Whether jamming with techno-trance outfit Rovo in front of a seething dance floor, adding to the psychedelic vibe of prog-rockers Bondage Fruit or frolicking in the pop carnival of Demi Semi Quaver, Yuji Katsui is something of an anomaly. With all these groups, the 38-year-old plays neither a sampler nor guitar but the violin.

Katsui is an escapee, as it were, of the Suzuki Method. He first started playing the instrument at age 4, but, like many adolescents, tired of its musty classical repertoire and thought the guitar had more to offer. That is until he discovered the electric violin.

Since moving to Tokyo from his native Hokkaido in 1984, he has become a musical dynamo, wielding his violin on nearly a hundred recordings (from avant-garde improvisations to prog-rock psychedelia) and also running his own avant-rock label, Mabo.

“I’m probably an unusual presence in the music scene, though in a way it could be called a coincidence that I picked the violin over the guitar,” he says during a recent interview. “But I’ve just been pursuing the things I’ve wanted to do and sought ways to do what I want to do with my violin.”

Unlike guitarists, drummers, even flutists (remember Jethro Tull?), Katsui has had almost no one to emulate or rebel against.

“It has been liberating,” he says, “but constantly having to invent myself has meant I’ve had to put a great amount of time and thought into creating my sound.

“For example, in a jazz situation, where you take solos in turn, for more conventionally popular instruments, there are already certain ground rules or conventional methods of interacting — for instance how to respond to the solo before yours. But there isn’t anything like that for the violin.”

Katsui sees himself mainly as an improvisationalist, and his work reveals him as an artist as sensitive to his audience as to the other players. Unlike other musicians who wallop the listener over the head with their prowess (or, in some cases, simply decibels), Katsui is gently ingratiating.

On “Pere-Furu,” Katsui’s latest release with longtime collaborator Natsuki Kida, the music at times sounds like a folksy jam, at others, like something from Philip Glass combined with the dark tinge of gypsy music. The wall of noise or the hectoring cacophony that characterize much improvisation is muted.

Katsui’s introduction to dance music came in 1991 when he traveled to London as musical coordinator for architect Osamu Ishiyama’s “Chaos Room” in the “Visions of Japan” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The “hard house” movement was at its height. When he returned to Tokyo, he began to organize DJ parties much like the ones he experienced in London. Over time, Katsui began to integrate club music, eventually leading to his desire to make it himself.

“At the time I founded Rovo with [Boredoms guitarist] Seiichi Yamamoto in 1995, I was involved [as a musician] solely with the live-house scene,” says Katsui. “At the time, it was rampant with really fast, stop-and-start, frenzied music like John Zorn’s Naked City. I had this desire to do something completely different.

“I wanted to change the scene. I wanted to change the relationship between the way people were involved with it — the audience, the players and how they come to the environment and enjoy themselves,” he continues.

“Having a band on stage and having a preordained shape and content presented in one direction and way, with the audience as the receiver, seems passe.”

Rovo’s music is essentially insinuating waves of sound — the flutter of the violin, the distinctive hum of a distorted guitar, insistent, busy drumming. Like a Buddhist sutra repeated again and again, they conjoin into a transcendent crescendo.

“Originally the idea behind Rovo was extremely simple: the search for the dynamism that is borne from the repetition of a single sound,” he explains.

“This isn’t repetition in the sense of just pressing a button on a sequencer or rhythm machine, but the human dynamics that emerge from that sort of repetition. I felt that from the repetition of that single note or sound something enormous arises. Perhaps that is rooted in music I loved before, like Fela Kuti or German progressive rock like Can or Neu.”

But Rovo owes as much to Aphex Twin, not to mention Sun Ra or even Pink Floyd, as it does to German progressive rock.

“The basic musical events that take place are predetermined; the content or the context of that event might also be predetermined, but what remains unforeseen and undecided is the process by which we arrive there,” he says.

The spontaneous nature of Rovo’s music has meant that the live performances are somewhat different from the group’s recordings. In concert, it is the way the musicians play off each other that is key. In the studio, it is the mixing process that determines the final shape of the recording.

Thus, though Rovo has released four studio recordings, several CDs are of live performances, and these are probably the most honest documentations of Rovo’s work and of Katsui’s philosophy of making music.

“When I’m about to play live, I think of what [I will do] . . . in terms of the interrelationship between the people I’m with that day — whether they be the other musicians or the audience,” says Katsui. “This totality is key to my work.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.