Name: Takuma Watanabe
Occupation: Pianist, arranger, composer
Current release: Takuma Watanabe's Last Afternoon ラストアフターヌーン is out May 7th on Constructive.
Recommendations: Anna Kavan "A Bright Green Field and Other Stories"; György Kurtág "Officium breve, in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Op. 28"
If you enjoyed this interview with Takuma Watanabe and would like to know more, visit his personal website for background information, updates and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
When I was three years old, my grandmother took me to a magic show at a department store. That experience to watch the fantastic magic show became the spark for my creative activities.
One day, at a preschool I joined, I was performing a magic trick that I had created myself. I made the terrible mistake of dropping the trick on stage. I mean, I had stage fright. I’m still not very good at performing in front of people. That happened to make me more passionate about making magic sets than performing, writing the instructions and making the bindings. I started to make magic tools which were not sold and asked for by anyone, just boxes which I displayed in my room. This cycle of creation is the same as my current musical activities.
After that, I tried to become a novelist, a manga artist, a film director, and so on, and I was imaginatively looking for a job. When one of my friends showed me a game which he created on his personal computer, I was immediately fascinated by it, and I started to study the BASIC language. The first program I did was a command called 'BEEP' to make sounds from the computer. Then I started making my own game music using FM sound sources.
One day, I was asked by my mother to make a 4-5 minute piece of music for a video art piece she had made. This was my first job as a musician. My parents had divorced when I was very young, and my mother was making a drama for experimental theatre and radio at the time. She is a very independent and active person and still is today. And my mother had a huge collection of records and books, and that is my early passion and I got so many influences. I discovered the literary expression called "stream of consciousness" by Virginia Woolf or Nathalie Sarraute, among others. Also there is Mal Waldron's record, a pianist who my mother had met on a tour of Japan.
For most artists, originality is 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?
I still sometimes proceed by the existing method, and sometimes I do my own interpretation of what many have already tried. I'm also trying something new but still context is important to me. Soundtrack work is sometimes like a kind of pastiche.
In film work, I focus on following the scene and the director's subject before my own music. I think it's important to doubt and critique my own thoughts and voice sometimes.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It was very simple, to write down what I felt as sound in the score. In the beginning, I started by creating music according to a specific method, such as counterpoint or harmony. After writing a couple of studies of the twelve-tone technique, I threw out all forms and Academicism.
And I started to play the piano by improvising for a while. But there were offers to compose film music more and more, and I gradually returned to score music again. I've been making and developing music by collaboration. And I've been reflectively applying that experience to my own compositions. Maybe my music is just the result of letting things drift ...
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started out by creating sounds on my computer, and I made music by recording those sounds on a cassette recorder. Much later, I started playing the piano at home under the influence of my father-in-law who is a musician.
Those tools were not hard, it was just what I had at the time in my home, and it was enough to create music. It was enough for me to progress my own music production and continue learning. Now, I work in a room to some extent with equipment and instruments.
But even if I lose all those tools, I am still able to compose if I have my friends of musicians and paper and pencil.
Are there any techniques or instruments that have changed the way you make music, or made you wonder about them?
A few years before I moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music when I saw a live performance by Otomo Yoshihide, a Japanese musician, at a small gallery in my hometown. At the time, Otomo-san was playing turntables and his custom-made guitar, music that was improvised and real-time compositions by records and turntables. The live performance blew away all my preconceptions about music and composition. Then I stopped studying piano and composition for a while. And I started to experiment with noise and collage using the radio and an old record player which I had at home.
Then I entered Berklee College of Music. But I soon started to get disappointed with some of the classes and curriculum. I felt that my composition knowledge was not enough at the time, but also I wanted to create something new and radical. However, the curriculum at the university was gradual, and improvisation and avant-garde seemed to be the final destination to be reached after studying the styles.
For now I think it's also interesting to learn about experimental music in that context and process but I wanted to study both aspects of music so quickly at that time. So, in parallel with my university classes, I began self-study of film scores and I began to study film scores on my own and analyze music. For me, film music was a mystery with no clear historical background or context at the time. And it was also an appropriate counter to Berklee's curriculum. I was interested in a soundtrack because it's not only music, it's also accompanying the images.
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've always learned music through collaboration with others. I learned the properties of string instruments from string players and my film music works have developed through collaboration with directors. So, collaboration is not so unusual for me.
I've been sharing files for more than 10 years, but recently the frequency has increased dramatically. Since the pandemic, I have created soundtracks for two Japanese films, and both projects were meetings held via video calls, and recording was done by remote work. So the recording process was with a lot of trial and error.
As part of that process, without sharing the same space, it was difficult to create one piece with sounds recorded in a different environment. But at the same time, this process provided a chance to reflect on the ideas between each performer. Of course, I'd like to meet and talk with film directors in person, and also want to share the same studio with performers when recording …
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?
I generally live by the same routine. I wake up at 7:00 a.m., make a cup of coffee, and get to work early. After that, I watch a movie, read, call a friend, or listen to a record. I'm asleep by 11:00. I spend a lot of time alone.
This routine has naturally developed during the course of working. Since the early days of my music production, there has been no distinction between work and life. Even when I don't have a deadline or an order, I continue to create something every day. However, once I have completed a piece of work, my interest immediately shifts to the next thing, and I often miss the opportunity to present my work. But music production is a part of daily cycle at first. so there is a lot of aimless work. I am constantly experimenting.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I had the wonderful experience of being the pianist for David Sylvian's Europe and Asia tour in 2007. I was very impressed by the artists and musicians I met on that tour. I met Akira Rabelais, who is a guest on my album 'Last Afternoon’, when I was in Cologne on the same tour. Also, I wrote a string quartet for the screening of Swedish photographer Anders Edström's video work ‘some paints’ which led to the formation of a string ensemble, and I think this was the work and performance that triggered my later activities. It also gave me an opportunity to reconsider the classical composition of the string quartet.
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?
For me, the simple and boring repetition of daily life is my source of creativity. Then there is reading. Although I often have just a stack of books. I mean an important thing is to have books with content that interests you close at hand. Literature and reading is like a meditation for me, where I can immediately enter into a unique time.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I’m not looking for healing of any kind in music. I think that by attaching a value to it, the potential of music will be diminished.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I once worked as a string arranger on an album produced by American music producer Kip Hanrahan and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians. In composing this album, I studied the rhythmic structure of Latin music called “Clave" and the concept of key, and tried to apply it to my string arrangements. However, my own Clave, notated in music notation, could not be a rumba clave, and I was having a hard time with the ensemble.
One day, when they invited me to dinner, one of the percussionists played a clave rhythm on a beat that I kept. It was only then that I realized that the clave is a rhythm that fluctuates between quarter note triplet and 16th notes. But even this realization to the Clave was not consistent with the string quartet which I had written. And that piece was completed with the differences intact. But in the time I spent with them, traveling back and forth between New York and Tokyo, I realized the differences in their way of thinking and approach to music, and it gave me a chance to reinterpret music and reconsider my own thoughts.
I think that it is precisely because we both have different ways of thinking that we are able to collaborate.
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?
When I work on film music, sometimes I feel that the rushes are musical enough when I see them without the sound. For example, in “Aristocrat” directed by 岨手由貴子 (Sode Yukiko), which was released in Japan this year, one of the characters in the film plays a violinist, and the music for the performance was composed before the shooting. So I was able to get into the film naturally at the same time when I started composing.
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?
I think that one work of art is not complete by itself, it changes over time and with different perspectives. Through constant communication and interaction with audiences or performers, a work may be reinterpreted or revised. Personally, I do not attach a specific message to my work and leave the interpretation to the listener.