The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A shamisen player from the rock generation, Hiromitsu Agatsuma talks about taking his shamisen music to Europe

Hiromitsu Agatsuma
Has the response to your performances overseas affected your playing style any?
Once I had a chance to do an impromptu performance at a New York jazz club. No one in the audience knew anything about me, and my shamisen was the first one they had ever seen. I didn’t know whether I would be booed or applauded, so I thought it was a great chance to see what I could do. At first the audience was surprised by the look and the sound of the instrument. And then they were surprised to see that I could jump right in and play a session with the jazz musicians there. It turned out to be a great learning experience for me, where I could feel the real potential of the shamisen. But, you can only get by on the fact that your sound is different for the first couple of years. If it is only a matter of being able to play jazz on a shamisen, then it is no different than if you were doing it with a guitar. In the end it is no good just to adapt your sound to the foreign music. What I feel a need for is original music that is based on unique Japanese sound. So, I want to be able to create music based on everything I experience while performing, while watching what parts of the music the audience is reacting to and what they are feeling while they listen. I want to be able to reach the audience with that kind of music. That is why it is important for me to perform my own original music overseas, before audiences that have no preconceptions about shamisen music.

Did you choose "Tradition, Innovation and Transmission in the Tsugaru shamisen" as the title of your 2005 concert tour based on what you have learned about the originality of Japanese music in your overseas concerts?
The more I go abroad the more I think about my roots. On my first four albums I composed mainly using jazz, fusion or rock rhythms, but on the fifth album now being released I use the rhythms and flavor of Japanese folk music with strictly acoustic instrument sound. I think we are in an era when we should be bringing out our Japanese DNA. No matter how skillfully you try to bring in foreign elements in culture or in music, you are never going to be as good as the original as long as you are imitating. As Japanese, we have things like the unique Japanese sense of rhythm we call "ma" (inserted pause) and certain concern for minute detail and unseen depth in Japanese culture that people in other countries don’t have as an innate, ingrained sensibility. I believe that if we can accept anew some of the aspects of Japanese culture that we have considered outdated and embarrassing until now, if we can digest it and bring it to life again in a contemporary context, then we will surely be able to create things that only we Japanese can create. I want to express things that are being forgotten as the Internet and email make the world increasingly small, things like our sense of the seasons. From now on I want to make sound that is very human, sound with human warmth. My tour in Europe in 2005 will be the first overseas presentation of this new sound I am working on. I believe that Europeans are open to traditional things. I am undertaking a new challenge to see how European audiences respond to an unfamiliar type of new sound centering mainly around the shamisen, Japanese taiko drums and piano.

It sounds as if your music will continue to evolve in new directions in your 30s.
I intend to keep exploring this new sound for the next three or four years. But, in five or six years you may find me getting into electronic music. The shamisen will always be my instrument, though. I can’t express it well in words, but it’s like my body resonates with the sound of the shamisen. It is like my body and the shamisen have the same wavelengths. Its sound tells me honestly when there is something unusual in my body condition, or when I haven’t been practicing enough. No matter how much I play, I never get tired of it. The scale in traditional Japanese music is basically a five-note scale. Compared to a 12-note scale, that means there are seven notes we are not using, and that gives you a lot of leeway. For example, if you add two notes you can get a Spanish type sound. When you play with different people new types of phrasing are born. There are lots of things I can do and want to try in order to expand the possibilities of the shamisen, like changing the tuning and developing new playing techniques and developing the instrument itself. I plan to try all these possibilities I am thinking about by the time I reach the age of 50.
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