I hear the silence stop: Ayako Okubo

Portraits 28.07.2023

It's winter. Already far away. Transcribing an interview today, in another season, in writing. Her words often appear - one word and two at a time - in Ayako's borderline pronunciation. Tasty to the ear, tasty for its semantic multiplication. At other times, the syllable lengthens, the word becomes a breath, and the search for fitting words between these linguistic zones. Without having been able to transcribe all the orality of the interview, I'll let a few reminders linger and drift. 

The interview took place on January 17, 2022, in Strasbourg, at theHANATSUmiroir studio. The interview and video portrait ofAyako Okubo is the first in a series of 12. Ayako Okubo is a flutist and co-director of the HANATSUmiroir ensemble. The film's shots alternate between portraiture and scrolling railway tracks. The film is a trajectory, a displacement in which the notions of silence are echoed. 


Thank you 

Céline Pierre: As far as the video is concerned, these will be 20-minute sequences. I'll raise my hand to warn you that we're nearing the end....
Ayako Okubo: And also, if you don't understand the way I'm telling you something, don't hesitate to tell me again so that I can talk again. How long do you think we'll be talking?

I set aside 2 hours for peace of mind, but if you feel you've finished before then, or that it's a good idea to stop, you stop.
I think two hours is fine. It goes fast.

I'd like to say thank you ...
Thank you.
... Because, in this grey winter, it's like a light to be able to move towards someone. To begin with, I wanted you to introduce yourself very simply, in Japanese. I really like this notion of moving. I'd like people to hear it.

Leave and take all these crops with me

In my career... it's quite interesting because I've lived in different places at different times. I grew up in Japan, and moved to the Netherlands when I was 18. For me, I didn't yet have a notion of where I lived or what I did. For me, what I do is very important, but I didn't really question "where" I do things. After 18 years, I wasn't living in Japan and I became detached from all these cultures, which in the end are something very everyday when you've lived in Japan. All those ways of being. All those ways of inhabiting the seasons, for example... All those cultures, very much linked to religions too. It all blended together in our daily lives, and I couldn't distinguish between them. Distinguish that it was something very special. When I saw all these sides, once I was detached from everyday Japanese life, it seemed to me... to have a lot of value for me.
I said to myself, ok I don't live in Japan anymore, I choose to live in France instead, but, that doesn't stop me from taking all these cultures with me, all this beauty of my native country. It's part of my character. I embody these cultures. It was when I let go of all those cultures that I took back everything that belongs to me, fundamentally.

There's something about the way you were talking earlier, two words that got a bit mixed up. They were parcours and par cœur. It was quite beautiful because a song you know "by heart" is also something, for me, that's linked to everyday life. A piece you know "by heart" isn't necessarily a recitation or a piece you're going to learn to memorize perfectly, it's also something you've imbibed in your daily life or repeated over and over again. A lullaby we've heard, for example. And I was wondering if you could identify, in your music, something of this gap between the culture of your childhood and early adolescence, and the culture in which you arrived in France at the age of 18? Do you feel that there's something in your music that relates to this?

I love it when sound crosses landscapes, even in a rather picturesque and graphic way, from one hill to the next. You can hear it moving. Calling. I noted a phrase by Toru Takemitsu: "I realized that composing meant making sense of the river of sounds that flows through our world. Western rationalism has a tendency to fragmentation, and composers have lost the essence of music by working on the alchemy of numbers". It's the history of the West to separate things, to dissociate them in order to analyze them. Today, we feel the need to reunite things and give them a broader meaning. So that we can return to the movement of the river, the river of sounds.

Let's return to Toru Takemitsu. He is very fond of water, which he often identifies with the work of music, and he says: "Music is like the river or the sea. And in the same way that many marine currents of different characters stir up the ocean, music enriches our lives and helps us discover new horizons. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, but I think sound and water are very similar. We perceive water, which is basically inorganic, as something organic or alive. We only know water, which circulates indefinitely in the universe, in a transient form". It seems to me that this ties in with what you were saying at the very beginning about letting go: water actually flows and continues.

Yes, that's exactly it. You let go of the water and it doesn't come back in the same way. Maybe it'll fall in the rains. The water will be in the air like steam. That's what's interesting. At first, it's the same material, but then it transforms and comes back, and I start again, and do something else.

Jojo Yuasa and Toru Takemitsu

Jojo Yuasa, whom I mentioned earlier, is a composer who formed a group with Toru Takemitsu and other artists in the 1950s/1960s. I knew him; he's still alive, in his nineties. I met him to celebrate his eightieth birthday, and I performed his piece. He's an incredible man. He had a lot of curiosities, and that had a big impact on me. We talked a lot about this notion of how we transpose, or how we bring back everything we've had since birth. He based his work on everything that's cultural to him, on his culture. But at the same time, he's one of those generations who were suddenly exploded by Western musical cultures and know-how. For him, it all came rushing in, he rushed into it. Then he returned to his original culture.

Indeed, Takemitsu talks a lot about that post-war period when, as he puts it, there was no contemporary music in Japan. Contemporary music was Western. He immersed himself in this music, and at some point asked himself what was going on in his own country.
Yes, I met Jojo Yuasa and his music at about the same time as I met this problem myself. I'm Japanese, but I missed out on learning the adult code. I wasn't in Japan. I left when I was eighteen. As an adult, I grew up with a rather Western code. That was when I was a bit lost in terms of, how shall I say, "identity".
He took all his backgrounds (Japanese and Western) and created in his own way, neither completely Western nor completely traditional. It was a relief to hear that you can remain Japanese without having to do what other Japanese women do. It was a professional and personal encounter. That time left a deep impression on me.

Takemitsu states that one of life's driving forces is to try to bring antagonisms together. These are not necessarily antagonisms, opposites, but very different things that we may have experienced as antagonisms. What motivated you to leave Japan at the age of eighteen? Did you have something to escape from? Did you feel the need to seek something elsewhere?
Actually, I just left the country. The opportunity presented itself and I said, okay, why not! I was young and I wasn't afraid. I went to study in the Netherlands because I met a teacher I really liked. Two months later, I had packed two suitcases and was in the Netherlands at the age of eighteen.
Then I went back to Japan, but immediately returned to Europe. It was clear to me that this was where I had to live, where I wanted to live. But how can I continue to be myself when I'm far from my origins? I'm not going to deny my origins, I'm not going to convert to a European culture to live in Europe... There are some things that cost me more effort than others. There are some things I still don't understand!

I have the impression that, listening to you, there's also this notion of call. That silence is not cut up arithmetically, but that there is room for distance.A displacement that calls for movement, and by listening to it, this call envelops us... when you say, for example: "I hear when the silence stops".
When you play certain pieces or improvise, do you feel as if you're calling out to something, or recreating a link, launching, connecting this distance with Japan, with your island?
When I improvise, I play a lot with this notion of silence. In fact, it took me a long time to improvise. I've always said to myself that I'm not an improviser. I'm more of an interpreter. That's where I trained as a musician. I always had a complex about saying I couldn't improvise. At a certain point, thanks to meetings with artists and working with them, I said to myself, no, in fact, I have my own ideas and that's what I interpret. And at that point, everything came very naturally.

Finding something that vibrates inside 

What advice would you give to a young woman getting involved in creative music?
It's very important to try out different things. Even in contemporary music and creative music. There's a whole scale of aesthetic and technical differences and ways of doing things. For me, it's very important to experiment with all the different stages and aesthetics, the different encounters. Make the most of collaborations with other artists to get inspired and find something that vibrates inside you and shows you where you want to go. (It can even change at different times). I myself was very much inspired by this search for identity, so I worked a lot on the repertoire of contemporary Japanese music. Then I moved on to other things. Now I can open up a little more to the "non-writing" side of things. Fifteen years ago, I couldn't imagine doing this at all. I never thought I could play something that wasn't written. It's amazing to be surprised by myself!

What can I do as an artist?

Is there a project you're currently working on that you'd like to tell us about?
In the mediation and transmission work we're doing, I've been very interested in how to integrate contemporary and creative music into the pedagogical field. I coordinate a lot of encounters with children and social associations.
At the moment, we're involved in a creative process with an association that runs a discussion group with women who are victims of domestic violence. For me, it was a big shock. I said to myself: what can I do as an artist? Putting these testimonies to music, what does it change for them? What can it change for a society? How can we stretch out our ears and let these testimonies come out? The fact that this person is heard is already a big step.
The show revolves around the isolation that exists in society. It's a great challenge for me and our ensemble to work on this subject. The show will be premiered in March to coincide with International Women's Rights Day.

Interview by Céline Pierre January 17, 2022 in Strasbourg.

Photos © Céline Pierre


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