Father and son duo Yoshi and Tashi Wada talk Fluxus, Hindustani singing and home-made instruments
Fluxus artist Yoshi Wada (b.1943, Kyoto) is a sculptor turned experimental musician. Upon moving to New York in the late 1960s, he joined the downtown experimental music and art scene as a collaborator of George Maciunas, bellwether of Fluxus, and student of La Monte Young. Yoshi is known for pioneering his minimalist drone-style of music, psychoacoustic environments and live performances involving handmade instruments. These constructions distinctively incorporate metal plumbing pipes (in the 1960-70s, Yoshi worked as a plumber in the Fluxhouse Cooperatives of SoHo), which he later adapted into complex, organ and bagpipe instruments. After nearly 15 years living on the West Coast, he has recently moved back to New York City.
His son, Tashi Wada, (b. 1982, New York) is an accomplished composer and musician, based in Los Angeles. Tashi grew up in New York and his work is informed by the interdisciplinary, experimental ethos of the Fluxus movement. His collaborative practice opens up dialogues with artists, choreographers, filmmakers and his fellow musicians. The seemingly simple structures of his compositions show an interest in tuning systems and sustained tones to generate rich, unanticipated perceptual effects. In 2014, he launched his imprint Saltern, through which he debuted his album Duets, and earlier this year re-released his father’s second album Off The Wall, originally recorded in Berlin in 1984.
In recent years, the father and son duo have begun performing together. I caught up with them in advance of their upcoming show at London’s Cafe OTO on 16 November, where they will present a new composition using a mixture of acoustic and electronic instruments including sirens, alarm bells, audio generators, bagpipes, reed organ, and percussion.
Sara Cluggish Yoshi and Tashi, you began working together eight years ago. What was the catalyst for this father and son collaboration, and what has it been like working together?
Yoshi Wada I used to play with much older people, but it's definitely more interesting to work with younger people like Tashi. It's necessary to bring in younger energy – otherwise I wouldn't perform anymore.
Tashi Wada We started performing together in 2009 when my dad was invited by Taketo Shimada to recreate his early piece Earth Horns with Electronic Drone (1974) at the Emily Harvey Foundation in New York. The foundation holds some of the original instruments in the collection, but the original electronic drone system, developed with Liz Phillips, doesn't exist anymore. So my dad asked me to fill in on organ and electronics, essentially mimicking the sound process by ear.
Since then, our work together has developed naturally and seems to have its own life. I think we complement each other. My dad developed specific ways of working with sound and his own instruments early on, whereas I’ve brought in certain compositional and harmonic ideas, especially through the keyboard. When we work together, I think this gives the music a rich, layered quality.
SC Yoshi, can you talk about the work you made as an art student at Kyoto University, before moving to New York, and what influence this training had on your later activity?
YW Yes, I went to art school unfortunately [laughs] where I studied sculpture. At the time, in Japan, there was a lot of influence from the US art scene and postwar American culture in general. I was doing something called ‘primary structure sculpture’, which was very simple – basically just constructing boxes. I liked it, but after I moved to New York I totally gave it up. I was more interested in getting into sound and film.
TW Dad, would you say your early studies in sculpture had an influence on the instruments you built and your sound installations?
YW Yes, absolutely. At the time, I wasn’t interested in using traditional musical instruments. I started making my own, a decision also influenced by the construction and plumbing jobs I did to earn money. I was young, so the wind instruments I made were large and constructed from heavy plumbing pipes. It was easier to build such heavy things then. Today, I can't do that stuff anymore – it's too much. Now, I focus on my bagpipe playing.
SC I read that you collaborated with specific individuals to create your first pipe organ system for your 1984 composition and album by the same title, Off The Wall.
YW Yes, in 1983 I received a DAAD artist-in-residence grant and went to Berlin, where I built a pipe organ with the help of Karl Schuke, an organ builder, and Martin Riches, who worked on pipe organs and built other mechanical artworks. Tashi was less than one year old at that time!
SC And nearly three decades later, Tashi helped re-release Off The Wall through his imprint, Saltern. Tashi, what was it like in your household growing up?
TW Well, I grew up in New York at my dad's loft in SoHo. It was the 1980s and New York was kind of rough, but the community of friends and artists surrounding my parents and the music school I went to were all very warm. I was involved in music from a young age, and I took piano and music lessons early on. My mom was involved in the arts too. In the ’70s, she started and ran a gallery in San Francisco called Site. She actually plays organ on Off The Wall. So, I was pretty immersed in music and art, and it took me a while to understand this context fully.
SC Did you have an understanding of the importance of your father's work from an early age?
TW No, I wouldn't say so, although he did seem unusual. He played the bagpipe and gave these long, intense performances. He also worked a lot. He worked a job during the day and would do his artwork and music by night. My real appreciation of his work came later, probably when I was a teenager, when I started to understand the context surrounding the work.
SC Is that when you started to understand the musical and art historical legacies at play?
TW Yes, but on the other hand I was playing classical piano at that time, and it felt like there was a huge distance between these worlds. How to get from one to the other – the music I was playing, my dad's music, the music my friends and I were listening to... I didn't question it though.
SC Before your recent performance at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, you showed me a colour-coded score you made in preparation for the event. I’m interested in the fragile line between composition and improvisation in your collaborative and individual work. Could you describe the process of making the scores, what these look like and the details involved?
YW I originated a form of graphic score a long time ago and I still use a similar method today, but Tashi has been helping me quite a lot because I don't have as much energy as I used to. For every performance, we change things – the venue, the players, the instrumentation, and so on. We make a kind of template and see how it works.
TW The graphic scores essentially put everything in play and help create situations where unexpected things can emerge musically. Sometimes, after a performance, we revise specific things. We say what worked, what didn't work, and what it would be interesting to try in the next performance. That's the basic thread we follow.
SC So no two performances are the same?
TW That's right. Even if we were in a situation where we were performing the same score repeatedly, each performance would be different to a certain extent. In part, that’s also due to the fact that the players change from performance to performance. For our upcoming performances in Europe, we'll be performing with a few musicians. At Cafe OTO, we'll be performing with a local drummer, Steve Noble. At Le Guess Who? in Utrecht, we'll be performing with a drummer from Los Angeles, Corey Fogel, and my girlfriend, Julia Holter. For the recent performance at The Graham Foundation, we worked with a local bagpipe player named Scott McCawley. We've worked with musicians and bagpipe players in different places all over the world.
SC Tell me more about those transnational collaborations.
TW Well, usually bagpipe players are coming from a totally different world, one with no understanding of the context in which my dad and I are working ,and because we have a limited period of time to rehearse, we have to find common ground very quickly. We guide them into a mode of playing that often contrasts with their traditional style.
SC So, in other words, there's a process of unlearning that has to happen in order for fruitful collaboration and resonance to occur?
TW Yes, exactly. I remember once after a rehearsal, this bagpipe player in Bologna saying: ‘My grandfather would roll in his grave if he heard me playing the bagpipes this way’. I mean, it's good he had a sense of humour about it. Basically, the main thing for us is finding a way to engage our fellow musicians. As a performer, the most important thing is feeling engaged with what you're doing.
SC When we first spoke you mentioned a Hindustani musical tradition that is passed from one generation to the next. Can you tell me more about this?
TW These Indian musical traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Each musician might have their own particular instrument, but in essence the style and spirit of that family’s music is passed on, and preserved. A famous example would be the Dagar family, whose music was supported by the courts. If they had been dependent on what was commercially viable or popular, I’m guessing their music would probably be quite different by now.
YW Oh yes, the Dagar family. Traditions from Hindustani singing to Scottish bagpipe playing are very important. These are things you can't learn in a formal classroom – to this day, I still take one-on-one lessons. Once a month, I leave the environment of New York City to see my bagpipe mentor Nancy Crutcher upstate.
SC Who are the teachers, collaborators and mentors who have informed your work together and separately?
TW James Tenney was a formative influence on me. I worked with him for one year at CalArts before he passed away in 2006, and now I’m working on his archive. His approach to sound and his opened-ended way of thinking were very important for me. My interest in tuning was one of the big reasons I went to study with him. He didn’t ascribe to a particular type of tuning or approach to intonation, which is unusual. He was inclusive of most approaches, and this extended to his thinking in general. As a result, he created a very diverse body of work, which has been difficult for people to grasp as a whole.
As far as other mentors go, my dad of course. I work with a lot of musicians my own age, friends in Los Angeles and abroad and other kinds of artists too. Charles Curtis. Artists from my dad's generation and circle of friends. Allison Knowles was actually the person who introduced me to James Tenney. They were old friends. Also, Simone Forti, who was our neighbour in New York and is now based in Los Angeles where I live. She‘s been very important to me.
SC That's interesting, as your dad worked with choreographers like Merce Cunningham. Have you've worked with Forti?
TW Not extensively, but Simone and I have done some performances together. Her way of approaching things has had a huge influence on me. She’s an amazing improviser.
SC It's nice to see you thinking and working in such a multidisciplinary way. Especially as that spirit of cross-fertilization was one of the major tenets of the Fluxus movement.
TW That’s definitely what's most appealing to me about Fluxus. Simone Forti, Alison Knowles, Carolee Schneemann, who was James Tenney's partner at one time: they're all incredibly fluid in moving across media.
SC Yoshi, what about you? Who did you meet when you first came to New York, and who has remained influential for you?
YW I came to New York City in 1967. It was an amazing time. The hippie movement was strong, and it was an early time of experimental and minimal music – real minimal music. When I first arrived, I wasn't able to speak much English at all, but I survived for years – by now, almost 50 years. I met Maciunas and Nam June Paik who, sadly, have both passed away since, and other interesting people like La Monte Young, the originator of minimal music and an early mentor of mine. At that time, people didn't understand what minimalism was – they didn't even call it Minimalism! La Monte would play at a single pitch for a whole concert, and a lot of people left. It was amazing.
Also, Pandit Pran Nath, the Hindustani classical mastersinger. He was staying with La Monte when I met him, and I ended up under his tutelage for 10 years before I began studying with James McIntosh and Nancy Crutcher. I don't have any classical training, but I am lucky enough to have learnt from a number of masters, each of whom has helped me develop in a different way. Today, I still don't know what I'm doing [laughs], but I very much appreciate those past mentors.
Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada play Cafe OTO, London, on Wednesday 16 November. For more information, click here.
Sara Cluggish is a curator and writer based in Minneapolis, USA. She is Curator of FD13 Residency for the Arts, Minneapolis–St. Paul and Associate Curator (USA) at Site Gallery, Sheffield UK.