The riotous inventiveness of Takehisa Kosugi
The extensive arc of composer and violinist Takehisa Kosugi’s career has carried him through some of the most esteemed corridors of modern avant-garde history, spanning a range of activity rivalled by few musicians. Beginning in 1958, while still an ethno-musicology student at Tokyo National University of the Arts, Kosugi co-founded the short-lived Group Ongaku, often considered the first collective-improvisation ensemble, predating similarly non-idiomatic European counterparts such as AMM in the UK, and Rome’s Musica Elettronica Viva by several years. In 1963, Kosugi acted as assistant to electronic composer Matsuo Ohno as he created the sound design for the famed ‘Astro Boy’ animation series and, the next year, Kosugi’s text score Theatre Music (the full instructions read: ‘Keep Walking Intently’) was published by George Maciunas in Fluxus 1. By 1969, Kosugi had founded the Taj Mahal Travelers, an itinerant septet of Japanese hippies who spent two years in a Volkswagen bus driving from the Netherlands to the eponymous monument in India, staging improvised electro-acoustic performances and outdoor happenings in the UK, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and Iran along the way. (Much of their lengthy journey was filmed and later pieced together in a wonderful experimental tour documentary in 1972, which shows the group interacting with the likes of Don Cherry and Toru Takemitsu, as well as staging a string of feral performances in the wilderness.) In March 1976, Kosugi composed S.E. Wave/E.W. Song for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, thus beginning a decades-long relationship with the group. The following year, he became a resident composer-performer for the company and would later act as the group’s musical director from 1995 until 2012.
Over the course of two days in September 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a retrospective of Kosugi’s performance work, covering over 50 years’ worth of material. The programme, ‘Takehisa Kosugi: Music Expanded’, was an intentional echo of an eponymous 1967 concert, during which the artist’s work was performed at Town Hall in New York with the assistance of Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik. At the Whitney, the programme ranged from Kosugi’s earliest fluxus text scores – the 18 lithographed cards of Events (1964) – through his electro-acoustic violin work of the 1970s to more recent experiments with tape, light sensors and live electronics, assisted by the artists Kiyoshi Izumi and Ken Hamazaki.
Today, in addition to his long tenure with Cunningham’s company, Kosugi is perhaps best known for his recorded work with the Taj Mahal Travelers and, as a solo performer, for his 1975 album Catch-Wave. Only two full albums were issued within the group’s lifespan: a live concert and a studio-produced LP. After they had disbanded, a recorded performance from their Swedish tour was released as well as one side of a long circulating two-LP bootleg documenting a segment of Tokyo’s countercultural underground. (Somewhat in the style of Grateful Dead concert bootlegs, the Taj Mahal Travelers’ albums are titled only by the dates of performance: July 15, 1972, August 1974 and Live Stockholm, 1971.) These albums showcase a loose group telepathy, with traditionally acoustic instruments – including cello, violin, harmonica and tuba – accompanied by makeshift percussion such as tree branches and stones, all of it knitted together with ample amounts of tape delay and punctuated by spans of near-silence. (That the first two albums, as well as Catch-Wave, were originally released on the major labels cbs/Sony and Columbia is fairly astounding given the formlessness and non-musicality of the sounds.) Like the group recordings, Kosugi’s solo work on Catch-Wave is deeply psychedelic, though more ecstatic in its reach. The album is a masterpiece of soaring violin shapes, slow-pulsing oscillators and cavernous vocal drones, all of it shot through with towering crests of delay. Though the two tracks are improvised, there is a tight cohesiveness in the way that the sounds drift, layer and merge together. Catch-Wave feels totemic, kaleidoscopic and timeless.
First published in Issue 176