Ikue Mori: At Home in Strange Lands

Ikue Mori’s sensitivity to sound and pacing, from intuitively exploring rhythms first behind a drum set and then on drum machines, has made her one of the most fascinating laptop artists. Read the interview…

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Ikue Mori in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
July 16, 2009—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation filmed and edited by Molly Sheridan

Thirty-two years ago, a young woman from Tokyo decided to visit New York City to hear live some of the punk bands she knew only from recordings. It was the first time she’d ever left Japan. Visiting the fabled CBGB decked out in punk regalia, Ikue Mori stood out. As she points out, “Asian punks were very rare.” She quickly caught the attention of Lydia Lunch and James Chance, who would soon emerge as the leaders of the No Wave scene in downtown Manhattan. Only months later, despite a limited grasp of the English language and having never performed music before in her life, Mori found herself playing drums in the Arto Lindsay-fronted band DNA, whose music was compared to Webern as well as free jazz. DNA quickly became a major No Wave act, getting recorded alongside Lunch and Chance on Brian Eno’s seminal compilation No New York, and Mori never went back home. In fact, Lunch and Chance helped land her an apartment in the East Village where she lives to this day.

In four years DNA ran its course and Mori found herself in another scene-the burgeoning world of Downtown improv. Soon she was playing drums for groups led by some of the most intrepid improvisers—Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Anthony Coleman, Tom Cora, Wayne Horvitz, Jim Staley, and perhaps most importantly John Zorn with whom she continues to collaborate to this day. Mori grew tired of lugging a drum kit up and down the stairs of her sixth-floor walk-up and decided to explore the sound world of drum machines instead. But regular beats held little interest for this iconoclast who found a way to make drum machines “sound broken.” According to Mori, “If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound.”

About ten years ago, Mori switched instruments yet again, to her laptop, a device even more portable than her three drum machines plus various effects units. And the laptop is also capable of myriad more possibilities. Mori’s sensitivity to sound and pacing, from intuitively exploring rhythms first behind a drum set and then with an array of drum machines, have made her one of the most in demand performers on this 21st century musical instrument. The laptop has also allowed her to expand her artistic imagination beyond sound into the realms of graphic design and animation. Armed with a laptop, Mori continues to perform in a variety of contexts including the improvisational trio Mephista (with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionist Susie Ibarra), with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, in John Zorn’s Electric Masada, and numerous projects of her own.

A couple of weeks ago we visited Ikue Mori in her apartment. She had just returned from gigging in Poland with Zorn. That trip was on the heels of a concert tour of Japan, where she now returns twice a year but still feels culture shock upon arriving on either side of the Pacific. Sipping cold green tea and surrounded by walls of LPs, CDs, VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films, and a small drawing of her made by Jean-Michel Basquiat, we had a delightful afternoon conversation which was part reminiscence and part lecture/demonstration.


Transcribed by Daniel J. Kushner and Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri: One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about your career in music is that you grew up in Japan and were not really involved in performing music there at all. But then you came to New York, not even knowing how long you’d stay here, and you found yourself playing—the very first time you were playing music—in one of the most significant rock bands of the late ’70s/early ’80s, DNA. How did that happen?

Ikue Mori: I think it had a lot to do with what was happening in New York in the late ’70s. I had good timing and was in a good place. It had a lot to do with chance also, because I really didn’t plan to be a musician in New York. I just came to see what was going on in New York. That was my first time outside of Japan; I was just out of school. But I was with my friend; he played guitar—he was already a musician.

I was familiar with the music scene in Japan, but there was no motivation for me to play music there. It was a very male-oriented world; not many girls were playing music. It had a lot to do with discipline and show business. But then I came to New York and it was all much closer. It was the time when people who weren’t really musicians just started making music. Arto Lindsay was a poet, and another colleague—a keyboard player—was actually a visual artist. And all those people just started picking up instruments and then tried to do something with it. So it was easier for me to get into, because the idea wasn’t really about playing and technique. It was more about the idea and to have something for yourself, not just to be in the audience. I think it’d be different if it had been ten years later or ten years before. I think I just came to the right place at the right time.

FJO: When you were growing up in Japan and as a young adult, when you were still living in Tokyo, what was your exposure to music? What were you listening to? What was interesting to you?

IM: A lot of music was available in Japan, and I was definitely growing up with rock music, like ’60s American rock music, like [the] Doors to Jimi Hendrix. Rock music has really influenced me, and I was really listening to them. Also I had grown up with all the traditional music, which was always part of my life. My grandmother was singing. I was surrounded by all that music, but I really start listening to music as a teenager. I was listening to music from outside of Japan; I wasn’t really into anything Japanese. There was a lot of rock influence, and also hippie culture influence.

FJO: Did you listen to any sort of experimental music or free jazz when you were in Japan?

IM: During high school we started going to this jazz café. There were a lot of jazz cafés. A lot of places would just play the music all day long and all night long; you could have a long cup of coffee and sit for hours just listening to all those records. But I wasn’t really living in the jazz world, and nothing made me want to be a musician.

FJO: The music of DNA was compared to free jazz and even to Anton Webern. So I’ve always wondered if any of you had even heard any of this music, or if you all independently created a similar sounding musical vocabulary.

IM: I think we created it, because of the different backgrounds of the three of us. Arto Lindsay really has an influence from Brazilian music, and I think he really taught me a lot. In my background, I was [hearing] taiko [drumming] and different kinds of beat counting, and this keyboard player from the art world was more into conceptual art. I think those mixed together and then made something unique. It’s not just based on the rock beat—it was in the beginning, but it was so limited. Our technique was so limited, and then [we] somehow created something else to communicate and express; and it also was the end of the punk era, which was all anger and attitude and powerful music, too.

FJO: There’s this revolutionary aspect to punk, and you were very much interested in that, leaving Japan and leaving those traditions behind. But you’ve just said now that taiko drumming was an influence on you; that’s certainly a very traditional thing.

IM: I did not really study rock beats or jazz beats, so that’s what I had naturally and it made me play drums like a taiko drummer. I think that I cannot help it; those things influenced me without my really noticing it.

FJO: Lots of people tell stories about the late ’70s in New York, CBGB and that whole cultural milieu. Clearly something happened that transformed you. You were not a musician; you didn’t play drums— now all of the sudden you’re in this band as the drummer. Where did you get the drums?

IM: In the beginning, because I came here with this rock guitar player, we were hanging in [clubs like] Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to see all those bands that I was always interested to see in Japan, like Patti Smith and Television, and all those successful bands in New York. The main reason I came was to see these bands because my friend was really interested in the music. I was too, but as a fan, and he as a musician. Then we met Lydia Lunch and James Chance—in CBGB maybe. Back then both me and my friend had short hair and were really punk-looking, and Asian punks were very rare. So they came up to us and said, “What do you do? What are you doing here? You play instruments?” So my friend was scouted to be the bass player of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia’s band; then they are always in the rehearsal room with a bunch of young artists there looking for the next band. The people from Mars, Connie Burg or Mark Cunningham, were there. They were always jamming. And then one day Arto asks me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you just play drums?” And then I pick up the drums and that’s it. And Arto goes, “OK, you are the drummer of my band.” And I became a drummer. And then we put together a cheap set of drums and then three months later, we had a gig in Max’s Kansas City. That was the beginning.

FJO: You mentioned Lydia Lunch and James Chance and Mars. Did you all remain friends with each other or was there a sense of rivalry at some point?

IM: Not at all. I mean, Lydia and James were really nice in helping to get me this apartment actually. Not everybody had the same history and background in music. James Chance was already playing music in the jazz scene, but me and Lydia and Arto hadn’t really played in a band before. So we brought in different ideas, but these bands were pretty close. We’d been hanging, playing the same double bills together, and were associated as friends.

Ikue Mori as drawn by Jean-Michel Basquiat

FJO: It was a very tightly knit scene, and it was something that was known by a select group of people. But then I think the thing that made it become legendary was the fact that Brian Eno heard it and then recorded all of you and put out that record, No New York, which was a landmark. How did Eno find out about you?

IM: I’m not really sure what the beginning was, but we heard he was looking for some band to produce; but there were a lot of bands, not just us. In SoHo, there was Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. I don’t know why he picked these four groups—DNA, Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus.

FJO: What was it like working with Eno? Did he have much of an input in the studio?

IM: This was my first recording. I don’t really remember if we had a meeting or a discussion about music or anything. He’d come to the studio and just make little suggestions and tuning on the drums for me or just on the overall sound. But it wasn’t so much tight communication.

FJO: Now one of the things so many of these bands had in common was that most of them didn’t last very long. Within a three-year period, Lydia Lunch had formed and dissolved Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8-Eyed Spy, and 13.13. There were so many different groups that fell apart after maybe two or three months. You know, Glenn Branca and the Theoretical Girls lasted for a very short amount of time. But amazingly, DNA survived four years—that’s an eternity in terms of what these groups did.

IM: Sonic Youth has been together for more than 25 years.

FJO: True, they’re really the last surviving manifestation of that No Wave scene, and it’s unbelievable that they’ve kept going for so long. And it’s really atypical.

IM: It’s amazing, but four years with the same band is already a miracle, I know.

FJO: Yet even though you were together for that long a period of time, you never made a full studio recording. There are the four tracks that Brian Eno recorded for the No New York compilation and one EP, A Taste of DNA, and then some live things.

IM: Yeah. That’s it.

FJO: Was that because you thought of yourselves more as a live band?

IM: Definitely, I think it became more exciting live than in the studio. But towards the end, when the CBGB recording came out, it was already kind of past the peak.

FJO: What’s interesting is that once DNA broke up, the worlds that you floated in became very different. Suddenly you went from being part of this experimental rock scene to more sort of the Downtown improv scene, the fringes of jazz, the fringes of experimental music, new music— people like John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Anthony Coleman, Jim Staley. Some of these people had connections to the rock scene, but it was a very different crowd.

IM: Things kind of overlapped at that time. At the end of my DNA time, James Chance was already crossing over and playing with John Zorn in the experimental jazz scene. After DNA I was really searching for what to do next. I tried rock bands, people from that scene. But then I met John Zorn through Arto Lindsay, because Arto and John and David Moss were playing together. And then I met a lot of interesting, great musicians like Fred Frith and Tom Cora, and like you said, Wayne Horvitz, and a lot of different kinds of players. It was really a different way of relating from this attitude I started out from, playing in DNA. I could go more in depth and I was really searching my own vocabulary to play some kind of language. And then also I was changing instruments, cross-fading electronics with acoustic drums.

You know, it’s funny: DNA was often mistaken as improvising all the music, but there was actually really a set of music that we were practicing, and then it was always the same songs. We would jam first and create certain form of song from it, but once it was made as song, there was no improvisation. Everything was all set. In the end, DNA was becoming like music theater, even though we were playing rock music. It was more like ritual music than free jazz, I think: really short and really intense, and then that primitive drumming. And for three years we were playing the same set: 30 minutes, and every song was like one minute long. So when I was first asked to improvise, I really didn’t know what improvisation was and how it was different from jamming. But it was really fun to play the concepts live in front of an audience, to play something that I just made up. It was a different way of interacting with another musician.

FJO: Over the years, you have also gone back to more rock-oriented things. You eventually made an album with Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth.

IM: Much later, yeah.

FJO: But you did not completely leave that world.

IM: No, no. I still like playing clubs full of audience members, concerts with young people. I think I need both.

FJO: What led to giving up playing drums?

IM: A lot of reasons. Even when I was playing drums, I thought like a drum machine; the way I played was a lot like playing the programmed drum parts. And when I started programming drum machines, I noticed that I really loved programming rather than practicing. And with those drum machines I could recombine the beats and manipulate their sounds. I wasn’t really interested in playing a beat, the same beat continuously. The drum machine became more like a composition tool. It’s easier to think song structure than when playing drums. But at first I was playing half drum set, and one drum machine. Then it became two drum machines and less drum set, and then it kind of crossed over in the course of ten years. In the end, the drum machine became more like a synthesizer, like the way I would play three drum machines with big effects on them and a mixer, until I encountered the computer. Then I realized I could do everything in the computer and I changed to computer.

FJO: Before we talk about what you do with laptops, I wanted to talk some more about what you’ve done with drum machines. It’s fascinating to me that you were able to do so much with them. When drum machines started proliferating in the 1980s, those machines were very limited at first in terms of what they could do. The manufacturers of these machines created them for people to do various sorts of normal 4/4-type beats who maybe didn’t have a drummer to work with: press a few buttons and the machine is doing the drums, but very rudimentary. But I’m sure if the folks who made these things had heard what you were doing with them, they would have been surprised that their machines could do that.

IM: It sounded defective. [laughs]

FJO: It was also kind of like what Colin Nancarrow did with piano rolls, creating music that a human being could not do. You just described it as a compositional tool. Were there ideas in your head that were different from what you or anybody else could do physically in real time? Was the only way to get those ideas across through using machines?

IM: Well, in the beginning, all the drum machines, of course, were very limited. Later on you could program more. But then if you don’t think about drums, and just make a tune with all triangles or cymbals and treat it with processors and effects, they are not at all sounds like drum samples. I was more into sound than beats or rhythm. I just didn’t really like the continuous, same beat at that time. I wanted to make it sound broken.

FJO: So how would you get a “broken” sound on it?

IM: If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound. And then this naturally repeats in loops, but it could also get really kind of broken, just bits of pattern with two repeats. Even though now I’m playing a computer, it’s still really based on these kind of interwoven lines and patterns and combinations—layering them. That’s really still my basic playing idea.

FJO: You made a CD, Garden, which consists only of drum machines. In jazz there have been recordings that were just drums. Max Roach recorded unaccompanied drum solos. And Sunny Murray, whom Lester Bangs once compared to you, made an all-percussion record. And in rock, Ginger Baker did really extended drum solos. But before Garden, I don’t think anyone ever made a recording that was just drum machines. And what you did is extraordinary, because you’ve taken drum machines and taken them beyond the role of time-keeper to reveal an extraordinary array of not only rhythms, but also timbres and even melodies. And it’s you and nobody else. I’m curious about how that particular project happened.

IM: I really wanted to make compositions from drum machines that eliminated continuous beats. I made this one continuous beat with drum machine in a band recording, but that’s the only one I have—Painted Desert. That was really loops and then Marc Ribot and Bob Quine played over it. That was my first record with drum machines. And then one year later I made Garden, which sometimes eliminates continuous beats and is just melody and sound and sometimes layers of beat which make polyrhythms with three different beats going on.

FJO: Eventually you decided to stop using drum machines and just use computers for everything. And that’s been about ten years now.

IM: I started [doing that] in 2000.

FJO: It’s obviously way more portable to bring one laptop than it is to lug several drum machines.

IM: That’s really the main reason. I started realizing that what I was doing with all the equipment and cables that I was carrying, I could just program it on a computer. That was my liberation.

FJO: So, in a way, it’s been a progression towards more and more portability. First you had the drum kit, and then the drum machines which took up considerably less room. And finally, the laptop.

IM: Living in this city on the sixth floor with no elevator, you have to think about equipment. But also I’ve always liked to take small compact things and make something maximum out of it.

FJO: Since you’re working on a computer, how much of what you perform is worked out before a concert and how much is happening during the concert in real time?

IM: It’s half and half. I always have a preset of something to be a starting point. And then spontaneously, I react with people—I’ll change the set of sounds, so instantly I’ll have to prepare some sounds. And then the processing happens live. But I always use something that’s been prepared.

FJO: So, basically what exists in advance are the timbres.

IM: Yes. The diversity of the sound library I have. But in order to layer them, or for it to be just one strong sound, I have a set-up like a sampler so I can bring out different sounds with the key pad.

FJO: So where do the sounds in your library come from?

IM: In the beginning I wanted to play drum machines on the computer, so it’s a lot of sounds that I was using with drum machines. Then later on, I added sounds that were more processed: like processed, processed, processed sound—a third generation of sound—is now in the library. So I create from these sounds to make new sounds. Also by mixing sounds, like factory sounds or sampled string sounds, and layering them to make melodies.

FJO: So when you use your keypad to trigger specific sounds, are you triggering single sounds or a whole sequence of sounds.

Inside this laptop is Ikue’s entire musical and graphic universe

IM: I’ll show you. This is one of the patches I use, and this particular one I use with Zeena Parkins in our Phantom Orchard Project. We use visuals in this, so this screen [points to window with visual imagery on computer] goes out from the back [of the stage]. This project plays a lot of compositions, and I have to be right on, so there are a lot of presets— everything, including sounds and visuals. I have four players here, so there are four different sound layers I can make. There are about 40 sounds altogether that I create from, from beats to just sounds. And I can also change things with filters and reverb. So from all this, the different sounds and visuals come together.

FJO: How many different programs are you using to make this all happen simultaneously? I see you have Max/MSP open.

IM: For the music, this is all Max/MSP; the controller is Max/MSP and Jitter. And this is another effect. And I use GRM [plug-ins], and in that way I relate to physical musicians, but otherwise I’m not really physical at all. For the visuals, it’s a whole bunch of things made using FinalCut and then Flash to put together the animation.

FJO: So is the video component improvised in real time as well?

IM: Yes.

FJO: How long were you working with laptops before you began incorporating a video component into your music?

IM: I think I always wanted to work with visuals, but I started to develop this system three years after [I began performing on laptops] and somebody helped me to organize this system here so it would be easy to put together these separate programs. And then when Jitter came around, it gave me much more speed; the computer became faster and much more powerful and then I could really use visuals with the sounds.

FJO: And on your latest CD, Class Insecta, which was just released a couple of months ago, there’s one track with video animation. But seeing it made me wonder how much I’ve been missing as a listener on the earlier laptop recordings, not being able to experience the video component.

IM: Music can be music independently. It would only be missing when I’m playing live for an audience. When I play a live performance, I feel there’s something lacking if I’m only playing sound. Somehow we have a wall, so I started using visuals with it. CDs or recordings could be just music. But I do like to also make DVDs that could have a visual story as another element.

FJO: With laptop performers there frequently isn’t much to look at. You’re often just watching somebody occasionally making a few key strokes. The joke is that they set off a series of algorithms and then they’re just surfing the web.

IM: I’ve been playing in lots of live bands with “real” instruments and always somebody in the club says, “So what are you doing?” and I always say, “I’m checking e-mail.”

FJO: In all these different groups you are a part of, I wonder how much input you have. When someone brings you on board to play laptop in a group, do they necessarily know what they’re going to be getting? How free are you to do whatever you want? And if they have a specific idea in mind, what kind of guidelines do they give you?

IM: Basically I get to do my own thing, because you can’t really write a classically notated score for me. Sometimes there are graphic scores which specify very basic requests, like a really low sound at one point or a “monster coming” kind of sound. But most mainly just say when I should come in and out. So as long as the exact in and out [points] are set, I can do whatever I want, whatever I feel [during the performance].

FJO: So in something like Zorn’s Electric Masada, with which you just toured to Warsaw a couple of weeks ago, what kind of instructions would you be given in advance?

IM: Electric Masada is much looser. When you’re pointed at, you just have to play. But there’s a John Zorn’s score, Orphée, that has a lot of graphic things, showing high-pitched sound, sparkling sound, etc., when I come in and out and what instruments I’m playing with.

FJO: Still, there’s quite a bit of interpretive leeway in how you’d respond to such a score.

IM: The rest of the score is quite precise, except for me.

When you need someone to read a score like this, contact Ikue Mori

FJO: So you’ll interpret the score your own way. But as a result, could it ever come to a situation where he would say, “That’s not what I wrote”?

IM: No. But of course we talk about it and go through the sounds. And I’ll say, “How about this sound?” And he’ll say, “Maybe add something more.” So we do have to talk about it beforehand.

FJO: So given the kind of flexibility that others have working with you, how precise are you in keeping notated records of your own work? Is this even something that matters to you?

IM: For my pieces, my system is all numbers and I remember it all with these numbers. It’s only me that understands these. I don’t know how to explain it for anybody else to play using my system. But I use it to remember songs and structures.

FJO: In your ensemble pieces, like 100 Aspects of the Moon or the tracks on B-Side and Hex Kitchen, how much do you predetermine what others play?

IM: 100 Aspects of the Moon was the first time I wrote something for other instruments, and there are just very basic melody lines that I gave them. There are different kinds of things going on in there, like game play or structured improvisation, as well as scored things. I like to make up a score to give people, but it’s all mixed.

FJO: So individual players have a lot of freedom within that framework?

IM: Yeah. I have to have this place with improvisation in it for my pieces.

FJO: So if other people than the ones who recorded it were to play it, it could potentially sound like a completely different piece.

IM: It depends on the musicians, but I think so, especially in the improvisational parts. 100 Aspects of the Moon is very basic, but it’s more set things. But unfortunately it wasn’t something that we could play live so much; we only played it once.

FJO: You said that nobody else really understands the number notations you’ve made for yourself. Might you ever be interested in a situation where someone else would be playing a laptop in one of your pieces? Maybe you’d want to do something involving multiple laptops?

IM: Not right now. I would rather play with other instruments.

FJO: One group you’re involved with that I really love is Mephista. And part of what I find so interesting about it is that here you’ve put yourself in a situation where someone else is playing the drums—Susie Ibarra—which frees you up to do less rhythmic things, but given your rhythmic inclinations, it also frees her up to drum more melodically. And then with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano—her playing can be very rhythmic at times and at times can also be very atmospheric, like the things you do on the laptop. So in a way, you all share multiple roles here.

IM: Another drummer I like to play with is Joey Barron. A couple of times we’ve done a duo project. I can be a percussionist and I can also be a sound maker. But Mephista is a special band for improvisation. Piano and drums are great to play with.

FJO: Would it be fair to call the music that Mephista performs jazz?

IM: No. It doesn’t feel like jazz so much. With Phantom Orchard also, we’re not classical, we’re not rock or pop, and definitely not jazz. There’s really no place to put it. And Mephista also is not really jazz. Sylvie is more influenced by classical music and Susie is now really more into her own music, and then with me, my world is a very peculiar place, I think.

FJO: It’s been several years since the last recording; is Mephista still active as a group?

IM: Right now it’s very rare that we have a performance, but Sylvie and I have a lot of different projects together. We just did a tour in Japan with a Japanese vocalist, Makigami Koichi—we have this band, Agra Dharma. It was the band’s first tour there, and it was really great.

FJO: I wonder what it’s like for you to go back to Japan as a musician, which is something you did not explore until you came here. The scene is certainly totally different there now than when you left thirty years ago.

IM: My music developed here in America, so my connection is still much closer to America as a musician, but I still have a lot of friends in Japan and I like to play with musicians there. I’ve actually been going back to Japan twice a year. There are a lot of great improvising musicians. But the public is very small; it’s not like in Europe. It’s very hard to book a tour and find places to play. Every time I go back to Japan I get a big culture shock. And then I come back to New York and also get a big culture shock. I feel at home here, but some things are easier in Japan. I’m still Japanese, but I’m happy to be in America and live in New York.