Music

Delving into a century of Japanese sound

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Robert Millis has been playing guitar, making music from field recordings and old records, and making compilations of music from all around Asia for decades.

The musician and sound artist has also written books and made movies and sound installations about music and old recordings. Alongside that, he is also part of the underground musical duo Climax Golden Twins, which has been making experimental music since 1993. Now he has his sights set on acquiring some of the earliest recordings of Japanese music.

Millis, 53, is part of a disparate group of musicians in and around Seattle who started making, collecting and releasing music from around the world in the early 2000s. Based primarily around the record label Sublime Frequencies, these musicians mine the world’s radio waves, junk shops, sidewalks and basement bars to find obscure and engaging music.

The collective’s output shies away from the term “world music,” and any connotations of music sanitized and recorded for Western audiences. Its members revel in guerrilla-style recordings, including those of 1960s Cambodian rock and Sumatran radio from the early 2000s.

Millis himself is a frequent compiler and producer for Sublime Frequencies, with an interest in early recordings from Asia, released on 78 rpm records.

“I’ve always been drawn to Asia and Asian music, and I studied Chinese in college,” says Millis. His releases on Sublime Frequencies include a compilation of early recordings of the Korean gayageum zither, a compilation of early recordings of Burmese music and a book, titled “Indian Talking Machine,” about Indian record collectors and collections.

It was this last project that brought him closer to Japan.

“From 2012 through 2013, I was a Senior Fulbright Scholar in India, studying the Indian 78 rpm gramophone industry through the eyes of record collectors and sound artists,” says Millis. This trip, and his encounters with some of the earliest recordings sounds in the Indian subcontinent led to the creation of Millis’ “Indian Talking Machine” project.

78s are records that were used before the advent of long playing vinyl, and stopped being produced and played in the 1950s and ’60s. These records were made from shellac, a resin derived from the female lac insect, found in Thailand and India. 78s get their name from the rotational speed in revolutions per minute at which they need to be played.

Lately, Millis has set his sights on Japanese 78s. He’s using his combined knowledge as a record collector, musician, artist and researcher to find out about some of the earliest recordings of Japanese music and the people who collect them. Millis was in Japan for five months from March through early August as a fellow in the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Program in order to conduct his project.

In Japan, 78s are known as SP records, for “short playing,” and there’s a small but dedi- cated group that seeks out these records throughout the nation.

78 recordings in Japan appeared in 1903, and Millis is most interested in the 78s that were recorded acoustically, using a horn, before the advent of electric recording using microphones and electric signals in the mid 1920s.

In 1902, Frederick Gaisberg of The Gram- ophone Company went to India to make recordings. Millis researched those recordings, and other ones of Indian music in the ensuing decades, while in India.

In 1903, Gaisberg visited Japan and recorded a range of Japanese music and performance traditions. The resulting 78s were pressed in Europe and released soon after in Japan for the domestic market.

Though there had been some recordings with wax cylinders in Japan in the previous decades, they could not be mass produced and were very costly. With the introduction of 78s, the Japanese music recording industry took off, with multiple foreign and domestic companies and countless bootleg and minor companies coming into existence in the following decades.

Long before Millis started collecting 78s, he was interested in Japanese music.

“I moved to Seattle and started working for (glass sculptor) Dale Chihuly,” he says. “I met a guy there named Jeffery, he worked for the artist as well. We quickly became friends and bonded over music — jazz and stuff like that. He knew a lot about experimental music and he started telling me about it, especially Japanese music, like Otomo Yoshihide and the band Boredoms.”

Jeffery Taylor and Millis started a band in 1993. Now called Climax Golden Twins, the two have been playing together for some 25 years. They began to combine their mutual interests in experimental music as well as field recordings and found sounds.

“At the time, it wasn’t so easy to make field recordings,” Millis says. “It was a kind of DIY punk rock beginning. We weren’t trained musically, but we knew a lot about music. We learned together. I think it’s really important to have something to overcome in music.”

Later, Millis began to be interested in 78s and how recording technology changed music.

“When I first started getting interested in 78s, I came across some Japanese 78s in a junk store in Seattle. I didn’t know what they were,” he says. “They were $1 a piece, which was a lot of money for some old 78s for me at the time. But I bought them anyway.”

As it turned out, those records were none other than recordings from Gaisberg’s 1903 trip and were definitely worth more than $1 each. That chance encounter started Millis’ interest in Japanese 78s.

Millis and Taylor began to incorporate early recordings into many of their musical projects. They even released a book, “Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days,” about 78 rpm records, which includes a selection of their favorite 78 recordings from around the world, transferred to CD.

In order to learn more about Japanese 78s and collecting culture, Millis finally made it to Japan this year. He says he’s been surprised by the kinds of records collected here.

“There are so many collectors in Japan who collect jazz and classical music 78s,” he says. “I wish there were more collectors who collected 78s of Japanese music.”

The recordings he’s most interested in, of Japanese traditional music, are not as highly prized as Western classical or jazz. That disinterest is something Millis says he would like to change.

Now that Millis’ trip to Japan is complete, he says he has “so much music to listen to, to digest.” He also plans to work on a number of compilations of Japanese 78 recordings, including Okinawan music. A possible book is in the works as well. Needless to say, his work will undoubtedly be influenced by the sounds he’s absorbed during his trip.

For more information about Robert Millis’ work, visit robertmillis.net.

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