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Walking intently: Julian Cowley remembers the work of Takehisa Kosugi

October 2018

“Throughout the 80 year span of his life Kosugi followed an independently minded course with luminous clarity of intent”

“Keep walking intently.” That straightforward instruction formed the entire score for Takehisa Kosugi’s Theatre Music. Throughout the 80 year span of his life Kosugi followed an independently minded course with luminous clarity of intent. Theatre Music was one of a series of the Japanese artist’s “Event” pieces, printed on a set of cards and published in 1964 by George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement. Some of these pieces, notably Music For Revolution, make more extreme demands upon their performer: “Scoop out one of your eyes five years from now and do the same with the other eye five years later.”

Through his appearances at Fluxus festivals, Kosugi came to the attention of audiences in Europe and America. His artistic commitment to the embodied nature of action in time and space seemed at home under the Fluxus banner. As a student of musicology at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, during the late 50s, Kosugi had already raised objections against the prevailing European conception of musical composition, which he found to be too abstracted from the physical dimension of sound-making and from the changeable nature of acoustic environments. This critical perception rather than direct influence from the international avant garde prompted him to experiment.

In November 1958 Kosugi and cellist Shukuo Misuno started to improvise together, foregrounding bodily actions and material interactions within the music-making process. Joined by others, including Yasunao Tone, their sessions expanded to include intermedia performances. In 1960 the name Group Ongaku was adopted for these exploratory activities. Recordings from that year show that not only were these young musicians engaged in radical free improvisation using conventional instruments such as piano, cello and alto saxophone but they were also incorporating noise derived from a vacuum cleaner, radio, oil drum and bowls borrowed from Misuno’s kitchen.

At the other end of that decade, in December 1969, Kosugi formed Taj Mahal Travellers, on the surface a very different kind of improvising group, in which he played electric violin. The floating drones and looped delay captured on the handful of records they made before disbanding in 1976 have often drawn comparison with cosmic drones and psychedelic rock. Yet that resemblance was coincidental rather than calculated. “What electronics demonstrated to me,” Kosugi later explained, “was the movement of electronic waves separate from myself. Developing a relationship with those phenomena is a way to transcend yourself.” Tuning in to the physical propagation of electronic as well as instrumental sound heightened Kosugi’s awareness of the variability of performance environments and enabled him to move beyond those acquired habits which restrict improvisatory freedom.

In 1971 Kosugi and his group decided to fulfil the promise of their name by making a journey to India, to play music at the actual Taj Mahal. Their trip began with an extended tour of Europe. At the invitation of the Swedish government they participated in Utopia & Visions, a summer-long celebration of radical thought and alternative lifestyles at Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art. There Taj Mahal Travellers met and performed with legendary trumpeter Don Cherry.

Eventually, in April 1972, they bought a Volkswagen bus in Rotterdam and set off across the Alps on a month-long trek to Shah Jahan’s marble mausoleum in Agra. Kosugi later made it clear that for him the crucial aspect of that adventure was not its iconic destination but the process of travelling, which brought about dramatic changes in the group’s sense of place and space. The physical journey affected their individual perceptions and reverberated into their collective improvising.

Kosugi loved to film ocean waves, embodied motion visible in crests and troughs, audible in their roar and breaking. Taj Mahal Travellers concerts would often incorporate the screening of such films. In August 1972 they gave a late evening performance at London’s Roundhouse, main venue for the International Carnival of Experimental Sound. Annea Lockwood, who helped organise that festival, still recalls “the beauty of Kosugi and his Taj Mahal Travellers playing in layers of delays and reverb for hours, with film of waves rolling in behind them – gorgeous tone, and one of the loveliest uses of delays I've heard”. The mesmerising impact of Kosugi’s playing can be heard on his echo-laden solo album Catch Wave, issued by CBS in Japan in 1975. Further testimony to that gorgeous tone, and his fine musical judgement, is Violin Improvisations, recorded in New York in 1989 and released by Lovely Music.

In addition to solo performances Kosugi engaged in numerous collaborations, across the years, with artists ranging from Steve Lacy to Sonic Youth. From 1977 however he reached a new kind of audience as a composer, performer and ultimately musical director with The Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Working with such accomplished dancers raised Kosugi’s involvement with the temporal and spatial aspects of embodied action to new levels of refinement. For many years David Behrman worked closely beside him in that context and often found himself surprised and challenged by Kosugi’s inventiveness and unpredictability. Behrman’s composition Interspecies Smalltalk, for instrumentalist and interactive electronics, became part of the Company’s repertoire. “When Kosugi plays it he’d do some astonishing things that I never would have thought of myself,” Behrman recalls. “If I’d notated it, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.”

During a mid-60s visit to the US, Kosugi met and connected with iconoclastic artists Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik. In 1967 they joined him for Music Expanded, a concert of Kosugi’s work at New York’s Town Hall. In September 2015 that city’s Whitney Museum took Music Expanded as the title for a retrospective of Kosugi’s work as performance artist, extending from his Fluxus “Events” to more recent experiments with tape, light sensors and live electronics. Two months earlier Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery had presented three of Kosugi’s sound installations in the UK’s first major solo exhibition of his work. Throughout his life Kosugi walked intently, a radical artist who understood the need to be fully alive and alert in the midst of the waves of the world.

Comments

Thanks for the remembrance.

There's a Kosugi story that has stayed with me.

Forty years ago, I was sitting in my apartment reading my weekly copy
of the Village Voice when I came across an ad in the back pages from
the Cunningham Dance Co. that was looking for a composer/performer
to join their organization. The pay and working/travel conditions and
just plain opportunity were better than anything I’d ever dreamed of,
but I really had another person in mind who’d be a better, more realistic,
candidate when it came to this job - after all, I was only a teenager at the time.

So, I rushed out of my house, newspaper in hand, and ran over to the
next block and excitedly rang the doorbell of my friend, composer Jerry Hunt.
He, of course, was going to pursue this opportunity and would suggest that,
if he were to receive the position, that I would be his assistant - but he also encouraged me to pursue this as well - that I should emphasize the performances I had already done - especially the Fluxus-based ones. I spent the evening crafting the best looking resume with the most pointed aspects of what I felt were my performance/composing strong-points and off it went in the mail to the Cunningham group the next morning.

The disheartening news had arrived when Jerry called a day or two later.
The position had already been filled - even before the ad was placed -
because it was a necessary aspect of the application for a Green Card
for Kosugi. Merce had to show that he had placed an ad for a position
and that Kosugi had answered this ad. It was crushing to me and somewhat,
cynically expected by Jerry.

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