Name: Kumi Takahara
Occupation: Composer, violinist
Current release: See-Through on flau
Recommendations: The Arrival / Shaun Tan (wordless "graphic novel"); Pie Jesu / Lili Boulanger (classic music)
If you enjoyed this interview with Kumi Takahara and would ike to find out more about her, stay up to date on her work by following her on twitter. She also has an instagram account.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
In the spring of 2013, when I was studying violin in Vienna, I suddenly had an adrenaline rush and couldn't sleep for 10 days, so I started writing music. It was like a puddle of water that overflowed, and I had to deal with a lot of emotions.
Having lived in the world of classical music until then, I was excited to find about kind of modern classical music. For me, it feels like new possibilities of a different evolution of classical music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Surely I imitated the music I like. But in my case, I do it only unconsciously, analyzing and learning the music to make it my own technique.
When I find favorite music, I listen to it over and over again. At that time, I'm more moved by the feeling than the thought, and it will somehow be inputted as information in the music. When I create a song, my emotions always take precedence over my physical body, but there may be times when I have a vague image in my head that leads me to think, "Let's try to create an atmosphere like that song". It's only when I listen to it later that I think, "This sounds like that song."
The songs are born out of my feelings, so they are like my own diary (When I listen back to the songs, I remember the details of my personal life at that time). In other words, creativity is never an afterthought.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning, I had a hard time because my habit in classical music was too strong.
For example, there were too many chord progressions, or I was bound by the "theme - development - recapitulation" structure. Studying classical music was an important process from a technical standpoint, but it also crippled me. Another thing was that I had a habit of writing songs that were too dark, so I tried to avoid "talking about myself" as much as possible, and tried to get myself in a good mental state so that others would be comfortable listening to the music.
The album contains 10 songs, but there are 13 songs that were rejected during the four years of production. FLAU's label head Yasuhiko Fukuzono (aus), who worked with me on the album, gave me a lot of advice and I was able to gradually improve it. He gave me concrete suggestions on how to take songs with classical origins and put them into a modern context. He also patiently waited for me to come up with something good.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
When I started home-recording, I was living in an apartment in Tokyo that I shared with a female friend. My room was a tatami room with sandy walls. The sound of cars passing under my window was too noisy, so I recorded here and there in my house when my friend was away. At first, I only had a violin, but the number of instruments gradually increased: cello, piano, double bass, viola, and so on. My room is full of instruments, and it's hard to carry them every time I move, but for me, recording with live instruments is the most important thing, so having all the instruments is a must. As long as I have an instrument and equipment, I can record anywhere, and I like to change locations. Sometimes I record in my bedroom when I travel. I sometimes record in my bedroom when I travel, using a microphone stand instead.
My dream is to have a studio that can produce sound 24 hours a day. It's not an easy task in Tokyo, where people live in close quarters.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Thanks to the advances in recording systems, I am now able to play in an ensemble by myself from the comfort of my home. If I hadn't lived in the age of multiple recordings, I might have been involved in music only as a violinist.
The raw sound that people produce has its own energy, but in some cases it can be tiring for the listener. If we rely too much on technology, it will be insufficient, but the inorganic and regular sounds produced by machines are free of unnecessary thoughts and have their own comfort.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I use Logic software for editing, and I insist on overdubbing the live sound that I play. Using the software allows me to collaborate with myself.
First, I create an image of the melody, chords, and rhythm. I tend to use keyboard, sometimes strings as well. Once that main track is recorded, I start layering other tracks on top of it to give it more depth. When I layer the strings, it's the main melody, then the bass line, and then the inner voice.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I think the best part of collaboration is that I get elements that I don't have. A work that is completed by a single person can only be my own colour within the scope of my imagination. The beauty of creating with others is that I can create something beyond that.
I like to discuss and expand my ideas, and I also like to just send files and leave room to see what I get back. It depends on the time, place, and person. Whether I know the person well or not, it's interesting in each case.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Maybe it's because I only know the freelance life, but I don't have a routine.Some days I sleep a lot, some days I work until morning, and some days I am very irregular, which is not good for my health … When I am in the mood, I start working on it. When I am in the mood, I spend a lot of time with music, and when I am not, I stay in silence.
My mood depends on my personal life and is always influencing my creation. They are closely connected. It's cooler to keep them separate, and I admire creators like that, but it seems difficult for me.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
The title of this album is "See-through", I also used "Daydream" and "Transparent" as keywords. It's an image of the scenery in my deep psyche set to music. It could be a nostalgic memory, or a dream that I had someday ... It's a view that I usually forget. It could be the ocean, a forest, a city, or a room, and it varies from song to song.
"Artegio" was composed on a piano in an actual museum in the forest. "Sea" and "Tide" include the sound of waves that I recorded when I went to the beach. I would be happy if I could create music that allows the listener to dive deep into their own heart.
In order to achieve this, I aimed to create pure music without impure motives and without muddy sounds. I was too careful and it took too much time, though.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The weather has a big effect on me, and a rainy day puts me in just the right mental state. I also find that if I keep walking, preferably at night, with earphones in, I gradually feel like I can dive into my own mental world. You'll start to get lots of ideas. I also like to bring my computer to cafes. I can concentrate for 10 hours at a time.
When I'm having a good time with someone, I tend to loosen up, so I need to have some time alone to be creative.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
The ideas that come to me are influenced by what I'm playing and the music I'm exposed to at that time. I don't necessarily create my works based on live performances, but I often compose music based on the image of a performance in such a place with such a band/group, so I sometimes bring the feeling of a live performance into the studio.
I change the approach of the instruments. In a live performance, I can play sensitively, in tune with the atmosphere of the place, but the sound for recording a piece is more calm and calculated. Listening to my recorded sound objectively helps me to imagine how the audience will hear it when I play live.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I compose music with a sound image in mind.
When I actually touch the instruments, my hands somehow move to create the music, so I guess the sound comes first. I decide on the main instruments in the beginning, like "I want this instrument to do this for this song. As for the tones that I add to it, I think about how effective they will be in creating the atmosphere of the song.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I think the connection between hearing and sight is particularly deep. It's interesting to see how moving scenery, such as the scenery from a moving train, can make you concentrate more on the music playing through your earphones. Also, when I am in the audience of a concert hall, I like to hear the sound in three dimensions as soon as I close my eyes.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
It is true that the messages sent out through art have a strong power. However, I don't try to send out any specific message through my works.
The motivation for my music is very personal, so I want the finished product to be interpreted freely by each individual. I think it is okay for art to be abstract, to be left to the recipient.
Just because you are an artist does not mean that you have to work with a certain ideology. I just want to create something that fits into the hearts of many people. It's simply because that contact makes me happy.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
The reason why the basics of music have not changed so much is because no matter how much time has passed, the mechanisms that move people have not changed, and that will never change. That's why Classical composers' works are still loved by people today, and that's why people today still get excited when they hear a canon created 300 years ago.
I believe that the origins of music itself will remain unchanged in the future, and that is why I find music so fascinating. And as digital technology advances, the value of live sound performed by people will increase. I believe that something that is created by the imperfections of human beings, because they are human, is what gives music its power.