Tomoyoshi Date: The fact that ambient music was born in the West and imported into Japan is very meaningful
Tomoyoshi Date creates acoustic and organic sounds with a little touch of digital processing. He began to create electronic music in 1998, and later on he formed Opitope with Chihei Hatakeyama (Kranky, Room40), ILLUHA with Corey Fuller (with releases on Spekk and 12K), and Melodía with Federico Durand (Own Records, Home Normal). Originally he is an emergency room doctor, using both western and oriental medicine, and these days he also researches the relationship between sound and the physical body. Due to various reasons we don’t know too much about this prominent pillar of Japanese ambient music, so we intend to fill an enormous gap with our interview. We spoke to Tomoyoshi about his roots, influences, the importance and impact of combining western and oriental traditions both in medicine and music, so you can get an intimate insight into the life of yet another talented Japanese musician.
(For the Japanese version of the interview click HERE.)
How did you first get in touch with music? What inspired you to start experiencing with music?
I’m not sure, but I do have a memory of beginning to consciously choose what to listen to after I’d heard ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. Later I started a Beatles cover band. I also listened to Eddie Cochran records and such, so we played a lot of old rockabilly. Chord progression was very simple, so rather than perfecting technical skills, the fun part was to play focusing on the music itself. Because I failed university entrance exams, I had to spend a year interning at a newspaper, where I met this jazz expert. He introduced me, among other things, to Kaoru Abe. He had even written a book called “Notes on Kaoru Abe”. I clearly remember having a music trip for the first time in my life when I heard Abe’s album ‘Last Date’ (titled the same as Eric Dolphy’s album). The way I thought about music completely changed. From then on, I cherished the spaces between sounds and the sounds themselves more than the melody. When I did go to university, I played alto saxophone for a while, but I soon got bored with sheet music and turned to improvisation.
Japanese ambient music is considered to be special to an almost irreproducible point. What do you think it makes it so different, so ‘authentic Japanese’?
I was born in Brazil, where I spent the first three years of my life, which are said to be the most important in the formation of the personality, so I think I am not quite what you’d call a typical Japanese. However, I do think that there are certainly unique aspects in Japan’s relationship with ambient music. First of all, ambient music has a strong connection with Eastern thought systems. Eric Satie, John Cage, Brian Eno and others were influenced by Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. The fact that ambient music was born in the West and imported into Japan is very meaningful, I think.
If it would be just about Eastern philosophy – it has way stronger roots in China and India. Here it is important to note that my generation’s Japanese culturally stand between the East and the West. Ambient music is based on Eastern philosophy but was born and developed in the West, so in that aspect I think that it had a very fertile ground for spreading in Japan. It has been scientifically proven that, because of the linguistic background (Japanese language is syllabic and has more than one alphabet, with hieroglyphs having many possible readings etc.), Japanese brain parts that are responsible for sound recognition differ from those of a Westerner’s brain.
Typically, the left brain is rational and the right brain is responsible for feelings, but the Japanese and some Polynesian tribes have a hybrid brain whose left hemisphere deals with both feelings and reasoning. Especially nature sounds, which contain a lot of vowels (just like the Japanese language), are processed by the Japanese with the left hemisphere of the brain, therefore they are perceived as not just sounds, but as being connected to reason, logic – language.
Perhaps because of this structural characteristic, in Japan you can find countless beginner’s guides to almost any subject – Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Marx – I think it’s something you don’t see in the West. It is in the Japanese character to want to share all good things, without discrimination, with others. In the same way ambient music fits the shy Japanese well. It can be the background state of being of all the people in a certain place, including people who have no interest in music.
The same situation can be seen in medicine. Right now Japan is the only country in the world where Western medicine and Oriental medicine are advancing side by side, on equal terms. It’s weird, but Japan and Germany have very much in common, the music scene is similar, I’ve also heard that of all countries of the West Germany is the one where Oriental medicine practices are the most developed.
You’re living in Tokyo, in what way do you think that influences your way of creation? How do you think your music would sound if you would suddenly move to Europe?
When you are in Tokyo, you can have any kind of food imaginable at any hour. Tokyo also used to be the place with the largest number of record and CD shops. On the flip side, because the place is so huge, it is difficult to develop a community. There are a lot of relationships where people know about each other but meet very rarely. I often think it would be much easier and better for music development if we would decide on a certain area where to mingle and build a close-knit community.
Speaking about living conditions, I personally think that Tokyo is not a particularly good place to make music or raise kids, because, although the physical space is limited and everyone lives in cramped conditions, you almost never know your neighbours. After a few more years I plan to move away to the suburbs with my family. Everything in Tokyo changes at an enormously fast pace, and if you enjoy that, it’s fine, but I think that it is a bit too busy for making ambient music.
I have lived in Europe for a while, and I really enjoyed it there, but at the moment my biggest dream is to live in India, where I would like to study Ayurveda. In music and in medicine, there were no really mind blowing or intense experiences for me in Europe. Perhaps it was good for developing my already existing music.
What is your experience of releasing music from Japan? Do you find it harder to get noticed/heard due to the geographic/language barrier?
Hmmm… When I wrote songs I was often perplexed as to in what language should I write the lyrics in, but I’ve never had any particular issues with the releasing process. It’s a bit sad that I am not able to converse with my foreign friends in their language, on the other side, when making Melodia recordings with Argentinian Federico Durand, the fact that, although the places and times of our birth are very close, we don’t speak each other’s mother language, reflected well on the music. On the album that was released on Home Normal last year, we are both playing guitar, although we don’t usually do that. On the first track I played the guitar for the first time in three years, besides, it was the first sound we made in a completely improvised outdoor session, so it sounds absolutely terrible, however, something else, not at all connected to playing technique, is musically present in that moment. At first I was using a wide range of effects, but in the end I decided to release things just as they were recorded. I think we both were able to enjoy pure music without getting hung up on technical stuff and playing technique partly because we communicated through a language that was foreign to both of us, so we spoke with disregard for grammar, our main objective being to communicate the important things. It was an interesting experience for me.
Ambient music is often times related to nature. What is your personal relationship with nature?
This is a theme that is very relevant to my career. My book has been recently published, in which I discuss body and mind and music from the point of view of Western medicine, Oriental medicine and ambient music. What I am consistently saying in the book is that we have to revert to revering nature. Not only ambient, but art in general came to oppose the Industrial Revolution and the overall industrialization that followed it. Industrialization promotes the homogenization of products, thus limiting diversity – the most important aspect of all living things. Artists have acutely felt the dangers of that and reflected them in their works.
Humans have the ability to process things that the force of nature (Physis) generates, but they do not possess the ability to create. Music is also processing the sounds which come from Physis, it is not possible to „give birth” to sounds. This is the relationship between digital and analog, digital technology evolved from imitating analog, but there is still a vast difference between analog sounds and digital sounds. The same can be said about Oriental medicine (it utilizes the power of nature) and Western medicine (it uses the power of science). In Western medicine to get rid of pain and insomnia you have symptomatic therapy, but no solution for the underlying cause. In order to regain a healthy spirit, to regain appetite, it is essential to use nature’s force. Many of contemporary diseases are born from being out of sync with nature’s rhythms. Therefore it becomes important to have medical treatments and arts that helps the patient to return to natural rhythm. That being said, sickness is painful, so it is also important to use Western symptomatic therapy appropriately. Sometimes it is better for your health to fall asleep by using sleeping pills than to not sleep at all. It is important to use both ways of medicine in appropriate degrees. I try to do that in my music and in my medical practise by utilising the „power to give birth” and „power to process” at the same time to their respective adequate degrees.
The problem that we are facing right now is the way of rethinking the scale of utilisation of such a culture. On March 11, 2011 we the Japanese experienced the tragedy that inevitably occurs in a society that disregards the power of nature too much. Even if we attempt to change this kind of society by changing its superstructures, it will not work. The change occurs in the minds of the patients through medical therapy, also I am sending a message to society through my music.
I personally think that the reason why the demand for ambient music has grown during recent years is not so much because ambient music is connected to nature, but because now we have come to need music that can be put on in the background in order to erase the industrial noise that we are surrounded with in our everyday lives.
How do you achieve that immense level of calmness in your music? Do you have any rituals or methods that help you compose?
Ancient Indian philosophers said that of all emotions the most important one is calmness. Our joys and sufferings are determined by this unconscious state of calmness of mind. Calm mind controls anger. Speaking about music, I put a lot of value into preparation. When recording in my home studio, it always takes me 3 hours to prepare before the actual recording. From making sounds to practicing the actual musical performance, I did it as much as I could last year, and I made more than a hundred recordings. Unfortunately, I did not manage to turn all that into records I had hoped for…
I also meditate a lot. Before I begin a performance, I usually hold a thirty second long silence. In case of a joint performance, before we begin we all drink the same Chinese herbal medicine. In this way the body rhythms of all performers are synchronized.
How did you arrive at your piano style? It is quite unlike anyone else’s in both sound and performance. Who has inspired you on this instrument?
My aim during my musical performances is to channel the inspiration that descends down on me into sounds without thinking about anything. During performance, my goal is to focus only on „existing in the moment”, being a vessel for the divine spirit that descends in the form of music. I do my best to prepare for that state in all ways I possibly can. Piano for me is the easiest instrument to express my feelings through. In high school, in order to be able to play John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, I even learned to read sheet music and was able to do that for 4, 5 years. Now I have forgotten how to do that completely, I wouldn’t even be able to tell where C is located. There is a difference in the music of people who can read sheet music and those who can’t. I don’t think one is better than the other, but I personally think that piano of people who don’t read sheet music is great, too. Each way of playing has its own beauty of presentation. The pianist who influenced me a lot is Glenn Gould. His sound is directly connected to emotions.
You have studied medicine and you have recently opened your first ambient oriental medical clinic. How is this practice different from a traditional oriental clinic and what should we expect if we visit you as potential patients?
I employ both Western medicine, which focuses on getting rid of the symptoms, and Oriental medicine, which focuses on eradicating the cause. 9 times out of 10 the medicine I prescribe is Chinese herbal medicine. This proportion is adequate to the current state of medicine, as well as in accordance with the length of histories of both medical systems. Oriental medicine began 4000 years ago while Western medicine began 400 years ago. I also give advice and instructions concerning diet and environment (sounds, light, and smells). In a usual modern hospital such complex treatment would take a lot of time and thus would be very expensive, so it’s difficult to implement. My clinic is probably the smallest one in Japan and has the best sound system (Tannoy’s StirlingTW and Sonihouse speakers, as well as three tube amplifiers from Komatsu Sound Lab). I try to keep the clinic as small-scale as possible. The examining room is two and a half tatami mats (9 square metres), very small, the same size as Sen no Rikyu’s famous tea room. It’s called Tsuyukusa Clinic, the name comes from Japanese tea ceremony’s vocabulary.
In the last years you have only been working in groups as Between (with Corey Fuller, Marcus Fischer, Simon Scott and Taylor Deupree), Illuha (with Corey Fuller), Melodía (with Federico Durand) and Opitope (with Chihei Hatakeyama). What is it that you find so fascinating about collaborations that in a way you put much more effort into them than your solo work?
You forgot Toshimaru Nakamura + Ken Ikeda (from Baskaru, 2014)!
The released works are definitely mostly collaborations, but if we look at the actual time I spend making music, the overwhelming part of it is solo work. It’s just that I am indecisive and can never really finish my own works. When collaborating, the time to make a recording is limited, there is a time limit on finishing a recording. When working solo, I always think the recording can be made better, then a little bit better still, until I get the urge to just start working on a new thing. That’s why I have ten times more recorded solo material than collaboration material, but if I don’t have some sort of time limit I simply cannot finish a solo record. It took me 7 years to release my first album. I had a goal to finish my second album until the birthday of my daughter, and because I had set this goal, I did it, but it took me another year to release it. On September 30 last year my second daughter was born, I have been writing music for the whole year at home and playing it to my wife and daughter. It’s piano and synthesizer (Sequential Circuit Six-Trak and Yamaha DX-7), without any effects, I also didn’t use a laptop.
Is there someone who you would like to collaborate with but due to some reason it just never happened?
I have been a big fan of Stephan Mathieu since the 90’s. I think he is a god. Federico Durand is also a big fan of Stephan, when we were touring Europe together, he wrote him an e-mail, something along the lines of: “We’re musician from Argentina and Japan, currently in Europe, if possible, please invite us to visit you”. And he did. We went to his house, listened to his record collection on his gramophone, he cooked for us, we all deejayed together… it was the best day of my life. Afterwards I invited him to Japan and we toured together. We played sessions with other musicians, but I have not yet played a duo with him. I’m still so much in awe of him that I dare not ask. He’s not only a god musically, but also an amazing human being. No matter how busy or tired he is, he’s always a perfect gentleman. When I grow up a bit more, I would like to record a duo performance with him.
What are you working on these days? What are your future plans music-wise?
On the album for my second daughter and music that I play at my clinic. I have two audio systems in my clinic’s waiting room. They both play completely different music at random, the combination is permanently changing, that way the music played there is music you can only hear there, at that particular moment – it’s what I am trying to achieve. Now I play ambient music on one audio system and field recordings on the other. I am thinking about ways how to make it more minimal, composing ambient music tracks that could be played from both systems. There’s an audio system in the examining room too, so I am currently making music that could be played in harmony on all three systems.
I have also started a band called MUI, consisting of three people. We make ambient music and play live performances.
Who do you think the most impressive ambient artists are these days?
For example, Stephan Mathieu keeps making amazing music, but I personally think he is not an ambient musician. I can’t be sure but I think he also might not consider himself one. A lot of drone music is not really ambient. Some works by Celer are ambient, I think.
Federico Durand is an ambient musician. I have liked his music for a long time, especially the two records that were released from Spekk. However, Melodia is not ambient. Usually I don’t listen to music of friends, because I know them well as people and don’t really even want to listen to their music, but his music, no matter how well I get to know him personally, I often listen to his works. I think that’s because his music is ambient in the true meaning of the word. His personality and character are also very ambient.
I got acquainted with Susanna & The Magical Orchestra 2 or 3 years ago, and I listen to them a lot and also play their music in my clinic. They are very high quality ambient.
When you’re not working with and listening to ambient, what other types of music do you prefer?
I listen to a lot of Glenn Gould and Toru Takemitsu recently, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt, other contemporary music. When spending time with my family, I listen to a lot of vocals, songs – stuff like Mark Hollis, Chet Baker, Maria Callas, Édith Piaf, Juana Molina, Stereolab, Joyce. Mouse on Mars and Kraftwerk when I am dancing with my daughter.
If you would have to choose, what would you pick as your favourite album cover?
The cover that surprised me in a long time was the new record of Federico, released on White Paddy Mountain. It’s by ambient illustrator Satoshi Ogawa, whom I respect a lot. All works by Spekk are amazing, aren’t they. From old things – ‘Alina’ by Arvo Pärt, ‘Egret’ by Toshimaru Nakamura.
A bit of banging my own drum here, but the cover of the album ‘Perpetual’ with Ryuichi Sakamoto is great, too. The album will be released soon. Well, actually, I haven’t seen the cover yet…
Who would you like to read an interview with on Sounds Of A Tired City?
The people who are in favour of nuclear energy proliferation, employees of Monsanto company, people in favour of materialistic philosophy, people who think that they are making music with their own efforts only.
Enormous thanks to Sandra Dunska for the translation!
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