Famed actress and singer Akihiro Miwa grew up in Nagasaki, where as a child she survived the city’s nuclear attack to go on to become one of Japan’s most celebrated transgender personalities. Here, activist, computer musician and Comatonse label owner Terre Thaemlitz pays respect to Miwa’s critical voice and uncompromising self-image.
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call Akihiro Miwa my personal icon, if only because I’m not into all the social power behind the making of icons. And I actually really hate fashion, because it’s so rooted in gender and class divisions. But Miwa can’t be reduced to a fashion icon in the conventional sense anyways. She started out singing French chansons and doing cabaret in Tokyo’s Ginza district in the sixties, and today you couldn’t find a single person in Japan who doesn’t know who she is. It’s pretty remarkable considering how left-leaning and openly critical she’s been of the Japanese government and political status quo in her stage shows and on TV over the years. On stage, she always goes into monologues about social issues between songs. Being a survivor of the atomic blast at Nagasaki, she’s always been quite outspoken‚ not only against the broader theme of war, but also against the government policies that led to the war and the unjust treatment and care of survivors.
For better or worse, I think a lot of her initial pop success had to do with just how femininely beautiful she was in her youth. She also had some edge, which was clear from her first hit in the late fifties, “Meke-Meke”. That song used a lot of dirty words that had never been spoken on record, and this was 30 years before hip-hop started doing the same. I first became aware of her in the late eighties after seeing an underground New York screening of her 1968 film, Kuro Tokage (Black Lizard). The film is based on a play by Yukio Mishima, a famous gay author who committed suicide while still quite young. Mishima has a little cameo in the film, and there’s a really nice outing scene where Miwa kisses him, then turns right to the camera and says, “So now you know”. It really made an impression on me because even up into the ’80s, that was something you just didn’t see in Hollywood cinema.
Unlike many countries, the non-transitioning transgender scene in Japan is pretty visible‚ especially in terms of media presence. And that’s rare, because in so many other places the media only focuses on the immaculate, perfectly passing, post-op, male-to-female ideal. That’s exactly what Miwa isn’t, and she shows that being transgender doesn’t always have to be equated with hormones and operations. A small part of the Japanese acceptance of these ideas is cultural, since Japanese people are traditionally not that into body alteration. With all of Japan’s social emphasis on fashion, many women still don’t have pierced ears. But it’s not about being conservative; it’s just not how most people approach their bodies here. Personally, I knew from a pretty early age that even if I wanted to medically transition, it just wasn’t financially possible. Class and economics are at the heart of the concept of passing, which is ironic given the poverty most transgendered people live in around the world. Miwa, for me, stands for the potential for transgendered people accepting their own body and growing old with it. And resisting becoming simply male or female. This is a bit unconventional… and for me, very, very important.
Musically, I can’t identify with what Miwa does, because I actually hate chansons and French pop music in general. As a non-performative computer musician, one of my main goals is to offer an alternative vision of the transgendered stage. Glam is just not my cup of tea. Also, as she’s gotten older, Miwa’s taken a sharp spiritual turn. She somehow got mixed up with fortune tellers who do color readings of auras and energies emanating from the body, which is why she now dyes her hair bright yellow. Talk of auras is standard in a lot of eastern religions but it’s ultimately a swindle. She actually hosted a weekly television show about it. I mean, I despise religion and spirituality, so that was a pretty upsetting change for me. For several of my friends, too. We all admired her for her focus on social issues over the decades, because aside from the fact that it was always unwavering, it was also grounded in political realities people can change. And I think it’s sad when people suddenly preach faith as they start worrying about death. But unwelcome spiritual themes are always lurking about in transgendered communities, if only because the dominant discourses on the subject revolve around a perceived split between the physical body and the inner self. It’s a metaphor that lends itself all too easily to metaphysics. Her changes are a bit disappointing, but not surprising. I’m thankful she’s still here, showing the world that being transgendered is not only about youthful beauty. ~
This piece appears in 2012’s Spring issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Photo: Tokyo, 1955. A portrait of the artist as a young dandy. © Kyodo News
I love to reconceptualize ideas and cultures, and I’ve always been drawn to sounds that are less than straightforward. Accordingly, London label Tri Angle has offered an excellent selection of diverse sounds for me to cram into my already overstuffed earholes. Evian Christ is probably one of my favorite new signings specifically because of this sort of bastardized musicianship: the souls of other songs lurk in his beats, making their appearance known through a snippet of chopped vocals or hidden beneath a skittering 808. It’s more than a sampling: it’s a haunting.
Of course, reformatted ideas are thick within the eye of the public, and the reuse/recycle ethic has gone beyond its application in real life to extend into the realm of URL ideology. The idea of the mystery musician has become a tired one, so young producer Joshua Leary has outed himself as the man behind the Evian Christ moniker, and is supposedly surprised that others are interested in his work at all. We all love to see humbleness, so we smile and say, “So young. So fresh and unpretentious.” Meanwhile, the ADD nature of our listening habits is already awaiting the next thing. But, in the case of this sort of music, the idea of authorship is irrelevant. Nobody really cares that Burial is Will Bevin, or whether iamamiwhoami likes cheese on her burger or not. We’re crafting our own internal Teen Beat these days. What we want are worlds—big ideas to lose ourselves in. Like his rostermates Balam Acab and Holy Other, Evian Christ draws you into a world of mutated, liquid beats that echo our own ideas back to us in new ways. Kings and Them is old ideas made fresh, Top 40 through a glass darkly.
I love the feel of mainstream ideas being run through a DIY filter and then released back into the collective consciousness. Ease of access and home production equipment dissolves the barrier between pop and underground ideology every day. When I was a kid, I had big Nick Cave hair, skinny black jeans and pointy boots, and I spent a lot of time listening to Fad Gadget and Cocteau Twins….alright, not much different from now. But I was also playing tons of TLC, Aaliyah and Biggie, and my pissy, post-punk peers were always busting my balls about it hardcore. I’m fond of the idea that there isn’t a real underground anymore, no limitations for a new generation. This is the main emphasis of my own blogging project Gucci Goth: to take away or reconceptualize these limitations and make them more open. In twenty years, when some post-seapunk kid is codeine- surfing ScannerJammer and they stumble across Evian Christ’s music, what will they warp it into? Hard to say. Who knows what kind of cool-sounding future shit they’ll be listening to. I don’t even want to venture a guess, because speculating about the creative future is futile. Humanity always ends up making some crazy-ass whatever that we usually could never even think of.
Leary says that a lot of the tracks on Kings and Them are so sparse because he’s made them with a vocalist in mind, but I think a vocalist would be distracting. When I listen to the mixtape, I’m totally absorbed in it. It’s like diving into a pool; the repetitive nature of the juked samples takes my mind to a post-physical trance state. The vocals are treated as part of the music rather than the focus. When Night Slugs/Fade To Mind artist Kingdom dropped his That Mystic EP a few years ago, it was on repeat twenty-four-seven at my house. It’s a towering, pulsing collection of sinister instrumentals, and it too treated vocal samples as just another song element, which made it all the more powerful. Kingdom’s latest EP Dreama seems less focused simply because emphasis is placed on vocals; it lacks the raw power of his earlier work.
I can spend hours talking about the effects of the dissolving lines between mainstream and underground culture, but the truth is that this is music for online culture. It speaks to the impermanent state of Tumblr feeds and ever-changing tastes, and to trends that are remade and released. But is that something to lament? Nobody will ever be the next Janis Joplin or the new Beatles. As a collective, we’ve moved beyond that idea. Even the Madonnas and the Gagas are irrelevant outside the context of drag queen karaoke: we have toppled the idol, and any cameos in reality are just fading ghosts waiting to be forgotten. We’ve given ourselves the tools to ascend to something else, and we’ve created a culture where you can release your visions online and in a couple months you could have a record contract. It’s DIY pop music, and it gives us freedom. Be thankful.
Currently, NASA’s budget for one year could fund sixteen hundred years of oceanographic exploration. One of the things I like most about Drexciya’s Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller I is that it draws your attention to this unknown world. The Detroit duo’s engaging mythology combines two of the most ignored subjects in modern history: slavery and deep-sea life forms. They seem to be pointing out the fact that we don’t even know our own planet, but we’re trying to explore the universe. For those who don’t know, the name “Drexciya” stands for an underwater colony populated by the unborn children of slaves who were thrown off of slave ships. The world is imagined as a kind of a neo-Atlantis, except the protagonists are millitants who’ve learned to adapt the acquatic environment by breathing in their mothers’ wombs.
Drexciya’s sounds are, in a certain way, very harsh. Yet they’re also qualified by a submarine stillness. 808 kicks, snares, and claps are the funky and sometimes industrial-sounding framework for the repetitive, staccato sequencing and morphing arpeggios—the most classic examples being tracks like ‘Wavejumper’ or ‘Aquarazorda’. I hear the dense, oceanic pulse of their beats as an essential transformative device. That is, Drexciya pretty much always maintain the connection to the acquatic mythology in terms of sound design, be it through synth bubbles bursting, filters opening and closing in a wave-like fashion, sea life darting in every possible direction, or an underwater vessel rhythmically pushing towards its docking stations.
Music isn’t just about the joy of listening, the joy of dancing, or the physical impact it has on your body. It’s also part of a fantasy. For me, in every work of art there has to be some sort of escape—a critical distance from reality that provides you with the power to survive it. For Drexciya, maybe this was a mythology that they needed to survive in the streets of Detroit, which is a tough city— especially back in the nineties. But it’s also an uplifting place, because it represents the downfall of a system and industry that was full of nonsense and injustice. If you ever go to Detroit, you can see the skeleton of a particular era of capitalism all over the place. It’s the perfect breeding ground for utopian visions, because it’s so dystopian—which is something I learned from Mad Mike Banks the last time I was there.
If you don’t know Drexciya, then this album will still make complete sense to you. It’s a compilation of both their early and later tracks, as well as some lesser-known material. Clone did a good job in respecting the work of the group and not simply doing a “best of” album. Journey gives a new generation access to music they might not know, as well as old fans a chance to rediscover B-side material they’ve forgotten about— like me for example. I first learned about Drexciya in Hamburg in the nineties, so listening to Journey is like revisiting a formative time in my musical development. But beyond the music alone, you have to see Drexciya as a larger, more complete mythological phenomenon. Explore the music and the information behind it. The song titles are metaphorical and can be the key to unlocking their universe. And that’s why I don’t feel any need to talk about the duo’s personal histories. For me it’s more interesting to look at the phenomenon itself than the supposed biographical connections. I just really, really respect these guys, and I understand why they felt the need to remain anonymous, and what it gives the music. I have a hard time thinking about listening to Drexciya in any other way. ~
Pantha du Prince, whose latest release Black Noise is neither black nor noise, defines his hard-hitting style of cross-genre electronics as “sonic house”. For the last issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, he spoke at length to Dan Snaith about the importance of sound design in making electronic music.
This recommendations appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 29 (Spring 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com:
The Mortimer Trap is the name of a series of chess moves—the kind of trap you’d have to be a real schmuck to walk into and lose the game. If I played chess, I’d be that schmuck. But more importantly, you could read the album title as a statement about ambient music, about the fine line that runs through the genre between the utterly banal and astonishingly moving or beautiful. As a genre, ambient music is full of such traps and disguises. This record may say something about those traps, but it certainly doesn’t contain, much less fall into, any of them. It’s seventy-eight minutes of straight, unadulterated, modulated tones of indeterminate origin that hover, shift in volume, hit you, and carry you along towards the unknown. Well, until about thirty-eight minutes into it, when a very basic techno rhythm appears, though still in the background. It’s a drum pattern that you would expect to hear from somebody like Thomas Brinkmann or from Berlin. And it’s completely captivating. The rhythm softly nudges everything forward only to eventually fade away to inaudibility and place you back in the realm of an unsettled, unresolved and seemingly infinite modulation. For me, these qualities are the closest connection to For Bunita Marcus, the solo piano composition by the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, which Brinkmann and Oren Ambarchi state the album is loosely based on.
Like all ambient music, how you hear this album depends on: 1. Your own mood and 2. Hearing things in the background that are independent of the recording. For me these are usually the sounds of the bus or train, or the rhythm of my walk and the way my legs brush against the side of my iPod. As its creators, Brinkmann and Ambarchi must be aware that listeners are not just hearing the music when they play the album. Also, it’s entirely unclear who’s doing what here. Brinkmann is known for both a minimal techno sensibility and his more experimental performances and compositional approach to electronic music: turntables with multiple arms, manipulated vinyl and unconventional re-edits. Ambarchi is a guitarist and a drummer who hovers between free rock—such as his collaborations with Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke and Stephen O’Malley—and the art world. He’s one of a new breed of musicians/ artists who don’t stay in one place or play one thing. He also performs a lot in galleries and art related events, and that has definitely had an affect on the way people hear his work. I drift in and out of the sounds of his various projects through the filter of my own world—like I would in a gallery space. And The Mortimer Trap in particular is not just about pure musical structures. It’s about the perception of music and has little to nothing to do with the disco, the dance floor or the stadium.
In a way, I’m at a loss of words for why I think this is such a good record. I’ve been listening to it over and over again, and I just can’t seem to crack it. Maybe it’s because over the last twenty-five years and working at The Wire, I’ve heard so many boring, tedious records pretending to be ambient or atmospheric. Somehow this album neutralizes such crap with its complete indifference about where it fits in, musically speaking. This is not a bunch of field recordings; there aren’t any tweeting birds or obvious “ambient” elements. This is about discrete changes in tone, changes in oscillation, changes in volume, beat entries, beat exits. From Stockhausen through Kraftwerk to techno, electronic music has always been about looking forward and never backwards. At least before the digital age, that is, which has triggered a nostalgia for antique tape and analog tools. This record is all the more exciting for its lack of concern about time or place. Sometimes you wish more artists would do the same. Given how little happens over its seventy-eight-minute duration, it’s not the easiest thing to listen to, and I’ve heard from one person that the lead modulating synth tone actually makes them nauseous. Well, perhaps that’s a good thing? I mean, when was the last time you heard something that made you sick to your stomach? For me it must have been Throbbing Gristle in 1978. Or maybe The Residents. I wish I liked The Residents but their songs are so crap. Alas, I digress. More than anything else, this album makes me feel other. It makes me feel not there. It’s beyond good and evil, or good and bad… which is where anything approximating art should start. ~
Hungarian-American saxophonist and composer André Vida is co-founder of the NYC collective Creative Trans-Informational Alliance and a frequent collaborator with musicians as diverse as Oni Ayhun, Anthony Braxton and Kevin Blechdom. His most recent release is the three-volume retrospective Brud, put out last year by PAN Records.
I’ve been listening to Transverse mostly on the train between Manhattan and New Jersey, where my parents live. It’s been a pretty practical way of listening, because this isn’t music that has a totally dominating presence, even though it keeps and demands my focus. For me, it kind of exists like a piece of furniture, a love seat or a really comfortable coffin, carved and painted over with some indiscernible code. It’s more part of your surroundings, as opposed to totally taking them over; it’s music that has a function beyond strict, heavy listening. That said, Carter Tutti Void make really, really driving and cathartic stuff. With every listen, I keep coming back to how strange the sound sources are— that is, the ones on top of the subtly shifting, four-four techno-ish beats. Neither the album nor the individual songs provide any linear dramatic form. It’s as if the underlying rhythm freezes time and the chopped and distorted vocals and guttural guitar noise happen almost independently, not within any sort of “progression”. The space in the music just hangs there and then when it’s filled—which happens relatively sparingly—it’s done so to maximum effect.
Living in Berlin, I’ve been endlessly exposed to incredibly boring electronic music—repetitive beats that are just heinous crimes against social culture and humanity. Needless to say, I get completely turned off within that sort of rigid context and certain types of digital production. I often ask myself, “Am I being used as a place holder for somebody to sell cappuccino to?” Exactly what is going on in this situation, here, in this coffee house, that demands such ridiculous repetition? Not that I go to coffee houses that often, but the music is almost impossible to escape. It’s the constant backdrop of the touristical rape of Berlin. In contrast, with Transverse, the repetition is really organic. And the fact that it’s live electronics only adds to the “natural” feeling or atmosphere it exudes. I’m still trying to imagine how people dance to this music. The polyrhythms are so intricate and unexpected and wild. I have this vision of people intuitively moving to secrets their bodies have been hiding for centuries. Hypnotized into a confrontation between their pre-sexualized beings and the linguistic entrappings of commerce. And when you compare the first four live tracks to the last one, ‘V4’, which is actually the same as the fourth but done in the studio, you can hear how Carter Tutti Void are dancing with the audience. Endlessly feeding back into each other, coveting one symbiotic breath. Grunting histories into and out of each others mouths. There is just so much more intrigue live. And that, for me, is an exciting way of capturing electronic music: dirty, spontaneous, and ancestrally imperfect.
As a trio, Carter Tutti Void seem not only locked into the unpredictability and complexity of their tools, but also into improvisation and interplay with each other. There’s a breaking point with playing any instrument where you start using the instrument more than it’s using you. And that’s not an easy thing to achieve, because the instrument isn’t just a material thing. We’re talking about the entire history and industry surrounding the object and conventions for how it’s supposed to be used. The body, the syntheziser, the voice all cracking under the pressure of an overabundance of options. Released from any obligation to sound out a definitive answer. Floating between right and wrong like the lost angry taunting love cries of a distant goddess. To my ears, the five tracks on Transverse sound like an extremely cybernetic take on sound manipulation. Carter Tutti Void are on a search for hidden ghosts, convincing them out into the open, and etching them into the bodies of a chosen few. I will definitely be coming back to this record and cooking some of those mysteries into my near future.