Seattle-based percussionist Paul Kikuchi has often chosen unorthodox locations in which to perform his compositions: a nuclear cooling tower, Seattle’s Union Station, underground cisterns. Each played an active role in what Kikuchi calls “site-responsive works”—singular performances attuned to the acoustic, visual, and historical qualities of a space. Kikuchi’s newest piece, Bat of No Bird Island, is more inwardly focused, but similarly reflexive. Inspired by the memoirs and record collection of his great-grandfather, Bat of No Bird Island explores that man’s journey from Japan to Washington State in the early 1900’s, his music, and his struggles.
CMA spoke to Kikuchi about the attention to the body that governs the improvisation in his new works, why he’s sometimes compelled to invent his own instruments, and the intergenerational narrative behind his new CMA commission.
CMA: Bat of No Bird Island is inspired by the life and writings of your great grandfather, Zenkichi Kikuchi. What about his story appealed to you as source material?
Paul Kikuchi: My great grandfather passed away before I was born, but he left behind memoirs and photographs, as well as a small collection of Japanese 78’s. It’s through these artifacts that I’ve been able to form a relationship with him, as well as reflect on the ways that his life has influenced my own. His decision to emigrate from rural Japan to the US in 1901, and to then spend his life laboring as a farmer, paved the way for me, three generations later, to become a composer.
My philosophy is that education never ends, and that, as artists, we are members of a global community that is trained to gather knowledge and ideas, reflect, and share with those around us.
There’s an inherently poetic nature to his writings, in part because he’s not writing in his native tongue, but also simply because he was a fascinating man with broad-ranging interests. I’m struck and inspired by the hardships he faced and overcame: leaving his homeland never to see his family again, performing dangerous railroad work and long days of farm labor, losing children to illness, facing intense discrimination and internment during the war—profound struggles that certainly contextualize the ups and downs of my life today.
CMA: How exactly do the memoirs and the records figure into the piece? Are there particular moments or themes that you focused on?
PK: The memoir is the inspirational seed. I’m not incorporating passages in a narrative sense; rather, I’m extracting fragments—words and short phrases in English and Japanese—that are then spoken intermittently in the piece through old walkie-talkies. The fragile and distorted sound produced by the walkie-talkies feels congruent with the distance between my great grandfather and I, and also blends well with the sonic quality of the 78’s.
The 78’s, too, provided inspiration. The music, which ranges from traditional shamisen and vocal works to relatively modern Enka, served as launching points for the compositions. Each half of the concert is based around the music on one 78RPM record, or two songs.
CMA: You’ve created and performed work in a number of remarkable locations. What do these unconventional performance spaces offer you as a composer and performer? Do you approach a space with ideas, or do you only create once you’re inside?
PK: I grew up in the rural Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State. In high school, one of our favorite things to do was take our instruments into the old army bunkers at Fort Ward and Fort Warden State Parks—usually in the middle of the night, with candles—and find interesting acoustic environments and improvise. I still remember the initial excitement of having an instrument I thought I knew drastically changed by the acoustic environment—different attack, decay, timbre, sustain, and overall character. This is still the reason why I seek out these spaces. As professional musicians, we spend so much time on our instrument in controlled environments—practice rooms, studios, concert venues. We get to know our instrument so intimately there is a danger of losing what in Zen is called beginner’s mind, which, to me, is the openness that leads to wonder and revelation. I never want to lose the “play” in playing music, and for me the unique and other-worldly acoustic quality of a nuclear cooling tower or underground cistern has a refreshing quality. It facilitates a different dynamic between my ideas and my tools, both as a performer and a composer.
I also appreciate site-specific works for their ability to connect with an audience that wouldn’t normally be open to more abstract music. I’ve found that presenting music in unconventional locations breaks down some of the habitual expectations surrounding how sound is perceived and what constitutes “music.” I’ve seen people who likely wouldn’t last 30 seconds into one of my records have a revelatory experience through sound just from the physicality of the experience, and the tangible connection between space—architecture, line, shape, texture—and sound.
CMA: You also invent new and unique instruments for your performances. What led you to begin looking outside the vocabulary of sounds typically available to musicians?
PK: Most of the percussionists I know are constantly banging on stuff, seeking out interesting resonances. My desire to design new instruments is, I think, a natural extension of that same basic impulse. As a composer, I’m interested in what happens when you pair invented instruments with more traditional ones; each stretches the boundaries and expectations of the other. Besides, building stuff is fun.
CMA: Your education—at Bennington, followed by a CalArts MFA, and finally Feldenkrais practitioner training—is somewhat unique among our grantees. Can you discuss how your education led you to your current practice?
PK: I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of great mentors in different fields who have inspired and encouraged me over the years, and I presently have great mentors who continue to push, challenge, and support me. My philosophy is that education never ends, and that, as artists, we are members of a global community that is trained to gather knowledge and ideas, reflect, and share with those around us. It’s thus difficult for me to separate the work I create from my concept of education. They are constantly emerging, together.