The Music of Shakkei:

An Interview with Sakaide Tatsunori

Interviewer: IWABUCHI Takuro (sound performer)

At Metamorphose, Nishinomiya Kitaguchi December 15, 1997

SAKAIDE Tatsunori was born in 1949. Since 1978, he has made numerous trips to India. After these experiences, he began giving improvisational performances with self-crafted musical instruments. In 1988, he began exhibiting his sound objects. At present, he continues these activities while running the Metamorphose Bar.

IWABUCHI Takuro (I): Many of your pieces are structured around the kind of "chance operations" that CAGE advocated. You have compared this to shakkei, the method of using the surrounding landscape in traditional Japanese gardens.

Sakaide imageSAKAIDE Tatsunori (S):The original meaning of the word shakkei referred to a method of including structural elements from the garden environment such as a bird flying through the sky or mountains in the process of changing color, and also to the landscape itself. These elements, needless to say, were not subject to the predictions or control of human beings. In other words, they "existed outside of the self," and moreover, the landscape was not created by the self, but by chance happenings.

I: Methods that add an element of chance to performance and composition have become quite commonplace in experimental music. The goal of most of these is to discover an expression that is "free from the self." Would we be correct in assuming that your work shares this goal?

S: By "expressing" something, one's self is once again coming to the foreground. In my case, I am letting the things themselves speak.

I: What do you mean by "the things"?

S: It is difficult to express in words, but things that have existed in this world from the outset, or things that compose the world itself. If I had to put it in words, I suppose this would be things like "chance" or "happenings."

I: So strictly speaking, your works are not of your own creation, but are already existent things that have been made tangible?

S: The initial problem to deal with is "what does something need to be called a work," but as far as making something tangible, I think you are absolutely right. For example, one of my works is a string instrument I created called the Gravi-tone. I hook up a number of radios to it or make the strings oscillate, but the results (sounds) are almost all composed of elements that I myself have no control over. In other words, although I did create the device that creates the sounds, it would not be too much to say that by actually using the Gravi-tone I am making some of the "things" I mentioned earlier tangible. You might also say that the shakkei concept also makes use of similar functions. By including structural elements from the environment around the garden that one normally wouldn't have noticed, "things" are made tangible. In that sense, as devices the Japanese garden and the Gravi-tone have much in common. Both of them are devices to view the cosmos of chance.

Shakkei and Japanese People

I: When I hear the word shakkei, I can't help but feel that some kind of ethnic meaning suggesting "Japan" or "Japanese" is included in it. Are you also aware of this nuance?

S: No, the only thing I am aware of is the creation of the work. But, since I started using the word shakkei, it has often reconfirmed my own Japanicity to me.
I have the sense that in the beginning all Japanese people had some concept of shakkei. Take that BASHO haiku for example, "Breaking the silence/Of an ancient pond/A frog jumped into water/A deep resonance."* What this poem is trying to express is simply the chance happening of a frog jumping into a pond and the sound, "kersplash" or "kersplosh" that this made. This wasn't something that someone intentionally set out to let another person hear. Any Japanese person can understand the greatness of this poem. At the very least, they have a sense of "the depth of tranquility" or they might say something like "Oh, that's really elegant." (laughs)

I: What made you recall the word shakkei?

S: It was probably Cage. I'm pretty sure I had pulled out and started listening to some of my old records, and there was one in there by Cage. At the time I bought it, I thought, "What in the hell is this?" But on relistening to it, I was just astounded. I thought, "Wow, here's another kind of music altogether!" And this was one of his pieces from the 40s. (laughs)

I: Cage himself said, "I reminded Japanese people of Japan."

S: That was exactly what happened to me. In a way, the shakkei concept was my own understanding of Cage's notion of chance operations.

Being Freed from the Self

I: There is a long history of artists who have attempted to be "freed from the self," but most of them tried to free their consciousness from the self. Or you might say, they tried to solve the problem with something from within themselves. You, on the other hand, lay aside the self as it is, and create works from a different perspective. I mean you place the act of expression outside of your self, which is an extremely interesting aspect of your work.

S: I am by no means trying to negate the intentions of people who have used freeing methods such as those. It's just that realizing something from inside my self, not to mention the added weight of the act of expression, is just so very difficult for me.

I: Your position then is that it is impossible to free human consciousness from the self.

S: Yes, don't you think that it is fundamentally impossible? As long as we occupy a physical body, I don't think it's 100% possible. This is because the physical body, including our senses, has various desires. At the very least, it is impossible for me. (laughs)

I: At present, the more mainstream form of what is generally called improvisational music seems to be heading in a similar direction.

S: The real meaning of improvisation is supposed to be that each sound is completely fresh the instant it is made. But this is really an unreasonable and incredibly difficult thing. Because every person has things stored up inside themselves. And these stored-up things eventually come out as "habits" or "expressions." In particular, when it comes to expression, what tends to happen is that it tends to be aggressively asserted. These things all originate from the self after all. For example, let's say there is a performer who is making music using the improvisational method. In order to try and free himself from the experiences and brainwashing that have shaped his self, he tries with all his might to study and practice new things. Then, one day he finally gets to the point where he can perform in the "freed" manner that he has been aiming for. Until this point, everything is okay I think. But all of this has been stored up through experience, so it is extremely difficult to reproduce it, and I think that the quality of newness is lost in the process. Then, the performer would have to start all over again storing up what has been practiced. The only thing he can do is repeat that process. To me, it seems like if you're going to go to all that trouble, you might as well let something outside of your self do the expressing from the very start.

In the Spaces Between Buildings

I: To me it seems that the concept of shakkei is similar to Zen or an extension of some other philosophical concept. Is this at all related to what you are talking about?

S: Well, in the end it may all have something to do with the "oneness of the universe." In general, you could say that philosophical and other systems of thought are founded on views of the universe that are created by the self. For example, in the West there have long been unique cosmological concepts concerning God and truth. In other words, Western philosophy has used these systems as a base, and through the things that metaphysics or a certain historical period or the cosmological views of philosophers established, "truths" were made logically and linguistically sound. But from another perspective, the form of expression that has been used to prove the existence of a god and truth has simply been founded on the basis of metaphysical thought. And the same could also be said of art and music. Until the 19th century, at the root of Western art there was a rigid sense that "beauty must be expressed," which was the basis for a work of art. This was, however, developed within a uniquely Western view of the universe. Other concepts like this were not limited to the West. In Islam, there was an Islamic view of "truth," and in China, there was a Chinese sense of "truth." Besides these, there was a Christian truth, Buddhist truth, Cartesian truth, and a Platonic truth--at any rate, there are truths that were created by all different kinds of people. But all of these were developed within a certain view of the universe. With so many different versions of the truth, you can't help but be confused.

I: Does this mean that it is impossible for human beings to express actual truth within a cosmological view created by the self?

S: To start with, the phrase "actual truth" is strange. It would be better to say "existence itself." And you might say, the results of these various concepts actually lie between the buildings.

I: Huh?

S: It is often said that "Western thought is a building," but it seems to me that this is not only true of Western thought, but that every kind of truth that has been constructed by human beings is a building. A few minutes ago I said, "There are all kinds of truths in the world." These are all buildings that express the cosmological viewpoint of the particular person or ethnic group that created them.

I: So it just might be that a bird is flying between these buildings...

S: Exactly! Things that lie outside of the self are all examples of shakkei.
In the pursuit of truth, human beings have done their utmost to eliminate the things in-between. This tendency is especially strong in Western culture, and things like concert halls are a perfect symbol of this. According to a certain cosmology, people enjoy the things they consider to be beautiful, and eliminate all the other sounds--in other words, noise. But in my view, there is actually nothing closer to the truth than noise. This is, in other words, existence itself. And to take this one step further, the existence of human beings themselves is part of this space between. This is because life is something that can in no way be predicted. Life is a series of happenings, and this is what makes it so interesting. And in the same way, so are chance operations. Life is noise. (laughs)


IWABUCHI Takuro (sound performer) can be reached via email at or from

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