Interview with Otomo Yoshihide, The Mastery of Guitar & Turntable Achieved in His Mid-60s -Part 2-

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”.

In the first part of this interview, Otomo Yoshihide expressed his confidence about his performance, stating that he can play the guitar and turntable at his best right now. In Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable (2023), Otomo clearly shows his improvisational skills as an improviser who has reached such a state of freedom. This album was released by Little Stone Records, a newly founded label that released “Stone Stone Stone,” an album of Otomo’s Special Big Band in 2022. The label is planning to release more of Otomo’s solo works such as “Solo Works 2,” a live album and “Solo Works 3,” the one being conceived around the theme of Christian Marclay.

In the second part of the interview, we asked him about his almost-unprecedented musical practices as an experimental turntablist. While his starting point was improvisational collaging, he took a cue from kung-fu movies (!) to play the turntable faster. It also delves into his unique path in which his extreme turntable performance without using records led to his installation works. Besides, perhaps it’s surprising to many listeners, Otomo also says of himself that he “may not be from the context of free improvisation.”

The Impact of Christian Marclay

–In the second part of the interview, I would like to ask you mainly about your work around turntables. Your career as a turntable player began in earnest after you left Masayuki Takayanagi, didn’t it?

Otomo Yoshihide (Otomo): Yes, that’s right. But in fact, I had been performing since I was with Mr. Takayanagi. I was not allowed to perform live, so I only performed in front of the audience just a few times, and most of my performances were recorded at home though. So I started performing in earnest after I left Mr. Takayanagi’s place.

–I heard that you had been making music with a tape recorder since you were a child, although not on turntables.

Otomo: I used to make sound collages with a tape recorder when I was in middle and high school. So I initially wanted to use turntables to create those too, which is why I started it in a completely different context from hip-hop.

–Does collage mean what is called “musique concrète” (concrete music)?

Otomo: Yeah, I wanted to do an improvised version of musique concrete that Pierre Schaeffer would do. But it was only after I met Christian Marclay that I started working solely on turntables. Until then, I had been using cassette tapes or open-reel tapes along with turntables, but Christian made me think it would be cooler to play only on turntables. That realization came even before I heard his music, and I only saw a photo depicting Christian.

–Is that the famous “Phono Guitar” photo in which he plays the turntable slung over his shoulder like a guitar?

Otomo: No, it wasn’t that one. I saw a picture of him playing on four turntables set side by side and thought it was genuinely cool. So something like an imaginary Christian Marclay is one of the starting points of turntable playing for me. I heard his sound for the first time in Teruto Soejima’s documentary film, which was 8mm film footage of the “Moers Jazz Festival 1984.” After that, I also heard Christian’s sound on a John Zorn’s record, maybe around 1984 or 1985, and I was fascinated by how cool it was. I guess I was already playing completely on turntables only by then.

–You also went to see Christian Marclay’s first performance in Japan in 1986, didn’t you?

Otomo: Of course. I saw all of his Tokyo shows. Or rather, I acted as an assistant to Christian when he came to Japan. It was part of Teruto Soejima’s project. The year before the show, Mr. Soejima asked me, “I am thinking of inviting David Moss to Japan, and I have the budget to invite one more person. Who would you like to invite? I said, “Definitely, Christian Marclay, I’ll help you with that!” (Laughs.) So, during the visit, I followed Christian around every day to help out. And when I saw Christian’s performance in person, I realized I could not compete with him. He was just so cool. The speed and the choice of records were so incredible that I could only prostrate in front of him.

The improvisational collage seemed overwhelmingly new

–Did you find different kind of pleasure in playing the turntables than in playing the guitar?

Otomo: To begin with, it requires an entirely different type of technique. Turntable performance seemed overwhelmingly new to me back then in that it allowed me to collage improvisationally, which was different from composing collages. I was able to create collages from recorded materials extemporarily. There were no proper samplers at the time, so the improvised collages seemed so new to me. It seemed to have potential. I felt like I could go beyond the cassette tape collages I had been doing before that.

At the time, Masayuki Takayanagi was working on a cassette tape collage, and I was the one who had made the equipment for him. So I had been doing that kind of collage for quite a while; cassette collages inevitably end up being like compositional works in terms of production speed. Turntable production is more improvisational and cooler than that. In that sense, what struck me the most musically in my life was, after all, the moment I saw Christian Marclay’s live show.

Now I can confess that the one of the biggest reasons why I left Mr. Takayanagi was the encounter with Christian Marclay. He made me want to do shows right away, but Mr. Takayanagi wouldn’t let me do them if I kept studying under him. To be honest, I had been doing shows in secret even before I met Christian, but after that, I was like, all I wanted to do was do shows. Then, my show was introduced in a magazine, which led to a massive argument. That’s how I ran away from Mr. Takayanagi. Therefore, in retrospect, Christian was the catalyst for that.

–In the 1980s, it was very rare to have a live experimental turntable performance at jazz-oriented venues, wasn’t it? Or maybe you were the only one who do that kind of performance. How did the musicians around you recognize that?

Otomo: Yeah, I was lonely. Most of the so-called jazz folks didn’t recognize me. However, there were some people who were interested in me back then, such as Junji Hirose, Kyoko Kuroda, Hideki Kato, Masahiro Uemura, Yuji Katsui, and Naruyoshi Kikuchi. After joining Ms. Kuroda’s band in 1987, I started to get acquainted with jazz musicians. But I didn’t necessarily want to play jazz at that time. It just so happened that I did my first performance in the jazz scene. Then I started playing with Hoppy Kamiyama and Reck, leading me to play in the rock scene. I felt that rock was much more open than jazz music at the time. It was like, anything that sounds interesting was affirmed in the rock context. I remember now that when I played rock with Hoppy Kamiyama and Reck, I also played the guitar.

So, it was all about Mr. Takayanagi, after all. I think there was an excuse in my mind that “rock music has nothing to do with Mr. Takayanagi.” I played noise guitar in the rock shows but occasionally played rhythm guitar too. I felt at ease with Hoppy Kamiyama and Reck’s band because there was no linkage with Mr. Takayanagi. It was when I went to jazz shows, you know, that I couldn’t take my guitar with me. My excuse for playing live on the turntables was like, “It’s OK to play live because it’s not a guitar” (laughs). The presence of Mr. Takayanagi was such a big part of my life. But as you just said, turntables were indeed rare at that time. No one except for hip-hop players brought in turntables. On top of that, in my case, I was using a turntable that I had made myself, not a Technics turntable. There was no one like that in Japan.

The speed of turntable performance cultivated through kung-fu movies

–Turntables were originally a device for listening to music, not a musical instrument designed for performance. I think it is difficult to react as instantly as you do with a guitar during a session.

Otomo: It may sound like I’m boasting, but I was able to react relatively fast even on the turntable, which was probably why I was invited to perform in various opportunities. I was even a guest member of HIKASHU for about a year in 1990.

–Did you sometimes refer to hip-hop music in terms of your turntable technique?

Otomo: No, I was not influenced by hip-hop at all. I’m not even into scratching. Instead, it was more like just making collages really fast. So I’m totally self-taught. Of course, I got influenced by Christian Marclay, but I’ve been doing it since before I met him. My starting point was a wish that I would do a live version of what Pierre Schaeffer would do, and then I discovered Christian, which made me think, “This is it! “

At first, I was mainly using tape recorders, and of course, I was checking out the music of people who used cassette tapes in their live performances, like Mr. Takayanagi and Bob Ostertag. But back then, I felt that tape-based sounds were too much like composed music and tended to unfold slowly, which made me want to create something fast, like a cut-up. The music of John Zorn was a significant influence, and I thought the turntable was the perfect instrument for doing collages and live cut-ups like Heiner Goebbels and Alfred Harth’s “Peking-Oper” myself. I could cut up at a moment’s notice and add changes in response to a fast beat. Since I just wanted to play it fast, I practiced turntable playing to Hong Kong kung fu movies (laughs).

— Do you mean all that you were seeking was speed?

Otomo: Yeah. Speed. I wanted my performance to be faster than anyone else. Well, I may sound like Kaoru Abe (laughs). Perhaps I was influenced by Kaoru Abe, whom I admired in high school. Anyway, I was pursuing speed. I thought Christian’s performance was so outstanding that I couldn’t compete, so I had to establish my own approach. At the time, I used Hong Kong kung fu movies as a reference. I would repeatedly watch VHS videos of movies starring actors like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao and make sounds from a turntable to match their movements exactly. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, it was indeed stupid. But I had played that way up until the mid-1990s. Thinking back now, I realize that turntable usage led to the technique of playing the guitar with a U-shaped bracket because both were for speed and strong accents.

Sampling Virus Project ~ “Dear Derek,” an unreleased album

–In the 1990s, you were an advocator of the “Sampling Virus Project,” and in 1993 you released an album titled The Night before the Death of the Sampling Virus. Was this project an attempt on the extended line of the turntable collage?

Otomo: For that album, I didn’t use turntables, but mainly cut-and-paste tapes, like Pierre Schaeffer did. I did use turntables, but it was a compositional work. I also used digital audio sources for the mastering of the CD.

I started working on the “Sampling Virus Project” largely because the idea of “sampling” was new at the time. I felt the possibility of reusing sound sources, which was different from collage because the term “sampling” was introduced to describe what, until then, could only be defined as “collage.” On the other hand, that was also the time when so-called “computer viruses” were beginning to appear, and I decided to explore these things, including copyright issues, centered around the keyword “virus,” which had no clear identity. However, at that time, we still had only simple computers, and there was no network that could instantly connect us to the world via the Internet like computers do today, so I was exploring them only in my mind under such circumstances.

— However, your perception of music in relation to others, exemplified by the idea, “the seeds of sampling viruses spreading out of your own hands while proliferating/changing,” had been succeeded by into how you organized orchestras, how you interacted at the Asian Meeting Festival, and how devices reacted to each other in your art installations. You have been working on a different project, from the “Sampling Virus Project” to “Ensembles” and so forth, but would you say that your philosophy has remained consistent?

Otomo: Indeed, it may have been consistent. The idea behind all these things is that the creation of an individual is not the only thing that constitutes something. It is a way of thinking that assumes various external factors are intertwined with the individual’s intentions. However, in the 1990s, the network environment was not as well developed as it is now, so it was still a network imagined only in my brain.

–In the 1990s, you must have seen the emergence of CDJs, but why did you not switch to CDJs and why do you still play on turntables?

Otomo: I was really into it at first. For a while, I even made a piece dedicated to Derek Bailey called “Dear Derek,” using only CDJs, which I didn’t end up releasing. It was a CDJ collage of sound sources sampled from Bailey’s performances, and I had permission from Bailey himself, but right before releasing it, I felt it was boring, so I stopped releasing it.

But I got tired of CDJs pretty quickly. The same goes for samplers. Maybe I got tired of sampling itself. Computers and samplers were getting increasingly advanced, and I began to feel that CDJs were nothing more than very inconvenient samplers. Digital data sampling was developing more and more, which made me think we would soon be able to do this more efficiently at a higher capacity. Then, I almost spontaneously lost my interest in it. I felt that turntables were more imperfect and enabled me to play more freely. I hated it when I couldn’t just pick it up, drop the needle, and go “poof.” I thought digital was too slow and only produced the same sound. I also tried a little on a laptop, but it was too slow, and I couldn’t stand it. Of course, after that, I saw many people doing extraordinary things with that kind of equipment, which made me realize that I was entirely of the old generation and an analog person (laughs).

From turntable performances without records to installation pieces

— Considering the similarities with guitars, you have also taken the approach of generating feedback noise on turntables, haven’t you? Had you already been experimenting with such a technique since the 1990s?

Otomo: Yes. I was already using feedback in the mid-1990s. Turntable feedback is less controllable than guitar feedback, which was interesting to me. Of course, if you keep doing it, you get some control over it, so I could say that’s why my work got closer and closer to noise music like INCAPACITANTS.

–I think there are two aspects to your turntable performance: one is the sampling/collage aspect of existing music, and the other is the aspect of generating the immediate noise of the turntable itself, without necessarily using a record. Especially in terms of the latter, why did you start a kind of extreme turntable performance without using records?

Otomo:I guess seeing Martin Tétreault’s performance was a significant factor. In 1997, I was working on “Consume Red” with the band, Ground-Zero, thinking it was time to stop the cutting-up method. I had known Martin before that through Christian Marclay, and I had listened to his albums, but he was a turntable player who did collages, originally from the visual art field. But when I saw him at the Angelica Festival in Bologna, Italy, in 1997, he was a part of a duo with a sampler player, Diane Labrosse, and they hardly used records. They played mainly with turntable noise. While on stage, they weren’t playing instruments much but just making squealy noises (laughs). But it was fantastic, and I was shocked at how they thoroughly focused on simple things. I was watching the show with the members of Ground-Zero, but only Sachiko M and I were amused.

–The following year, 1998, you released your first album with Sachiko M on Filament.

Otomo: Yes, that’s right. So, it was during that period that I decided to break up everything that was going on and go in that direction. I thought, “It’s not a collage anymore.” Again, Martin had a significant influence on me. Soon after that, Martin and I started to play as a duo, so we began to play more and more turntables on stage without using records or collages, and we learned more and more moves and techniques from each other. I think there was a tremendous mutual influence.

–Turntables can be used as an automatic sound system, right? Your first installation work, “without records” (2005), also used a portable record player. Was it on the extension of the same line of this kind of turntable performance?

Otomo: Yes, that was clearly the case with the first “without records.” The way I handled turntables without using records was directly connected to the installation works. What was important, however, was that later, at the time of the “ENSEMBLES” exhibition (2008), we began to work with turntables that various people had created, and this led to the inclusion of more and more works that were not the creations of myself. That was the big difference from my own turntable performances.

“Whether you deal with a motor that moves on its own, or you deal with fixed, vibrating strings”

–In the late 1990s, you shifted to a non-collage direction, but later returned to a collage approach, and your latest release, Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable, includes some of your turntable performance of this kind. What made you decide to work with sampling/collage again?

Otomo: Frankly speaking, I thought I didn’t necessarily have to be so ascetic, and it was okay to do it occasionally. Also, I used to make collage my main focus, but now it doesn’t constitute as big a part of my practice as before; it’s more that I just use the sounds on the record. In the 1990s, the essential theme for me was what the collage sounds meant and how they were cut up, but now I treat it as a texture-creating element of the sound on the record. If there were a slight implication, it would be that I was using Kaoru Abe’s records. That might be similar to the fact that I play “Lonely Woman” on guitar.

–Now, you use both guitars and turntables, which is easier to handle?

Otomo: Well, they are both my main instruments. And I can’t say which one is easier. But I do think to myself, “This kind of music would go better with the guitar,” or “For this kind of partner, the turntable would be more suitable. For example, I might think a guitar would be better when I play with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano. It didn’t happen, but there was a time, in his later years, when I thought it would be nice if Sakamoto-san played the guitar and I played the piano.

–I remember that you also released a live piano performance disc, Piano Solo (2013).

Otomo: Personally, the piano is on the extended line of the guitar. I think of it as a guitar with many strings. So it doesn’t feel like piano playing. It is closer to the idea that I am dealing with an extreme multi-stringed guitar.

–What do you find interesting about playing on a turntable?

Otomo: Turntables are attractive because they are separate from the player’s will and are imperfect devices with many deficits. Digital devices don’t have such deficits. For example, there are almost no other ways to use CDs than to play sound on them. Of course, like Yasunao Tone, it is possible to put adhesive tape on a CD and cause it to malfunction, but a turntable can be used in many different ways. Essentially, it is just a motor and a microphone (cartridge).

A guitar is strings and microphones, but a turntable is a motor and a microphone. They both have the same amplified sound coming out of the amplifier, which means they can also induce feedback. You could say the only difference is whether you deal with a motor that moves on its own, or you deal with fixed, vibrating strings. But again, the important thing is that they both have microphones, and the sound comes from an amplifier. That’s what they have in common, so the sound can be similar whether you’re playing guitar or turntables.

“My music is probably closer to the context of noise music than that of free improvisation.”

— One of the features of Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable is that it is not a live recording, but a studio recording, and it contains many short tracks. Each track is numbered; is this the number of takes?

Otomo: Yes, it is. Actually, I followed the way Derek Bailey numbered respective tracks in “Solo Guitar” (1971). I think “Solo Guitar” is the only other person’s work I was conscious of at this time. I guess I had the idea of making it like the A-side of “Solo Guitar.” It’s not that long and contains various improvisations, but each song doesn’t have a different concept.

— “Solo Guitar” is an album that leaves a strong impression on people who hear it for the first time, but for you, is there anything that feels fresh when you listen to it again now?

Otomo: Honestly, I don’t think I can listen to it with the same freshness decades later, but I just think it’s always amazing. I’m like, “Derek, how did you get to this place?” It’s still outstanding. Of course, Derek Bailey has released many great albums after “Solo Guitar,” but it’s incredible that he suddenly released that one as his first solo album.

— There is a big difference in terms of meaning and reception between a recorded work of free improvisation released in, say, the 1960s or 1970s and the same kind of work released in the 2020s.

Otomo: Well, it would be totally different. Because doing free improvisation now is not an adventure or a challenge by itself. It is just a common approach that can be found anywhere. That’s why I made Solo Works 1 Guitar and Turntable as one of those things that can be found anywhere.

–But that doesn’t mean that you just wanted to record a style of free improvisation, does it?

Otomo: No. There are many styles of improvisation besides free improvisation, and I made this album based on the basic premise that there are many styles. I sometimes think that my music is closer to the context of noise music than to that of free improvisation. When I play with European free improvisers, I often feel that I am playing in a different context from theirs. They hugely influenced me, and I enjoy playing with them, but I think we probably speak different languages.

–What exactly do you mean by the difference in context between free improvisation and noise music?

Otomo: It seems to stem from the significant difference in how they perceive music history before and after their emergence. It’s hard to say, but in the case of the early days of free improvisation, it was based on the idea that “it has to be improvisation,” which led to how it is today. But I don’t think noise is based on the idea that “it has to be noise.” Once you do noise, you are at a dead end, and you are allowed to do whatever you want to do. And I improvise based on that realization, which may sound a bit abstract, though. As a teenager, I was struck by Kaoru Abe’s live performance and Derek Bailey’s free improvisation. After meeting Mr. Takayanagi, I was blown away by Christian Marclay and John Zorn and I met many people of the same generation who played noise and improvised music. Then, I worked with the Otoasobi no Kai and other groups. So this is a very personal piece of music made by a person who has passed through half a century of practice, going through all these encounters.

■”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

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