Have you heard of an instrument called an Orin? Even if you have never heard the name before, you have probably seen one. You could find a small one on a Buddhist altar in a house, or a large one at a temple. That’s right. An Orin is that metal bowl that gives off a clear sound when struck. It is a typical Buddhist ritual implement but is also actually recognized as a real percussion instrument. There is a musician who draws out the beautiful resonance hidden in various percussion instruments, in particular the Orin. He is the percussionist, Tomoo Nagai. The word percussionist conjures up the image of the intense rhythm hammered out by dance bands and so on but Mr Nagai’s solo performances are a little different from this. His approach is to create a three-dimensional space with the resonance of his instruments and, on balance, something static which will also translate into art.
How did Mr Nagai come upon this unique style? We visited him at his self-built studio in Tokyo’s Hachioji City in advance of his concert at OVE and asked him about many things including his unique personal history which is no less incredible than his performance style and the story of his encounter with the Orin.
“My father was a designer who graduated from art school so I was brought up in an environment surrounded by many strange objects from a very young age. My father’s doctrine was ‘if something doesn’t exist, make it yourself.’ When Nintendo games became popular, I said I wanted one too but my dad gave me a knife and told me to amuse myself by making something with it! At the time, I thought he was an unbelievably bad parent but when I think about it now, I realize that I am grateful for this experience. Incidentally, the old pink payphones that everyone is familiar with…my dad designed them.”
The Nagai family’s principle was to make things. And, as is mentioned later, Mr Nagai also, at one point, went along the art path himself. Even now, Mr Nagai’s brother Yoshiaki, an artist who works with hammered metal, and his father, Takeshi have their workshop next door to his studio (both the studio and the workshop were built by the Nagai brothers themselves) and Mr Nagai is always popping into the workshop to make his own percussion instruments. These unique-looking instruments are all over his studio. There is even one made from a large gas cylinder with pieces cut out of it. So, how did Mr Nagai become interested in music?
“My family background was slightly out of the norm and I learned piano from a young age. I remember that it was me who decided that I wanted to learn. I liked music right from the very beginning.”
“In my last year at elementary school, I banged a drum for the first time. I formed a band with three friends because I wanted to play songs by YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra) and I said I would do the drums. It just so happened that my music teacher was a drummer and there was a drum set in the music room so I practiced on that. The result was an embarrassing video of us playing at my elementary school farewell party - I still have it today!”
The first percussion instrument that Mr Nagai came into contact with was the conventional drum set that everyone recognizes as a part of pop or rock music. At junior and senior high school he played soccer morning, noon and night but when he went on to art school afterwards he became absorbed in the drums again. The drums would become the direct root of Mr Nagai’s career. Furthermore, the connection with art, which is a feature of Mr Nagai’s music, began at this time. Let’s hear some more about the period when he started university.
“Because of the environment I was brought up in, I had naturally got into drawing so it was a natural step to go on to art school. However, at that time, I wasn’t doing very well with my drawing and in order to pass the entrance exam, I went to a specialist preparatory school. I remember having a hard time there too as there were all these kids who had been learning drawing for years and who could draw really well.”
Even so, Mr Nagai ended up getting into the famous Tokyo University of the Arts. There is no doubt that this was due to the amazing talent he inherited from his father, right?
“No, no, not at all. For one thing, it took me three years to get in! To be honest, before that, I took a year after high school to study and got into Musashino Art University, the school that my father went to. And it was joining the jazz workshop there that put the kibosh on my studying!”
“I was hardly going to school at all at that point and was just alternating between my jazz workshop and the preparatory school where I had become a teacher after I got into Musashino Art University. I started the drums properly for the first time during my jazz workshop period. In my day, the music we listened to at high school was hard rock like Nirvana or Metallica so I was drumming 8-beat rock before I joined the jazz workshop. But when I drummed like that in the workshop, one of the older members got mad and told me I was being too noisy and to play 4 beats (a subtle and sophisticated rhythm which is the basis of jazz drumming)!”
“I was playing in trios and quartets at the jazz workshop. I was having so much fun and doing so many things that it was just like an extension of enjoying my free time. When I think about it now, I really was a young whipper-snapper of a drummer then.”
Through his activities at the Musashino University of Art jazz workshop, Mr Nagai became proficient as a drummer. He kept going to the workshop even after he started at Tokyo University of the Arts and he transformed himself and evolved to conduct his current activities as a percussionist.
So, how did Mr Nagai’s art, which was his major, evolve at Tokyo University of the Arts?
“I specialized in metal casting at Tokyo University of the Arts. The university has a fine arts department and a music department and my major was metal casting on the crafts course of the fine arts department. Actually, one of my father’s teachers was Tadahiro Baba, an artist who worked with hammered metal, and I now feel that I inherited his influence. However, when I was deciding what my major would be, it wasn’t like my father or his teacher recommended that I do metal casting or anything like that. I think that this was also just a natural progression.”
“There is another reason why I chose metal casting. I wanted to make the metal part of a drum kit myself! So I went to talk to the metal casting teacher at Tokyo University of the Arts and he understood exactly what I wanted to do and told me a lot of useful things. I came to like this teacher and decided on metal casting as my major. The crucial making of the drum parts turned out to be really expensive to do by myself and I found out that it was much cheaper just to buy a kit!”
Music and art are two major categories in the expression of art and this is an episode that tells us that Mr Nagai naturally started off with both of these and that they combine to form a complete whole.
“I am often asked about the coexistence between music and art but I don’t really have the impression that what I am doing is two different things. In particular, since I became a solo percussionist, the boundary between music and art has become even more blurred.”
“In actual fact, while I was at Tokyo University of the Arts and still attending the jazz workshop, I was always making metal or wooden instruments. Many of the instruments I still use today are those that I made during my student days. At the time, I made instruments and took them to the Tokyo University of the Arts music department; the people there were music specialists so they played them much better than me. That was so frustrating for me that I kept on practicing and making new instruments over and over again.”
In trying to differentiate between music and art, he ended up binding them together. Nonetheless, when it came to graduation time, the issue of whether to pursue art or music reared its head. Mr Nagai knew what he was going to do.
“I attended Tokyo University of the Arts for a total of six years including graduate school. At graduate school I started to get the bug for making things and I studied hard to be able to make many different things. But, on the other hand, I continued with my music and I had decided in my heart that I wanted to make it my career. My parents were sending me to school so I told them that I was drumming but that it was just a hobby. They believed that I was going to follow the art path so it was quite difficult to bring up the subject…”
But he had to be true to his heart. After graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts Graduate School, Mr Nagai went out into the big bad world as a lone drummer. And, while searching for his own natural form of expression, he entered his short ‘flying start period’.
“I had become a professional drummer but I didn’t have any work and I had no idea what to do. The only way ahead for me was to do anything that involved drumming from joining a jazz band and getting my own band together to working in backing bands for big names and so on.”
“I formed a unit called EPOCUS with two other people, Koichi Yamaguchi who now plays piano for Shibusa Shirazu and Yutaka Kaito, a jazz bassist and we did film soundtracks and toured Indonesia. All EPOCUS music was improvised. All the members came on stage with a stopwatch and started playing on the count of three with a pre-agreed time to change form… we did slightly odd things like that in that band.”
While doing performances like this, Mr Nagai started to form a clear doubt in his head. He started to question whether the drum kit really was the instrument that would express the kind of sound he wanted to create.
“I was a young whipper-snapper of drummer so I was really serious about researching and learning great techniques so that I could be one of the best drummers in the world. But, at a certain point, I came to think that the sound I was getting from the drum kit was a little bit different from the sound that I had in my head. It was like I was hearing something more colourful than the sound of the drums.”
As mentioned above, a drum kit is a percussion instrument composed of large and small drums and cymbals. However, the drum kit was originally created to play black music in the US such as jazz and blues so it has the special feature of demonstrating the great power in bands that play this kind of music or rock which evolved from blues. In other words, among the wide range of percussion instruments in which anything goes as long it makes a noise when you hit it, you could say that the drum kit is in a special position in a way. Mr Nagai felt this distinctiveness as a kind of limit.
“I wasn’t like I had the blues running through my veins and I don’t speak English to a native level either. But on the other hand, there were a few ‘super drummers’ who I had always idolized and I wasn’t able to get away from being a drummer myself….”
“Now that I come to think of it, I got one opportunity to break free of these worries towards the end of graduate school. When I held a solo art exhibition at a gallery, I played a solo of one of my own percussion compositions at the closing party. Now that I look back on it, it was an immature performance but it was the first page in my book of challenges. It was a lot of pressure and I was very nervous but I was really happy to be able to perform by myself at my own exhibition, not as part of a band.”
“In the art world, people plan and create things alone from start to finish whether they are drawing or sculpting, permitting them to say that they created the finished product. It was kind of irritating when I was a drummer and people asked me what I did as I could only reply that I drummed with a few different bands. I went through a long phase of worrying about the fact that I would not exist if it weren’t for someone else’s works. I think that is also connected to the fact that I wanted to be a solo artist.”
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned the episode in which Mr Nagai was presented with a knife when he pestered his parents for a Nintendo when he was a child. It seems that he cried and pleaded so much that he got one in the end but, despite all that, he was soon fed up with it. Mr Nagai says, “It didn’t suit me to play within a program that someone else had created.” It was the same with his music. It was Mr Nagai’s long-cherished desire to make the work that he created public as a solo artist rather than as a member of a band. Mr Nagai had it in him to take the first step required precisely to transition from a drummer to a percussionist in the broader sense. However, in order to do this, he required a mainstay as Nagai, the percussionist which would be as good as Nagai, the drummer. This was not easy to find. He did start to do the same kind of things as percussionist duos but the definitive key was missing. That’s where the Orin came in; along with that huge, unprecedented disaster.
“When I was worrying over what I would do exactly, (I mean, even if you are a solo percussionist, that doesn’t mean that you can just hit a load of Latin-type instruments such as the congas or the bongos) I would hit the wood and metal in my little brother’s workshop to make sounds and I realised in the end that I liked metal things that made a long sound. For example, the Buddhist ritual implement, the Orin. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make one myself as I would require a forge so that was when I started systematically calling specialist stores to find out how I could get hold of one. It goes without saying that using an Orin for music is indiscreet and a lot of people hung up on me saying they did not sell musical instruments.”
“However, there was one woman at a store who listened politely to what I had to say and told me that they had Orins whose coating had flaked and were not really fit for sale. She said I could have them if I wanted them. She sent them to me, someone she had never even met. They arrived on the morning of 11th March, 2011. It was just before I was leaving for work and I was so happy that I opened them immediately and struck them. ‘Wow! That’s great!’ I was grinning from ear to ear and I took them in the car with me when I set off for work. I thought I would have another go during my break.”
“At lunchtime I made a call from my office to the lady from the Buddhist goods store to thank her. But, as it was lunchtime, the lady was not in the shop and I went back to work saying I would phone again in the evening. That is when the earthquake struck.”
There was no time to make phone calls with Japan panicking about the huge, unprecedented disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake and that night, Mr Nagai was unable to get home. The next day, after he had returned home and calmed down a little, he remembered the Orins and wondered exactly where they came from. When Mr Nagai looked at the delivery slip, he saw that it had been sent from Otsuchi-cho, Kamihei-gun in Iwate Prefecture.
“This was precisely the town that all the TV channels were broadcasting live from, the town that had sustained the most damage. Of course, I couldn’t get through on the phone and I searched all the missing persons websites but I couldn’t find her name. I just kept thinking, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’”
The store in Otsuchi-cho that had sent him the Orins was in the area which had been the most seriously damaged by the tsunami. Mr Nagai later found out that the lady who had listened to him so politely over the phone had lost her life along with four other members of her family.
“She sent me two Orins along with a letter. I keep the letter and the delivery slip in a safe place.”
These two Orins became the mainstay of Tomoo Nagai, the percussionist.
“The Orin made such a beautiful sound that I thought, right from the very first time I struck it, that I would be able to make a solo performance out of it. Centering around the Orin, I looked for other singing bowls (a similar instrument to the Orin, originally from Tibet) and I made a lot of instruments myself to come up with what I am doing now. I really am very dependent on this little one. I take it with me whenever I perform whether in Japan or abroad.”
‘This little one’ refers, of course, to the Orin. In the moment that the Orin appeared along with its big story, Mr Nagai naturally took a step out from the world of drums which he was used to inhabiting into the wide world of solo percussion performance. Since then, he has expanded his activities dramatically. Opportunities to perform abroad have also increased such as Brazil, Morocco, France and Ireland. Things started to flow like water from a broken dam.
When Mr Nagai is playing the Orin and various other instruments, he creates a space that can be regarded as an art installation. It can be said that Mr Nagai’s completed works, which only he can create, are just as cool as the drums of jazz or rock and have just as much power as Latin percussion. The root concept of these works is resonance.
“Resonance is a keyword for me. Whatever concert I go to, the resonance that is created always stays with me for a long time. (Of course, I love the music and the melody too.) The resonance communicates the performer’s goodness. So that is why I am so interested in creating a space, in creating resonance.”
“I don’t think it is necessary for all instruments to be tuned with the Western do-re-mi system. It is true that if they are tuned, instruments will produce a beautiful sound but I want to search the world for instruments that don’t do that. I always have the thought of wanting to use the natural resonance of a material as is.”
You may think this is abstruse but in Japan, before Western instruments were introduced, many different musical scales and sounds which are not covered by Western music’s do-re-mi existed.
If we remember Gagaku, Noh or the chanting of monks, we can get an impression of the potential that music itself has. In addition, the resonance of a material is connected to the fact that Mr Nagai is also an artist. While testing various materials including metals, Mr Nagai is discovering the beauty of the natural resonance that materials have.
“For example, I am working on composing music to be played on the platforms of Kii Peninsula stations and I want to make good use of resonance from the natural pitch of ubame-oak charcoal. I have lined up this charcoal like a xylophone and I am trying to compose by selecting notes and creating sheet music representing the position of each railway station.”
This is the concept of composing using the sounds of materials that come from an area to compose music destined for that area and on Saturday, November 1st, 2014, Mr Nagai will give a concert at OVE with the theme of ‘People and the City’, making it possible for you actually hear this with your own ears.
“When I played at OVE in the past, I incorporated the ‘shaaa’ sound of the back wheel of a bicycle spinning. That is also a really lovely sound. Well, I guess it’s true if you say that what I do is a bit strange but, I believe this is a process that I am going through to get closer to my roots one step at a time.”
At the center of many different trials is the Orin. Mr Nagai is in regular contact with the bereaved family of the lady who sent him the Orins. He will no doubt continue to use the Orin as his most important instrument. We cannot tear our eyes (or our ears) away from the connection to possibilities for percussion instruments that continues to widen in all directions. We definitely recommend coming to OVE to experience the space that Mr Nagai creates.
Tomoo Nagai Profile
Born in Shizuoka Prefecture
Graduated Tokyo University of the Arts Graduate School
Participated in Flight of Idea
Published the album ‘a Day’.
Created the soundtrack for the movie ‘Float’
Released the Flight of Idea album ‘TALK HARD’
Tour of Indonesia with piano trio ‘EPOCUS’
Created the soundtrack for the movie ‘Fumon no Utagoe’
Established his studio in Takao
Tour of Japan ‘ESPIRA’
Provided the music for Kiyoshi Hibi’s solo exhibition at Blaurot in Iwaki
Participated in Maiko Tanikawa’s ‘Akikan’ with music
Provided music for the Satellite Arts Workshop ‘metalication’ exhibition
Displayed original instruments and composed music for gallery POUSSE’s ‘Chair’ exhibition
Produced musical instruments for the Okinawa Holy Baptist Church
Provided music, provided works for exhibit and performed live solo at the
Performed at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial
Provided works for ‘Deco Galeria’ (Sao Paulo)
Tour of Japan ‘ESPIRA’
Tour of Japan ‘sto-mocs’
Musical director of the play ‘The Night the Moon was closest’
Tour of Japan ‘ESPIRA’
Haruo Higuma’s Paradigm Shift
Tour of Sao Paolo, Brazil
Provided music for ‘Theatre YUBA’ in Sao Paolo, Brazil
Tour of France
Released ‘The Travelling Orin’
‘Project for the Orin that travels through Morocco’