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A Quietus Interview

Sonic Spaces: An Interview With Midori Takada
The Quietus , November 9th, 2021 09:59

The once-obscure Japanese minimalist, whose 1982 album Through The Looking Glass has now become one of the most celebrated ambient releases from the country, talks with Patrick St. Michel about her interest in African music, ahead of her appearance at Le Guess Who? festival

Midori Takada’s life changed drastically following the 2017 re-issue of her album Through The Looking Glass. The Tokyo-based composer’s once obscure 1982 solo work saw new appreciation after being released by labels Palto Flats and WRWTFWW, resulting in praise for a lost masterpiece and opportunities for the 68-year-old artist to perform abroad.

All of this, though, only happened thanks to a chance encounter on a subway platform.

“I had offers from Europe to re-issue Through The Looking Glass. But it was recorded in 1982, with RCA Records. That company, though joined with Sony, and nobody knew where the master tape was. It was gone,” Takada tells tQ with a laugh. She tried to figure out where it went, but Sony couldn’t help her on that front.

“Finally, I met Masahiko Arao, the director of the album, on the subway platform. He was retired at this point.” He was able to connect with another Sony employee, who found the master out in Hamamatsu, a city a 90 minute train ride away from the capital. “It was a miracle,” she says, laughing.

This chance encounter transformed Through The Looking Glass from an obscure commercial flop from the early 1980s into one of the most talked-about Japanese albums of all time. Takada’s entire discography — from solo creations to her works in groups such as Mkwaju Ensemble and Ton-Klami — has enjoyed newfound appreciation, but it’s her debut album under her own name that has, alongside Mariah’s Utakata No Hibi, helped usher in international interest in Japanese ambient music from the country’s Bubble era. Through The Looking Glass found Takada drawing from African rhythms and Indonesian Gamelan to create slow-burning pieces making a lot from a little. It has resulted in Takada being compared to Steve Reich and Terry Riley, among others.

Through The Looking Glass nudged Takada back into the spotlight. “I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, she’s still alive. I thought she was dead already.’ It has been an interesting experience,” she says laughing, looking at how her situation has changed recently. She collaborated with Lafawndah on a 20-minute-long number, and has had the chance to play overseas. Takada was scheduled to go to the Intonal festival in Malmo and Bristol New Music this spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled and postponed them, respectively. She’s also slated to appear alongside audiovisual outfit The Light Surgeons at London’s Southbank Centre on May 27 where they’ll perform new music for old Japanese films. She’s working on the soundtracks for this event from her home in west Tokyo when we talk over the phone in early March.

Whatever the fate of these immediate shows, curiosity from music fans across the globe have cemented Takada as a cornerstone of minimalist music.

Takada grew up in Tokyo, and had the chance to join the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchestra after graduating from university in her home country. “It was a great opportunity, but at the same time I had to perform classic pieces from Western music.” Parallel to that, she was learning about African music on her own.

“At that time, there wasn’t any information about African music in Japan, and people would ask me why I’d want to learn about that after having a lucky debut in Europe.” She was drawn to the simplicity of the sounds, especially in terms of percussion. “Like just one drum. It needs to produce lots of sounds from that one drum.”

She applied her self-taught knowledge of African music and lessons learned from studying Gamelan in Bali to Mkwaju Ensemble, a group project. When she decided to pursue a solo career, Takada was entering a musical moment in Japan where techno-pop — jaunty synthesizer-powered tunes inspired by the popularity of Yellow Magic Orchestra — dominated. She wanted to move in a different direction.

“I never used electronics for Through The Looking Glass,” she says, noting that many younger people encountering the album assume she did it with synthesizers or computers. Rather, she wanted to use her body to generate sounds. “I changed my style — not classical, not emotional, just very precise. I became like a machine.”

This shift shaped Through The Looking Glass, an album that Takada has said was her effort to make “three dimensional music.” She would measure out exact distances from herself to the microphones, and used an array of percussive instruments (xylophone, marimba, soda bottle) to create an immersive sonic world. “I made four spaces — the first one is utopia, so safe and comfortable, a warm space,” she says of opener “Mr. Henri Rousseau's Dream.” It all builds up to the finale of “Catastrophe Σ,” a number Takada says continuously gains in speed until a sudden ending.

The album faded into obscurity, and Takada says she gradually grew away from music as well, focusing more on theatre as the years went on. She still worked on albums, however, and released a handful of other highlights, including 1990’s Lunar Cruise made in conjunction with jazz pianist Masahiko Satoh (who also is part of the improv-centric trio Ton-Klami, rounded out by Kang Tae-hwan). Satoh joined Takada on an early 90s tour of Africa, with stops in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, Takada’s first and only trip to the continent that has inspired her so much.

“Before that, as I mentioned, I had learned everything about Africa by myself. But finally, I had a chance to go to a Ewe village in Ghana myself,” she says. Takada had the chance to meet and play with Kakraba Lobi, a celebrated Ghanian gyil player (recorded for posterity, among others. “It was so influential to me, and it gave me energy.”

After that tour, though, it looked like Takada could be a musical obscurity. Years later, she is enjoying newfound praise that is offering a similar invigoration towards art. Through The Looking Glass gave her more attention, but she wants to keep pressing forward.

“I feel it was the mission of my work. Even me... I forgot about it,” Takada says. “But somebody found it. Found my sound. And it spread.”

Midori Takada is a curator for Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht this week