Finding music in the remains of the remains

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Composer and multi-instrumentalist Eiko Ishibashi began her career in the ’90s, playing in bands like Panicsmile, but it was her 2008 record Drifting Devil that brought her to wider critical attention. Since then, she’s been releasing recordings that map a broad but connected series of practices: song albums like Carapace (2011) and The Dream My Bones Dream (2018), and movie scores, most recently for the Oscar-winning Drive My Car. Using a variety of instruments, field recordings and electronic generations and interventions, she creates aural spaces that feel physically real, both haunted and airy, safe and spooked. On records like Hyakki Yagyō (2020) and For McCoy (2022), as well as in her various collaborations with her partner Jim O’Rourke, the spaces feel more fantastic. She’ll make her North American debut with two performances at New York’s Artists Space on June 8 and 9. On June 10, she will give a performance at the Lab in San Francisco.

I PLAYED IN NEW YORK only once before, as a member of Hoshino Gen’s band. He’s sort of a pop star here—like Justin Timberlake, a big multitasker. I played organ and flute and marimba and did backing vocals. He had done a song with Mark Ronson at that time, so Mark was also part of the show. Obviously, because of Covid, I haven’t played overseas in a few years, but I’ve been making a lot of things and putting them up on Bandcamp. A lot of that music involves making field recordings of different places. I’m looking forward to taking this music that I’ve made in the studio and turning it into something that can be done live. But the live versions will change because I can change the field recordings and make them specific to that city. This is the first chance I’ve had to do this.

I record on the computer like everybody, but I play actual instruments. Even when it’s a synthesizer, I’m using the actual synthesizer, not the computer. I treat the computer like an old tape machine when I record and I do all the editing myself, as opposed to using the kind of software that clicks everything together for you. I would say sixty or seventy percent of my time is spent editing. Sometimes, there are thousands of edits in just one small section of a piece. Jim O’Rourke and I played a show at Mandako, an empty coal mine in Kumamoto, Japan that’s now a world heritage site. I wrote music for a photo exhibition at Mandako using recordings of the mine that were made in the ’50s for a documentary—sounds of the tunnels being made. I made that music with the sounds of the dead.

I always like hidden history, hidden people’s history. Of course, there are always remains in people’s memories, but memory goes away as well—but the dust of the remains always remains. I do a lot of research, lots of reading, when I’m making something. My last record on Drag City, The Dream My Bones Dream, is about Manchu, a Japanese tomb built in Manchuria before World War II, and I spent a couple of years researching, collecting pictures, because it’s not easy to find information about Manchu.

About four years ago, it was briefly possible to see Law and Order in Japan. The thing that really appealed to me at first was that the show is split in half: The first half is about the cops who are investigating the crime, and then at the fulcrum, they turn it over to the DA’s office. And then the second half of the show is about how the DA’s office conducts the case. There’s no music in the show, no score. I had never seen anything like it because, you know, TV in Japan is different, and I was really struck by how uniform every episode was. There was like sort of this overarching structure that everything hung on and was consistent from episode to episode that was really appealing to me. I already liked Sam Waterston as an actor from his films, and I also liked that you don’t know anything about his character’s life. Making the For McCoy record, I did similar work with flutes and synths and field recordings, and recorded a session with drummer Joe Talia, who was living in Japan at the time.

Unusually for Japanese film productions, the director of Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, got in touch with me before he even started shooting, asking me to make a kind of dry music, something that wouldn’t stick out—something functional. But because his films tend to be very slow-paced, and because the story and the characters were creating a distance between the movie and the audience, he wanted something different. He decided that the music should act as a bridge between the audience and the story, as opposed to just being in the background. I am happy with it. Up to now, it’s the most satisfied I’ve felt doing a movie score. It’s the best film I’ve had a chance to score so far.

Even before the pandemic, I had an attitude that music is sort of useless? That it really doesn’t serve any purpose. And now, in this situation, it feels even less useful. It’s not pointless, but useless. That sense, and the feeling of why am I making music, led not to self-introspection but to becoming harder on myself. It’s like being in a desert, and in that desert, you become more aware of the dust. Finding usefulness in that dust is sort of an analogy to my outlook now on creating music.

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