Is Masakatsu Takagi a musician that makes video art or a video artist that makes music?
At Takagi’s performance last week at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., part of the center’s two-week Japan! culture + hyperculture festival, the music was definitely the draw. Playing piano and accompanied by a second pianist and two vocalists, Takagi played a series of compositions — spare, quiet (or “empty,” as one reviewer put it) — with videos flickering in the background.
Though usually classified as an electronica artist, the 29-year-old Takagi could just as easily be described as a minimalist. His taste for repetition is as much a nod to Steve Reich as Brian Eno. Listen closely and there is an emotional bravado — think of Brahms lurking just underneath the surface or a less restrained Eric Satie — that is testament to his training as a classical pianist and which gives his music an organic, human quality.
This warmth — passion, even — is shared with another Kyoto native and electronica composer, Nobukazu Takemura, whose music has been described as “organic electronica.” Though both are from Kyoto, Takagi confesses in an interview before the Kennedy Center performance to only have listened to Takemura’s work “two or three times.” He observes, however, that both artists “share the nuance of Kyoto.”
For Takagi, though, the fact that his parents ran a Buddhist temple was more influential.
“I think I have absorbed the Buddhist way of thinking,” he says. “I think of Japanese sutras as music.”
Kyoto’s distance from the media maelstrom of Tokyo has also been a blessing. “Living in Kyoto makes me feel like Tokyo is a foreign country,” says Takagi. “For me, it took the same effort to publicize my work in Tokyo as it did abroad.”
Takagi released his work in the United States and Germany before Japan. His first CD/CD-ROM release, “Pia” (2001), came out on the small American electronica label Carpark Records.
“Around the time I finished my first work, I visited New York,” says Takagi, “I wanted to distribute as much stuff as possible. I was really naive. I even dropped by some museums to give them copies. I had only one copy left and a friend suggested Carpark. I had never actually contemplated releasing a CD, but the owner e-mailed me immediately after he heard it.”
Since then, Takagi has released CDs on Haruomi Hosono’s Daisyworld label and also through the Tokyo-based advertising agency Weiden and Kennedy’s W+K Tokyo Lab Project. He has also worked extensively with Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius) — both will play with Steve Jansen, formerly of new-wave group Japan, at his concert next week in Tokyo.
Though he is in demand as a composer for commercials, and as a remixer (he’s recently reworked J-pop faves Orange Range and Yuki), he has been equally prolific as a visual artist. In the annual touring video festival Res Fest, he was named one of the top artists in 2006 and he has exhibited in the United States, Italy and France, as well as Japan.
For Takagi, the two halves — musical and visual — are actually complementary, though his starting point is the image.
“I compose the music by looking at the completed images,” says Takagi. “Music invokes color, movement, and atmosphere that I am not able to conjure visually. [The kanji] for ‘tone’ in Japanese combines the characters for sound (oto) and color (iro). Sound has its own color, so really [with the music] I am adding more color to the images.”
Takagi has called his video installations “paintings in motion.” The textural quality of his images is indeed astonishing, almost as if someone filmed a Monet painting close up so that layers of individual paint strokes are perceptible.
In “Private Drawing” (2001), people waiting for the train, or congregating on the street become elongated figures from an Egon Schiele drawing or a Gustav Klimt painting.
The children that form the basis of video works such as “Girls” (2003), “Bloomy Girls” (2005) and “Tidal” (2007) are subsumed in washes of nubby, texturized swirls of color, which melts and engulfs the smiling faces underneath them, recalling Cecily Brown’s paintings, an artist that Takagi notes as an influence.
In “Journal for People” (2006), Takagi’s travel videos from around the world are enhanced with saturated, moving color, the human form and everyday human activity rendered extraordinary.
Ironically, it is this detail, which seems so analog in its scrubby naturalness, that Takagi claims is most dependent on the digital medium — primarily his Apple Mac computer.
“Analog media can’t convey or carry as much information as digital media, and I am trying to pack as much information into one film as possible. Rather than a precise picture, however, I am trying to put many things in motion at the same time because barely anything stops in nature.”
Takagi has said that his video art attempts to capture “the color of the wind,” and this desire to record the sensations of a particular emotional moment in time or natural phenomena, like the contained emotion of his music, also harks back to 19th century, almost Romantic, artistic ideals.
“We feel that the world looks brilliant when we fall in love with somebody and that everything looks gray when we have misfortune,” says Takagi, “People or creatures take on a certain color. I think the world we usually sense is not stable but continually in flux. We perceive the world through our own individual lens.
“I don’t exactly know what I want to make clearly. I am trying to re-create a world that I have consciously seen or heard, a sensibility that I don’t have in my daily life rather than visualizing a specific image or melody. For me, making art is like making a device to allow me to taste that feeling once again.”
Masakatsu Takagi will perform as part of Steve Jansen’s band on Feb. 29 at the Meguro Persimmon Hall, Tokyo (7 p.m. start). All tickets are ¥6,500. For more information, contact Disk Garage at (03) 5436-9600 or visit www.epiphanyworks.net. Watch Takagi’s performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. online at at www.kennedy- center.org/programs/millennium/archive.html