Conversation With Chihei Hatakeyama

Hi Chihei, it’s a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. How are you, and how is everything going in your life?

I’m all right. My life is going well.

What were some of your musical influences?

I started out as a kid listening to Japanese popular songs, and when I was a high school student I listened to a lot of heavy metal and played guitar in a covers band. I learned how to play the guitar and that was the starting point for my music. I entered university and listened to various types of music, my tastes really widened then. It was around then I discovered electronic music, experimental music and ambient.

What made you want to pursue this kind of ambient music? How did you get involved with it?

The first ambient music I heard may have been “Cluster & Eno”. At that time, I was very particular about German rock, so that record came across my radar from those connections. I remember being impressed by a DJ of Mixed Master Morris too very early on. After that, I formed an improvised band with my friends and had a session every week. In that band, there were many parts with ambient elements, and I was in charge of the guitar, using delay and reverb.

After that, as you know, I started working with Tomoyoshi Date and Opitope. This unit also had a session every week. At that time, it was just the beginning of the 21st century, and I was aware that ambient music was more forgotten than it is now, or that people at least thought of it as an old musical style. Opitope had a base called electronica, but there was no beat, and it began with the concept of trying to do whatever we wanted. I was influenced by many musicians during the work with Opitope.

In parallel with Opitope, I started to compose in solo. The first album “Minima Molarila” was produced after about three years. I sought a modern ambient style with that album, it opened a lot of doors for me.

How has your musical journey progressed over time? Over the years, can you see a clear path from where you were then to where you are now?

I don’t know if it has progressed. There was a time when I was making things in the dark without knowing what I wanted to do. Now I feel like I can see a clear streak of light in the dark.

Do you have any favourite chords or melodies that naturally come to you? Is there any music theory behind the conposition, or is it improvised and based on what you’re feeling and what sounds good? Which method produces the best results?

Melodies and chord progressions do not arrive naturally for me. I play an instrument and play with the equipment, and then I come up with ideas in the form of searching for something. I studied a little basic music theory. At one point, I tried several modal scales using for instance the modal jazz technique, but it didn’t work very well.

I think the idea may be like a wave. At times, it’s full of ideas, and it grows. However, the idea stops as a wave’s energy fades at a certain point. But again, as time goes by, ideas gradually come back. The cycle seems to be full of waves. When I am exhausted with ideas, I try to experiment with new equipment and instruments that I had never done before.

What is the process of creation like for you, and how does a composition begin to form? Do you prefer using a particular effect or a particular guitar, and what made you choose these effects? Do you have a particular set-up?

The composition process in the last few years is simple. When you have an idea, play several loop pedals, modular synths, guitars or whatever else I have to hand at once, mix it on the spot with an analog mixer, and record two mixes.

I edit the two mixes and overdub and add some sounds. I’m almost not interested in DAW mixes.

The main guitar I use is Les Paul, and I use Stratocaster, Flying V, or Ibanez 7-string guitar depending on the song. The guitar pedal has a fixed reverb and looper, and the modulation system and delay are often changed throughout the song.

What do you think makes music ambient and what does the term ‘ambient’ mean to you?

At the beginning of the 21st century, the word ambient wasn’t heard much, but I feel like it has become an important term again during the past 20 years. Abruptly, I think ambient music is like a modern mirror. It doesn’t seem to claim anything, but claims something. I feel that I am trying to convey it in the state before it becomes words. I think that’s how I feel when I hear William Basinski and Grouper for instance. That the music is pre-lingual.

For example, certain folk music, ancient music, and even pre-Edo music in Japan can be heard in an approach that listens to ambient. In other words, is it possible to think from the opposite direction that modern pop music, rock, hip hop, techno, jazz, and the like, are excessive? Thinking that way, ambient music can be seen as a movement towards an original nature of music.

Your music has a special relationship with nature. Does living in Tokyo, and being around an urban environment, affect, change, or impact your music? Does ambient music have a different quality or tone colour when it’s recorded in a city as compared with a more natural environment?

I don’t have much awareness of the connection with nature, but the basic sensibility that forms music may have been formed while playing in the nature of my childhood. When I was in elementary school, I was playing in nature and there was a deep forest near my house, so I often explored it. I also made a small shabby house with wood. When I became a junior high school student, the school was really like a prison, so I felt that everything had changed. I feel that the feeling of loss that I had lost with nature at that time has also influenced my music.

Why do you think there’s such a strong connection between nature, the natural world, and ambient music?

Landscape paintings were born in the modern painting motif. I think that humans were cut off from nature when modernity began, so I think that ambient music is a copy of nature or trying to describe it. Especially in my case, as I use field recording. Even when I don’t use field recording, I always make sounds with nature in mind.

Also, in Japan, there is something like an idealized view of nature due to the influence of Buddhism and China. Discard the workaday world, there are a number of motifs from painting that maybe also resonate. In other words, I think that ambient music can be regarded as music that restores the connection with nature that has been lost.

Do you think that music is elemental? Like earth, fire, air, spirit, water? Do you think that music is a part of that?

Sound and possibly noise may be elemental. I see ambient music as a kind of noise music, and I wonder if it is related to the back of the coin. I think that the elemental is related to the sound of the Big Bang called Cosmic Background Radiation, that is faintly overflowing in the universe. If light is also a wave, a substance called a photon, and protons and neutrons are moving in the molecule, it may be said that the world is in motion and fluctuation, then music can share this way of existing. It may be possible to approach fluctuations directly, music could be an interface for this.

When you’re in the middle of recording, do you find the music takes you to another place? What do you discover there? And do you find music to be a healing, therapeutic presence? Does it release something?

During recording, what I’m doing is mainly improvised, but that process can take me to an unexpected world. It feels like a world of landscapes and sounds that is different from the world that I have been in, it’s always opening outward. I feel that consciousness and sound are united and frozen.

I agree that music gives healing, may be more ritual in nature. In ancient societies, music was thought to have been accompanied by rituals and festivals. In modern music, I think there are therapeutic elements of the mind, such as ceremonial elements and social connections.

Do you think that there’s something deeper to music? That the notes live on the surface, but there’s something deeper buried beneath? Not only sound, but something more?

I agree with that idea. Sound is perceived as a regular wave travelling through the air as vibration, but it seems that modern science does not clearly understand how it is transformed in the brain. I might say I’m doing music to discover something that sinks to the bottom of the music. I feel strongly about this, especially in the field of live performance. There are ideas and quality that only come out when performing live or in front of people. Although it is SF-like, people’s collective consciousness is like some image of a sort of spirit coming down to me as a performer.

Do you find Japanese ambient music to have a different feel when compared to Western ambient music?

I agree. I think there is a different atmosphere. One may be due to the Japanese climate, but Japanese ambient music feels more humid than western ambient music.

In Japan, there are aristocratic and cultural gardens and cultures that try to miniaturize nature such as bonsai. I think that early Japanese ambient musicians could interpret Brian Eno’s advocacy for this music through Japanese traditional culture. John Cage has a hint of the ambient concept that Brian Eno popularised, and John Cage was also connected to Japanese culture through Zen. These characters play a role in how this music developed here. The booming economy of Japan in the 1980s has also influenced the writer’s freedom to experiment.

What has Music taught you over the years? And being close with nature, the use of field recordings – have those things changed you or your perspective on life in some way?

Music taught me the passage of time. It may be a very oriental sensibility, but it means that all sorts of things are changing.

How did you get started on your record label, White Paddy Mountain?

Before starting White Paddy Mountain, I worked for a label run by a progressive rock generation who released blues and jazz in Japan. With that experience, I decided to start White Paddy Mountain. I wanted to manage the release pace of my work and wanted to introduce young Japanese ambient artists who were around.

Do you think you can go deeper into instrumental music without the interference and restriction of vocals and rhythm?

I agree. When I started composing my music, I had a rhythm at first, but when I removed the rhythm, I suddenly became able to do a lot of things. A certain rhythm is very pleasant, but the state of regularity and irregularity, like the sound of nature, is also very pleasant. Recently, with modular synthesizers, we can approach things between such regularity and irregularity, so there is a feeling that we can do more interesting works into the future.

Your latest record, Forgotten Hill, explores the importance of nature, place, and memory, and also the ability of a place to transport someone out of there, and out of time. Please tell us more about Forgotten Hill and the inspiration behind it.

The Asuka region is the land that the ancient Emperor used as the capital, and I wanted to rethink whether I wanted to face the establishment of the framework of Japan.

The beginning of modern Japan was the Meiji Restoration, but couldn’t it be modernized successfully without the Emperor’s center. Therefore, I wanted to consider the Emperor and Japan, and consider the beginning of my interest in Japanese ancient history and use my journey into Japanese history as a means of exploring some musical ideas.

The first thing I actually felt when I visited the Asuka region was the sense of incongruity that this was the capital. If you don’t know the history of the background, now, it is a normal countryside. But if you know history, it becomes a different world. That was very interesting and important in shaping the concept of Forgotten Hill.

This album is also influenced by Brian Eno’s Apollo. Apollo travels to the moon, but I wanted to make an album with the theme of traveling to another world like that. Therefore, we decided not to go to the moon, but to travel in the former city of Asuka. And this time, I approached this work by using 80s synths such as DX7. Unfortunately, with the completion of this album, my DX7 broke and it went to another world.

How did you approach the concept of time melting away? Was it difficult to create, because of the naturally limited amount of time on an album’s running length and the limiting nature of a composition? Is there any particular element of music that best fits the idea of infinity, or the melting of time? Are loops a good way to express this idea of space and infinity?

The concept of melting time was inspired by Dr. Hawking’s books, David Lynch movies, and several movies by Christopher Nolan. It is difficult to understand the theory of gravity and time in detail, but I wanted to be able to evoke such a sense musically. In my Mirror album, I aimed to lose my sense of time with a long-lasting drone, but this time I approached the concept from the opposite direction, not a drone approach. Some songs were recorded at completely different times, and somehow were edited and pasted together.

What are your plans for the remainder of 2019? Do you have any more projects coming up?

I might go to India to perform live at the end of this year. I’m in discussions about it now.

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