Born in Yokohama, Japan, Tomoko Sauvage moved to Paris in 2003 after studying jazz piano in New York. Through listening to Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley, she became interested in Indian music and studied improvisation of Hindustani music. In 2006, she attended a concert of Aanayampatti Ganesan, a virtuoso of Jalatharangam – the traditional Carnatic music instrument with water-filled porcelain bowls and was fascinated by the instrument’s simplicity and sonority. Soon her desire of immersing herself in the water engendered the idea of using an underwater microphone and led to the birth of the electro-aquatic instrument. She has also been deeply connected to the DIY art/ music scene and is interested in educational projects. In 2016, her visual music project ‘Green Music’ started in collaboration with Francesco Cavaliere. She’s playing at several SHAPE events this autumn, including UH Fest in Budapest, Musikprotokoll in Graz, and SHAPE x Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda.
You once mentioned that you grew up with American-influenced Japanese pop music and piano training. Can you talk about growing up in 90s Tokyo and how it formed you artistically?
My childhood took place in the 80s. They were playing YMO records from the speakers of my schoolyard everyday. I remember well that we danced to “Rydeen” in a military-style choreography at a sport festival. I found out later that some of the children’s songs we were listening to on TV (like the famous NHK’s (national TV) Minna no Uta) were arranged by YMO and lots of commercial music was composed by Akiko Yano, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and so on. Tokyo in the 90s had lots of small independent theatres, cinemas, clubs, book shops, and the selection was quite multicultural and underground. I was listening to radio shows like the Ska Paradise Orchestra playing 60s & 70s soul and funk or reading books of the great ethnomusicologist Fumio Koizumi (who taught many Japanese composers including Sakamoto). As Tokyo is a huge city, there was so much going on. Also it was still a good period, economically. Unlike today, there were optimistic, free, open-minded feelings in the air of 90s Tokyo… Anyway, Akiko Yano influenced me so much that I started to cultivate my passion for jazz. Playing the piano was my thing from early childhood but there was something uncomfortable about playing only old European music and also about how this instrument didn’t fit a Japanese house – it didn’t sound right with lots of humidity, in a small Tatami room with paper Fusuma doors…
Indian/Hindustani music seems an important part of your work. When and how did you first encounter it and which elements have you incorporated into your work?
I was into the music of Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley. I was copying their piano phrasings. In Paris, I took Hindustani music improvisation lessons with a French flautist, Henri Tournier. It was on the piano so it wasn’t strictly respecting Indian music’s notions of harmony. Also Indian music is something you learn for ten, twenty years, so what I did was just an introduction. But it was still interesting to see how Indian music considers notes or sound as something almost “living”. Trills or vibrato, for example, are not mere ornaments, they are a core part of their musical philosophy.
Then in 2006, I attended a concert of Aanayampatti Ganesan, the master of Jalatarangam, a rare instrument of Carnatic music with porcelain bowls filled with water and hit with sticks. The instrument fascinated me and the next morning I was hitting bowls with chopsticks in my kitchen. That’s how I started to play with bowls and water.
Listening to your work is meditative, almost hypnotising. Can you talk about the atmospheres you are trying to create and the musical effect you’re trying to achieve on the listener?
I never tried to create a certain atmosphere in music. The instrument came first and I tried to make the most out of it. The elements I use in my instrument – water, porcelain bowls, and underwater amplification – need special care. For example, to obtain a certain note, I might take lots of time searching for the right quantity of water to use. The hydrophones are very sensitive and I needed slow and careful movements both with my right hand in the water and my left hand on the mixer. It didn’t take much time to realize that the interest is not about controlling and tuning the bowls exactly as I want (which is never possible anyway) but about letting the instrument sound as it wants and making an appropriate environment to make it happen. With this set up, I’m playing with risks and hazards. It’s quite magical. Recently during a concert, I felt my hands became magnetic in the water as if they were doing things perfectly without me and had become part of the ceramic and water. Actually, playing this instrument is like an act of meditation, but I don’t know if the music is meditative for listeners.
Water is an important element of your work. The symbol of life, in its purest and also cataclysmic way. What does water mean to you? Can you describe your work with it – the electro-aquatic instrument, for instance – and your work with water bowls and hydrophones captured on your album, Musique Hydromantique?
I’ve been attracted to the lively sound of my waterbowls instrument. With the underwater feedback technique, which I’ve explored these past years and which makes up a big part of my last album, Musique Hydromantique, I’ve been diving into the sculpturality of the instrument’s fluid timbre. I pitch-bend the feedback frequencies by moving the water with my hand and this makes the sound texture three-dimensional, as if seeing a mass of water floating in the air. My relation to the water is highly sensual and I cannot really think of it symbolically when I’m playing music with it. I made an installation work using melting crystalline ice, to create a random drip music. Once in Berlin, a visitor of the exhibition told me that it’s like a lament of the Antarctic ice and the world crying. I also felt that there was something about tears but I didn’t think about these things when I was realizing the piece.
What role do acoustics play in your work and how do you work with them during your performances?
The waterbowls instrument is affected by many elements: temperature and humidity that change the quantity of water and change the tuning quite radically, the position of the speakers and hydrophones, and most significantly a room’s acoustics. The bowls don’t resonate in the dry acoustics of an auditorium with carpets and curtains. For my last album, Musique Hydromantique, one of the recordings was made in a former textile factory in Mulhouse in France, a huge empty concrete space with very high ceilings. My bowls sounded like a miracle, so many frequencies were feedbacking like never before…This acoustic phenomenon seems almost ghostly to me. Sound and electricity are invisible. In theory the phenomenon I heard is technically explainable but it’s still so mysterious to me.
Hydromancy is an ancient method of divination by means of water. The meanings of divinatory arts have changed since the Age of Antiquity when people were using divination as ways of judging a criminal or deciding war tactics. But I thought the emotional intensity of wishing for something might not have changed. When recording my album, I was connecting my personal wish with this hydrophonic feedback that seemed to me ghostly and supernatural.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on video documentation of my performance with new sound materials: samples of archived sound, voice, glass, stones, shells, new bubbles, inner-body sound… I’ve been struggling but that’s a good thing! It took me almost 10 years to feel comfortable on the waterbowls so it’s normal to take time with new gear and materials.
What are your dreams – in terms of your work & life?
I feel like I’m living a dream life. On my personal level, I have everything essential – my family in good health and music. I just hope that it will continue like this and that I will keep growing. I travel a lot and meet wonderful people everywhere, which gives me so much positive energy. I feel very grateful for my music community. It’s been incredible. I meet so many people who want to change things and are doing things with strong visions. I believe that there’s a revolution going on and hope it will be sustainable.
By Lucia Udvardyova