Photo by Jung-geun Park

Takahiro Kawaguchi is a Tokyo-based artist and musician. He works with “self-made instruments” that he has been slowly refining over the past 15 years. At a given performance the audience might find him arranging wooden planks, methodically inflating a plastic bag, or blasting compressed air through an array of car horns. The sounds produced during these performances range from barely audible to ear-shattering. His records are equally unpredictable. He sometimes performs with a group called The Great Triangle which seems to operate according to a shared, highly obscure, logic. I talked with him about his early years, getting questioned by airport security, and his new record — Recorded Xenoglossy.

Translation by Mai Takeuchi

NH: I have been thinking about what to ask you, and I realized that I know almost nothing about your early years, so let’s start with that. When did you start making music?

TK: When I was about 20 years old I started making sounds with audio-editing software. I liked making violent sounds with effects plug-ins, but I didn’t really think of it as music. Not long after that, I started making field recordings with a portable DAT recorder and a cheap microphone. Mostly I was interested in listening to the sounds around me.

Were there specific people that influenced you? Why did you start?

At that time, I was inspired by the performances of Taku Unami and Masafumi Ezaki who seemed to be questioning the nature of music, and by the field recordings of Toshiya Tsunoda. In a larger sense, I was probably influenced by Hyakken Uchida’s novels and Shigeru Mizuki’s comics. I majored in fine arts in college, so I think conceptually I took more influence from art than music. A college friend of mine graduated and was going back to his hometown, far away from Tokyo, to start a record label. I was sending him some field recordings, and he included one of my tracks on a compilation CD. That track was called “White out” and it contained sounds of fighting monkeys, helicopters, and gunshots in the mountains. Some concert organizers heard my work on that CD and I got a few invitations to play live. Because of that, I had to think about my own music and performing live. My friend’s label released a few more CDs and then stopped.

Do you remember your first live performance? What was it like?

In 2004 I performed at Off Site in Tokyo. Off Site was a remodeled house that functioned as a gallery and live venue. There was no sound-proofing, so we had to play quietly to avoid disturbing the neighbors. It was a unique place. My first performance was a duo with my friend, and I played back field recordings at low volume. I don’t remember what my friend was doing. Looking back, it wasn’t an impressive performance.

Were you going to Off Site regularly?

Not regularly, but I went a few times. They closed not long after I started going there.

So quiet music was happening at Off Site. What about bands like Merzbow, Hijokaidan, Corrupted? Were you listening to them back then?

Yes, of course. In those days I had a lot of free time, and I was listening to all different kinds of music. I felt hungry for anything new.

My introduction to your work was the album n released on Hibari Music in 2009. On this record you are primarily using mechanical timers. Around that time, a lot of improvisors were associated with a particular instrument (e.g. no input mixing board, sine waves, voice, etc). Did you think of the mechanical timers as being your “instrument”?

That was my first solo album. At that time, I was wondering how I could make the smallest possible actions within the recording environment. The idea came from field recording, where you set up the equipment, press the “record” and “stop” buttons, and just watch the recording happen. That’s what I wanted to do as my performance. The only thing I can do with the remodeled timers (I called them “remodeled counters”) is to wind them up and set them on the ground. There is nothing else I can do. For convenience they were listed in the album credits, but for me the counters were more like a tool that influences the performance space, and not really an instrument. Although, as I started performing more with the counters, it became possible to consciously control them. For example, I started to know, based on how much I wound a counter up, how many minutes of sound it would produce. I could change their sound based on how I handled them, and they started to feel like “instruments”. After that happened I was reluctant to use them. I liked the counters more as a “tool that influences the space” rather than a “musical instrument”.

So on n, it’s almost like staged field recordings. I have noticed that you seem to have a straightforward approach to recording. It’s hard to imagine you messing around with effects plug-ins. I remember seeing your live performances with the counters and the sound was so great. It’s like acoustic granular synthesis — no speakers necessary. Do you view an audio recording as being inferior to a live performance?

No, I don’t think this way at all. Visual elements are important in my live performances, and an audience member’s impression may be completely different depending on where they are located in the performance space. So, in that sense, an audio recording of a live performance might be inferior because it is missing the visual elements. When playing live, I try to make something that can only be effective in a specific place. When I make a recording, I try to create something that can only exist as an audio recording work. For instance, in a live performance I am limited to what I can do in that moment. With a recording, I can add layers, record material little by little, and then think about organizing everything. This is true for recordings of improvisations too. Losing the live feel or improvisation feel is not important for me. Whether I am recording or playing live, I think about what I can do within the characteristics of each format, so I am not emphasizing one over the other.

In addition to the remodeled counters, I have seen you use small motors, air compressors, fans, and various mechanical devices. Are you attracted to machines?

It’s true that I have used a variety of mechanical equipment. As much as possible, I don’t want to “black-box” what happens during my performances, so in that sense these machines are effective tools so far. However, each device is very limited in what it can do, so I work by combining the various machines in different ways. Even though I envy the rich sounds of a guitar or piano, or the expressiveness of computers, I guess I just have to do what works best for me. This is a bit off topic, but my equipment is configured to weigh less than 23kg so that it all fits in one suitcase. Of course, this is just the maximum weight limit for air travel, but these kinds of external restrictions are actually big factors when I am creating new equipment. Without these kinds of limitations my performance could be very different from what it is now. Even though I am cursing the weight of my equipment, I think it suits me to work within these limitations.

In your live performances you seem to occupy every available space and you rarely use amplification. Do you prefer small venues? Have you ever performed at a large concert hall?

If possible, I don’t want to use an amplifier. I want to hear the sound that is coming from the sounding object itself. If the sound is too small to be heard from a distance of one meter, I will place it throughout the venue so that it can be heard as a small sound. One of my devices is a modified air horn which makes a loud noise that shakes the eardrum. I made it because I had more opportunities to perform in concert halls and large venues with stages. Even if I wanted to use the remodeled counters there, the audience would not be able to see or hear them. Of course it’s possible to pick up a small sound with a microphone or project its image on a screen with a camera, but this would be a completely different performance. Anyway, large venues have advantages and small venues have advantages. I try to be flexible and play to the strengths of both.

One thing that struck me about your live performances was your use of visual elements. The performance starts and right away you are stacking up chairs, inflating a plastic bag, reflecting lasers off the wall, or switching the air compressor on. There is always something to occupy the eyes. Sometimes there is an issue, especially with electronic music, of where the audience should look: “Should I close my eyes? Should I look at the floor?” This never seems to be a problem for you.

That’s right. The performance is not just for the ears.

A few years back I recall a mutual friend using the term “live installation” to describe a certain kind of performance. There seems to be an approach to live performance shared by people like Taku Unami, Makoto Oshiro, Satoshi Kanda, biki, Minoru Ide, and several others. I have noticed a strong affinity for cardboard boxes and adhesive tape. Is “live installation” a good way to describe what you do? Do you see yourself as part of a larger group of artists?

“Live installation” might describe my performances to some extent. It’s not a perfect term, but I don’t have the right words either. I don’t really know what kind of artist group I fall into. Actually, I see much less criticism and discussion of music compared to when I was first starting out. It would be very interesting if there was more written about the people you mentioned.

I take from your work an attitude of extreme openness. Talking with you a while back, you said something like “any sound is fine for me”. I’m a little suspicious. Is there no sound that you truly hate?

“Any sound is fine” was maybe a bit misleading. Of course, there are sounds I like and dislike, but I just don’t think in terms of “I must have this particular sound”. Rather, any sound is fine as long as I can find a way to incorporate it.

What about duration? I recall a performance of yours that lasted at least two hours, but then there was an Off-Cells performance that only lasted 30 seconds?

The longest performance I’ve ever done was ten hours and the shortest was 30 seconds (maybe even shorter). Those times were predetermined and announced to the audience in advance. Both of those performances took place several years ago. I don’t often set such extreme durations these days, but basically I decide on a rough playing time in advance. For example, for a 30-minute solo performance, I work backwards to get a picture of what the performance will look like after 30 minutes have passed. However, many of my devices are constructed in such a way that their behavior can change greatly with even a slight movement of the hand. The brightness of the lights or even a subtle tilting motion can affect the movements of these devices. Because of this, I am trying to move toward a goal while always being swayed by the equipment. If I perform without thinking about duration (if that’s even possible), I will probably never be able to stop.

You have been performing for several years now with Satoshi Yashiro and Makoto Oshiro as part of The Great Triangle. How does your solo work differ from your work with The Great Triangle?

The Great Triangle celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Generally, each member supplies their own equipment which is then combined with non-instruments, such as chairs and stepladders, found at the venue to create three-dimensional objects that produce sounds. The members freely operate within this framework to create a larger structure, and I think the ambiguity of boundaries between us is one of the major features of The Great Triangle. Some of my solo performances also incorporate non-instruments found on site, but I think the difference is that I take a more subtractive approach. The Great Triangle’s approach is more additive.

The Great Triangle at Gallery Septima, Tokyo

On Recorded Xenoglossy you are credited with “self-made instruments”. Could you describe the instruments you used on this recording?

I mainly use an instrument that combines an air compressor and ten car horns. Each car horn has a knob that adjusts the amount of air that passes through it. By fine-tuning, it is possible to create a situation where the sound changes semi-automatically. It is difficult to make a good sound with this set-up because its conditions change constantly. Because it uses compressed air, condensation forms inside the connector if it continues to operate for too long. This instrument can be heard on Track 1 and Track 3. Track 3 is a recording of its semi-automatic performance. Track 2 is a recording of finger movements converted into sound using a switch that detects tilt, and the sound of a paper cone moving when electricity is applied to a small speaker. Both are small, battery-powered devices.

And the horn instrument has been modified over the years, right? When I first saw you use it, I was pretty shocked because it was so much louder than anything else I had seen you play. My memory could be faulty, but I think there were fewer horns early on? You added the switches later?

Yes, I’ve been slowly modifying it over the years. The parts have been tried and tested with a variety of materials. Currently, ten horns and an air compressor are connected with silicon tubing and modified PVC pipe with a knob to adjust the air pressure. I don’t remember how many horns there were in the beginning, but there was always a knob to adjust the air pressure. The original concept was to produce loud sounds without amplification, and to produce a sound that was so explosive that it would shake the eardrum. By subtly adjusting the air pressure, it is possible to play semi-automatically, and more recently, by preparing it with water or paper, it has become possible to play at a lower volume.

Regarding the term “semi-automatic” sound changes: Are you trying to remove yourself from the equation? Would you find it preferable to have a “fully-automatic” performance?

I am not that interested in full automation or full control. At least that’s not in the character of the equipment I have built so far. However, there are some miraculous moments that produce results that exceed my expectations. As I study and refine these results, I am fascinated by how the technique and equipment itself is so different from what I had envisioned.

You mentioned earlier that you pack your equipment to meet air travel weight limits. I know on at least one occasion your air compressor has been confiscated by airport security. Have you had other issues getting your instruments through security? I’m trying to imagine you explaining why you have ten car horns in your bag…

Most of the time, I carry my own equipment and tour by myself so equipment that is too heavy or too big can be a problem to move. My air compressor has been confiscated twice so far, but only when entering America. It was surprising because I have always been able to enter Asia and Europe without any problems. The first time it happened, I had a live concert on the next day. I didn’t have any equipment, so I had to perform using rope and wood I found at the venue. After that, I bought a new compressor at a local shop and sold it on the last day of the tour. It was pretty funny.

The second time, I told the organizer that there was a risk of confiscation, so I asked him to secure a replacement compressor in advance. I was relieved to get my suitcase, but disappointed when I opened it and found that the air compressor was missing. There was only a piece of paper that said “confiscated as dangerous goods”. The next time I go to America, I won’t bring a compressor with me. I just have to get one locally. However, American compressors are louder and have a different air pressure, so I have to change the operation of the horn. On multiple occasions I was taken to a separate room at the airport security check, but I was able to explain that what I was carrying was an instrument and there was no problem. A suitcase with a compressor, lots of little timers, and other mysterious objects makes me look like a bomber!