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Interview with TOMO

An Interview with TOMO

In recent years, there has been something of a revival in the Japanese folk/psych scene. Musician and multi-instrumentalist TOMO is one of the more active players upholding this movement, pushing it into the new millennium with an impressive array of projects centering on drone, minimalism, and even a bit of noise rock. He talks about his new solo guitar album, Butterfly Dreams and Other Works.

You spent some time in the United States when you were young. Is this where you discovered traditional forms of American music?
I used to live in the state of Missouri, in a small town near St. Louis. There was a guy who lived in my neighborhood, a record collector of old American music like early blues, country, bluegrass, ragtime, Hawaiian stuff and some New Orleans jazz (like Dixieland). He was also a decent guitar and banjo player and introduced me to finger-picking styles on the guitar. I was really impressed with his playing, and discovered the potential in using finger-picking techniques to cover the melody or mode, bass, and beat at the same time. I found that a single guitar could cover the instrumentation of a full band.

Later, when I explored more guitar music, like classical, flamenco, and a range of folk from around the world, I realized that this is really the nature of the acoustic guitar. I think this is because—compared to other instruments—the acoustic guitar is stuck with a number of negative elements, like poor volume, harmony, and resonance. In short, the acoustic guitar isn’t really compatible with ensemble music—it’s really a solo instrument in the first place. I feel that the acoustic guitarist should be aware of these negative factors, and must become responsible for them, and deal with the risks.

Who would you say are your biggest guitar inspirations?
I was inspired by lots of blues guitarists, like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and of course Lightnin’ Hopkins. Also, I love Hawaiian guitarists like Sol Hoopii and Gabby Pahinui.

Since I believe the guitar to be a descendent of the lute, I have also listened to, and have been influenced by, many of the lute players/composers during the Medieval period and the Renaissance, such as John Dowland, Anthony Holborne, Luis de Narváez, and Luis de Milán.

Among the stringed instrumentalists working in other world folk traditions, I have been particularly inspired by many Middle Eastern and Indian musicians, such as Ostad Elahi (Iranian tanbur player), Munir Bashir (Assyrian oud player), Hossein Alizadeh (Iranian setar and tar player), and the great Indian sitarist Nikhil Banerjee.

As for inspiration from contemporary guitarists, I will have to give credit to John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Peter Lang, all of whom released on Fahey’s Takoma label. Sandy Bull and Loren MazzaCane Connors are up there as inspirations too. You may find better technical guitarists out there, but these people are not only good guitarists, they are also great musicians who show us a truly original way to interpret the eclecticism found in other folk music and contemporary/experimental music, and express it in their own vision. That is what I like about them and that is what I want to do.

Can you discuss the musical ideas that you were exploring in Butterfly Dream?
I am always concerned with the issue of temperament in my music, particularly with the tunings derived from different musical systems. With temperament as a starting point, I take a different approach with each album.

I believe that musical tunings decide the direction your music will take. If you choose to base your musical ideas on chord progressions, you should probably use equal temperament to remain compatible with key modulation, although you sacrifice the quality of harmony and resonance. If you are using drone as a basis for your music, you should be aware of just intonation, which emphasizes harmony and resonance, although you then sacrifice the ability to use complicated structures of modulation.

When I started to play early American music in the finger-picking style, I realized there were open tunings aside from the guitar’s standard tuning of EADGBE. This made me aware of harmony and resonance, and I began to consider how I could use open tunings to develop my music. I tried of wide range of tunings on the guitar, and also became interested in other stringed folk instruments such as the banjo, sitar, and oud. As my vocabulary expanded, I started to adopt the tunings and picking patterns from folk and traditional music into my guitar style. I think the biggest influences were from Middle Eastern music, Indian classical music, and medieval music. Through a deep curiosity about tuning and temperament, the relationship between harmony, drone, and moiré pattern (the overlap and duration of beat and rhythm) became hugely important for me. These eventually became the foundation of my musical approach. This also accelerated my interest in minimal music, particularly the ideas explored by composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley

In this guitar album, you may hear open tunings which are inspired from traditional folk music, and at same time, you may hear a minimalist approach coming from the overdubbing of hurdy gurdy (and other instruments). A common essence between folk and contemporary minimal music can be found in resonance and harmony. So, my hope was to combine the resonance and harmony from folk traditions and contemporary music to create a sort of alchemical reaction. That’s my perspective and vision for this album.

Compared to your amplified group work, do you take a different approach with solo acoustic guitar?
Without a doubt. I mean, if you look at the acoustic and electric guitar, these are totally different instruments. As I mentioned before, the acoustic guitar has poor volume, sustain and resonance compared to other acoustic instruments. That is why the acoustic guitar is difficult to put into an ensemble. My belief is that the acoustic guitar was simply made as a solo instrument in the first place. The electric guitar was created to solve these issues with the acoustic guitar. The idea of amplification is to create more volume, longer sustain, and richer resonance. At its point of amplification, the electric guitar became compatible with ensemble music.

With amplified instruments, you are basically as loud as the amplifier or sound system you’re using. Therefore, when I’m setting up an amplified instrument, I determine the loudest sound I can get from the sound system. With an acoustic instrument, I pay attention to the quietest sound I can get. The loudest sound of an acoustic instrument is already pretty quiet, and there’s little you can do to change this. However, you can totally control the quietest volume level (of course, this is possible with electric instruments, too). So, if you can play expressively at low volumes, then your volume range on an acoustic instrument can expand as wide as you want, perhaps even infinitely. So although your acoustic instrument can only manage relatively poor volume levels, you can still make people feel that it is dynamic if you can play expressively at low volumes.

Based on this, I tend to make decisions about the choice of instrument when creating music for a particular theme or concept in my work.

Can you tell us about the title of the album?
The title comes from a text written by the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, which also happens to be one of my favorites. It tells a tale of the philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly, happily fluttering around, without knowing he was Zhuangzi. When he woke up, the philosopher could not determine if he was Zhuangzi, who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. He believed, however, there there must be some distinction between himself and the butterfly. Zhuangzi called this the transformation of things.

This story makes us reflect on the philosophical matter of identification and reality. What if, impossible as it may seem, our reality is actually constructed of layers of dreams, like dream within dreams, or a dream of a dream of a dream? What is real? What is reality? It is hard to define what reality is or what dream is. This problem of reality is also related to the question of identity. Who are you? What are you? What makes your existence real? Answering these questions are a little bit like trying to catch that butterfly fluttering around everywhere, and I wanted to write something that expressed this notion. I hope I captured a little bit of this mystery in the mood and atmosphere of the piece.