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Interview with Chihei Hatakeyama

img  Tobias Fischer

What prompted you to leave images, personal experiences and narratives behind this time?
Our previous interview was about Saunter and The River. It is true that these two works drew from personal experiences and were also inspired by images from films. I began working on Variations in 2008 and since I tend to work on several albums simultaneously, it was actually supposed to be completed before The River, which means that it would have followed Saunter. However, when it was about 80% finished, I took a long break from it. It felt it was lacking something. Instead, I wanted to use a non-visual element as the starting point for this album. I felt an abstract concept would be good, so I chose my own compositional methodology as the concept for this album.

You also made some changes in terms of Software. What did this entail from a compositional point of view?

It was actually quite limiting on the one hand. At the same time, these newly imposed limits actually created new possibilities for me. The releases were staggered according to their various publication dates and deadlines. Because of the software change, I ended up using a lot of accidental material  based on the patch I was using and there was also a lot of material that I couldn’t use at all. I recall Christophe Charles once saying that “In composing electronic music, listening back to material is most critical,” and I drew a lot of inspiration from these words. Even now the act of listening back takes up a great part of my time.

In a way, the process of working on the album asks questions about the idea of „purity“ or „absoluteness“ in music.
This isn’t actually mentioned in the press release for the album, but while I was making this album I was indeed searching for something absolute. I wasn’t however able to find it. You might say I was looking for for absolute beauty. However, it was during this search that I came to feel a certain hope in the infinite possibility of variations of soundfiles. The impetus for this discovery came not from working in a digital environment, but rather from the fact that I was primarily working in the analog domain. By passing sounds in the digital domain through analog mic preamplifiers and equalizers and also by outputting the sound through speakers and then rerecording the sound, I became aware of the subtle shifts in harmonic and overtone structures as well as phase shifts - and these elements came to play a crucial role. Someone who attended one of my live shows once told me that they heard sounds other than those emanating directly from the speakers that were the results of sounds reflecting off of the walls and other surfaces of the event space. In fact, that’s exactly what I was going for. That person referred to those reflected sounds as “ghosts.” I think what they were probably hearing were the variations and fluctuation that take place when sounds of a shared and particular frequency pool densely interact. With regards to Variations I would recommend listeners to listen to this work in a variety of environments and with speakers rather than headphones.

You mentioned you wanted to „embrace the opportunity to contemplate your own compositional techniques“.

My compositional process can be broken down into two steps. The first is processing the source material. The second is determining what to do with the prepared material. Using computers and outboard gear, it is possible to process material in an infinite number of ways, so you could say that processing could go on forever. In fact, processing continues until the composers makes the conscious decision to stop and move on. As such, I feel that nothing in the digital domain is absolute or definite. Another way to put it is that the sounds remain in an unfinished and temporary state. As a result, over half of the files used for this album were files I had previously created going all the way back to 2004. Some of these were sounds I had created for various other releases - and so I applied additional processing to them.
My other approach had to do with figuring out how to use the prepared material. As I mentioned in our previous interview, I performed and recorded instruments rather than using MIDI. This may sound like a contradiction, however, it’s actually difficult to separate the two processes of “processing source material” and “determining how to use the processed material.” Both the process of recording improvised performances in Digital Performer and processing material using computers and analog outboard gear are endless.

Some artists dare not think about their own techniques in too much detail, afraid of destroying the magic.
I also hesitate to reveal my compositional processes. And yet with this album, I wanted to listener to know how the album was made.

Perhaps because the relative balance between the conscious versus the unconscious in your oeuvre has shifted?

This is a difficult question. Sometimes before I begin processing material and even while I am composing I have a clear and precise image or theme that I am going for. Other times the concept comes to me after I have finished a work and begin reflecting on it. To be honest, I feel that working unconsciously suits me better, although even then I compose quite deliberately most of the time. In the past, however, it hasn’t worked out too well either when I over analyze a work and am overly conscious. So now I try to ask myself what the particular work is about when it has taken a somewhat discernible form. As such, I always name my albums when they are completed. I like the act of naming.

Your work leaves it intriguingly open, how important improvisation is for you in this respect.
I am not an “improv artist” so I don’t attach any value to improvising as such. If, while I’m improvising, I happen upon an idea worth keeping, I will work that into my album. And if I like an idea, I might extract it and repeat it somehow and try to perfect it. As far as composition goes, I don’t read or write music and as such there is no “score” per se, so the lines between improvising and composition are very blurry for me. Only a small amount of the material that I generate through improvising works its way into my albums though. I noticed recently that 95% of the soundfiles I generate don’t get used. What this means is that regardless of whether the material was “improvised” or “composed”, I don't know what final form it will take until I begin processing it with the computer. The moment I import newly recorded sounds into Max/MSP and Reaktor are the moments I enjoy the most.

Tell me a bit about the recording of Variations.

I may be repeating myself, but for some songs I recycled older material from previous projects, and I also prepared new material for some songs. To recycle soundfiles with different software, or to use the same same software and patch but to treat the same soundfile in a different way was one of the concepts of Variations and is evident in each track on this album. However, since I had been working on it since 2008, I can’t clearly recall what mental or emotional state I was in at the time those first tracks were made. As I mentioned previously, even with “finished” songs, the act of listening back is one of the most crucial stages in my compositional process. I felt this acutely in 2009 when I traveled to northern Japan to visit a close friend. It’s normally a three hour train ride on the express, but for some reason on this day I decided to take a local train that stopped at every stop which extended the journey to twelve hours. It was during this train ride that I listened to Variations on repeat. Listening back to a prototype like this was really critical to the life of the album.

How hard was the process of finding suitable materials as your point of departure compared to reworking them?
It’s hard to say which was more important, but for Variations I would have to say it was the performance. If you look at my total body of work, however, selecting tone colors and timbres and creating sound files is most important. Finding suitable materials is a very hard and tedious process for me. It takes a lot of time to sift through all of the soundfiles to find what is suitable for the song at hand. For me, rather than finding the right soundfiles for the sound, it’s about finding the right song for the soundfiles. As far as soundfiles go, if the quality of the initial recording is good, then the soundfiles naturally turn out well. When recording, I am always conscious of what kind of material I am trying to generate for soundfiles to further process.

Is it important for you that listeners can actually follow the unraveling of the process as such? Or would you say that, for the audience, the technical and compositional details of your work should not be of any relevance?
I do think it is important for the listener to understand the process, although it is not essential. Understanding the compositional process and concept allows the listener to engage with the work on a deeper level and enjoy it more, but my hope is that it can be enjoyed without understanding the process. The ideal situation for me would be if someone were to listen to it without knowing anything and then come across this interview, for example, and learn something about the process and then be able to revisit the work with a fresh perspective.

May a narrative have slipped in through the backdoor in a way?

The listener is, of course, free to imagine natural landscapes and other images when listening to this work. My music is more akin to sculpture than it is to painting in many ways. The material is there and it is the collaboration with the material decides what form it will take.

It seems as though sometimes, like when you discovered repetitive patterns in your music, you will be surprised by your own creation ...
I feel that soundfiles are like water and that the same phenomena that is present in nature is present in the creation of electronic music. Not just in the digital domain using computers and software, but also in the analog domain using effects pedals and outboard gear. I’ve felt this correlation most acutely in the analog domain, however. Whether with tube equipment or solid state gear containing transistors, by passing sound through preamps and line amps, the sound acquires additional harmonics and overtones. By then importing it into the computer again you can accentuate the overtones and the small shifts in tonality thus can become significant changes. The way in which the analog domain can evolve the soundfiles felt very akin to processes in nature to me. The same steps can be applied to post-production and mastering as well.

What kind of meaning did you extract from this procedure?

That with sound, there are no absolute forms. That infinite variations are possible with the same material and often contain seeds for more than one song or work.

How do you restrict yourself to what's really important?

As you mention, the possibilities with electronic music are endless as there are also innumerable works of electronic music. The process of deciding what interests me and what to create is a challenge for me. Often when I've completed a work, a new idea or concept emerges out of that one and so I move forward with renewed energy. This process is repeated throughout my works. But I feel the most import aspects for me are tone color, timbre and sound itself.

By Tobias Fischer

Chihei Hatakeyama Discography:

Minima Moralia (Kranky) 2006    
Dedication (Magic Book Records)    2008    
The Secret Distance Of Tochka (Boid) 2009    
The River (Hibernate) 2009    
August (Under The Spire) 2009    
Saunter (Room40) 2009    
A Long Journey (Home Normal) 2010    
Ghostly Garden (Own Records) 2010
Variations (Soundscaping Records) 2010


Chihei Hatakeyama

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