At the Osaka ’70 world expo Takeisha Kosugi was creating environmental sound works as a commissioned artist. This was the same year Karlheinz Stockhausen and his ensemble were creating an oasis of musical calm and exultation within the spherical auditorium at the world expo, playing pieces like Spiral and others utilizing shortwave radio. The space/time coordinates for technology and experimental music were in perfect alignment at the expo. Born in 1938 Kosugi already had considerable experience with musical antics by the time 1970 arrived. His exploration of diverse sound worlds and his humorous antics continued until his death on October 12, 2018 at the age of 80.
In 1958 Kosugi was a student of musicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was there that his apprenticeship and final mastery for creating experimental sound worlds began. Joined by fellow student Shukou Mizuno he founded a collective improvisation ensemble. When they participated in a dance festival at the Tokyo Dance Institute they donned the name Group Ongaku. It translates into English as Group Music and is a simple description of their practice. Many more of the group's few performances were at dance concerts, symposiums and festivals, but they also performed at recitals of music by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono, the two leading lights of Japanese experimental music in the world scene at the time. They also performed at member Yasanao Tone's one man exhibition at the Minami Gallery. This connection to world of dance and the visual arts would follow Kosugi the rest of his life. He was later a key collaborator in Merce Cunningham’s famous dance company. Group Ongaku played radical music and it soon established them as an essential component in Japan’s post-war music scene.
As early practitioners of collective improvisation they attempted to create acoustic sound spaces that corresponded to the actual time & space they played in. Violin was Takeisha Kosugi’s primary instrument. The other members of Group Ongaku played cello, drums, guitar, and saxophone as well as using their voices and whatever else happened to be lying around nearby. Usually there was a radio nearby and whatever they could tune in off the bands became a part of their improvised sets. This is evident on the “Automatism” recording from 1960 (released by the Hear Sound Art Library in 1996. The members were also fans of the tape recorder. The recordings they put to tape were further manipulated and added into the mix during their live shows.
If you listen to it and it sounds strange and chaotic I’d agree with you. The thing about collective improvisation is that it takes practice and is a skill set that must be learned. The listener who judges the results based on previous exposure only to pop and rock music may think it is all just noise. An appreciation of jazz will have the listener better prepared for what might be encountered in the forays of Group ONGAKU, but they may still be left bewildered, apparently abandoned in a wilderness where loud predators lurk behind every menacing sound. The different voices of the instruments may appear disconnected; but there is a unity, like a golden thread, amidst all the howling. There is a method to the apparent madness of inchoate gurgling that churns alongside sax squelches, vacuum cleaners, and violin scrapings. This is the soundtrack for a generation waking up and coming into adulthood after the devastation of the Nagasaki nightmare, their memories forever burned in the aftermath of Hiroshima. In their early twenties and full of the vigor of youth is it not to be expected that their experience, when translated into music, the language of pure emotion, shows signs of chaos and rage?
Yet they were firmly in the zeitgeist of the time even if they were removed from centers of musical innovation in the west. The sounds they made shared a common goal and direction with other contemporaries such as John Cage with whom Kosugi would later formed a close friendship. Audiences in Japan did not hear the work of those such as Group Ongaku, Cage and Stockhausen with the same revulsion and outrage as often happened on opening nights in Europe and America. Steeped in the traditions of Zen Buddhism and the Shinto religion felt more at ease with the random, non-linear, and abstract acoustics they created. Which isn’t to say they were adored as much as the Japanese bands who brought rock and roll into their hearts and made it their own, but only that their existed a level of understanding from their countrymen.
Listening to these recordings now, over fifty years after they were made, they sound remarkable and are right at home in the canon of twentieth century improvisational and experimental music. The work Kosugi did with Group ONGAKU formed a strong foundation for his later journeys with his next band the Taj Mahal Travelers, and his ongoing work as a solo artist.
THE TAJ MAHAL TRAVELLERS
The efforts of Group Ongaku gradually wound their way down. Throughout the rest of the 60s it served the needs of individual composers within the group as a way to have a ready ensemble able to play their work. Ready to embark on a new project Kosugi pulled together the members of the Taj Mahal Travellers in 1969. His recruits were from the ranks of the younger generation of Japanese. They had grown up with rock and roll and jazz. Their minds had been turned on the moment they had tuned in their radios and they were ready to drop out. Standard musical instruments were played by the Travelers, but the way they played them was very not standard. For the most part the instruments used were acoustic, such as the santur (an Iranian hammered dulcimer), harmonica, tuba, tympani, trumpet. Others were electrically amplified such as Kosugi’s violin. Ryo Koike also amplified his double bass, but he is remembered more the way he played with it sitting flat on its back across the ground. Straddled across the top his bass the way he bowed his instrument was very sensual. A Mini Korg synthesizer was also a part of their set up. Besides playing mandolin Michihiro Kimura was also the resident tree branch shaker. As Julian Cope noted about this unusual instrument “Kimura appears to have spent much of the early ‘70s shaking a tree branch in a wide variety of obscure locations around the world.” Other instruments in this vein were “voices, stones, and bamboo winds.” Trying to hear those on their extant recordings is part of the magic and the mystery. The Taj Mahal Travelers had made themselves a promise to play “wherever a power supply was available” and their sound had an emphasis on heavy electronic processing. The use of delay effects and echoes congealed the array of their instruments into a swirling cosmic gel.
It is undoubted that the Taj Mahal Travellers were infused with the psychedelic spirit of the day. Yet group leader Kosugi put forth a valiant effort to make sure they were not confused with being a mere commune of music making hippies. In their first year they played a series of shows at Shibuya’s Station 70 club and the stage was taken over by revelers who wanted to contribute to the music making. They jumped up onstage, even though they hadn’t been invited, thinking it was some kind of “happening” or “be-in”. Yet the sound of the Travellers wasn’t intended to be a free for all among whoever wanted to participate. Rather it was an improvised exploration of sonic geography between dedicated musicians who were united in a singular aim. After these initial performances Kosugi took pains to only book his band at places such as art galleries or the kaikan culture-halls.
The group took a break over the summer when Kosugi went to Osaka for to perform as a solo artist at Expo ’70. He became friends with Stockhausen and the members of that group and was inspired by their day long performances in the specially designed spherical auditorium. With these experiences fresh in his mind at the end of Expo ’70 he was ready to get to work with the Travelers again. Some of the band still insisted on trying to play at rock venues, which Kosugi resisted. Their collective destiny changed when they were asked to play a dawn-to-dusk concert at Oiso Beach. This experience gave the groups the modus operandi they needed to succeed. Throughout the rest of their career they continued to perform outdoors for the most part, playing their strange music on beaches and hilltops. Their music consisted of improvised drones composed and long spontaneous passages reflective of the deep meditative presence they occupied within the unique space/time of coordinates of each specific performance. The group continued to play at beaches, and on mountains and were also invited to play at Shinto temples. Between 1971-2 they went on a tour where they played in majestic locations in the Netherlands, Germany and England, before heading on to Iran and India where they played at the Taj Mahal itself, before coming back home to Japan. From 1972-74 they spent a good deal of time both on the road and in the studio. The names of their recorded songs reflect their process, such as “Taj Mahal Travelers between 6.20 and 6.46pm” or “Taj Mahal Travelers between 7.50 and 8.05pm”. They are snapshots of what was played by a certain group at a certain place at a certain time.
After making two albums with his band Takeisha returned to the studio in September of 1974 to make a solo album. Catch Wave is a piece he wrote for processed violin, voice, radios and oscillators. It is available for listening in the extensive cultural archives of Ubu.com at http://www.ubu.com/sound/kosugi.html. The first side of the LP arrives like a beam from a strong station. With the antenna pointed it gets a bearing on the transmitting station and comes in full quieting. As only good radio and good music can do, Catch Wave transports you to another world, one of endless shimmering undulations. The rising of the waves of the radio and the oscillator, and a prevalent wah-wah-wah and whirr-whirr-whirr of mysterious origin are mixed in with the floating see-saw of the electric violin. The entirety of the piece creates an immersive mysterious sound world. The waves build and then fall back again into nothing. The piece takes up the entirety of two-sides of a slab of wax. It is the kind of signal I always want to tune right into. It is kind of wave I always want to catch.
Japrock sampler: how the post-war Japanese blew their minds on rock ‘n roll by Julian Cope, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007