Interview with Otomo Yoshihide, The Mastery of Guitar & Turntable Achieved in His Mid-60s Part.1

Otomo Yoshihide
Otomo Yoshihide is a musician born in 1959 who has been creating a wide variety of music from improvisation and noise pieces to pop music, always simultaneously and independently, and performs all over the world. As a film music producer, he has composed music for more than 100 films. After the earthquake disaster, he launched Project FUKUSHIMA! in his hometown Fukushima, and has continued various practices up to the present. He is also the director of the renewal of the signature summer festival in Fukushima, “Waraji Matsuri”.

Musician Otomo Yoshihide started his live music performances in earnest in the late 1980s and has since built a one-of-a-kind career spanning more than 35 years. He has been active in the independent noise/improvisation scene, has composed music for numerous films and TV dramas, and has been involved in public participatory project, as well as creating installations and serving as director of art festivals. In August 2023, Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable, a fully improvised studio album he recorded as a guitarist and turntablist, was released.

Few musicians can perform as original as Otomo Yoshihide, both as a guitarist and turntablist. Solo Works 1, an album consisting of 20 small tracks, is a clear record of where he is today. In the first part of this interview, we focus on Otomo’s musical practices as a guitarist. We asked him why he started playing guitar again and how he came to establish his own distinctive style.

The reason why Otomo started playing guitar again

–You first picked up a guitar when you were in middle school, but since then, your relationship with the guitar has undergone various changes, such as learning under legendary jazz guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi when you were in your 20s, and building your own guitar that only produces noise. How do you view your career as a guitarist?

Otomo Yoshihide (Otomo): When I studied under Mr. Takayanagi from 1980 to 1986, I had yet to make a name for myself and was just a guitarist in the making. After I left Mr. Takayanagi, I thought I had failed and was determined not to make it as a guitarist anymore. So, from the end of the 1980s to the 1990s, I decided to use turntables instead. However, I wanted to keep the guitar element, so I dared to use a guitar I made by myself. I also wanted to make an ostensible excuse for not being a “guitarist” by using the guitar as a noise generator that could not be tuned.

It was around 2000 that this situation changed. It is true that Naruyoshi Kikuchi and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki always encouraged me to play the guitar, but more than that, I honestly wanted to play the guitar, which I had been holding back for so long. So I started playing guitar again around 2000, thinking that it would be okay to play guitar as long as I didn’t try to play like everyone else. So after that, I officially started my career as a guitarist.

–You could have stuck to using the guitar as a tabletop instrument and a noise generator like Keith Rowe, but why did you decide to play guitar in a normal manner?

Otomo: It was because you did not necessarily need a guitar to make a noise generator. I could do it with a turntable and all kinds of self-made gadgets I made back then. I still wanted to play a standard tuning guitar. In the first place, I joined Mr. Takayanagi’s class because I wanted to work as a so-called guitarist. After leaving him, I gradually became more liberated from a mentoring relationship with Mr. Takayanagi, so I decided again to play guitar, not as a noise generator.

–What guitarists were you listening to at that time? Were there any albums that struck you?

Otomo: It was when I was with Mr. Takayanagi that I listened to and studied a variety of guitarists’ albums. I just listened to many different music. When I restarted playing the guitar, I had to start practicing it all over again, so I was re-listening to many classics like Jim Hall. Of course, that does not mean I wanted to play guitar orthodoxly, so I just referred to how he makes harmonies instead of adopting his playing style. My aim was to become able to play guitar in my own unique way.

On the solo album Guitar Solo released in 2005

–One of your most significant milestones as a guitarist must have been your solo album Guitar Solo released in 2005. It was also the first release for a label doubtmusic. What motivated you to make that album featuring guitar sounds?

Otomo: One of the motivations was to present a sound source to my old friend Jun Numata to congratulate him on founding his own label after retiring from the record store Disk Union. I couldn’t spend too much money on it, so I recorded it live at Shinjuku Pit Inn instead of in a studio (The sound was recorded on October 12, 2004). Since it was meant to be a gift, I thought other musicians’ participation would complicate things, so I decided to make it a solo project. I had started doing solo shows just a while before that and playing guitar for film scores – in fact, I played guitar a little bit for film music in the 90s as well – so I decided it was time to make a solo guitar album. But I didn’t have the skills that other guitarists would typically have, so that album was a challenge of playing solo guitar to the extent that I could.

–In 2002, Derek Bailey released a solo album called Ballads on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. The content is totally different, but I see an overlap between that and Otomo’s Guitar Solo. In other words, both albums are not entirely improvisational but feature composed pieces that are played in a different way than they were originally meant to be. Both of them are peculiar in that they were created as a result of performances of composed pieces by musicians who have always worked on improvisation and noise music.

Otomo:It is true that when Ballads came out, I was stunned by it and thought, “Oh, this way of playing music is possible?” I remember that I listened to it so many times. Of course, Derek Bailey had always been my favorite since I decided to do music, but the fact that Bailey released Ballads may have been significant for me. For example, “Ballads” opens with a song called “Laura.” And if you follow the standard theory of jazz, you keep the chord progression and bars of “Laura” as the song develops. But if you listen to Derek Bailey’s music, it’s not like that. The song starts with the theme, but then it develops freely and comes back to the theme again. But that works totally fine. I thought that was very free and nice.

However, I had already tried that approach with the New Jazz Quintet. I had a theme at the beginning of the piece but would develop an improvisation utterly different from the theme, or the piece would take an unexpected direction and then return to the theme at the end. I had been experimenting with approaches that did not fit into the traditional jazz format, and I think “Ballad” made me realize that it was okay to do that with solo guitar. Of course, I can’t play like Derek Bailey, so I tried to do it my own way.

–Did you also consider making a solo guitar album completely based on noise/improvisation, rather than composed pieces?

Otomo: It was not an option at that time. I even thought that recording only with noise and improvisation was something I didn’t need to do anymore. I did it a lot at shows, though. But actually, I had released a guitar improvisation piece on CD-R called Guitar Solo Live 1 (1999). But I didn’t find it very interesting, and I thought improvisation should disappear right after it’s done. If I was going to release it as an album, I wanted to keep the composed music in some form. It seemed more fresh at the time.

Actually, solo improvisation is complex, and it’s not really improvisation in the true sense of the word. In terms of duos and trios, players tend to think about what to play during the performance, but with solos, that’s not really the case. The performances are strongly tied to my previous experiences, and it is very hard to break out of them. And there had been many great solo improvisation albums like the one by Derek Bailey before mine. I was not the type of person who had pioneered improvisation in that way. So at that point, I didn’t feel like making a solo guitar album only consisting improvisation and noise.

“Lonely Woman” is “homework” left by Masayuki Takayanagi

–If we were to place improvisation and composed pieces at the two ends of the spectrum, I feel that “Lonely Woman” is positioned in the middle of them in the case of Otomo’s guitar performance. Ornette Coleman originally wrote it, but when you perform improvisation completely live, melodies of “Lonely Woman” sometimes pop up naturally, doesn’t it?

Otomo: Yeah, sometimes. Well, when I worked on improvisations on the guitar, it was not like I didn’t have any references. But among all, Mr. Takayanagi’s solo guitar album Lonely Woman (1982) was the most influential. I tried not to listen to it when I picked up the guitar again because I would be influenced too much by it. I tried to store it in a distant part of my memory, but I couldn’t help thinking about it. It was in the 2000s that I decided that it would be okay to play “Lonely Woman” every time. I didn’t care how I played it. It could come out of nowhere in an improvised performance, or I could play “Lonely Woman” from the beginning and break it up to create a rhythm or whatever. That means Takayanagi-san, rather than Ornette Coleman, was the most influential figure for me when playing the guitar.

Of course, Ornette Coleman was influential as well. In my opinion, “Lonely Woman” was his first harmolodics-oriented piece. It may also mean that I somehow want to be connected to the history of jazz. However, I haven’t played almost any of Ornette’s songs except for “Lonely Woman,” so I’m aware that I still see the history of jazz through the lens of Mr. Takayanagi.

–Did the song “Lonely Woman” mean a lot to Mr. Takayanagi as well?

Otomo: That is a mystery. As far as I know, Mr. Takayanagi only performed “Lonely Woman” in his solo performance. I saw almost all of his live performances, but he never played “Lonely Woman” in a group like Angry Waves. Moreover, at that time, Mr. Takayanagi didn’t say anything about Ornette Coleman in particular, and I always heard him talking about Albert Ayler. So I honestly don’t know why it was “Lonely Woman.”

However, the last time Mr. Takayanagi played “Lonely Woman” was probably in 1984. He toured Hokkaido with Teruto Soejima and played “Lonely Woman” at the first concert, and everything else was noise. After that, he didn’t play “Lonely Woman” anymore, even after returning to Tokyo. He shifted to “Action Direct,” which was about generating a lot of noise. As I watched, I kept thinking, “It would be good to play ‘Lonely Woman’ in Action Direct,” and I told Mr. Takayanagi about it, but every time I told him, he would say, “Otomo, you don’t understand that. They are different things.”

That convinced me, but I was also driven by the desire to play them together. That is why I have been playing “Lonely Woman” as something that suddenly appears out of the noise or starts with that theme but develops into something completely different. For me, “Lonely Woman” is like an “assignment” left behind by Mr. Takayanagi. Takayanagi himself had moved on to the next phase, like action direct, and just left me with the song.

The process of establishing Otomo Yoshihide’s guitar style

–It has already been almost 20 years since the release of Guitar Solo, and your career as a guitarist has been longer. If I were to put it this way, you have your own unique guitar style. When did you begin to establish such a style for yourself?

Otomo: Maybe I did it through the 2000s. Partially, I had already been doing it since my early 20s, but one of the things I was particularly focused on in the 2000s was how to handle audio feedback. Mr. Takayanagi also dealt with feedback, but it rarely appeared in Lonely Woman. So, I wanted to include feedback in it, or rather, I was wondering if I could make it the framework of the song. Mr. Takayanagi also has a recording of a song called “Feed Back”, a song included on the 1969 album We Now Create, which he recorded with Masahiko Togashi and others. I wondered if I could create something like a mixture of that and “Lonely Woman”.

So I tamed the feedback and developed a guitar approach in which I could switch from it to melody and harmony while dealing with the parts I could control and the parts I couldn’t. I spent about ten years in the 2000s working on that. Until then, feedback was just noise. It was not something that could be controlled. I was developing this uncontrollable noise guitar style into something in which I could play with some control, still retaining some of my uncontrollability.

–In terms of guitar feedback, you often mention the influence of Jimi Hendrix.

Otomo: In most of Jimi Hendrix’s performance, he was using feedback in the context of blues, but as for the live performance of the American National Anthem at Woodstock in 1969, the song turned into sounds composed solely of feedback in the middle. That sounds still so cool and amazing now. So, from the first time I entered Mr. Takayanagi’s class, I knew I wanted to play free jazz in the way Jimi had played the Anthem, though it was totally different. But anyway, I was influenced by Jimi Hendrix in that respect.

—-There are free jazz guitarists like Attila Zoller, Larry Coryell, or Sonny Sharrock, but you  wanted to play free jazz like Jimi Hendrix, right?

Otomo:Of course, Sonny Sharrock and Larry Coryell both use feedback, and I like them very much, but I overwhelmingly prefer Jimi Hendrix’s way of controlling the melody line and feedback. I’ve been thinking about that since I was in my early twenties. But it was in the late 2000s that I was able to do that at a level that satisfied me. I tamed the guitar at live shows and formulated my own approach.

How the guitar sounds in relation to the drums

–In the 2000s, when you were establishing your guitar style, were there any session partners who particularly influenced you?

Otomo: I would have to say Yasuhiro Yoshigaki. When I played with Yoshigaki on drums, both in a session and a band, my biggest interest was how my guitar sounded. How can I make my guitar sound satisfactory with those drums? Especially in the 2000s, I felt like I was making my style with Yoshigaki. Just as Yosuke Yamashita created that style with Takeo Moriyama. I created my own guitar style, including rhythm and accentuation, to respond to Yoshigaki’s drumming.

I played not only with Yoshigaki but also with various drummers, and each combination has a way of matching. But in any case, I was creating my own performance while matching various drummers. That was the first step. On top of that, I became able to deal with sessions with saxophone and piano a little later. When I think of free improvisation, jazz, or pop music, I tend to focus on the drums first, and then how guitar and drums should sound against the bass. Next comes the saxophone. It was fascinating to think about how to make the audio feedback sound in combination with the saxophone sounds.

I can focus only on tone and rhythm when I play with drums without thinking about harmony or chords. Even if a bass player joins in, as long as the single notes are in harmony with each other, the harmony can be varied in any way. So when I played with a pianist, I was initially too concerned about the harmony and thought I couldn’t do it. But things have changed in the last ten years or so, and it has become rather exciting. The fact that I started working with Ryuichi Sakamoto was also a significant factor. I can take a different approach from the one I take when playing with the drums. I can use the tones and pitches of the guitar strings and see how the harmony blends with the piano sounds. I started to be able to do this around the beginning of the 2010s. Now I enjoy playing with the piano, and it has been exciting to have sessions not only with Mr. Sakamoto, but also with Ms. Satoko Fujii and Mr. Masahiko Sato.

–You had your first duo session together with Mr. Sakamoto on the radio broadcast on January 1, 2011, and you also played “Lonely Woman” at that time.

Otomo: Yeah. Actually, it was Mr. Sakamoto who suggested that we use “Lonely Woman” as a motif. “Lonely Woman” is in the key of D minor, and at that time, I was playing it while trying to figure out what notes he was playing for D minor. The session with Mr. Sakamoto made me realize that I could make something interesting with such an approach because, until then, I didn’t think I could take a harmonic approach very well. So, as I mentioned, I was exploring only tone, pace, and groove in relation to the drums, but after the duo with Mr. Sakamoto, I began to think that it would be interesting to explore harmonies as well.

A change in the way I perceive improvisation

–In a conversation with Mr. Sakamoto in that radio program, you mentioned the Otoasobi no Kai and said that it made you rethink about “freedom.” Did your perception of improvisation change around that time?

Otomo: Yeah, it did pretty drastically. This may sound strange, but until then I thought that improvisation had to be done properly as improvisation. In other words, improvisation must not have included conventional melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. But since I started working with the Otoasobi no Kai, I have become less concerned with such things. Before, when I worked on “improvisation,” I used to think about how to incorporate various histories that were in different contexts from improvisation, but then I realized that my approach of focusing on improvisation itself was very biased. When I faced the children in that group, nothing would get started if I brought my history as the main focus. So, I changed my mindset and started thinking about the people I was playing with.

Also, it was a time when Mr. Sakamoto began to re-evaluate the improvisational music he used to play, so I feel that we were both influenced by each other. Of course, it is interesting to play improvised music as it is, but it was no longer a time when that was all that mattered. And this also coincided with the time when I started playing the guitar again. Perhaps because of this, I came to honestly believe that I don’t necessarily have to play the guitar with an obsession with noise. It didn’t matter if I tuned it or not anymore. I think that was a massive shift for me.

–In other words, rather than aiming for something new aesthetically through improvisation, you have come to emphasize communication between people as a methodology?

Otomo: I think so. Improvisation is like a conversation, and new things may come out of it, but that is not the only purpose. Besides, I have come to think that we should not place too much value on improvisation.

Well, when I say “conversation,” I don’t mean that you have to respond to the sound that another person makes with specific types of sounds that would correspond to it. It is a state of free exchange with the person you are performing with, with or without progressions. I thought I could do that more freely on the guitar than on the turntable. With a turntable, I am limited in how I respond, and above all, setting it up takes some doing, but with a guitar, I felt a bit more lighthearted.

Of course, it was my guitar, no matter how far I went, so I felt that frustration. However, in the past, I had to think a lot when I played free jazz, and I couldn’t play without having what I did with Mr. Takayanagi in mind. Since the 2010s, I haven’t thought about that too much, and I’ve moved toward doing what I can do. In the process, I became able to do various things frexibly.

“The situation I’m in now may not last 10 years.”

–What do you feel is the joy of playing the guitar for you now?

Otomo: I don’t know if this is good or bad, and I don’t know if this is the right way to put it, but my performance is getting better and better, which is fun. I become able to do more and more things that I couldn’t do before in terms of speed and accuracy of the performance, and techniques related to audio feedback. I have no idea whether this is good or bad musically, but I can’t resist the desire for such fun.

As long as I am physically able to do so, I will focus thoroughly on improving my techniques, such as increasing the speed and the ways I approach the sounds. Of course, there are physical limitations, but I feel like I can go further and further now. That’s why I decided to record this album, Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable. The fact that my opportunities to perform in front of people were drastically reduced due to the pandemic also motivated me to record. However, I also had a great sense of urgency that this situation I am in now may not last ten years, or even worse, it may only be ephemeral. Because people of my generation and a little older than myself have died one after another, especially in the past few years.

People like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Michiro Endo, with whom I launched Project FUKUSHIMA!, passed away around the age of 70. Considering the fact that I am 64 years old now, I may not be alive 10 years from now. Due to this realization, I became even more motivated to release a solo improvisation album, which I have not released often. This is not only the case with my guitar but also with turntables. Technically, guitar and turntables are totaly different, but I’ve been able to play turntables far more freely than before, so I wanted to record both of them in their current state.

■Otomo Yoshihide “Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable”
Release date: August 16, 2023
Price: (CD) 2,000 yen
Track List
1.turntable with a record 8
2.guitar 2
3.guitar 6
4.turntable with a record 1
5.turntable without a record 1
6.guitar 4
7.turntable with a record 10
8.guitar 5
9.guitar 1
10.turntable without a record 4
11.turntable without a record 6
12.turntable with a record 2
13.guitar 7
14.turntable without a record 3
15.turntable with a record 5
16.turntable with a record 9
17.turntable without a record 5
18.guitar 8
19.turntable with a record 3
20.guitar 3

■ONJQ : Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Quintet EUROPE TOUR 2024
Periods: January 26 – February 11, 2024
February 1 Jazz Club Loco, København [DK]
Feb. 2 Nasjonal Jazzscene, Oslo [NO]
Feb. 4 Pardon, To Tu, Warszawa [PL]
Feb. 5 Pardon, To Tu, Warszawa [PL]
Feb 6th NOSPR, Katowice [PL]
Feb. 7th Divadlo29, Pardubice [CZ]
Feb. 8th In Situ Art Society, Bonn [DE]
Feb. 9th Handelsbeurs, Gent [BE]
Feb. 10 Centro D’Arte, Padova [IT]
February 11 Area Sismica, Forlì [IT]

Photography Masashi Ura


Narushi Hosoda

Born in 1989, Narushi is a writer and a music critic. He edit “AA: Fifty Years Later Albert Ayler” (COMPANYSHA, 2021). His most famous pieces are “New wave of improvised music – a disk guide for first encounters or initial thoughts”, “Towards the inevitable 'non-being of sound' – The concrete and real music of Asian Meeting Festival”, and more. He’s in charge of planning and holding a series of events about contemporary improvisational music at Kokubunji M’s. Twitter: @HosodaNarushi