TASHI WADA: I LIKE THE ROAMING
illustration by jay torres
Tashi Wada is the son of the renowned composer and Fluxus member Yoshi Wada and a master of minimal and microtonal music in his own right. Now father and son have joined forces with a cast of collaborators that includes Julia Holter and Simone Forti to produce a 10-track release for RVNG’s FRKWYS series. Nue pairs synthesizers with acoustic instruments and human voices to produce abstract aural textures and explore the subtleties of sound. Tashi met with L.A. RECORD to discuss his compositional process, family dynamics in the studio and growing up Fluxus. This interview by Joe Rihn.
What’s it like playing music with your father? Are there family dynamics at play when you’re collaborating?
Tashi Wada: Definitely. It’s something that I don’t really know how to communicate exactly. I guess if you can imagine your own parents … maybe that’s impossible, but there’s something very deep and I would say maybe even kind of primal. And something that I will carry forever—these experiences and meeting on that level. It’s always felt pretty natural. I don’t think we would have done it otherwise. Like in any artist relationship it has ups and downs, but the ups are especially meaningful for me. We’ve been playing live and performing together I think like eight years now. We never really got around to recording much, so this new album is a first of sorts in that way. It was something I wanted to do for a long time and the right circumstances made it possible. It’s actually very specific how it happened. Someone asked my dad to recreate an older performance of his—‘Earth Horns’—and there’s an electronics system that accompanies that piece which no longer existed, so it wasn’t possible to recreate that. I essentially filled in and did the electronics part live. And from there it just grew organically—naturally. One step after another.
What was it like growing up with your dad so involved in experimental art and music?
Tashi Wada: I think I didn’t quite realize what it all meant until later because we lived in a community of artists in downtown New York and SoHo. All my dad’s friends and everyone around was an artist to some degree. So it only really sort of emerged later—once I had more context for it. But of course I went to school and there were plenty of people I was around who weren’t artists. So I was aware to some degree. It was an interesting experience, I would say. We traveled a lot and we lived in Berlin when I was a child for a year—my dad had a residency. The other side of it was it was New York and it was the 80s, so it was a pretty gritty city at that point in downtown Manhattan. My memory of it is that it was pretty dirty and rough—the city, the subways and everything. But culturally … even as a child I think I could tell there was a lot going on and there was a lot of energy and diverse groups of people. And my parents created a very warm household, so I always felt safe and everything.
Were you always connected with experimental art and music? Or did you ever rebel against it?
Tashi Wada: I played piano as a child, through most of my adolescence—classical piano. I think only later in my teenage years did I understand how all these things connected. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that these were all inter-related—all these styles of art and music—so I wouldn’t say that I rebelled. As a teenager I went through all the different phases of being interested in different kinds of music. It was later that a larger picture emerged. I mean … of course I’ve heard stories of the children of other Fluxus artists who become lawyers or bankers. It does make sense to some degree if you grow up with a certain amount of instability, but I guess I didn’t feel the need to go in the opposite direction.
Was pop music or rock ever important in terms of what you do now? Is that influence there and if so, do you draw on it still?
Tashi Wada: My relationship to it is a little scattered. It’s not something I would say I consciously draw on, but just my general feeling about those things is [the same as] all the music I’ve heard in my life—you know, you absorb it and it influences you in some way. It sends you in a different direction or you follow it. That’s also how I feel the ear works, and memory of music. You draw on these things without even knowing. I was always curious what other people were listening to. I still feel that way to this day. That’s how I find out about music. I’m always more interested to know what other people are listening to. I guess some of my references as a child would be different, but not in an exclusive way.
What brought you to L.A.? How does the city affect your creative work?
Tashi Wada: I moved to L.A. originally to go to school at CalArts and to study with composer James Tenney. And I’ve been here since then. L.A. has definitely influenced my work. I’m not sure if I could say how, but one thing I’ve noticed—and I’ve lived in many different cities—is that there’s a kind of openness to the music scene here. You encounter all kinds of music and all kinds of musicians and it feels very open in that way. It kind of lends to not being stuck in one scene. Which is great to me.
Can we talk a little bit about the album title Nue, and the mythology behind it?
Tashi Wada: It’s really my take on the idea of nue, which is this mythological spirit—that’s how I think of it. But what I like about the image is that for one, it’s made up of the parts of different animals and it is both kind of terrifying but also intriguing. That kind of duality is in the music. It’s haunting but also kind of alluring.
How do you sort of translate an idea like that into sound? Or do you write a piece of music and then find that imagery in it?
Tashi Wada: I think that was kind of done backwards. As far as the music goes in general, I don’t usually have an idea in advance. It’s usually through trial and error and playing and messing around. And then something emerges out of that. Nue was not a concept before the album. It evolved out of the process of making it.
How do these compositions come together? What is the writing process like? What roles do you both play?
Tashi Wada: Parts of the album grew out of playing live together, and the rest of the album is compositions that branch out of that or come from other things that I do. The album involves a lot of different people, including a producer, Cole [M.G.N.], who is a friend. I hadn’t worked with a producer in that way before, so it was a new experience for me to approach the studio in a more traditional way and treat the material as sort of malleable and then shape it in the studio. That was something that we discussed early on—this wasn’t really trying to capture live performances per se, but [instead we worked] through the studio, really pushing things and creating a world sonically.
How do the beginnings happen?
Tashi Wada: It’s not all the same for each piece or section. One side of it is playing live. Most of the pieces—they’re composed but they have a strong element of improvisation. They’re written in such a way that the performers have room to be themselves and to pull things in their own direction to some degree. That’s something important to me in composing. It’s important to me that the performers, including myself, can embody what they’re doing.
I caught part of your set at Zebulon, and it was interesting to me how precise it all seemed with everyone reading sheet music. That space for improvisation is written into the music everyone is playing?
Tashi Wada: Yeah—I write everything that I feel is needed to keep the piece intact and everything else I leave out. One side of that is that while everyone is playing, they’re listening—listening to each other and reacting to each other. Because in live performance that energy is important.
Your work has a certain physicality to it—a sensory experience that goes beyond just hearing it.
Tashi Wada: That’s definitely part of the work. I’ve spent a lot of time working with different tuning systems and psycho-acoustics and understanding how sound works at a physiological level. I don’t claim to treat sound in a scientific way, but all that is part of how I approach it. My first reaction to sound—and I think probably [it’s the same for] most people—is you just feel it first. Everything else comes after that. It was interesting making this album to try to translate certain things that had been worked out in a live setting into a fixed form.
Is there an ideal setting where you’d imagine the listener hearing Nue?
Tashi Wada: Not really. I know people listen to music whereever, whenever these days. I was happy to make it in such a way that once it’s out there, it’s for use however, and it can be listened to all the way through or in sections.
In the past there wasn’t so much range in listening environments. You’d have had a more concrete idea of how it would be experienced. Does that factor into the creative process? You can envision limitless possibilities for the way people will experience your music.
Tashi Wada: With this album more than anything I’ve done in the past. I think this was partially working with Cole—he does quite a range of music—but [also] to conceive of it in a way that was more malleable and could be pulled apart. The general feeling to me is that the album is a bit disorienting and feels a bit surreal. Something like that I feel can be accessed in different ways. Though of course if you do listen to it all the way though, it has a kind of continuity that exists. That’s important too, but I don’t feel like it has to be experienced that way.
Is there still a role that Fluxus plays on the new album and on what you’re working on now?
Tashi Wada: I wouldn’t say in a literal way, but I would say the influence is there in the spirit of exploring. And I would say in an interest in making things that blur categories.
Do you feel you belong to any particular musical canon or tradition?
Tashi Wada: I feel pretty nomadic. I don’t really feel the need to adhere to any style or scene, and I think that’s something [about] listeners these days. People seem pretty fluid in how they hear music, and they can listen to different styles. That’s nice—holding to one style—but I like the roaming.
I’d like to talk about the instruments, especially the less common acoustic instruments—like bagpipes—that appear on the record. What can you do with those that you can’t with synthesis?
Tashi Wada: The mixture of acoustic and electronic instruments—they both bring something the other can’t achieve. With the acoustic instruments like bagpipe, they are familiar in a certain way and they kind of refer to the past. But they’re also very visceral in a way that draws you in. And then the synths provide flexibility that is difficult to achieve with acoustic instruments. And the combination of them—I like how they play off of each other and I think part of how it emerged is just through playing live and getting a blend of these things in the space. That’s hard to achieve otherwise.
Is there a similar intent behind your use of the human voice?
Tashi Wada: Yeah—when we were recording the vocalists, who range in age quite a bit, I was interested in having these different qualities of sound. I wasn’t asking them to sing in a way that was unnatural for them.
I thought it was interesting and sort of rare to have that age range of artists on stage, both visually and sonically. How did you assemble the singers?
Tashi Wada: Julia [Holter] is my girlfriend. Simone Forti was our neighbor when I was a child. Simone is quite well known. She’s a choreographer and she was involved in Fluxus. And she and I reconnected here. We both ended up here. Laura Steenberge is an old friend I met at CalArts. And Jessika Kenney is a person I know more recently, but she’s an amazing vocalist who recently moved to L.A.
Of all the mediums for expression, what about music makes yours?
Tashi Wada: It’s just a kind of primal thing of being drawn to sound. I don’t think I can necessarily explain why. It’s that the possibilities feel kind of endless.
TASHI AND YOSHI WADA’S FRKWYS VOL. 14 – NUE IS OUT NOW ON RVNG INTL.