Kaoru Watanabe

re/CREATE: Kaoru Watanabe
Reimagines Björk

As musicians, we yearn to create, whether it’s through composing, crafting an individual sound or flipping a beloved piece on its head to make something that’s never been heard before. We long to breathe life into new ideas and to share stories that have not yet been told. In doing so, we create something that speaks to our shared experience, something that helps make sense of our world. But sometimes our educational institutions can muddle the realm of creation and recreation, preparing students to replicate that which already exists rather than foster personal creativity. 

re/CREATE, an interview series from 21CM, provides a glimpse into the minds of musicians who create sounds unique to their own voice while celebrating the artists and traditions that have most influenced them. Join 21CM and host Joe Brent each month as we celebrate some of the most innovative musicians of our day, who pay homage to the traditions they love while creating music from the heart.

In this episode, Brent interviews flutist and taiko musician Kaoru Watanabe, who has developed a unique sound that blends jazz techniques with traditional Japanese textures. Here, he performs Björk’s “Pleasure Is All Mine” on the Japanese shinobue, accompanied by Brent on mandolin and Andrew Ryan on bass.

I want to talk about your experience of going to Japan and merging the music of your heritage with what you already knew. What was the impetus for that? 

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I didn’t speak any Japanese growing up, didn’t know much about Japanese culture. It was mainly through studying jazz and realizing the importance of history, culture and tradition that I realized that I needed to know more about Japanese culture. So, at age 22, I went to Japan and joined [taiko drumming ensemble] Kodo¯. The entrance process involved being an apprentice for two years, running six miles a day, living in the mountains of Sado Island. I was somehow accepted into the group and I spent many years touring with them and, eventually, [became] one of their artistic directors. It was an amazing process coming from a life of studying classical jazz and then having to rewire my brain to understand Japanese music. [It involved] studying [many] different forms of traditional music and dance and singing, and [learning] how the dance and the music are one and the same. You can’t separate [them]. 

How have you been able to blend the music you knew growing up with traditional Japanese music to create something that’s unique to you?

After spending 10 years in Japan, [I wanted] to get back to jazz and classical music, [but] I didn’t have a clear idea of how to do that. There are people who do fusions, but no one was doing it exactly the way I wanted to hear. So for me to pick up the Japanese flute – the shinobue – and to play [John Coltrane’s] “Giant Steps” on it – it [was] very difficult, but that’s also beside the point. There are certain things that give the Japanese flute its essential quality, whether it’s the tone, the type of phrasing used, the vibrato and textures. 

What is it about jazz that can fit with the tonalities and textures of Japanese music? And [how do you] retain the quality of the Japanese music and instruments while creating not a fusion, not a mash-up, but something real that fits together? … I knew I had to take time with it. Really experiment [on] how to frame and put together different textures that work together. 

Can you talk about your process of working on the music for the recent Wes Anderson film, “Isle of Dogs?”

I didn’t score the film – Alexandre Desplat did. But if you hear a track that’s all taiko drumming, that’s me. Having said that, I got the call two years ago. Wes came to my studio and we started jamming. … We ended up in his studio, Electric Lady, and we spent seven hours there. At that point, nothing was animated. He had storyboards and general ideas. “In this scene, this is happening, and we want something exciting and loud.” I said, “How about this?” “Okay, that’s great. Now how about some lighter sounds? Maybe not so busy.” Sometimes he would get really specific. He’s really thinking, “What about this? What about this?”

You can see it in his movies, things are so tightly controlled. And things are changing all the time. I sent him a ton of stuff over the last two years. Ninety percent of it wasn’t used, I would say. … It was the first time in a long time – maybe ever in my life – where I was working. I was assigned to do this tune and get it done by tomorrow. I wanted it to sound good of course, and I wanted it to have feeling. But if it wasn’t used, I had to be okay with that too. 

The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Joe Brent

Joe Brent is a composer and mandolinist who has been hailed as “one of the truly exceptional musicians of his generation,” and whose music has been described as “bursting with emotion … …more 

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