Toshi Makihara : Master Percussionist & Improvisor
Interview by Julia Laurie Hammid, 7/24/01
The waiter brings an order of Sunomuno, a salad of raw, sliced octopus, conch, and (cooked) shrimp with some lettuce and carrots and vinegar dressing. Percussionist Toshi Makihara is sitting across the table from me in a Japanese restaurant in Princeton, NJ. Inviting me to share his appetizer, he attends to devouring the Japanese delicacy with the same concentration as he does his soundmaking, wielding his chopsticks with the same ease and skill as he does his instruments. I have seen him perform several times, in groups, alone and once as an accompanist. The first time was in Baltimore at High Zero 2000. I was immediately impressed by the range of his abilities, from an obviously highly polished technical skill to his wonderfully expressive and quirky stage presence. Subsequent performances did not disappoint. Offstage, he is subdued and unassuming. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he could be just another grad student or even a professor, enjoying a typical summer Sunday afternoon. Onstage, he is transformed, possessed, completely comfortable both inside and outside the definitions of music, percussion or even performance. I am not sure what to expect in an interview, whether what he has to say about what he does onstage is at all related to what I, as a listener and observer, perceive. After the preliminaries of menu-reading and ordering, which he does matter-of-factly, obviously completely familiar with the offerings, we begin:
Julia Laurie Hammid: What first made you want to study music? How did your interest begin?
Toshi Makihara: I grew up in Japan. My parents are still there, in the suburbs of Tokyo. Just like any teenager, I started to listen to some rock music. I was very much attracted to the drums, the drum set, for some reason, I don’t know why. My very first instrument was a pair of bongos. I bought it used, and was very excited. Soon after that, when I was 13, I bought a cheap used drum-kit. It was made by Pearl Drums, a style called Valencia. It was a blue-sparkle kit that came with cheapo cymbals. I donated that drum set to my high-school after I got my second, and much nicer, drum-kit when I was around 17. But I kept the snare drum and these cheapo cymbals. In fact I used them In some concerts in Tokyo this past January (2001). Those cheapo cymbals sound fantastic! I brought them back to the U.S. with me. I still have my second drum set at my parents’ house in the Tokyo suburbs. The color is sparkly gold, a 70's color, kind of a Saturday Night Fever vibe. I got it in 1977, and it was also made by Pearl Drums. It’s called a Pearl President kit and it’s beautiful. I am planning to bring it back here someday. It's almost 25 years old, but I hardly used it so it's in mint condition. That’s how I got started. As soon as I got into high school, I became a drummer for the school band, just a marching band, with a snare drum, sometimes bass a drum and cymbals. I used to play for sports events. But that was good because it got me to practice some basics. I bought some books and started to practice with a teacher. Then I started to listen to some other music, especially jazz. At that point I was mostly interested in bebop and swing, those types of traditional style jazz. I didn’t know much about avant-garde or free-form. But eventually I got into musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It was quite a typical progression, from rock music to jazz. When I was fourteen, I met my main teacher, Sabu Toyozumi . He just performed in DC back in May with some members of Art Ensemble of Chicago, as part of the Vision Festival. I took weekly lessons with him for about four years. My parents were very supportive. I thought I was going to take jazz lessons, but he happened to be one of the most innovative drummers in Japan, doing lots of free improvisation and free jazz. I was completely shocked by his music. I started to go to his concerts a lot. I carried his instruments and helped him set up his instruments so I could get in for free. He was doing a lot of concerts. He’s about 20 years older than me and he’s still performing. Those four years I just hated my school. I went to a private boys school and the kids were not so creative. The school itself was very conservative. We had to wear uniforms [he uses hand gestures to describe a tie around his neck], like some kind of military school. I just didn’t like that.
Julia Laurie Hammid: What did your parents do?
Toshi Makihara: My father worked for a film distribution company. The company owned many movie theaters. He worked for this company for about 45 years. He was typical of that workaholic, post-war generation that created this Japanese economy. He worked about 65 hours a week. He’s now retired. I was kind of lucky. When I talked about being interested in music, my parents didn’t stop me. Not only did I want to play music, but I wanted to leave the country too. I wanted to come here, to the U.S. And they were a little concerned because I was only around 17 years old. One of the reasons I came here is because of my teacher, Sabu. He had lived in Chicago for about five years, back in the early ‘70s. I studied with him right after that, back in Japan. But he told me a lot of things about the Chicago music scene, particularly about AACM and Joseph Jarman, who he still works with. He also told me about the New York scene. He suggested I come to the U.S. to study. I came here at the age of 18. I also came here to study music because the music schools in Japan are mostly classical and very competitive and it’s very hard to get accepted. So I came here to go to music school but the first year I just didn’t speak any English. I stayed with a friend of my father’s for about three months in North Jersey and then I moved into the dormitories at New York University. It was interesting. I was very young, didn’t know right or left, didn’t speak at all. This NYU program was for foreigners to study English. I could take some courses but I was not enrolled in college. I came to study English and also just to get to know some of the basics, how to live and all that kind of stuff. I was in the dormitory and taking English courses, and some other courses too, but at night I saw all these concerts. The first year, at NYU, I didn’t really do much music. I didn’t even practice much but I went to see a lot of music. I used to go to some jazz clubs and even places like the Village Vanguard. But I also went to places like the Kitchen and Soundscape. This was in 1978-79. That was quite amazing. I saw so many interesting things. About a year later I moved to South Jersey to go to Glassboro State College. Now it’s called Rowan University. That’s when I started doing real music. I studied classical-style orchestra percussion.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Were you planning to work as an orchestra percussionist?
Toshi Makihara: No, the only choices were either jazz or classical. I could have gone for jazz but for some reason, it was just intuitive, I really wanted to study some other instruments, like timpani. The music department was very big. They had a practice room that was open 24 hours a day and the tuition was very cheap. Those two things combined made up my mind to go there. I only paid $30 a week for a room. I ate at school and everything was so much cheaper than New York City. There I practiced a lot, like five hours a day. For a period of time of about two years, I did a lot of practicing and I’m grateful that I did. I was young then, and though I can still practice now, at this age, I don’t learn like that anymore. I get very tired now, kind of bored. I don’t practice for more than two hours now. I try to practice a half an hour a day, or at least play the instrument. I have a pretty good situation. I have a house with a practice room in the basement and I can practice until about ten pm before I bother anybody.
Julia Laurie Hammid: What’s your distinction between practicing and playing?
Toshi Makihara: Umm, usually practice sounds bad. If the practicing sounds good, then I’m not really practicing. For me, practicing is trying something that I can’t do yet. That’s why it sounds bad. It might be from a book or some new rudiment. It’s trying over and over… sometimes some cursing words and all that kind of stuff. That’s practicing. That’s very important. Another part of practicing are the routine maintenance kinds of things, like the warm up and mechanical fundamental stuff, boring. Sometimes I watch TV. Believe it or not, I do practice a lot of conventional stuff. Not necessarily that I want to play that way but I’m a sort of fundamentalist. Maybe people like John Berndt don’t like it, but I am. That means I have to do the basics and master them before overcoming them or deconstructing them. In order to deconstruct, you have to know what you’re deconstructing. Some people disagree with this. In that sense I am a fundamentalist. So that’s practicing. The playing is something I do enjoy. It can be a free improvisation, or it can be jazz. But it’s not really practicing. It’s stuff I know how to do. Playing should sound good. Practicing should sound bad. Right now, as far as my free improvised music goes, I’m focusing on this small set of instruments. I use just one drum and a few cymbals. I started to, [using the finger sign] quote-unquote, practice that. That’s really strange because I never really practiced my free improvisation before. I just did it. I started to say that at Glassboro there was this ensemble called Avant-Garde Ensemble. That got me started on the whole thing. We had a grand piano and we had a great time! We did all kinds of stuff, influenced by European people, but also composers like John Cage. Everything was very exciting for us. And believe it or not, I got credit for that. We had a professor, sort of a supervisor, who actually gave us a grade. We did a lot of workshops, kind of like the "Crap Shoot" (a monthly improvisation jam at the Red Room in Baltimore), with different types of exercises. There were anywhere from three to eight people, depending on the semester. I was there for four years. It was kind of interesting.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Did anyone ever get a bad grade?
Toshi Makihara: Not really. As long as they came to class and participated. We would start at ten at night and go until midnight, sometimes later. Then we’d go eat some cheeseburgers. We did a lot of exploring. I had a great time during the day, practicing five hours straight, not just drums but also timpani and marimba. I used to practice a lot of marimba. They also had a jazz ensemble that I played with a little bit, but that was Duke Ellington sort of stuff.
Julia Laurie Hammid: How do you feel about performing, as opposed to just playing without an audience?
Toshi Makihara: In a performance situation it’s easier just because I can focus in a very intensive way. I have to explain the philosophical side. It’s basically a here-and-now kind of thing. My whole presence becomes the music. So I’m not really playing the music but I am the music. The music is there. That kind of experience is really fascinating, kind of Zen, almost enlightening, like some kind of a high. And I value that a lot. I’m totally into doing that and my performances are that. I enjoy doing that. Sometimes it’s more difficult to do it alone. I’m free to stop. Also working with other people helps me too. I sort of distinguish three different situations. The first is solo, the second is duo and then three or more is a group or ensemble. I don’t see much difference between like three or six. But with two it’s just you and the other person encountering each other in a very direct way. I like that a lot. And solo is the most challenging. But I love to do it. One of my goals is to have a solo CD. I was going to do it this summer but I sort of chickened out. Next year I hope to do some extensive traveling and record a lot of live performances and then make a CD.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Speaking of recording, I wanted to ask you about the visual dimension of your playing. Your body movements, which are almost dance-like, are, for me, very much a part of what’s wonderful about your performances. In fact, a lot of what you do is often silent, but your gestures are as expressive as the sounds you make. What is that about and how would that fit into recording?
Toshi Makihara: The relationship between movement and sound creation is very important to me. Percussion is a very simple idea. You just strike and make a sound. What I’m finding out is that sometimes I change my movement intentionally and that affects the sound. Sometimes I go to the extreme where I just move and don’t make any sound. That sometimes happens, not all the time. It’s very interesting, both philosophically and also as an examination of silence. Silence is very powerful. It also relates to the whole definition of sound, the whole Cagean thing. Is it really silence? Maybe you just didn’t hear it? Sometimes I just don’t quite hit. I just stop like that [pantomimes holding a drumstick and moving towards striking some invisible object but then suddenly moving his hand sideways to avoid actually making contact]. And that’s a way of challenging myself too. Sometimes I get into a habit. Habit is very dangerous. Many musicians get trapped in their habits. They tend to do the same thing over and over, whatever they’re strong at. And I do it too but sometimes I challenge myself. When I’m very comfortable with one thing I sort of stop myself at some point and then try to change it. I have fun doing that. And this movement thing helps a lot.
Julia Laurie Hammid: How did you start doing that?
Toshi Makihara: By collaborating with other people, other than musicians, particularly dancers. I’ve been doing that since the early ‘80s. There was this thing called performance art. I even did some sound-movement types of things. I met a lot of performance artists and also dancers and we improvised together. I also provided some more structured music for those performances. I’m still doing that, in the form of commissions or partnerships. I got so much interested in movement that I even started to study dance, back in the mid-80s. I took classes in modern, even jazz and ballet, but mostly modern. Not necessarily to become a dancer, but I was just taking a lot of courses. I was fascinated. I was in better shape and much thinner then. It was about 15 years ago. I went to Japan for about a year and took classes and workshops in Japanese Butoh. That was quite an amazing experience. Soon after I came back I started to use those ideas in music performances. For instance using different parts of your body to produce sound, like using my head or whatever. Most straightforward musicians may think this is very weird. I used to do that a lot, now not so much but it’s coming back into my music. It’s just kind of fun, gives the audience a break.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Your performances often elicit laughter from the audience. It’s not that you seem comical but there is a humor in them, a sense of fun. How aware of that are you or how intentional is that?
Toshi Makihara: It’s not really intentional. Sometimes when I’m feeling serious on stage it’s really funny to the audience. I can be dead serious on stage and people are cracking up. My intention is not to make them laugh but just to add an unexpected element to the performance. One thing I did a few times and people laughed was when I had a cymbal stand. It was like a tripod and I would loosen the extension and when the cymbal falls down people laugh. Usually I’m after sound but every time I add some sort of visual element people seem to enjoy it. I was influenced by some other, quote-unquote, funny performers, like Han Bennink . Some of the Europeans are very funny. His idea was that free improvisation could be anything, in terms of the props you use. He’s a percussionist but he decided to use all kinds of instruments, like clarinet, trombone, piano, typewriter, whatever he could find. But also he did some other things, like walking around the stage. I saw some live performances back then but they were also documented on film. That impressed me a lot, this kind of definition of what freedom is. Now, I’m kind of re-examining the concept of that. I’m going back to music in a very strong way, a very focused way. I used to use a lot of funny objects, like gloves or bicycle wheels or junk. That was my older stuff. I used to use a lot of objects which I invented. I made some gloves with things sticking out and I also had this hat with a wire and a tennis ball. That was not comedy but almost performance art. Now I’m back with the simple instruments, just one drum and a couple of cymbals, no toys, just drumsticks and brushes, conventional stuff, back to the basics. I’m really enjoying the focus of it.
Julia Laurie Hammid: I have to ask then about that performance you did recently at the Red Room with Eugene Chadbourne , where you used a kind of hand puppet, a chipmunk I think? How does that fit in?
Toshi Makihara: Yeah, that was a little different, more like entertainment. It wasn’t anything really deep but it’s the same idea as the toys I invented. I used to do that a lot and it still comes out from time to time. Chadbourne was doing a lot of songs and we did some improvisations. But after playing with him so many times, he sort of does the same kind of thing. So even the improvisation becomes sort of a tune. “There he goes with the banjo…” I was sort of an accompanist so that’s a little different. You mention the term “entertainment.” Do you have any intention or idea of what you’re trying to elicit in the listener or what you think the audience experiences when you play?Not really. When I improvise I just do my thing, or become the music. I just am present and I’m not really aware of the audience. It helps me to have their energy there but I don’t do things for them. There are so many different kinds of people and experiences of what I do. Some people like me because of my chops or whatever. Other people like the sound aspect of it. Some people are just there to be entertained. I don’t have any particular expectation. If they like it, that’s great. One of the reasons I’m reducing my equipment is that by reducing I can focus more and actually expand in a different way.
Julia Laurie Hammid: You talked about studying dance, how about vocal work?
Toshi Makihara: I’ve done some harmonic chanting, but that’s all.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Do you play with vocalists much?
Toshi Makihara: Not as much as I wish. There aren’t many vocalists that I know of. Do you know Carol Genetti? I’ve played with her. There’s also Joe Zitt in Washington DC. He’s pretty good. He’s more classically trained.
Julia Laurie Hammid: How do you experience your aural sense, aside from music specifically?
Toshi Makihara: Just like any other person, I guess. Unless I get very sensitive about some particular sound. [Earlier, there had been a short burst of sharp sounds from the back of the restaurant as the sushi chef performed a solo with knife and chopping block, preparing ingredients for a dish.] Like when the sushi chef was making that really loud chopping sound, “kgun kgun kgun kgun,” I was checking that out. That just happens here and there. I’m particularly sensitive about percussive sounds obviously.
Julia Laurie Hammid: What kind of music do you listen to?
Toshi Makihara: When I was younger I listened to a lot of records. When I was an undergraduate at Glassboro, that’s when I was listening to music a lot. I didn’t even have a stereo but I used to buy all these records. I would bring them to school, to the library, and listen to them with headphones. While other people were listening to Mendelssohn and Bach for their school projects, I was listening toDerek Bailey and weird improvised music from Europe. I spent hours just listening to those records, no talking, paying total attention. I could never do that again. It was when I was maybe 20 years old. I was really, really influenced by those people, like Han Bennink. Later on I had a quite good collection of records, including a lot of contemporary music, jazz, free jazz, experimental music and of course free improvised music. All the way until the mid-‘80s. Then it sort of stops. I stopped buying records. One reason was economical but I had also started doing some other things, like performance art. I used to listen to all this music and now I don’t. In the early to mid-‘90s I was listening to a lot of ethnic music, from different cultures, like African drums or Indian Raga or Chinese music and Latin music. I was totally into that stuff. And then I stopped that. Now I’m actually listening to a little bit of jazz again, but from the older times, the ‘50s, like Thelonious Monk. And just for fun I listen to Country music. Awhile ago I gave all my records to John Berndt. It was my gift to the Red Room. They sold some of them and bought a sound system out of it. John still has some of the really interesting records in his collection. I kind of wanted to get rid of them. I didn’t have room and I got what I needed from those records.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Did you ever listen to any Japanese classical music?
Toshi Makihara: Yeah, yeah, it’s some incredible stuff. I particularly like Shamisen music, a kind of banjo-like instrument, especially the Tsugaru Shamisen style. It’s really wired and rhythmical [mimes frenetically strumming a smallish stringed instrument). I also like Gagaku which is the ancient Japanese court music. It’s a little spaced out. I didn’t grow up with that type of music. I was really westernized, growing up after the war. I didn’t know much about Japanese traditional music when I was growing up. I knew about Paul Simon, John Lennon, Keith Richards. When I was listening to a lot of world music, I was also listening to Japanese Shakuhachi music. I was very moved by that. I’ve also heard some contemporary Japanese music, like by composer Toru Takemitsu . He uses Japanese traditional instruments but together with his background in Western orchestral composition. I was very impressed by his work, combining different Japanese and Western musical elements. Another interesting phenomenon is some traditional instrument players doing free improvisation. Like Phillip Gelb, a shakuhachi player in San Francisco or Jin Hi Kim, a Korean woman komungo player. Some of the best Shakuhachi players are Western. And that’s not surprising. Some of the most serious students are Americans. Then there are some really good jazz players in Japan.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Changing the subject a little bit, do you like to eat before you play?
Toshi Makihara: Not right before, usually not. I’m sort of a conservative in that way too. I like to eat like two or three hours before the performance. I learned about this from sports too, what they eat, like basketball players. They eat a lot of pasta and salad. Sometimes when I play in Baltimore, those guys like to go to this Thai place nearby. The food is excellent but you wait for a long time and then you get this big plate of food. I did that once and never again. That’s about the worst thing to do. You don’t want to eat a lot of rice and spicy food right before the performance. Also working with the dancers I learned about eating. They are very careful about that.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Can you say something about where the inspiration for your playing comes from?
Toshi Makihara: I don’t really directly use my experiences as a source of information. In a free improvisation setting, the process is to sort of drop them. It’s not like I think, “I’m going to express the sadness of losing my father…” for example. I have thought about this a lot. I’m more of a philosophical person than a sensual person. There’s an intellectual side of me trying to analyze it, analyze the process and sort of intellectually understand what’s going on when I improvise. But I still don’t understand what happens. I’ve read many books on philosophy and religion. I even did graduate work in religion at Temple University. I was in a PhD program but I didn’t finish it. My focus was the comparative study of the so-called mystical aspects of certain religions. In Buddhism it was Zen, with their notion of emptiness and nothingness. In Islam it was Sufism. That taught me a lot of things, the study of meditation. I didn’t really meditate, only once in awhile. The studies were purely academic. The practice of religion was taboo in the religion department. You were not supposed to be faithful. What I understood was that in order to know what I’m doing with music I needed to understand what “knowing” is. What does it mean “to know”? In the end, knowledge of what’s going on and actually doing it is almost inseparable. You know it when you do it. But then when I go home I don’t know exactly what happened. But when I’m on stage and I’m actually doing it, when I do it I know it but that knowing is almost like a mystical knowing, intuitive. I get kind of philosophical like that. When you’re playing improvisation you sort of drop things. You drop what you have and just do it. All the calculations, “OK, now I’m going to do this first and then let me try that….,” that’s very dangerous. Some people do it though, just to make things easier, like the habit I talked about, doing the same things over and over, just because they are more comfortable with it. They know they can do it. When I improvise I tend not to think about what I’m doing. That’s the great thing about improvisation. And sometimes you can fail. You can embarrass yourself. And sometimes it’s a wonderful experience. I definitely think that some of those religious masters, those Zen masters, have some things to say about what happens in that state. I’m not saying that when I’m performing I have any kind of mystical experience but I have some kind of trance-like state. I enjoy that.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Have you ever been really sick or had an injury such that you couldn’t play?
Toshi Makihara: Yeah, sure, like the flu? Sometimes when I get sick like that, flu and fever, I almost enjoy it. It’s an excuse not to do anything. But also it’s a kind of altered state. I never had a serious injury. I have tendonitis, from yard work. Sometimes when I’m sick, I play a real low-key improvisation [slumps over and lethargically hits a glass with his chopstick]. But I wouldn’t do that on stage. That reminds me of one of the exercises I do, which is to limit myself physically. That’s a free improvisation exercise. I’ve done it with a group of musicians too, as an exercise. Using just one hand for instance. Or not using my arms at all, just feet or elbows. That type of exercise is almost like an injury. It’s a mental exercise as well. Like for a piano player, you can just use two fingers or something like that. It’s a sort of discipline. Your email address is interesting, “tosmos.” Where did that come from?It’s a kind of word play between "toshi" & "cosmos" for one thing. It comes from a phrase "Toshi with the Most". A musician friend of mine used to call me "Tosh with the Mosh," thus tosmos, and I thought it's kinda fun. It's easy to remember also. I also sometimes create parody names such as Tocito Makiharita (Spanish), Ton Shin Ron (Chinese) and Tosha Makiharov (Russian).
Julia Laurie Hammid: What are you doing for a living these days?
Toshi Makihara: I’m doing like three different things. I’m teaching kids the drums, which I really like. When I’m not performing a lot sometimes I take a temp job. Mostly I try to do whatever I can do with music, selling CDs or working for a theater or freelancing stuff. One time I did weddings but that doesn’t quite interest me much.
Julia Laurie Hammid: Where do you see things going for you in the future?
Toshi Makihara: I have mixed feelings about this notion of “making it.” Sometimes it’s just like any other business, where you just have to just do things… like networking. I would like to be successful, not in a really ambitious way but to some degree I think it’s just necessary. In the same way that I think you really need to practice in order to do music. I am conservative in that sense, in a business perspective. Yes, you need to practice and you need to create a good product in order to sell that. I’m fairly happy about what I’m getting in terms of reward. I’ve been pushing very hard for the past 3-4 years as a musician, trying to get this kind of international traveling situation. I’m going to England in August and Europe in November (2001). I’ll be mainly playing at a dance festival but I’m using the opportunity to do some other gigs too. Where I live is a good location. I can travel South or North from there. I can fly in and out very easily. So I will stay in the Philadelphia suburb where I live. What I’d like to do is to teach kids to the degree that I start making a living and then travel a lot. One difficulty I have is Philadelphia, the city. There’s just not much happening. I perform a lot except not in Philadelphia, which is very strange. I’ll be performing there some in September, but it’s mostly for dance and theater companies, not free improvisation. That’s something I’d like to work on, apply for a grant and produce a show in Philly. I’d like to produce a solo CD and travel more to Europe and to Japan. I just became an American citizen a couple of months ago so now when I travel to Japan I have to carry my American passport!
We polish off the last of the sushi and sashimi, then share an order of green tea flavored ice cream. There doesn’t seem to be much more to say. There is digesting to do. Talking about himself and his music comes fairly easily to Toshi, but the relationship between what he says and what he does onstage is no more clear to me now than it was when we began. I go home and listen to a CD he did together with Jim Meneses. It is good, but a bit like listening to a movie soundtrack. If you’ve never seen the movie, you might appreciate the sound on its own terms, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know that this is only a pale shadow of the complete experience. Nor can reading a review of a movie or this interview, do much more than entice you to go see for yourself. --Julia Laurie Hammid