Name: Tomas Fujiwara
Occupation: Drummer, composer, improviser
Recent Release: Tomas Fujiwara's March is out via Firehouse 12 and features Gerald Cleaver, Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook, Ralph Alessi and Taylor Ho Bynum.
[Read our Gerald Cleaver interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Tomas Fujiwara, visit his official website for more information. He is also on twitter.
For many artists, a solitary phase of creative development preceeds collaborative work. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your first collaborations?
For the most part, that time is spent learning about and practicing your instrument(s), listening to and studying music, hearing and seeing others perform, and letting your curiosity and creativity guide you. I bring those experiences to a collaboration and we take it from there.
There’s really no substitute for both the solitary time and the collaborative time, and they influence each other quite a bit.
Tell me a bit, about your current instruments and tools, please. In which way do they support creative exchange and collaborations with others? Are there obsctacles and what are potential solutions towards making collaborations easier?
I’m primarily using the drum set, vibraphone, pencil and paper, but I also utilize the piano, composition software on my computer, and my voice to record short voice memos of ideas.
Any creative exchange, collaboration, obstacles or solutions are created by me and/or my collaborators and have very little to do with these instruments/tools.
What were some of your earliest collaborations? How do you look back on them with hindsight?
Any time you make music with another person(s), you’re collaborating.
So, in a way, my first collaborations were with my first drum teacher, Joyce Kouffman, who is a multi-instrumentalist, and would often play piano, bass, or congas during my lessons. She would play something and have me accompany her, interact with her, copy her, etc. My second drum teacher, Alan Dawson, was also an excellent vibraphonist, and each lesson would end with a duet, often on a jazz standard.
These duets with Joyce and Alan are some of my most cherished memories, as well as invaluable creative and learning experiences.
Besides the aforementioned early collaborations, can you talk about one particular collaboration that was important for you? Why did 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?
They’re all special, even the ones that don’t turn out to be creatively fulfilling or positive. I learn from those experiences and hopefully grow a little each day.
What are some of the things you learned from your collaborations over the years?
Unless you’re going to be solely a solo artist, playing with other people is how you learn about music, develop your personal approach, and learn about interaction, balance, composition, and sound.
I’ve learned from all of my collaborators, but the most satisfying experiences and lessons have come from interacting with the elders, innovators, and teachers I’ve had the privilege of sharing time with, and from the peers I’ve been able to work with over a long period of time.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
For better or worse, there’s only one me! That’s going to come out one way or another in my solo work and in my collaborations.
I never think about gain or sacrifice when I’m making music. I’m trying to create something personal and in the moment, either by myself, or with other people.
There are many potential models for collaboration, from live performances and jamming via producing in the same room together up to file sharing. Which of these do you prefer – and why?
Live performance. The immediacy, the real-time interaction with fellow musicians and the audience, the visceral emotion, the flow and risk of knowing you can’t stop and go back and edit or change, the honesty.
Is there typically a planning phase for your collaborations? If so, what happens in this phase and how does it contribute to the results?
Each collaboration has a different process and timeline, but for the most part, the planning phase/the early phase involves confirming interest, committing to a project, and working out a schedule that works for everyone.
What tend to be the best collaborations in your opinion – those with artists you have a lot in common with or those where you have more differences? What happens when another musician take you outside of your comfort zone?
It’s a balance.
I want to have some things in common, some shared language, experiences, etc., but I also want to bring something unique to the table, and want my collaborators to do the same. I want there to be risk, different perspectives, constructive friction, dialogue, and a wide palette.
I definitely want to go outside of my comfort zone and hope to push others outside of theirs as well.
Do you need to have a good relationship with your collaborator? Or can there be a benefit to working with someone you may not get along with on a personal level?
For me, it doesn’t really work if we don’t get along in at least a basic respectful and cordial way. I enjoy friction and tension in the music, but there are so many other parts to a collaboration—the personal communication, the conversations, the travel, the hang, the sharing of space—that if that’s going to be stressful, it’s not really worth it to me.
And honestly, I do think the art suffers, at least for me, though there are many well-documented examples of great art produced amidst toxic situations.
Some artists feel as though the creative process should not be a democratic one. What are your thoughts on the interaction with other musicians, the need for compromise and the decision making process?
I think it’s important to be clear: Is there a leader of the group who is making the final decisions, guiding the process, taking responsibility for all aspects of the project? Is it a collective where all decisions and responsibilities are shared equally?
The roles and responsibilities of everyone involved should be as clearly defined as possible as early in the process as possible. At least that’s what’s worked for me and has led to the most positive experiences. I am going to adjust how I interact within an ensemble based on whether I’m the leader, collective collaborator, or side person.
What's your take on cross-over collaborations between different genres?
I’m not a fan of genres, and I think every piece of art has multiple influences and reference points.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
The decisions are usually made with sound, and hopefully everyone is listening and communicating through sound.
Secondarily, visual cueing and written materials—scores, notes, etc.—can guide musical decisions in the moment.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you as part of a collaboration? In which way is it different between your solo work and coollaborations?
I think if you’re aiming for an “ideal state of mind” you’ll probably miss it. Your state of mind is your state of mind, and you can make a decision to do creative work at any moment or to do something else.
Of course, deadlines do exist, so sometimes you have to do the work when you might not really feel like it. But in those instances I just go for it and see what comes out, rather than first trying to adjust my mindset.
Collaborating with one's heroes can be a thrill or a cause for panic. Do you have any practical experience with this and what was it like?
I do have experience with that, and, for the most part, they’ve been positive experiences. At the very least, they’ve all been learning experiences.
You can learn a lot even if something doesn’t go as you had hoped or as you had planned.