Ambient music legend Midori Takada: ‘In Japan, artists continue into old age’

tThe sight of Midori Takada whipping between drums, cymbals and marimba is something few observers forget. She is a mesmerizing performer of great physical intensity. So her billing as a “70 year old percussionist” prior to a performance at Melbourne’s Rising festival – kind of like calling an 80-year-old guitarist by Paul McCartney – makes her laugh. “It doesn’t quite tell the whole story,” she says, laughing good-naturedly. “I’ve got a few more arrows to my bow than that.”

Takada etched her name into music history with the enigmatic ambient classic Through the Looking Glass, which she recorded over two days in 1983, developing the album and playing gongs, ocarinas, glockenspiel and every other instrument herself. Though the album fell into obscurity, Takada has become a cult figure in recent years, with her monkish musicianship and reverent cataloging of obscure world music. Her work, meanwhile, has been revived for millennials and Generation Z through endless recycling on YouTube and social media, alongside her contemporaries Brian Eno and Steve Reich.

The newfound attention sparked by the 2017 reissue of Through the Looking Glass — which took place after Takada had a chance meeting with his retired producer on a subway platform — is delightful, she says, especially after she was forced off the road by the pandemic. She played a few concerts in Europe, the US and Australia before the borders closed in 2020 Japan, Covid killed all live performances. “Music, theater and concerts were considered non-vital activities,” she says remorsefully. All her life, Takada has been primarily a pan-globalist, working across borders with artists and styles, so it’s clear that the lockdown was painful. She says she felt creatively stunted.

Takada started picking Chopin chords when he was six years old while growing up in a cosmopolitan home in Tokyo. Her mother was a piano teacher who lived in Shanghai before World War II; her father taught English at university and founded the first Irish literature society in Japan. Her background and education, later at Tokyo University of the Arts, propelled her towards a career performing classical Western music. But her restless artistic curiosity took her elsewhere, first playing drums and keyboards in an ’embarrassing’ prog rock group modeled on Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

After a short stint as a soloist with the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchester, Takada began producing and arranging her own music, and formed a percussion group with other experimental musicians.

“The division of music by genre didn’t interest me at all,” she recalls. “I was interested in the humanity of what I heard. I realized that I had only listened to western music.” She began to tilt towards the African and Asian influences saturated by Through the Looking Glass and the eventual solo follow-up Tree of Life (1999). One of the styles that most influenced her was the structural rhythms of Indonesian and Korean traditional music; she especially liked the simplicity of both. “It was unlike anything I’d heard.”

Such observations could be controversial in Japan, where she found prejudice against Korean culture. But she didn’t care because, she says, she was attracted to quality wherever she found it. “I’ve worked with traditional Korean musicians and artists and learned a lot from them,” she says. Deteriorating political ties between the two countries in recent years have made such exchanges difficult, depressing her: “If you deny culture, people start going downhill. It is part of our development.”

She is convinced that music will survive minor political differences. “My musical education began with the Australopithecus era,” she says, referring to the African hominin sometimes called the mother of man† “Our relationship with rhythmic music goes back more than 3.5 million years, even before homo sapiens. It’s such a fundamental question: why do people need to create rhythm and the space creates that structure?”

Her “phoenix-like revival” from obscurity is now legendary, says Dan Grunebaum, founder of Japanese new music promoter AvanTokyo. “What has also been rediscovered is that she is a virtuoso musician and mesmerizing performer, whose mastery of percussion and theatrical presence on stage make her one of the most impressive live performers today.”

And longevity is in her genes. Takada’s earliest musical influence – her mother – is still alive and 98 years old. “In Japan, artists continue into old age,” Takada laughs.

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