With his long black hair pulled back in a tight, neat ponytail and his pale complexion, electronica musician Nobukazu Takemura has an otherworldly quality somewhere between a computer geek and a monk.
That he lives and works in Kyoto seems entirely fitting. During an interview prior to his American tour this month, he spoke in calm cadences at almost subsonic levels.
“My friends say I’m like a child,” he says. “I’m not sure if that is true, but I feel that I like things that children like.”
Indeed “innocent” and “warm” are two of the most often used words to describe Takemura’s music. In a genre whose twin obsessions seem often to be high-tech gear and high-concept chicanery, Takemura’s work is refreshingly human and free from pretense.
“[In a lot of that music], the concept stands on its own,” says the thirtysomething musician. “It doesn’t stand just as music. I’d rather make music that can be grasped instinctively by whoever listens to it.
“Although it is generally thought that music is what the composer makes of it or what the musician performs, for me, music is what the listener hears. It becomes music when it is heard. Music played on an uninhabited island isn’t music because there is no one to hear it.”
Since signing with hipster postrock/ electronica label Thrill Jockey, Takemura has been a critics’ darling abroad.
But during the early ’90s he seemed poised for mainstream, rather than underground, success in Japan. As the producer/composer for Spiritual Vibes, Takemura crafted gleaming, jazzy pop that revived bossa nova for a younger generation and eventually influenced Thrill Jockey’s labelmate Tortoise.
But Takemura had always had a more experimental bent. Prior to Spiritual Vibes he had worked with Boredom’s singer Eye Yamataka in the avant-garde hip-hop unit Audio Sports. When Spiritual Vibes imploded, Takemura retreated to Kansai and began churning out music that was far darker and far more experimental than the quirky Brazilian-tinged pop of Spiritual Vibes.
“Back when I was doing Spiritual Vibes, I worked for a big record company so it’s not that I wasn’t doing experimental stuff — it was just that not everything I was doing was approved for release by the label,” Takemura says. “I haven’t changed so much. I love pop and I love noise, so for me there isn’t such a discrepancy in these varied styles.”
In the past 12 months, Takemura has released three records that cover all of these bases. “Water’s Suite” has a noisier experimental edge. “Songbook” returns somewhat to the exuberant light, pop feeling of Spiritual Vibes. But its songs, with touches of almost Bach-like polyphony, are more like the art songs of Paul Bowles or Aaron Copeland than anything in electronica or pop music.
“10th,” his latest, is somewhere in between. There are songs, but they are driven by beats rather than melodies, and Takemura’s reliance on a computer-generated voice gives them a harsh, metallic edge. His next release, “Assemblages,” which uses field recordings digitally processed until they are almost unrecognizable, has him swinging back toward the experimental.
With “10th” and “Songbook,” Takemura has come full circle, fusing the vocal atmospherics that characterized Spiritual Vibes with a more experimental form.
Just as he finds music incomplete without a listener, he wants that listener to be an active participant, making the experience rather than having it readymade.
“The question I had about vocal music or songs was about the part that lyrics play, and the act of tying together words and music or words and voice,” he says.
“For example, when you see someone cry, you [might feel like crying] yourself, or in sports commentary, the excitement is passed on to the listener. [It is] the act of having one’s emotions controlled, so I wanted to find something that was detached from that kind of control.
“In other words, the problem of vocal music is that it’s too much like having your interpretation dictated. I want to make music where the listener could be more in control, more the subject of the experience.”
For an artist who confesses to depend so much on the act of listening to complete his art, Takemura is an ambivalent performer. At a recent, one-off improvisational gig, he seemed most intent on staring at his computer screen rather than acknowledging his collaborator or even the audience.
“For me playing live is not as important as the process of creating music,” he explains. “Live performance and improvisation [and recording music], for me are like the difference between the spoken and written word.
“A live performance tends to become like the spoken word, a little rough around the edges — not as thought out as when you write something down or compose a piece of music.”
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