• Watch our new film Midori Takada: In Motion

    By | August 30, 2018

    An intimate afternoon with the pioneering Japanese artist.

    Tokyo-born composer and musician Midori Takada has always looked at the world differently. In a Coca-Cola bottle, Takada sees a flute. In a rush of blood to the head and pulsating heartbeats, Takada hears percussion. In silence, Takada feels rhythm.

    Though she has been performing and creating music since the 1970s – releasing albums as part of her MKWAJU Ensemble and solo, collaborating with legendary theatre director Tadashi Suzuki, and teaching as a professor of music in Japan – for decades Takada remained relatively unknown to wider audiences.

    Until a few years ago, when the mysterious algorithmic forces of the internet forever changed that. In 2016, a YouTube video of her 1983 album Through The Looking Glass, a cult record among collectors, amassed over 1 million views. That particular upload has since been removed, however a reissue of the album by WRWTFWW shortly afterward fuelled international fervour.

    Since then, Takada has toured across the globe, with additional reissues of her similarly coveted albums – MKWAJU Ensemble’s KI-Motion, and Masahiko Sato collaboration Lunar Cruise.

    As she releases her first new music in twenty years, Le Renard Bleu – a collaborative 20-minute track with Lafawndah inspired by the mythological legend of The Blue Fox, we spent an afternoon with Takada at Union Chapel ahead of her London show.

    Following an intimate rehearsal, Takada spoke with us about her unique approach to sound and performance, what inspires her, and what she would like to teach people about her music.

    A unique visionary, whose work is finally getting the recognition it so long deserved, we’re celebrating her music in its many forms. Watch the film above, look through photographs from the performance at Union Chapel, take a journey through her discography, and delve into Through the Looking Glass in our extended interview.

    All images by Pawel Ptak for The Vinyl Factory.

  • Beyond the looking glass: A journey into the music of Midori Takada

    By | August 30, 2018

    Through The Looking Glass may have exposed Midori Takada to new audiences around the world, but the Japanese composer and percussionist has spent more than forty years recording and performing, leaving a fascinating musical trail in her wake. Here are six entry points, from avant garde jazz collaborations to ambient solo projects.

    Midori Takada’s work has always straddled the worlds of theatre and music. Whether in the percussive dramas she weaves with MKWAJU Ensemble, or the synthesised landscapes of her solo opus Through The Looking Glass, Takada’s music unfolds with the tension and release of Japanese Noh theatre, where sound, costume and gesture play crucial roles in articulating the ritual narratives of the performance.

    On the stage, Takada strikes the same dramatic postures – at one moment a marionette twirling between upright toms, the next, swooping across the marimba, clad in shimmering shozoku-esque outfits.

    As part of our celebration of her work – which includes our film Midori Takada: In Motion, extended interview and photo gallery of a recent performance at Union Chapel in London, we introduce a selection of her most striking musical works as an entry point for those who want to explore beyond the looking glass.

    MKWAJU Ensemble
    (Better Days, 1981)

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    Taking their name from the drought-resistant tamarind tree (which translates as ‘mkwaju’ in Swahili), the MKWAJU Ensemble showcased some of Takada’s earliest explorations in the percussive exploration of minimalism and African tradition musics. Alongside Junko Arase and Yoji Sadanari, she explores the textures and repetitions of marimba, vibraphone, and bamboo percussion (for which the mallets were often crafted from the mkwaju tree), built into trance-like structures that interlock with the subtle use of synthesisers she would become known for on Through The Looking Glass. An early example of Takada’s pan-global approach to instrumentation, which has recently been reissued for the first time by WRWTFWW.

    MKWAJU Ensemble
    (Better Days, 1981)

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    Released in the same year as KI-Motion, Mkwaju strikes a more confident tone in the ensemble’s use of rhythmic variation. Tracks like ‘Shak Shak’ strip the instrumentation back to allow the subtle syncopations of the mallets to rise to the fore, while the contrast between ‘Tira-Ran’ and the glacial ‘Pulse In The Mind’ explore the ensemble’s ability to merge and subvert both eastern and western minimalist traditions. The thunderous drama of ‘Flash-Back’ is a fitting overture to the group’s short-lived existence.

    Midori Takada
    Through The Looking Glass
    (RCA, 1983)

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    Through The Looking Glass is Midori Takada’s masterpiece, and main entry point for the legion of new listeners beguiled by the post-impressionist surrealism of the cover, the music’s transcendent quality, and a sympathetic quirk of the YouTube algorithm.

    Such is the nature of online musical archeology that context is often hard to come by. Writing in the introduction to an interview with Takada for VF, which you can read here, Paul Bowler picks up the story: “Entering the Aoyama studio in Tokyo on the tightest of budgets and with only an engineer for company, the self-produced Through The Looking Glass was recorded onto analogue tape in just two days using a dizzyingly diverse array of instruments, including marimbas, gongs, chimes, recorders, a reed organ and Coca-Cola bottles which were blown into and played like flutes.

    “In an effort to create music that embodied what she termed “the notion of time and body, of physicality”, she carefully measured the distance between the microphone and each instrument to generate a three-dimensional sound sculpture. Lacking technical knowledge, she relied on a spirit of creative improvisation to facilitate the recording, correcting mistakes with multiple layers of overdub, a process which resulted in its unique sound.”

    Midori Takada & Masahiko Satoh
    Lunar Cruise
    (Epic, 1990)

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    The first recorded collaboration between Takada and legendary jazz pianist Masahiko Satoh, Lunar Cruise was released following the pair’s 1989 tour around Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The album begins with the marimba movements that typified MKWAJU Ensemble, before diving head first into the more overtly Middle Eastern-influenced ‘Ancient Palace’, which sees Takada joined by saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, who appear sporadically throughout a record that is at once resolutely calm and infectiously danceable. A reissue from WRWTFWW was announced last year.

    (Ninety-One, 1995)

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    The second of three CD-only releases with free jazz group Ton•Klami (the most recent of which was a 1995 recording released in 2017), was produced by Satoh, and brings the saxophones of Kang Tae Hwan and Ned Rothenberg to the fore – layered and dubbing extended horn phrases to create swells of sound that are among the most assertive and voluble of Takada’s canon. Like Mkwaju Ensemble, her work with Ton•Klami speaks to the collaborative nature of her work, and a desire to operate outside of classical structures.

    Midori Takada & Lafawndah
    Le Renard Bleu
    (!K7, 2018)

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    Conceived off the back of the unprecedented exposure of Through The Looking Glass, which has brought Takada to international attention, Le Renard Bleu is Takada’s first new release in 20 years, and returns to her fascination with combining Africa and Japanese folk traditions, here united in tales of the fox, and composed over the course of one week at Avaco Creative Studios in Tokyo. Transcending the ambient and improvisational environments of her previous work, the collaboration with artist Lafawndah hears Takada crafting instrumentals using waterphone, bells, marimba and various forms of drums, before Lafawndah adds melodies and lyrics to the single 20-minute recording. The release also explores the theatrical element to Takada’s work through an accompanying film of the same name, directed by Partel Oliva, krump artist Qwenga and photographer CG Watkins.

  • Photo gallery: Midori Takada live at Union Chapel

    By | August 30, 2018

    The Japanese percussionist and composer on stage in London.

    During the making of our new short film Midori Takada: In Motion, we spent the afternoon with the ambient maestro as she prepared for her sold out show at London’s Union Chapel in April 2018.

    An artist for whom the theatricality of sound and vision are crucial, Takada’s performance was shrouded in mist, as she played bells, gongs, toms, marimba, and her now iconic arrangement of standing cymbals to an enraptured audience.

    With light streaming in through the chapel’s stain-glass windows, we captured Takada in full flow during the soundcheck, images from which you can see below.

    A unique visionary, whose work is finally getting the recognition it so long deserved, we’re celebrating her music in its many forms. Head here for more.

    All images by Pawel Ptak for The Vinyl Factory.

  • Through the looking glass with ambient pioneer Midori Takada

    By | August 30, 2018

    The composer and artist behind cult minimalist adventure Through The Looking Glass, Midori Takada opens up about her influences, from Steve Reich and Brian Eno to traditional African and Asian music.

    With the Japanese music industry finally opening up long-closed doors, the last few years has seen a slew of long sought after reissues. None however have been as feverishly anticipated as percussionist Midori Takada’s ambient minimalist masterpiece Through The Looking Glass. Originally released in 1983 by RCA Japan, and given new life by WRWTFWW / Palto Flats, its four-song suite of evocative, pan-global, dreamscapes shares similarities with western contemporaries such as Steve Reich and Jon Hassell yet is invested with Takada’s own starkly original, dreamlike and meditative qualities. Largely ignored on its release, the album built up a reputation as a holy grail of Japanese music over the years, with prices reaching up to $750 for a copy.

    Still very much active today, Takada’s career has typified the questing spirit that defines her masterpiece. She began within the realms of classical music, making her debut in 1978 at the Berlin Philharmonic for the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchestra after graduating from Tokyo University Of The Arts. Early disillusionment led to a change in direction. Seeking less overtly emotive forms more conducive to her desire to create a spiritually centred music, she began to study traditional African and Asian styles. She formed Mkwaju Ensemble alongside fellow percussionists Yoji Sadanari and Junko Arase. Their two 1981 albums, Mkwaju and Ki-Motion, delivered a hypnotic, purely percussive sound that synthesised the rhythms of Africa and Asia with those of western minimalism. By turns sparse and riotously danceable, both have become highly collectable in their own right.

    The financial constraints of running an ensemble proved unsustainable however, and Mkwaju were disbanded as Takada sought a career as a solo musician. Entering the Aoyama studio in Tokyo on the tightest of budgets and with only an engineer for company, the self-produced Through The Looking Glass was recorded onto analogue tape in just two days using a dizzyingly diverse array of instruments, including marimbas, gongs, chimes, recorders, a reed organ and Coca-Cola bottles which were blown into and played like flutes. In an effort to create music that embodied what she termed “the notion of time and body, of physicality”, she carefully measured the distance between the microphone and each instrument to generate a three-dimensional sound sculpture. Lacking technical knowledge, she relied on a spirit of creative improvisation to facilitate the recording, correcting mistakes with multiple layers of overdub, a process which resulted in its unique sound.

    Marketed as a contemporary classical album, it struggled to find an audience on release and Takada subsequently embarked on a wildly diverse career that has taken in a number of disciplines. She composed and performed live music for theatre, scored film, anime and game soundtracks, and is part of the free jazz band Ton-Klami. There were two more releases under Takada’s own name; 1990’s Lunar Cruise, a collaboration with legendary jazz pianist and composer Masahiko Satoh, and the 1999 solo outing Tree Of Life. Both releases continued the pan-global rhythmic path begun with Mkwaju Ensemble.

    I met Midori Takada in London at the end of a successful European tour in promotion of 2017’s Through The Looking Glass reissue. The previous night at a sold-out Café Oto had witnessed a mesmerising percussive performance by her that was by turns serene, ceremonial, theatrical, poetic, and thunderously loud. Elegantly dressed in modernist Tokyo style, she was humble and friendly in person. Deep thinking and strongly opinionated on the subject of music, she has an encyclopaedic knowledge garnered through a lifetime of exploration and study. We spoke in English and in Japanese through an interpreter.

    How does it feel to have your works appreciated by a modern audience so long after you first recorded them?

    I think it’s amazing that young people are listening to an album I made 34 years ago. It’s something I really appreciate. All these years later I now realise why I made it.

    In retrospect, the early ’80s seem like the beginning of a golden age for Japanese ambient and minimalist music with classics by you and by contemporaries such as Satoshi Ashikawa, Inoyama Land and Hiroshi Yoshimura released in a short space of time. Did you feel part of a movement or part of something special?

    I didn’t feel part of a mainstream movement. There were a few composers influenced by people like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Brian Eno. It was a time of change though there were very few people involved and we all knew each other. I played vibraphone on Satoshi Ashikawa’s Still Way for example. But it wasn’t just a music scene, it was multi-media including fine arts, architecture, and minimal dance.

    You started off within the realms of western classical music. What were your reasons for switching to minimalism?

    I first realised I needed to find my own music when I had my debut concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. At that moment I realised ‘I can’t be here’: playing in an established concert hall felt wrong. I felt I wanted to be playing music on the street. Later I discovered Asian and African music. It was from such a rich and non-materialist culture. It’s music that denies the materialistic.

    You then studied with traditional African and Asian musicians such as Ghanaian kogyil (xylophone) player Kakraba Lobi, and Korean kayagum (zither) player Chi Soung-Ja. What did you learn from them and how did their teachings affect your music?

    I studied African music by myself at first, because there was no information in Japan about African music. I copied from field recordings on labels like Nonesuch and tried to write scores and rhythms, and I would study the construction of rhythms. I then met Kakraba Lobi in Tokyo, and went to Ghana to play with him. I learned to play with him and learned his theories which gave me confidence about playing African rhythm. Not traditionally but using my own style using African constructions and theories and using Western not African instruments.

    How about Western figures? You’ve said that Steve Reich was a major influence. Were there any other key figures in shaping your sound?

    I often played Steve Reich’s music and got to play with Terry Riley in Tokyo though I was more influenced by Steve Reich, particularly his earliest work such as Clapping Music. I was more influenced by African construction though, which is much more complex than Steve Reich. Steve Reich learned rhythms from the Ghanaian Ewe Tribe and used them in minimalism. I wanted to learn the origins of the rhythms.

    There seems to be a transition from the primarily African rhythms of your work with Mkwaju Ensemble to a more distinctly Asian sensibility with Through The Looking Glass…

    Yes, Through The Looking Glass is primarily my own interpretation of Asian rhythms. The exception was on ‘Crossing’, where the rhythms were inspired by the sound of Japanese train crossings.

    Mkwaju Ensemble seems more dance-orientated to me. There are textures and beats that resemble techno…

    There were no techno influences. People sometimes make that mistake because of the involvement of Hideki Matsutake [prolific computer programmer known for his work with proto-techno outfit Logic System and Yellow Magic Orchestra]. Everything was either from African repetition or from minimalism. How the act of producing music changes your body – that’s what fascinates me. If you use a machine that process won’t happen so I don’t use any machines in my work. The only time I’ve ever used a machine was to record and pick up brain waves and muscle electricity through the synthesiser to make alpha waves. I’m fascinated by how to control your body, not only the outside but the inside as well. I used to do cybernetics, using brain waves and the body. I would use the recorder to pick up blood circulation and make it into sound. Sometimes I would even use a machine with a probe microphone that you would normally use to check the sound of a pregnant woman’s blood circulation and her unborn child’s heartbeat, rhythm and tempo. I used this machine to amplify my own heartbeat and blood circulation on stage with Masahiko Satoh playing piano during a live performance. He hated it!

    You’ve spoken of your desire to produce music without emotion. Do you feel that minimalism suits the Japanese sensibility?

    Well, minimalism was a term that started to be used in the 1960s for fine arts. Japanese tradition doesn’t deny emotion on frown upon emotion. Traditional musicians would put all their emotion into one sound. In that sense minimalism already existed in Japanese music.

    Through The Looking Glass is an incredibly evocative, almost dreamlike listening experience. Was that the effect you were hoping for?

    I certainly didn’t mean to create dreamlike music, maybe it was there subconsciously but that wasn’t what I was looking to achieve at the time. I wanted to make a perspective of sound. It was an analogue recording so I placed microphones in many different places. I tried to create a three dimensional music by controlling the distance of the microphone to create a perspective. As a result it ended up hypnotic or dreamlike as people say.

    You’ve had an incredibly diverse career. Has there been a constant theme or guiding principle? What keeps you exploring and searching?

    Like everyone I needed to work to provide. But there is definitely something that has kept me searching and continues to do so.

    With thanks to Ken Hidaka

    This article was originally published in May 2017.

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