Sound Is The Idea: A conversation with filmmaker and musician Tatsu Aoki
This conversation took place in February of 2013 as I was preparing my written thesis for the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program at Duke University. Tatsu Aoki is a renaissance man. He is a top tier jazz bassist, accomplished experimental filmmaker, professor at a premier Arts institution, record label executive, community arts organizer, and a very engaged father and husband. He was raised in a Tokyo geisha house and much of his experimental music and art is rooted in the traditions and methods he grew up within. I studied the upright bass with him for several years and played in a handful of live musical performances with his Miyumi Project Big Band. More recently, we have been working together with dancer and choreographer Lenora Lee to create a series of experimental dance films.
TA: That's kind of interesting how you are going to write about yourself based on talking with other people.
JW: My idea for all of this is based on how I use the camera to create a dialogue or interact with strangers. When I lived here in Chicago I did a series where I would stop strangers downtown and I would ask to take their picture and then they would take my picture. I superimposed them in the camera so we looked sort of like we were together but not together at the same time because buildings and streets were also meshed on top of us.
Since I've been making videos now I am still trying to find ways to keep using the camera to interact and maybe even collaborate with people on the street or on the bus. I can't say I've been collaborating really but I am hoping to find that way one day. So I thought for my paper it made sense to have these dialogues with people as a reflection of how I use my camera to create a dialogue. Plus, I don't want to write about myself. I want to write something that I would like to read. Even though I haven't been playing music so much lately, a lot of the things you would say to me about music have resonated no matter what I am doing. A lot of lessons about the bass have applied to whatever I am doing. It dawned on me how much those lessons meant and how important they have been for me as an artist, no matter the medium.
TA: I recall our lessons. It was not so much how to play. It is a different kind of mentorship and was really similar to how I learned to play. I would be playing something and Fred [Anderson] or Malachi [Favors] or Afifi [Phillard] would be just listening then they would say, "don't do that". Then you begin to figure things out so its not like a text or a routine. You kind of develop this cycle of understanding art. What is involved for whatever you are doing to speak? When it speak and when I would feel it I would say, "well, that was good". That is the way I learned how to play shamisen and that is the way I learned to play jazz music with all of those legends. They never taught me how to do it, how to play. It was all about if it sounded right then they would say, "that was good".
JW: It was all about the sound.
TA: Sound which contains all these things about your personality, you know? So I think that is what you and I did.
JW: I have appreciated it but I also think that as I have moved ahead as a teacher how important it is to teach any art in that way. Allowing the student to find their own path.
TA: That is what I see as a very traditional pedagogy. They will not give you a step-by-step instruction. It's not all about that. It's really about watching someone do it or listening to someone talk about it and trying to interpret the art. I think part of the relationship that we had for many years Joel is that you were also sensitive enough to understand that. I can tell you the current professor at Duke David Gatten was that kind of person. He really understood that relationship of interpreting the art.
JW: That kind of relationship allows, because you are leaving it up to the other person — you're not expecting it to be the same. You didn't expect me to play things just like you. In fact, had I tried to play things just like you, you would have called me out on it.
TA: It was about showing you how to interpret things. The bass was our tool but it was not really about the bass. It was about the understanding: take what you can out of me and my offering is to actually give you that opportunity. Take something interesting, whatever is interesting to you.
JW: Right, to pick and choose what is meaningful to me. I was talking to Dawoud Bey earlier today and he moved into the visual arts from music. He was a drummer. Your roots are traditional Japanese music and my other heroes were folks from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians who brought traditional African instrumentation (and so much more) into improvised music. My roots are in rural Nebraska. I remember struggling to figure out who I was or could be musically and something you said to me really stuck with me. You said, " because you are a visual artist, that will be what separates you from other musicians". I didn't realize what that meant at the time but as I've played music and gotten back into making films I've realized how that relationship works now.
TA: Take an example of a guy like Douglas Ewart. He's a musician but he's making all of this sculpture and he paints and draws. I never thought that you are a "bassist", I always thought you were a person who is interested in being an artist. We used the bass as an entrance but I knew you were doing photography and doing all of this other stuff. Well, me too, I...
JW: Can you talk more about that relationship for you. You're making films, playing music and doing lots of other things too.
TA: I think filmmaking and music are really two things. They are very similar to me but one cannot express the other sometimes. I think the musical experience I really cannot do this with the visual.
JW: You mean they communicate different things and in different ways?
TA: To me time is really important. Your film [Heart of Durham] has a lot to do with time. I think we both really thrived on bass playing in that way. I was never a note-y player and you were never a note-y player either.
JW: Yes, I don't have that much to say! I guess leaving a lot of space is saying something too. Just because you're not putting notes in that space doesn't mean you aren't saying anything.
TA: Often times that requires more integrity. Musicians get insecure about playing slow. If you are playing notes consistently, doon-doon-doon-doon-doon — If you sit back and listen to the sound sometimes you want the sound to be spacious, especially when you're thinking about something.
JW: Well if everything is fast then nothing is fast, you don't feel the quickness of something.
TA: Right, right. The photography and video you are shooting relates to the way you interpret the music. It's very interesting to look at — you can actually see the music in the way that you are filming. You can interpret the music that way which means you can either listen to soundscape or listen to faster music because you have ways to interpret things. Some people cannot listen to slow music, it drives them crazy. Well duration we always talked about in your bass lessons. You have got to sustain. If you can't sustain something..
JW: Do you mean sustain a note or an idea or all of those things?
TA: Both. Note equals the idea, your note is the idea. In visual practice, this what I tell my students: everyone gets joy from experimenting so you can have a very interesting image or cut or visual thing for a couple seconds. It can be very interesting but to make that to work you need duration. Duration doesn't mean just make it longer, it means give some integrity to these things.
JW: Duration for me means life, giving life to an idea.
TA: Duration in a fancier word is sustainability of your life. You represent parts of that concept of your life by creating a note, making a phrase, having a shot or scene. It's all really a sustainability of your life and expressing your idea in a compact fashion. If you are not interested in life then what is the point of making art, you know?
JW: I wish more people felt the same.
TA: No, they don't... they don't and that is why you are doing it.
JW: Can you talk about your process of working in film and working in music. Are there similarities how you develop your ideas?
TA: No, I'm very spontaneous about the choice because I don't decide when I will make a musical piece and when I will make a visual piece. I am consistently creating new films for all of these years so whenever I feel like focusing on film for a season or next season I focus on music.
JW: Are you saying it's not something you think about but it comes from a feeling you get?
TA: Right, right because I've been taught by other artists that if you decide you don't have anything to say then that's when you stop playing music or stop making films. That day has not come yet to me!
JW: Dawoud Bey and I were talking about this, the fact that we both have this background and training in improvisation. We were talking about how when we work, and it sounds like you might be the same, you just start working out of a belief that something interesting will come of it rather than figuring it all out ahead of time. Would you say that improvisation plays a big role in your filmmaking too?
TA: Yeah, a lot of times with the work that I do I just start shooting things spontaneously. My recent work is with a dancer and there is a little bit of planning needed because you have to create the scene.
JW: The lighting and all of that?
TA: Well, lighting I am very spontaneous about that. I have a general idea when I go to the locations with the dancers but it's still very much improvised. My taiko ensemble is the same way. I have a set routine but when I direct it I just say let's do it this way or let's do it that way instead.
JW: What does working in that way do for your work?
TA: It's just the way we are I think. Some people when they eat they say, "when I eat this I use this much salt and this much pepper and I eat on this exact plate". But other people say, "let's go eat this or go eat that or put this in the soup" and are much more spontaneous. To me I do both. I do really rigid traditional exercises. The taiko and shamisen playing is very traditional so I get a real kick out of that restriction then a kick out of improvising and doing experimental films because I'm completely off the hook.
JW: That's definitely one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, how you have this foundation and are rooted in this very strict discipline but are very interested in experimentation at the same time. For me it seems that is a way of keeping the tradition alive but I'm not sure you feel the same way.
TA: I think so. There are two things that need to be there for the tradition, one is that you have to maintain the practice of the tradition then you also have to apply to advance. They both have restrictions. So the traditional practice is restriction because you have to do it in a certain way. Also the advancement is a restriction because you can't do stupid advancement. That's your restriction because when it is stupid it doesn't work! I see this in the taiko drumming in other ensembles. They don't know how to advance the music because they don't have the foundation. I'm from a little bit older generation so I kind of feel like — as far as the musician goes, great improvisers can all play.
JW: Right, some of the best straight ahead playing I've ever heard is from creative improvisers.
TA: That has been my experience too, with painting also. When you look at some abstract painters they can actually do a nice sketch and they have all the foundation and they liberate themselves from that idea to revolve into the new thing. But that may be because we are in the older generation. I don't know what you feel or where you fall into that.
JW: We're old fashioned, huh? I honestly believe that though and believe that you should have a certain amount of technical mastery. At least have control over the tools that you're using.
TA: You've done photography so you know it, you've got to be able to shoot something clean before you begin to experiment.
JW: Thinking about that I can honestly say that I never mastered the bass, that is for sure.
TA: Did you need to master the bass? Or, did you have to use the bass in order to advance yourself? I never saw you as a "bassist". I always thought that you were an artist. All of the things we talked about and all of the things you do relate to art not necessarily being a bassist. My life is like that. I don't really consider myself as a bassist. I am a bassist but it's only one part of my artistic journey. So I don't mind not playing the bass.
JW: That was a big move for me when I started picking up the bass and not photographing much. I was still teaching it but not taking as many pictures as I had been. At that time I was questioning myself for a long time worrying if I was leaving photography behind. It took awhile for me to realize it's just one creative process rather than an either/or thing.
TA: I can tell you about you. I think you were one of the few students of mine that understood the art. There are people who are not really good about understanding the art but they try to play the bass, try to do the shamisen or they try to drum but it doesn't work.
JW: You mean they just dabble in several things not learning how to master any of them?
TA: Well you don't need to master but rather find out how to interpret the art. If you're going to be Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassist then yes you need to master because that is another form of art where restrictions apply and you're going to have to play things exactly as they are notated. It's another way of expressing yourself. But the kind of things that you are doing or what I am doing is a completely different way of expressing yourself. So, I don't know, you probably didn't need to master the bass.
JW: I remember you telling me that you initially rejected the kind of traditional music you grew up playing but later on you came to embrace it. Can you talk about that transition?
TA: It's really not a transition. It's about being yourself. What do you need to be in the arts? So, I know that you need a lens [camera]. I can tell that you have to have a lens because looking at your website and investigating your recent activities you can probably be ok without the bass for awhile. You probably will have a cycle where you will want to play the bass but I know that you need a lens. It was like that for me too. I stopped playing the traditional music but the farther I went into the art in my life then I realized that those are the elements that I need. So, I wouldn't really describe that as a transition. I think as you get closer to the core artistic interpretation of your life then you find out what you need to make that kind of art. This is what I need. I need these instruments and the practice of this music. And, the noodle and the rice. Those are the things I need. I will not be able to live without the noodle. I know that is just as important as my shamisen.
So, I am still shooting film and hand-processing it in my darkroom.
JW: Wow, you are an old fashioned guy! Did you teach David Gatten hand-processing while he was at the Art Institute?
TA: Yeah. David also knew a lot of the stuff but he took my class and has explored all of these things all by himself. David was always good with interpreting the art and you and Jonathan Chen too. I think it is an important task to be an artist. You have to be able to interpret things and people have forgotten to do that. The majority of people that I see even those that come to art school are mostly just consumers. They consume only and they don't interpret when creating. I don't know, I'm going to die in the next 30 years so who gives a rat's ass if the next generation is not going to make the art. I am going to do my best to be making it until then!
JW: That's one of the things I've struggled with in this latest film of mine, the one I'm doing on the bus. I've been thinking about Sun Ra a lot. The more I worked on this project the more I kept thinking about Sun Ra and was not sure why. I mention that because I was inspired by his interpretation of reality and how he created a whole different mythology about who he was and perhaps who black people were. A lot of the responses to the rough edits of my footage which is almost solely African Americans riding the bus in Durham has been that viewers want to be told stories or facts about the people. Who are they? Where are they going? What is his job? Stuff like that. People want a documentary, they want facts but I'm more interested in poetry. I think I agree with you to keep the genre alive you have to experiment and push and pull at the conventions.
TA: I think you're playing with reality in the sense that its a visionary reality. It's not really about disclosing the story but you are portraying a vision that may not connect to the peoples' life story but it is a reality of our sight. That also generates different interpretations and I think the challenge is that you're playing with the viewers' expectations in those pieces. They would expect that you are going to tell some story about the people whereas in contemporary interpretation of the vision nobody says you have to document these things to tell the story because that may not be what you are looking at.
JW: I've latched onto that Sun Ra so much from the beginning and recently let it go. It took me awhile to feel comfortable with letting the idea go and feeling comfortable allowing it to become something totally different.
TA: It's the same thing as when you are exploring musically. Often times you hear, "play where the music takes you, don't preconceive the idea". So, just do it and take things where the music takes you. You don't have to stay. That's a problem of institutionalized jazz interpretation. If you place something outside of the chord then they will say that is the wrong note. There is no wrong note in improvised music. You play where the sound takes you.
JW: Do you see your editing in musical terms? I imagine when you're editing it's similar to building a solo or constructing a musical composition.
TA: You can change your mind a million times but I think the responsibility comes at the end of the road when you are supposed to be saying something. If you're not then you're not being responsible.
JW: Another lesson you would always tell me is: you always have to be ready to stop, always be ready to stop playing.
TA: A lot of people don't understand what that means.
JW: That's one thing that I think applies to everything, anything for me. It certainly applies to every art but it's really a life lesson to me.
TA: That was always my thing. The second I start to improvise I am ready to stop because if the music takes you somewhere where you have to stop then you have to stop.
JW: Or if you realize you aren't saying anything, you might as well just stop playing.
TA: Some musicians I watch them improvise and they are just demonstrating their chops and not really saying anything.
JW: That's something that I keep in mind when I am editing too. Just because it is a pretty shot doesn't mean it needs to make it into the final film. It has to advance the overall idea. Another thing I wanted to talk to you about was the idea of time and duration.
JW: Can you talk a little about teaching and — this is something I noticed with both certain AACM folks and you as well. You would always have people like me or other students incorporated into your performances or other things. And it wasn't just to thank us for being a dedicated student or anything like that, it seems there are other ideas behind it.
TA: That is very easy to explain that. In my generation we weren't — today people are interested in things. They are so materialistic about it. So if they are interested in photography they want to go Joel to learn how to do photography. My generation is not. It's part of it but we would be interested in you. I was interested in Fred Anderson. I was interested in Malachi Favors. I was interested in Afifi Phillard. I was interested in Stan Brakhage. I was interested in them as a person who creates the art. It so happens that they create this beautiful film, music, theater piece, painting. My taiko teacher, I was interested in him.
JW: Do you mean that you were interested in their ideas as well as what they make?
TA: Right, right. It could come in reverse. I could be finding their piece to be interesting then I find that artist. So it's like when you fall in love with a lady are you interested in their breast or their hip or are you interested in a person? So my idea about mentoring people was that I should have them coming into my world so that they can experience what I do in the way I do it because I always assumed the reason why you would come to me is that you were interested in me. For my case, those are the only people that came to me. It's not a class, it's not a school. You just came to me and hung out and have life experience. It's an old fashioned way of learning and teaching stuff. I always incorporated these people who came to me so we could have actually have this life experience and memory of creating things together.
JW: It also seems a way of keeping not just your ideas alive but other's who came before you too, the people you learned from. It seems an acknowledgement of that and how to keep those ideas alive. Was that the case with your taiko studies back in japan?
TA: I was interested in the big boss of a taiko group. The taiko was part of my family tradition so I didn't have to go to school to learn how to play. But, I was interested in him because he was doing this bizarre theater with saxophone and drums. That is like my Miyumi Project, right? All this stuff was happening in the '70s. I was just a teenager when I was part of their pieces. Today in my taiko group I play his compositions. Most of the pieces the advanced students play are pieces I used to play as a teenager.
JW: Talk about keeping tradition alive!
TA: That is how I keep my tradition. Once again, keep the practice going of that art form. I love this phrase, arts in practice. Arts in practice is that you have to keep it going. I think about this, when I met Fred Anderson then recorded an album with him, he didn't have to keep me as a bassist because he had all of these other guys like Malachi Favors. After that I was at the Velvet Lounge playing and touring with Fred and Hamid Drake and Chad Taylor. If I think about this, he didn't have to have me in there. His choices were Fred Hopkins or Malachi was alive too. Why would you have me, I'm just a punk but he did? At that time he didn't have a regular bassist that he always played with. I think Harrison came into the scene much later than I did. He had no obligation to hire me as a bassist. It was his courtesy to have a young bass player and take me around all over the world and give me this experience. So in the same way, I have all of these younger people be part of my pieces. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Same thing with Fred's band, sometimes it didn't work because I wasn't good enough.
JW: This idea from you is another thing that stuck with me from our lessons. It was the first day I came to you and one of the things you told me was that you have to make things beautiful. I felt that way already for myself but it was a confirmation to hear that come from you. I'm curious where that idea or concept came from for you.
TA: My concept of that came from the geisha house tradition. You have to make things beautiful for your customers. You have to be beautiful, you have to play beautiful. Then I learned the art beauty. Art beauty is not really superficial beauty. It's not only for the surface. I listened to people like Billie Holiday who is singing about horrible life stories but she is singing so beautiful. I looked at all the terrible stories of film noir but the black and white photography is so beautiful. There is no way you resist that beauty but the story is terrible. The guy is all fucked up but there is something really beautiful the way they shoot. So I discovered that, even though you are talking about the ugliest things, there is always beauty in that.
JW: It's a respect to the viewer as well to make things beautiful. Not like you're just trying to please the audience but it's a respect to them to make things beautiful.