Improvised Music from Japan / Otomo Yoshihide


Turntable and guitar player

Otomo Yoshihide was born on August 1, 1959 in Yokohama, Japan. He spent his teenage years in Fukushima, about 300 kilometers north of Tokyo. Influenced by his father, an engineer, Otomo began making electrical devices such as a radio and an electronic oscillator. In junior high school, his hobby was making sound collages using open-reel tape recorders. This was his first experience creating music. Soon after entering high school he formed a band which played rock and jazz, with Otomo on guitar. It wasn't long, however, before he became a free jazz aficionado, listening to artists like Ornette Coleman, Erick Dolphy and Derek Bailey; and hearing music, both on disk and at concerts, by Japanese free jazz artists. The musician who influenced him most at that time was alto sax player Kaoru Abe (two of whose concerts he went to hear) and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi. For Otomo, this was a turning point--the point at which he decided to play free jazz.

In 1979 Otomo moved to Tokyo to attend university. While continuing to play jazz and punk rock, in his third and fourth years of university he took part in an ethnomusicology seminar directed by professor Akira Ebato. Otomo became increasingly involved in the study of ethnomusical history, and of two subjects in particular: Japanese popular music during World War II, and the evolution of Chinese musical instruments during the Cultural Revolution. In 1981 he went to Hainan, China with a group led by Ebato, to research ethnic music. In the same year he began playing free improvisation professionally--using guitars, tapes, radios, etc.--at Goodman, a live music club in Ogikubo, Tokyo, where he continued to play for about a year.

Otomo became very active in live performance in 1987. Until about 1990 he often played duo concerts with Junji Hirose (on sax and an original self-made instrument). In that period he also played in a band called No Problem, with Lim Soowoong (junk), Jun Numata (electric bass), Kenichi Saitoh (guitar) and Hirose; performed with Kan Mikami (vocals); and was a member of pianist Kyoko Kuroda's group ORT. Starting in 1990 Otomo collaborated extensively with other musicians, in a wide range of styles. He joined bassist Hideki Kato's group Player Piano ('90-'91), and organized a Japan tour with Hirose and percussionist David Moss ('90). That year, he also started his own band, Ground-0 (later Ground Zero). Until it disbanded in March 1998, the band was always at the core of his musical creativity, while it underwent several changes in style and membership.

Otomo first played outside Japan in 1991. In April of that year he took Ground-0 to Hong Kong to play with two local musicians (bass and drums) in the "Best of Indies" concert; and in December he played in Berlin with Koichi Makigami (vocals), Yuji Katsui (violin), Hiroshi Higo (bass), David Moss (percussion), and Frank Schulte (turntables). Since then, Otomo has played overseas every year.

Otomo has created and organized various bands and projects in addition to Ground Zero. He had two bands between '92 and '94: the Double Unit Orchestra, comprised of two groups which he conducted simultaneously; and Celluloid Machine Gun, which he described as the Hong Kong movie-style music world. Otomo also formed Mosquito Paper, which was active from December '93 to late '94. The name came from the slang term for Shanghai tabloid newspapers filled with gossip and fake news stories. In their performances, Otomo set to music not songs but text readings, seeking to bring about the emergence of something between music and speech. He has had many connections with the Hong Kong/Chinese music and movie scenes, especially in the early and middle '90s. Both the Celluloid Machine Gun and Mosquito Paper projects were eventually absorbed by Ground Zero, when the band launched its monumental work Revolutionary Pekinese Opera. Another of Otomo's major projects at that time was the Sampling Virus Project ('92 to '98), in which sampling processes were applied to musical works which were "passed around" among musicians. In this way, the sampling acted in much the same way computer viruses do--invading, multiplying in and transforming the works --thus bringing new works into being. Otomo developed the project through his various musical activities--solo work, collaborations with other musicians, his bands, etc. One example is Ground Zero/Project: Consume.

Since the disbanding of Ground Zero, Otomo's sound has changed greatly. The difference can be heard especially well in his current major projects: I.S.O., his trio with Yoshimitsu Ichiraku (drums, electronics) and Sachiko M (sampler); and Filament, his duo with Sachiko M. The sound, which tends to embrace simplicity, minimalism, and texture much more than dynamism and instrumental performance, contrasts sharply with the extreme chopping and plunderphonics ("plagiaristic" sampling) which used to characterize Otomo's style. In another departure, in July '99 he started a new jazz project based on his own concepts--a jazz quartet with Naruyoshi Kikuchi (saxes), Kenta Tsugami (saxes), Hiroaki Mizutani (bass) and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki (drums). (Half of the compositions played are those of jazz giants such as Charles Mingus, and the rest are Otomo's). He plans to keep the quartet together at least until the band has made a CD and appeared at the Music Unlimited festival in Wels, Austria, in November 1999.

In addition, Otomo has been very active as a co-founder and a side member of other groups and projects, the major ones being drummer Tony Buck's Peril ('92-'95); Hoppy Kamiyama's Optical*8 (March '93-late '94); violinist Jon Rose's Shopping project ('93-); vocalist Tenko's Dragon Blue ('92-); drummer Chris Cutler's P53 ('94-); vocalist Phew's Novo Tono ('94-); Les sculpteurs de vinyl with Sachiko M and French DJs ('96-); and his duo with Tenko, MicroCosmos ('98-).

Otomo has demonstrated an exceptional talent as a composer of movie/TV/video sound tracks. He has in particular enjoyed an excellent relationship with creators in the Chinese and Hong Kong film worlds (See Major Movie/TV/Video Sound Tracks). He also served as music director of the theater group Rinkogun from '92 to '95, creating the music for such works as Bird Man, Inu no Seikatsu, Hamlet Symbol, and Picnic Conductor.

Finally, mention should be made of Otomo's vital and wide-ranging writing activity. Since the eighties he has presented his ideas on music--from distribution problems in the music industry to sociocultural considerations of such topics as sampling and free improvisation--in his articles and essays for various magazines and books in Japan.

Last updated: July 26, 1999