Silence Is Golden
You almost certainly haven't heard of him, but this man is one of the most inventive composers, arrangers and producers in modern Japan. Tim Goodyer listens to what he has to say.
His name will be familiar only to avid readers of sleeve credits, but Seigén Ono is one of Japan's leading composers, arrangers and studio wizards.
THE MARKETING PEOPLE would call it "New Age". Seigén Ono calls it Ambient, though even that is a title that doesn't describe his first and as yet only solo album release, Seigén. The LP was released in the UK on the little-recognised Pan East label, though before then, it had received limited European distribution through German label IC. It's a record of instrumental introspection, in which Ono acts as much as musical director as featured musician.
One solo album hardly suggests a frantic musical career, but one glance at Ono's production and engineering history indicates Seigén is only the tip of the iceberg. A list of credits that include David Sylvian, King Crimson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Moraz & Bruford, the Lounge Lizards and the Golden Palaminos create a larger-than-life impression for such an unfamiliar name.
Yet the physical reality of Seigén Ono is far removed from this, for seated on the other side of a coffee table at Pan East's London HQ is the most diminutive of Japanese men - even by diminutive Japanese standards.
By my standards his English is very good - certainly better than my Japanese but the communication of abstract ideas presents both of us with problems, as do the names of some of the fellow countrymen involved in Ono's hectic schedule.
"In May I was touring with Toshinori Kondo and Bill Laswell", the little man enthuses. For those not in the know, Kondo is one of Japan's foremost trumpet players and Laswell is the enigmatic American freeform jazz bass player whose latest unlikely success is the production of Motorhead's Orgasmatron LP.
"After that I took a recording project from Japan to Paris - because the studios are very cheap and the food is very good. Then I joined the tour with the Golden Palominos - with drummer Anton Fier and bass player Jack Bruce - as their live sound engineer for the Montreux Jazz Festival. Now I'm over here to promote my album and the Dip in the Pool album."
While Ono's solo venture is decidedly classical in its overtones, his latest project, a Japanese band called Dip in the Pool, is wider ranging in its influences. Theirs is a fusion of western pop, inventive rhythms and oriental intrigue. Inspired by the Cocteau Twins, synth player Tatuji Kimura teamed his musical endeavours with those of a top Japanese fashion model Miyako Koda around two years ago, and the two of them approached Ono with a demo of their ideas. A name was stolen from a short story by Roald Dahl, and Masahide Sakuma joined as co-arranger to complete the line-up.
Ono picks up the story. '...Then we played live. They have many ideas for stage and films; the concerts were great, not only the sound but the visuals too."
Ono's attitude to music and musicians is perfectly objective. He drops names like Moraz and Bruford with proud abandon, but unschooled players are just as welcome and just as highly valued.
"I didn't use any professional musicians on the Dip in the Pool album; I used only friends who liked the music. That way, amateur musicians get a chance to work. If they have an affinity for sound it works for everything. Musicians and sounds must have personality. I think they are a new generation of musician because they don't have good musical techniques - they rely on their feel for sounds and music.
"I didn't originally decide to make records with them; we just started writing and recording some songs in my studio. I gave them ideas for the arrangements and structuring of their songs: taking one part from one song and putting it together with another part from another song. It took maybe six months to a year to record eight tracks, then we decided to make a record and licence it to a record company in Japan.
"I don't talk to the record company before I start recordings because I don't like to make commercial music. I have no ideas for top ten numbers. I prefer to make music that comes naturally to me. I think of the whole world as the audience. Good quality and good taste work for everybody, like good food."
The collaboration resulted in two mini-LPs released only in Japan. But now a third full-length album, Silence, is available in Britain as well as Japan. Songs vary from decidedly quirky ditties reminiscent of Eno's early work, to mesmerising sequences of changing sound textures and colours. The one constant is Koda's voice: compelling yet never taxing or demanding, it floats gently above the music, evoking images of her native land.
"Dip in the Pool have an original sound, so many journalists have found it very strange", Ono admits. "But fashion designers and people working for advertising companies and TV showed a lot of interest. I think that's because it's unusual and appeals to people working in art. Miyako Koda is a very famous model in Japan, like Sade over here, so images blend easily with the music. I like to pick up good bands like Dip in the Pool and give away to them what I know. I'm working on the next Dip in the Pool album now, but I can't say when it's coming out."
IN TRADITIONAL JAPANESE fashion, Ono's attitude towards his music is deeply philosophical, based around the personalities of the musicians and the sounds that go to produce it. And as part of this philosophical outlook, he regards the recording studio as more than merely a place to commit ideas to tape.
"I spend many hours, many days in the studio - it's my home. I don't like to go there only to work, it's easier that way but I don't like it. I like to spend time there because it leads to good sounds and good songs. All the studios are the same in the world, all the equipment is the same and the recording techniques are the same. I can work in any studio in the world because of my knowledge of the studios in Japan."
Does Ono think all studios are the same because all cities are the same?
"Tokyo, New York, London, Paris ...all the big cities are very similar in culture. There are bigger differences between the people in London and the countryside of England. I have some friends in New York and London and they all have similar ideas about music. If an important record is released here you can get the same record in Tokyo in two days, there's very little delay. In Japan since the second war, in only 40 years, I've seen much western culture around me. I often don't know if it's western or Japanese, if I like it..."
With such an affinity for the recording facilities and cultures outside Japan, it seems odd that Ono should opt to remain tucked away in a far corner of the globe.
"I have to stay in Tokyo because I want to change the music scene and the Japanese record company system", he explains. "My company is an independent company I so it is possible to make unusual music like Dip in the Pool and my own project, where I can control everything. It means we're free; we can do anything we like, and that's very important for an artist.
"I don't like control from a record company: that's why I like to do production work - each production is quite different in personality. I discuss with the band what they want to do, then, if I like them and they trust me, we can work together. I like to see people and talk to them, I like to hear what they're thinking about. Good talking makes good records."
But it takes more than talking to produce the delicate layers of sound that are to be found on Silence, and where better to be than the home of many of today's technical innovations, Japan?
"I've used the Akai S612 sampler a lot and now I have an S900 as well. My studio is a small one so electronic instruments help me make the most of the space especially samplers. Almost all the percussion and drum sounds are samples.
One day I booked a studio with a friend who is a drummer. We made many different samples by changing the tuning, microphone techniques and sound treatments of the drums. But I can make drum sounds just by flicking a piece of paper. That way it's possible to make sounds that no-one can identify. On my record I did all the drum sounds like that. Conventional percussion is very easy to use but the studio and sampling offer many more possibilities. I haven't used traditional percussion instruments for Dip in the Pool; I've used my samples of Chinese percussion. I like to create new sounds just for one song. I don't like to keep using the same sounds again and again."
Ono's obvious experience with a variety of samplers produces a lightning tour of what's currently available.
"The sound quality on the Akai is very good, but editing parameters is not so easy. The EmulatorII is much easier to use and sounds very clean. The Fairlight is very good and very easy to use, but the Series II has very poor sound quality. I can make better sounds with the old Akai! I need 100% or 120% quality for my method of working so I'd like a Series III Fairlight, but it's too expensive for me at the moment. It offers many possibilities - it's a tape recorder, a sampler and a computer together."
"I like the Yamaha QX1 a lot, but I also still work a lot from the Roland MC4 at the moment. We also have a Macintosh computer but there's a problem with delays in sequencing. Much of the music I prepare on computer, but some parts must be played manually because that provides the dynamics."
The modern Japanese cultural trait of developing other peoples' ideas - often to a far greater extent than the originators themselves are capable - has let them down in one important area: pop music. One possible explanation for this is the apparent absence of western rhythms from traditional Japanese music - Ono offers his opinion.
"I think that is because Japan is a small island. In Korea and China they have percussion instruments that look like traditional Japanese instruments, but they have more rhythmic music. Japanese players use many traditional rhythm patterns and sometimes they are very similar to Korean and Asian rhythms. I think it's very natural to discover rhythm, but our rhythms tend to have more space. They are very simple and good for traditional dancing."
SeigÃ«n Ono's visit to Britain is a brief though seemingly enjoyable one, with the flight to Japan beckoning almost before we have finished talking. The final question is the usual "what next?" But Ono is uncertain of his next move, though another solo project is imminent.
"I want to start some more work soon. Perhaps I will compose some of the tracks with Anton Fier."
Hmm... A meeting of orientally derived rhythms, obscure sampled percussion sounds and convoluted western rhythms hammered out on an acoustic kit could hold some surprises - for all concerned.