by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen

In 1999 I already did a Japan visit, after having got to know Kumi Wakao who participated in Denmark's Intuitive Music Conference 1997, seeking to meet European improvisors. Someone had previously told me that "intuitive music" was probably not fit for Japanese people, because it had no rules and Japanese people are very disciplined. I must say, however, that this strongly seems to be a mistake! At the Creative Music Festival (Soundplay) that year in Kawamoto, I did a workshop with a very big group of people, around 50 ... and there was great, inventive music-making with home-made instruments, toys and voices.

This festival is still arranged (since 1998) every year. It is open to all who would like to explore improvised music-making and is a good opportunity for improvisors to meet each other - within Japan and if you should be going there from abroad ...

Before the recent journey I had a long email discussion with Haruhiko Okabe, who arranged a concert and workshop in Takamatsu. About our different cultural backgrounds. It surprised me he thought that audience participation would be very natural for Japanese people. As he said, the background of rice cultivation before industrialization and modern times was still present. For rice cultivation there must be strict teamwork. In Indonesian state constitution, individualism is condemned. In the Japanese consitution, individual freedom rights are stated after inspiraiton from the French revolution. But still, Japanese people have remained very tuned to teamwork, also in modern times.

At the Takamatsu concert, all of the little audience participated in the 20 minutes vocal workshop - from young people to elderly persons, without much shyness. Compared with European experiences, these people had a high level of trust in the common activity and the music became differentiated and interesting. Participants avoided just by themselves to melt into one unison tone, triads etc. but instead made a nice "polyphonic", multi-layered structure each by finding his or her own comfortable register - this both permitted them to relax and unfold and made the overall sound interestingly multi-layered. This might be a thought-provoking hint to us Westeners at how much intuitive music making can have to do with unlearning our harmony habits...

Workshop participants at Takamatsu concert

In my view, composers who dig really seriously into using improvisation and creative participation from musicians are rare. So I was very glad to find Makoto Nomura. See "Glimpses from the compositional method of Makoto Nomura" in the Japan section ! In addition to the great value of his artistic discoveries, it is interesting to note that he has been successful in being making a living solely from this compositional activity. And one more important thing, his compositions have been equally accepted by symphony orchestra musicians and by many kinds of amateur groups.

Also university colleagues I know teach improvised music forms. Prof. Yu Wakao, now at Kobe University, dep. of music education, had a lecture series on the History of Free Improvised Music, in which I appeared as a guest. John Cole at Hiroshima University teaches a "Sonic Laboratory" in which, during a half-year, students learn to play self-chosen experimental compositions mostly from after 1945, often with innovative notations and use of creative participation. In addition there are some lectures. His colleague, Daisuke Terauchi, teaches free improvisation and took initiative in 2003 to introduce John Zorn's game piece Cobra. So nice to learn about this...

John Zorn had a special influence in Japan through his game piece idea and Cobra. Hes wife is Japanese and thus he might have travelled in Japan frequently. Cobra was introduced by Otomo Yoshide at Creative Music Festival (Soundplay) in 2003 and in the same year at Hiroshima University by Daisuke Terauchi. But already in 1996, Shiba Tetsu from Tokyo got to know Cobra and made many workshops in years to follow - focusing on participants' own game pieces.
In Kobe and Osaka there are regular workshops every month, open to all improvisors - like we know it at various places in Germany, for instance. In the Osaka one I visited, there was a coordinator arranging who played with whom. Afterwards, everybody was asked to say a few words about how he or she felt about playing that evening. Also, the coordinators ended with some general advice - listen to the context and don't play too loud was one statement. Another statement adviced participants to loosen up fixed styles. - I was later told that the Osaka workshop was different from the Kobe one - usually louder. This is because Osaka is the birth place of the genre known as noise music - even if Osaka and Kobe seems to have melted into one big city for the traveller coming from outside.

A dancer and the author at Osaka workshop in Cocoroom Café

The Tokyo scene may be the world's largest one for improvised music. At Goodman's, there are concerts every day BOTH afternoon AND evening, and there are some more places playing improvised music regularily. Many musicians are around and also go to the concerts with usually small audiences.

Goodman's with Toshiya Nakamozo, Hideo Ikegami and Morishige Yasumune

There is a large number of CDs on the market. I was told that after the second World War, jazz became very widespread in Japan. This was the basis for modern jazz forms also becoming accepted, including free jazz. In fact, John Zorn informed himself about his own homeland's free jazz through Japanese releases of music which had long been unavailable in the USA. Below is a photo showing the size of the Free Jazz section in a CD shop in Northwest Tokyo! The shop is called Disc Union and has many branches throughout Tokyo and in some other places.

Shops and distributors generally deal solely with factory produced CDs, however. Even with fine releases in this part of the market, those interested in improvised music as such should be sure to check the CD-R market, as some of the most relevant music might be located here. CDs are sold by individual musicians at concerts, but maybe also by post order. You could use the links in my Japan section to begin researching...Listening to the records I got and bought in Japan with free improvised music, the quality of music is pleasantly high. There is much variation between improvisations and much life and interesting development inside improvisations. Maybe it's the very big scene that inspire people? In this case, the slogan "Ambitious Japan" seen on the Shinkansen train seems also to apply here ... :-)

Despite globalization and internet, there are some places with improvised music we do not hear very much about in the West, and Japan is one of those places. As you can understand, I can highly recommend going there (and it's not as expensive as they maybe say). Also I think that CD distributors concerned with improvised music should think seriously about researching here.

July 2005 programme from Goodman

Some Western books relevant to improvised music have been translated into Japanese:
Derek Bailey: Improvisation. The Nature and Practise of Music.
John Cage: Silence
Erhard Karkoshka: Das Schriftbild der neuen Musik (English ed.: Notation in New Music)
Michael Nyman: Experimental Music. Cage and Beyond.

Concert programme from Takamatsu, 17th July 2005.

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