Bach: Now, with the IsoCube, what’s the sound source?
Nakagawa: [laughs] It’s interesting.
Bach: I know there’s a story behind it.
Nakagawa: I put a bunch of stuff in there. There’s one microphone.
Bach: One microphone. So, you’re manipulating objects and the signals captured by the mic and then run through pedals…
Nakagawa: That rig I use mostly with Ear Diorama Ear, with Kaoru. The IsoCube is hooked up to these pedals, and I have another set of pedals that are hooked up to a circuit-bent keyboard, a Skychord, the Utopia pedal. I also have the Glamour Box. I sent it back to him, he said he’d fix it, and that was two months ago. I don’t know, so I hope he’s okay. I have no other contact info other than the e-mail and the phone number I have for him. I had a friend e-mail him too, without referencing me, and he hasn’t heard back either. I hate to lose my Glamour Box, but I hope this guy’s okay. I’m pretty sure he’s a one-man operation.
Bach: I bet.
Nakagawa: These companies like Skychord are fantastic for people like us. I just bought the Utopia from a musician in the Universal Studios area, and I asked him, “Are you done with this?” And he said, “Yeah, I got a bunch of synthesizers that pretty much do the same thing. So, there’s no need for it. I bought it for this one project.” So, I took it that maybe he’s a composer who does soundtracks. And I thought, “Yeah, a synthesizer would do this, but it’s not the same” [laughs].
Nakagawa: Anyway, so I started playing with that. This one has two oscillators on it. The Glamour Box has two oscillators and two modulators. That’s all they are. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, because there are just dials and switches. No screen or nothing. So you’re shooting in the dark.
Nakagawa: I like that aspect of it. It’s fun. It has a built-in chance operation. You know the genre of what it will do, but you don’t know exactly what it will do. I like that. And the isoCube was a way for me…because I started as a drummer, and that was the drummer in me wanting to be a guitar player…
Nakagawa: Because the guitar player gets to play with the pedals. So, it’s a box, you put your hands in there. Lately I’ve been using one hand, and there’s something in there that you play. And it’s usually something that I think would be really difficult to mic with an open mic.
Nakagawa: You get feedback, and all of this residual sound, this atmospheric sound through the pedal, which I can’t say never happens with the isoCube, it does, but less so, and you have more control with the feedback thing. The first isoCube was a black box, and nobody could see what I was playing. The new box has a window in the front. Double-plated plexi, pretty thick. The intent is for it to be semi-soundproof. It’s not perfectly soundproof because you can put your hands through. I think it’s pretty good. So far it’s worked out really well because the sound that comes out of it is pretty damn pure. It’s pretty close to what’s in there.
Bach: And it comes out of a 1/4 inch jack?
Nakagawa: Yeah. So that’s been my mode of music-making. It’s taken me a long time, as opposed to many of the people who have been on Ear Meal, to relinquish the drumset. To relinquish the instrument you started with. I’m even thinking of selling the drumsets I have. Maybe keep one. I think I’ve finally kicked it out of my system. It’s taken a long time. I love drumming. I love playing drums. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of playing, I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you still playing drums?” [laughs]
Bach: What is this doing for you?
Nakagawa: What is this doing for me? Keeping my chops up? What for? So, the isoCube helps me phase into a place I think I should have been much earlier [laughs] in my career. It helps me, because it’s like being a percussionist, but you’re using percussion for sound source.
Nakagawa. Not a maraca.
Bach: It divorces the drum kit from rhythm. From providing…
Bach: It’s a musical instrument, but one of its most powerful uses is to provide pulse, rhythm, and, a lot of avant garde percussionists do that…
Nakagawa: Yeah, who are wonderful. But I don’t want to play like that. I’m not interested. I recently had Ted [Byrnes]…he was recently on two shows this season. He’s awesome. Tatsuya Nakatani is phenomenal. Joe Beradi, these are amazing players, but I have no interest in playing the drums like that. There are some great folks out there lately, turning the drumset upside down. There’s always going to be rock in me.
Nakagawa: I was always a rock player, and I still love singing songs once in a while. That’s always going to be in my blood. I’m never going to be John Cage.
Bach: We do what we do, and we have fun, and we explore the interface we have with music, which is what experimental music is. An exploration. One of the terms I’ve seen used in place of experimental music is exploratory music.
Bach: Getting out of the scientific aspect of it, or the trappings of that term. Because how many people think of it in terms of a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and analyzing the results? Exploratory ties into the idea of looking for meaning, for discovery, for something new, not necessarily new in terms of ‘no one has ever done this before,’ but new to you in terms of “What is this? What is this sound that I’m hearing? What’s happening with this combination of sounds? Did I generate that? If I did, now what do I do with it? The structure of sounds sequentially broadcast, what does that mean? What kind of musical narrative does that generate?” So, having fun with it. Having a community of artists who feel the same way, or who are at least open to it. That’s why I’ve been so blessed with all the people I’ve worked with over the years, having this shared…aesthetic? Not aesthetic…a shared…
Nakagawa: Approach? Vision?
Bach: Culture. A shared culture of openness and a willingness to treat improvisation in similar ways, with a similar respect. Instead of going into an improv situation and, like you said, imposing. Implementing. “I’m going to do this [mimics wall of sound].” Rather than “I’m going to listen. I’ll see what happens, and I’ll respond, or not, to what everyone else is making, to see if we can have a conversation in the musical moment.” And, as you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Nakagawa: But you’re open to that.
Bach: You’re open to that. And the people we work with share that. And if they don’t share it, we soon realize that we probably won’t work with them very often. Because there’s not a lot of communication. I don’t do a lot of large group improvisations anymore because I don’t like being in situations where I’m struggling to hear what I’m playing. We’re all going through the same P.A., and we’re all competing to be heard, and the stuff that I’m doing tends to be quiet anyway, because I’m interested in threshold, in tones intermingling and having this awareness of where the sound comes in and how it changes as it gets slightly louder. And for that kind of careful listening, it doesn’t really happen much in…
Nakagawa: Right. I read the interview [Atlas Sets] with Jeff and Steve [Roden], and they talked a little bit about that.
Nakagawa: I think that’s really important. I don’t know if it has to do with our age, or our experience, but I really feel I’m at a point where I’m saying no a lot. The past twelve months I’ve said no to a lot of opportunities. Where, before I would say, “Yeah! I’ll do that! Absolutely!” Lately I’ve been saying, “No, I’m working on this right now, I really need to focus on this.” That’s not the same Alan Nakagawa from ten years ago, twenty years ago.
Bach: There’s a maturity, a relief, a recognition of quality of life issues. I can accept all of these opportunities, do all these things, and, not only that, but seek them out, and I know I’m going to have certain results from those. Do them enough and you see the cause-and-effect [laughs], the type of result that comes from those types of things. It doesn’t interest me…
Bach: To know that I’ll be put in those situations and struggle to have a musical experience that makes sense for me.
Bach: If it doesn’t make sense from the beginning, I’m probably not going to be able to transform it enough…
Nakagawa: Ah. That’s not good. Why are you there?
Bach: Trying to force it to transform. Rather than working with something that is integrally open and possible to begin with. Work from there, from a good foundation, and nine times out of ten you can get decent results. But if the starting point is already stacked against you, trying to go in and force it to a place it’s not meant to be…I’m not interested.
Nakagawa. Life’s too short. In Ear Diorama Ear, Kaoru is…you know, she’s a fairly established vocalist in this genre, and she’s been doing this for a while. Allegedly she’s older than I am, but I’ve never had the guts to ask her [laughs] how old she is. But, I can’t imagine that she’s that much older than me, but she keeps saying, “You are so young.”
Bach: Ah [laughs].
Nakagawa: When we first started really working together, there was this point where we became committed: Ear Diorama Ear is going to last a long time. She said, “I don’t want to be a jam band. I’ve been in too many jam bands, and I already know what’s going to happen, and I’m really not interested in that. I need a structure for each song.” So, she comes in with the structure, the piece. And I bring in things that are almost trying to destroy that structure. And that’s how Ear Diorama Ear operates. We call them songs. They’re songs because she’s singing, and they’re primarily improv, but there’s a structure. So when I was reading Steve and Jeff and you talk, I said “Yeah, exactly. That’s where we are.” But we weren’t there twenty years ago. Back then it was like, “Okay, everyone, bring your gear and then Go,” and someone starts. And when I read that I was like, “Wow, you guys are there too.” We can’t do that anymore. It seems like a waste of time. Really. It just seems like a waste of time. And Kaoru introduced that to me. I think I’ve always had a structure, because, as someone who was trained in the visual arts, I completely gravitated to non-traditional notation, you know?
Bach: Yeah. Right.
Nakagawa: You don’t need the five staffs. So I am completely not a musician based on that. I’m interested in diagramming in my mind the textures, sub textures, and form of the music. I always think of maps. You look at a map, you know where you’re going to go, but you don’t have to take…there are hundreds of paths to that spot. That is what my music is about. Picking what I think is the right path…keeping myself open to what the right path is to that spot. That’s what my notations are.
Bach: It’s an entryway.
Nakagawa: It’s an entryway. It’s a promise to yourself, “This is where we’re going. We’re not going over there.” But, it’s up to me to completely use the tools that I have, which also includes my openness to accept the mistakes and the new things. I think Steve [Roden] calls them ‘wonderful mistakes.’
Nakagawa: I’m open to that. I think that comes out of being trained in jazz. Being open to…there are always those empty staffs on the notation where you’re supposed to jam [laughs], or take a solo. I love that. So my music is completely about that part of the music. It’s still there; we know where we are, but that’s my job, to fill in that improv area of that specific song. I still approach it that way. And, on top of it I want to make this into a painting, or whatever…so, I’m very interested in that.