Orbiturtle meets Michiyo Yagi - Japan Tour / by Steve Barry

Over the past few weeks Dave Jackson, Ko Omura and I had the great pleasure of collaborating with two of Japan's leading improvisers: koto player Michiyo Yagi and bassist/cellist Takashi Sugawa. Thanks to an Australia Council for the Arts development grant, we undertook a three-day workshopping and recording residency in Osaka's Joganji Buddhist Temple, and an 8-date tour of mainland Japan. The products of the project - over 3 hours of improvised music - will be available soon; in the meantime below is a brief overview of the collaboration.


The Story

We founded Orbiturtle with a mission to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue within the arts, by curating new collaborations that explore the intersections of east & west, the sacred & secular, and the ancient & modern – dialogues that are becoming increasingly present and significant in the globalised world.

By applying contemporary techniques (electronics, wall-of-sound improvisation, etc.) to the koto – the national instrument of Japan – and collaborating with leading figures of contemporary experimental music, Michiyo herself personifies this nexus between the old and the new.

As Orbiturtle we had performed at the Joganji temple during a previous visit to Japan, and had been inspired by the serene atmosphere of both the temple room and its surrounding gardens. It was the logical place to base our collaboration with Yagi san.

Each workshop day in the temple consisted of a series of free improvisations of different lengths. We took several approaches to beginning each performance – either choosing one member to begin solo, two members to begin together, or removing any pre-planning entirely and just starting to play as a group. There was an atmosphere of mutual respect within the ensemble which led to us thoroughly investigating the many timbral combinations and effects possible with our instrumentation – 17-string and 21 string koto, cello and double bass, tabla and drum kit, saxophone and piano. In some performances we pre-emptively decided on an approximate timeframe for the improvisation, and in other cases let the flow of the emergent music dictate the length of the performance. We took this open-ended approach to the workshopping process in the hope of consistently coaxing out new creative insights and pathways as a group, which also meant the improvisations varied in length from three minutes to half an hour.

Improvised music is a lot like verbal conversation. As such, we’ve found that the success of group free improvisation is often affected by the personal affinity shared between the members of the ensemble, and the capacity of each member to respond spontaneously and empathetically to the decisions or statements made by theother members. With this in mind, our three days of workshopping were buoyed by the meals, drinks and conversations we shared with Michiyo and Takashi outside the temple – in particular through the late-night, post-live-gig hang outs (often hosted by the venue owners) that are one of the incredible mainstays of Japanese hospitality.

It was chilly with scatters of snow in Osaka during our rehearsals, and our improvisations often reflected this and other aspects of Japanese culture and spirituality we absorbed during our time in the country. For example, sections of fragile minimalism evoke the monochrome landscape of the Japanese countryside in winter, while loud and chaotic periods reflected the disturbing deities and masks of Japanese surrealism and theatre we frequently encountered.

Our collaboration with Michiyo and Takashi was immensely fruitful, and between three days of low-fi recordings of rehearsals, a day of studio-style recording and two live recorded gigs produced musical outcomes that are many and varied. We quickly discovered kindred musical spirits in Michiyo and Takashi, and greatly look forward to releasing the consolidated recordings and continuing the collaboration into the future.