Expat ambient musician and artist prefers not knowing what he’s doing

Keyboardist-photographer Morgan Fisher surrenders to situation, awaits end results

by Michael Kleindl

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting in his home recording studio in Tokyo, surrounded by dozens of instruments that he has collected over the years (from vintage keyboards, bird whistles and rattles to a Tibetan singing bowl and a portable pipe organ built especially for him) and a computer to record them all, Morgan Fisher is in the center of his universe.

Fisher, 63, has had considerable success as a keyboard player and composer. He was a pop star in the 1960s, a rock star in the ’70s and ’80s; and for the last 35 years he’s been constantly performing and putting out albums as a solo artist or in collaboration with Japanese and other musicians around the world.

Printed across his orange T-shirt is his bold philosophy: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And that, he says, is exactly the way it should be.

“When you’re not totally in control, you don’t feel like a master,” he explains. “You surrender to the situation, and see what comes up.”

Living in Japan for nearly 30 years has enabled Fisher to become comfortable with such surrender.

He has never studied a traditional discipline like calligraphy or sumi-e painting. However, he has always admired such art, and believes he’s learned something from them through close observation.

“Those disciplines are not looking for perfection,” he says. The main thing about such Japanese culture, he adds, is that there is an element of not being completely in control.

“It’s almost like they are dancing with nature,” he adds. “So you use a brush that you can’t control totally on paper that’s too thin to know exactly what is going to come out.”

And taking such risks is essential for an artist, he says. “My greatest adventure is to walk onstage unprepared, and play and see what happens.”

Though he has had 45 years of preparation as a professional musician, he says he still doesn’t “know what will happen onstage and I love that feeling,” he confesses. “But I know how to waste less time making a mess, and how to invite good things to happen.”

Learning to thrive in the unknown did not happen for Fisher until he came to Japan. And that decision was made literally by turning a page.

After a series of successes, first in 1966 as a member of the British pop group Love Affair, then as leader of his own progressive rock band Morgan, as keyboardist for rock band Mott the Hoople, as a founding member of the rock group British Lions, and finally as the keyboardist for the mega-group Queen on their 1982 European tour, Fisher was ready for something different.

He traveled for a couple of years through India, Europe and the United States. And one day, while visiting a friend’s house in Hollywood, he said he knew it was time to move “somewhere more challenging, more interesting.”

He spotted a world atlas resting on a table and started paging through North America, saying to himself, “Been there . . . been there.” And for some reason, the next page was Japan. “I don’t know why it followed on from America, but I’m happy it did.”

“It’s amazing how little things can change the course of your life,” he says. “The thing is to have a nose for those little chances that come your way. And to follow them.”

Moving to Japan was not a big decision. He simply was in the mood to wander, and soon was on a plane to Tokyo.

Japan was a revelation. He felt immediately at home, even without knowing one word of Japanese.

“Like many artists or creative people, I had always felt like an outsider — even as a boy,” he says. As a rock star, too, he still felt a bit of an outsider. And he had always wondered whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“But when I got to Japan, it was totally obvious I was an outsider,” he adds with a smile. From the deepest corners of his heart and personality right up to the practical level of day-to-day life, there was no way he could ever fit in like a Japanese, he says.

This outsider situation suited him perfectly. “And now it feels quite good.”

Fisher found it easy to communicate, even without the usual resource of knowing the language. Just by hanging out with Japanese, by talking heart to heart, he was able to absorb the culture and the language, he says.

Living in Japan “has freed me up in a way to be more myself, more of an individual,” he explains

Fisher arrived with no instruments at all because he had sold everything to finance his trip. But people knew of him, of course, and started asking him to play in small clubs.

“It was just me alone,” he says, “without the benefit of a great drummer and a bass player. What could I come up with just me and a piano?”

That was a great “carte blanche” to be handed, he adds. Fisher started to play with improvisation. “I had only ever done that at home privately. And I never dreamed that I could do that in public.”

But in Tokyo’s small clubs, he felt comfortable enough to share that part of himself.

“Japanese audiences don’t want to package you,” says Fisher. “They’ll wait patiently and see what you have to offer,” and one can sense that as a musician, he says. “You can look at their faces and feel an openness there which is very inviting. It can free you up to try new things, to do things that are more personal and private. I don’t think I could have done that in London.”

Fisher’s compositions are considered ambient music, but he also likes to call them “sound paintings.”

Ambient music, he explains, is creating stillness and calm in beautiful and ever more attractive ways. “Sometimes a little accent or surprise is good, too. Again, Japanese culture has encouraged me to head that way.”

In addition to his career as a musician, Fisher has also gathered some renown as a photographer by following through on another little event in his life.

About 20 years ago, Fisher had taken some nighttime photos of Christmas lights on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Unknowingly, he had jiggled the camera during the shots and when he saw the prints, he thought he had ruined the shots.

“I put the photos down in disappointment because the colorful lights were all a blur,” he recalls. Next time, he told himself, he would use a tripod to reduce the camera shake and take proper photos.

An hour or two later, in less of a mood of disappointment, he picked the photos up again and looked at them for what they were.

“Some of those photos were very interesting,” he recalls. In some shots the blurred lights had created patterns. He thought maybe going the opposite way and shaking the camera even more would produce even better results. “So the next time I just waved the camera around, and that got me started.”

Fisher calls such photographs “light paintings.” His work has been exhibited with good reviews in galleries in Japan, the Netherlands and also in the U.S. Recently, the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas purchased some of his prints.

In October, Fisher’s light paintings will be featured in Victor Magazine, the prestigious magazine produced by Swedish camera company Hasselblad.

“I’ve almost been more affected by visual art than by music,” he explains. “The pure energy of it gets to me.”

He tried actual painting once, but couldn’t get anywhere with it. There’s something going on with light painting, though, that fascinates him.

He has experimented with many sources of light. LED sources don’t work at all — too pure and boring, he says. “The best is light that has a life of its own, like sunlight sparkling on a river or fireworks which already have movement,” he says. “Moving the camera then produces a lot of richness.”

Hanging on the walls of his home studio are several large framed light paintings. Below them, filling most of the room, are a panoply of keyboards set up for recording. Recently Fisher has organized, one evening a month, live events in his home studio that combine his improvisations on vintage and modern keyboards with his light paintings and videos. The events sell out quickly.

“I don’t like keyboards to sit around unused gathering dust,” he says as he moves toward a shelf stacked with boxed keyboards.

He takes down a melodica, an instrument similar to a harmonica, but with a keyboard. He plays it briefly and expertly. “Each keyboard has its own sound and personality,” he says. “It’s not good to have too many of them,” he adds, looking through a stack of larger melodicas.

“Because I have to keep playing them, bringing them to life. They bring me to life, too. Whatever sounds come out also go into your body. It’s really good for you.” There have been many gigs, he says, where he’s gone onstage feeling terrible with a bad cold or headache and come offstage completely cured.

The home studio was recently used to record Fisher’s part in a new album, Portmanteau, an ambient collaboration with Tatsuji Kimura (of Dip in the Pool) and Toshiyuki Yasuda (founder of the band Fantastic Plastic Machine).

Each member of this trio composed four songs for the album. “We each have home studios, and we played on each other’s songs or helped each other out. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I knew what they were capable of,” he says. “Each of us has our own approach, and it’s a well-balanced album.”

One of Fisher’s light paintings graces Portmanteau’s sleeve cover.

Every day, says Fisher, there’s a beauty in Japan that touches him deeply.

“You soak up inspiration all day” if you’re open-minded and don’t have an agenda, he says. That might be done by going to a museum to see some great Japanese painting, for example. “But it could be just the way your greengrocer packs the fruit into a bag,” he says.

“I’m in it every day — surrounded by it,” he says. “The beauty of kanji, endless stuff that makes me think our Western mind is so rational, so bone-headed and logical, and square.

“What makes me think I’ll keep evolving — in both music and photography — is that I know I’ve just scratched the surface,” he says. “There’s so much more out there. I feel endlessly young.”

For details on Morgan Fisher’s live events, music, and photography, go to www.morgan-fisher.com.

  • Jack Hansen

    That was a great story, thanks