One recent night at Note Cafe, a small coffee shop tucked away on a side street off a shopping arcade in the Jujo district of northern Tokyo, two women and a man sat round a table together. They took out a dozen glass bottles of various sizes, shapes and colors, and placed them on the table.
Time for a toast? Not really, because all the bottles were empty.
But to these members of the group La MARS, all those glass containers — from whiskey miniatures to 1/2-liter milk bottles and prodigious 1.8-liter issho-bin sake bottles — were musical instruments just waiting for them to “play” using their bottle-blowing skills to transform them into unlikely Steinways, Stradivariuses or searing Les Pauls.
Making sounds using bottles may look easy, but it isn’t. If you are in doubt, try with your next emptied bottle of beer or soda and you’ll soon discover that first-timers can barely manage any kind of controlled noise no matter how hard they blow.
But as La MARS member Rika Matsunami, who prefers to simply be known as “Rika,” picks a wine bottle from the table, puts her mouth over it and puffs, it produces a soft, soothing note with a nice echo, like that of a steam whistle.
It’s a skill she and two other members of La MARS — 42-year-old Sachiyo “Sachi” Iwakiri and 38-year-old Masatsune “Nameco” Namekawa — have mastered through rigorous training over the last eight years.
“Now we have become ‘friends’ with bottles, we can play them relatively easily,” grins Rika. “When we started, we were out of breath after a short practice and were like, ‘Let’s open the window right now!’ “
Indeed, La MARS members have come a long way since they decided to team up back around 2000 to create music with bottles.
None of them had a background, or any experience with wind instruments before, except for Sachi, co-owner of Note Cafe, who had worked for a theatrical company where actors blew bottles to play a few simple tunes as part of some of their shows.
It was out of Sachi’s “yearning to do something fun and interesting together with other people” that she proposed the idea to Rika and Nameco — friends she’d met while hanging out at another cafe in Tokyo.
Rika, who is a music teacher, and Nameco, who works for a computer manufacturer and plays guitar and synthesizer in an amateur band, jumped at the idea — “just because it sounded like fun.”
“Back then, I had no idea I would be drawn to bottle-blowing this deeply,” Nameco recalled.
No matter how busy the members are, for the last eight years they have never missed their weekly practice session. They have occasionally clashed over the group’s artistic directions, but such disputes have always been constructive, they say, noting that bottle-blowing has given them so much insight into so many aspects of life.
Sachi, who is also a seitai (osteopathic massage) therapist, says that the art of bottle-blowing comes down to abdominal breathing and keeping the right posture. Rika adds that members’ moods and feelings affect the notes they play. “When we are tired, bottles can only produce tired sounds. When we are happy, they sound happy.”
They have also collected hundreds of bottles from all over the world, trying their tunes out on them each time they get new ones and finding ones that fit their fingers best.
“Before we even begin playing, we start by choosing bottles,” Rika says.
La MARS now has a repertory of more than 80 tunes, ranging from “Ave Maria” to Beatles classics and anime theme songs such as that for “Arsene Lupin III,” a long-running series featuring a playboy thief with rakish sideburns.
But whatever the tune, all agree that harmony is key to the quality of their music, so the trio spend a lot of time (normally an hour or two before a performance) tuning their instruments, which they do by adjusting the volume of water inside the maximum of 25 bottles they can hold in total between them (the more air a bottle has inside, the lower the pitch; likewise, the bigger the bottle, the lower the pitch).
But in terms of physics, what exactly is happening when they are blowing them?
Masashi Yamada, professor of musical acoustics at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Ishikawa Prefecture, says when someone blows air into a bottle, sound is produced through the vibration of the air near the top of the bottle. “When the air is blown, the air pressure is raised in one area and it goes down in another area,” he said.
“It is the back-and-forth changes of the air pressures that create sounds. . . . When bottles are blown, ‘air turbulence’ is occurring inside the bottles.”
La MARS has performed more than 100 times so far, in a wide variety of venues including school auditoriums, nursery homes and public bathhouses. Responses from their audiences have been varied, but initially, people were slightly condescending in their remarks, they say.
“People used to say, ‘That’s commendable,’ or ‘It must be really tough.’ ” Rika recalled. “We weren’t too happy with such comments — because we worked so hard! We felt that we would rather be told, ‘I’m touched’ or ‘I’m moved.’ ” That gave them a reason to practice even harder.
The turning point came last December, when they entered the band/arrange category of Harmonia 2007-2008, a music contest organized by Tokyo International Forum.
Contestants in that category were asked to perform an arranged, nonclassical version of Franz Peter Schubert’s music. La MARS won the contest, with their rendition of the lullaby “Wiegenlied.” Shortly afterward, a producer from the major record label Nippon Crown Music approached La MARS, leading to the release of the group’s first major album, “Yume Mimi Gokochi,” which roughly translates as “Dreamy Ears,” in May.
Despite the growing attention the group has been getting, La MARS members say they are not interested in “becoming big,” or quitting their day jobs to become full-time bottle-blowers. And unlike many performers, they don’t dream of taking the stage in Tokyo Dome or at any other big arenas. Instead, they say they want to keep their audiences at each concert small enough so they can connect directly with listeners. They also say they would like to play at temples or in limestone caves, which they expect will have superb natural acoustics.
“The most important thing is to keep having fun,” Sachi said. Rika nodded and chimed in, adding: “We want bottle-blowing to be our extravagant pastime. If I had nothing but bottle-blowing in my life, I would go crazy.”
La MARS will have a live concert and a workshop on bottle-blowing on June 28 at POEPOE Tokyo Studio ( 3716-1339) in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, and on July 27 at Kanack Hall ( 440-1211) in Yokohama. For more information, call the organizers or visit the trio’s Web site at: news.la-mars.com/