan Bath about collaborating with his father, Yoshi and Julia Holter

Portrait by Felix Salazar

In addition to challenging lovers of vowels the world over, the FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations organised and issued by New York label RVNG Intl (pronounced ‘freakways’ and ‘revenge’ respectively, by the way) has been fruitfully bringing to life alliances that are so dreamy they can almost seem like the torrid fantasy of some super hip modern underground head.

A solid decade into its activities, FRKWYS has seen the likes of modular synth maestro Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe hook up with new age legend Ariel Kalma (back on no. 12), or ambient loopist Julianna Barwick meet up with long-serving NYC experimentalist Ikue Mori for a uniquely off-kilter improv set (no. 6). Last year’s edition no. 14 (the 13th release in fact – there was never a no. 1) seemed both a step forward and a high watermark in the series, bringing composer Tashi Wada together with his very own father: Fluxus artist and sonic minimalist, Yoshi Wada.

Recorded under the banner of Tashi Wada with Yoshi Wada and Friends, the album’s raison d'être is ultimately to introduce Tashi as a distinct new compositional voice, balancing the inescapable influences of his father’s work with a refined and ultimately more precise feel for composition. Judging from both his father’s work and Tashi’s own previous outings as composer – three lowkey releases documenting thoroughly challenging microtonal string pieces – the experimental-yet-approachable world of Nue would have been impossible to predict. Those early pieces, he assures me, were just "groundwork".

"A lot of the work I was doing was focused on very specific phenomena, whereas I think now maybe I have more this zoomed-out perspective, seeing how all of these things relate. It’s very fertile letting the doors open like that."

Tashi Wada’s father – Yoshi – is perhaps best known for legendary live performances held in NYC (his long-adopted home) throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Yoshi deployed bagpipes along with adapted organs, early computer programs, and custom-built compressed air pipe contraptions with names such as ‘The Elephantine Crocodile’, stretching out hour-long drones held at ultra high volume (allowing overtones to be heard as clearly as possible). His musical career remains however, documented on but a small handful of rare releases.

"My Dad actually comes from more of an art and sculpture background," explains Tashi. "The sounds he was getting out of these instruments was unique – unfortunately they mostly only exist now in recordings or in photos. There was a very real physical quality to them, being in front of them, seeing them making the sound."

"I guess [in comparison] my goal is to create something that’s physical, but also something that’s impossible – it’s this mysterious area where the sounds are blending and you can’t tell where they’re coming from."

While the elder Wada’s DNA remains discernible on Nue – the man himself performs on half the tracks after all – this is very much an ensemble project with Tashi leading the way. A fascination with volume, duration, and raw sounds defined the father’s work, yet all play relatively little role in the son’s soundworld. His is rather a music of emotion and space, delicately intermingling sparse instrumentation with total precision.

One vital part of his father’s idiosyncratic sonic footprint does indeed remain intact, Tashi himself having been taught to play the bagpipes by his father (in addition to his core classical training on keyboards). Though Tashi chiefly focuses on synthesizers, the curious raw noise of the bagpipe’s squall is present on two key tracks on the album, and inevitably takes a core role in live performances. "Yeah, it’s a curiosity in most circumstances, and it always draws looks," says Tashi, "but you actually find it all over the world."

"To some degree, it’s been really relegated to this specific role now – in parades and movies. Performing with it however, it’s a really nice opportunity to really listen to the quality of the sound in a textural way that’s removed from the ‘normal’ context."

On ‘Ground’ both Wada’s duet bagpipes atop frozen synths and subtle percussion, careening forward for a mere 5-and-a-half minutes. For a family artistically rooted in the Fluxus-Minimalism continuum – including composers like Philip Corner, La Monte Young, and Yasunao Tone – that’s barely getting started. Yet the artistic space feels filled, and complete. The relatively trim lengths of Nue’s pieces were both intentional and necessary, explains Tashi, attempting to switch to the album format proper. "I think it’s also representative of the ensemble," he continues, "in that it’s about all of these different parts, and how they fit together." We go on to agree that working with others oftentimes stems our worse artistic impulses.

And make no mistake, the Tashi Wada Group (as they’ve gone since graduating to giving their own live performances) is a band. Tashi’s joined by the inimitable Julia Holter on keys and voices along with session percussionist extraordinare Corey Fogel on almost every track. The outfit has now been touring the Nue material as a trio for a solid year, continuing on through the EU in September 2019, while both Tashi and Fogel continue to play in Holter’s live band.

Tashi has always composed with specific instrumentalists in mind, while space for improvisation is always reserved, upping the jeopardy and drama in live situations potently as the Group’s chops improve. Check out the YouTube footage of them playing in Bristol’s Cube in December 2018 (below), and you’ll see sheer importance of Holter and Fogel to this music. Holter’s delicate wordless vocal on ‘Mutable Signs’, and the trio’s clairvoyant dynamics on ‘Fanfare’ are far beyond the range of merely ‘a composer and his players’.

"I don’t see the instrumental parts as playing supportive or main roles," explains Tashi. "It’s all part of one organism. I usually try things out live for a while, and that’s how I figure out what the energy is and where it’s going. Usually the people I work with have their own things going on and make their own music too. All of those elements create a dialogue."

A remix EP dropped ahead of the upcoming Autumn Tour too, featuring a techno metamorphosis of one Nue track by Laurel Halo, and Julia Holter’s own rework of ‘Fanfare’, augmenting the album’s finest track with added vocals and stretching it to the ten-minute mark. The project is the first in the FRKWYS series to seemingly have a true life of its own beyond the confines of the release – new material is already being performed and worked out live on stage by Tashi, Holter, and Fogel.

In any case, the intergenerational nature of Nue’s coming together seems like a key to understanding this music. It’s even in the name of the international network of transgressive artists with which his father remains most closely associated: Fluxus. This music and its key players all remain in constant motion, in a state of constant flow, of constant flux, working their way into whatever form and sound their time and place calls for.

"It’s easier to see what Fluxus is now," says Tashi. "What’s been interesting about Fluxus over time is that it was very squeamish about being pinned down as to what it was. It was this pretty diverse collection of artists who were working together in certain circumstances, but were also really doing their own thing.

"I grew up with it, and certain attitudes are very ingrained in me. Now? I have a sense of community for myself. It just feels like such a different time though, it’s hard to know what really are the common traits. Every generation has to redefine the terms, based on the circumstances, socially, politically."

The Tashi Wada Group play Meakusma Festival on Saturday 7 September

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