Jhe sight of Midori Takada whipping between drums, cymbals and marimba is something few observers forget. She is a bewitching performer of great physical intensity. So her introduction as a “70-year-old percussionist” ahead of a performance at Melbourne’s Rising Festival – kind of like calling Paul McCartney an 80-year-old guitarist – puts a smile on her face. “That doesn’t quite tell the story,” she laughs good-naturedly. “I have a few more strings to my bow than that.”
Takada etched her name in music history with the enigmatic ambient classic Through the Looking Glass, which she recorded over two days in 1983, engineering the album and playing gongs, ocarinas, chimes and all other instruments. Although the album fell into obscurity, Takada has become a cult figure in recent years, with his monastic musicianship and reverential cataloging of obscure world music. His work, meanwhile, has been revived for Millennials and Gen Z through endless recycling on YouTube and social media, alongside contemporaries Brian Eno and Steve Reich.
The new attention, turbocharged by the 2017 re-release of Through the Looking Glass – which came about after Takada had a chance encounter with his retired producer on a subway platform – is charming, she says, especially after being forced off the road by the pandemic. She performed a few gigs in Europe, USA and Australia before the borders closed in 2020. In Japan, Covid killed all live performances. “Music, theater and concerts were considered non-vital activities,” she says sadly. Throughout her life, Takada has been first and foremost a pan-globalist, working with artists and styles across borders, so it’s clear the lockdown has been hurtful. She says she felt behind in creativity.
Takada began picking out Chopin’s chords at the age of six while growing up in a cosmopolitan Tokyo household. His mother was a piano teacher and lived in Shanghai before World War II; his father taught English at university and established the first Irish literature society in Japan. Her background and training, later at the University of the Arts in Tokyo, pushed her towards a career in classical Western music. But her restless artistic curiosity took her elsewhere, first playing drums and keyboards in an “embarrassingly” progressive rock band inspired by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
After a short period as a soloist with the RIAS Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Takada began producing and arranging his own music and formed a percussion group with other experimental musicians.
“The categorization of music by genre didn’t interest me at all,” she recalls. “I was interested in the humanity of what I was hearing. I realized that I was only listening to Western music. She began to lean towards the African and Asian influences that saturate Through the Looking Glass and its eventual solo sequel, Tree of Life (1999). Among the styles that most affected her were the structural rhythms of traditional Indonesian and Korean music; she particularly liked the simplicity of both. “It was unlike anything I had heard.”
Such observations could be controversial in Japan, where she found prejudice against Korean culture. But she didn’t care because, she said, she was drawn to quality wherever she found it. “I worked with traditional Korean musicians and performers and learned a lot from them,” she says. The deterioration of political ties between the two countries in recent years has made these exchanges more difficult, which depresses her: “If you deny the culture, human beings start to degrade. It’s part of our development. »
She is convinced that music will survive petty political differences. “My musical education began with the Australopithecus era,” she says, referring to the African hominid sometimes dubbed the mother of man. “Our relationship with rhythmic music dates back over 3.5 million years, even before Homo sapiens. It’s such a fundamental question: why do humans need to create rhythm, and what space does this structure create?
His “phoenix-like re-emergence” from obscurity is now legend, says Dan Grunebaum, founder of Japanese new music promoter AvanTokyo. “What has also been rediscovered is that she is a virtuoso musician and haunting performer, whose mastery of percussion and theatrical presence make her one of today’s most commanding live performers.”
And longevity is in its genes. Takada’s first musical influence – his mother – is still alive and is 98 years old. “In Japan, artists continue to age,” laughs Takada.