Marcos Fernandes is a Yokohama-based musician and composer whose projects include Trummerflora and his independent label Accretions. Recently I spoke with Fernandes about his influences, music scenes in Tokyo and southern California, and his ongoing projects.
Dan: How did you first get interested in music?
Marcos: There was always music in our home.
Dan: Did you grow up in a musical family?
Marcos: Yes, my earliest memories are of family gatherings where my father, my uncles, and cousins would break out their instruments and play music. I recall many nights of eating, drinking, singing, and dancing. My mother liked listening to classical music, my father liked jazz and popular music, and my cousin (who lived with us) and my sister both listened to rock and pop. This would be in the ’50’s and ’60’s.
Dan: Did you have family members who were professional musicians?
Marcos: My uncle played music semi-professionally before and after WWII. He played the guitar, ukulele, banjo and pedal steel. So he was a very early influence. My father loved to sing, and he used to play the uke as well. And I have very clear memories of him sitting down at the piano and improvising. He would scat-sing over chords.
Dan: Did you study music when you were young?
Marcos: Yes, my parents made me take piano lessons, but that didn’t last too long. I was about ten years old when I heard The Ventures, and I knew I had to play the drums.
Dan: What’s an early memory that you have of growing up in Japan, in terms of your development as a musician?
Marcos: I didn’t realize how much Japanese traditional music had influenced me until I was older and living in the US. Growing up in Japan in the ’60’s and ’70’s, all eyes and ears were turned towards the West and I, like most others, was enamored by Western music and tried to emulate it. But traditional Japanese music was undeniably a part of me. Omatsuri (festival) music, court and classical music as well as various folk musics were embedded in my genes. Certain concepts like that of space or “ma” in Japanese music turned out to be a crucial element for me. Improvisation is another traditional aspect of Japanese music, and the popularity of free jazz and 20th century music obviously had an effect on my development.
Dan: Would you say there are aspects of Japanese soundscapes that influenced you?
Marcos: Yes, they had a tremendous influence on me — from the buzzing of insects to the songs of the street vendors, it was an incredibly rich acoustic environment.
Dan: What are some things that you like about traditional Japanese music?
Marcos: I’m very interested in the Japanese drumming traditions, and I’m also interested in various folk musics. I’m especially interested in the improvising traditions like the tsugaru shamisen. I’ve also attended a few Noh performances, but I’ve only skimmed the surface at this point. I also find myself drawn to ritual or sacred music, whether it be a Shinto ceremony or a sumo match. Music is sound, and sound is time, and time is a very different animal here. It’s fascinating.
Dan: When did you first get interested in rock and roll and other kinds of music?
Marcos: After The Ventures, I started to listen to a lot of rock and roll: Beatles, Stones, DC5, Association, etc. I was eventually drawn to the blues and started listening to a lot of British blues like Mayall. Then came Cream, Hendrix, Creedence followed by Zeppelin, etc. The next big influence was Pink Floyd which took me into the realm of Prog rock. Tull, King Crimson, Tangerine Dream, etc. That led to Miles, Weather Report, Mahavishnu thenRiley, Glass and 20th century music. By then I had moved to California to attend university and I was exposed to a flood of new sounds. In the post-punk ’80’s I discovered African music and that launched a 10 year exploration of so-called world musics.
Dan: Who are some contemporary Japanese musicians that you like? I really like the music of Otomo Yoshihide and OOIOO.
Marcos: Otomo is probably the most well known Japanese experimental artist, both at home and abroad. Two of his contemporaries, Kazuhisa Uchihashi and Seiichi Yamamoto are both fantastic. Yamamoto has a nice new unit called Para. Which reminds me there’s a crop of young drummers — all from Yamaguchi — who are tearing up Tokyo right now. And I’ve heard a lot of wonderful electronic music employing everything from phonography to feedback to beats to broken hardware. There is also a lot of minimalist pop like the Tenniscoats as well as more prog-minded groups like OWKMJ.
Dan: What do you think about how traditional Japanese music can be integrated into other musical genres such as jazz? A Chicago-based musician and composer named Tatsu Aoki has done interesting projects that have integrated musical instruments and genres such as the shamisen, taiko drum, blues, and jazz.
Marcos: That’s a very tricky territory. Many artists I know are aware of their roots and are incorporating Japanese elements into their music, while for many others it just seems to manifest itself. There’s a certain Japanese-ness to much of the music here now whether it be popular or experimental music. But they’re doing it not self-consciously but in a very natural, uncalculated way which I like.
Dan: What kind of projects have you been doing which combines traditional Japanese music with other musical approaches and genres?
Marcos: I have been working with Yumiko Tanaka, a traditional singer and shamisen player who’s also a fine improviser, and so I’ve been exploring that kind of territory myself. As I mentioned earlier, Western music was king when I was growing up here, but now it seems people hardly pay any attention to it. They’re no longer influenced by it. There’s plenty of cool stuff going on here. And that’s good.
Dan: You used to live in San Diego for a while. What did you like about living there?
Marcos: Oddly enough, San Diego is sister-city to my hometown of Yokohama. And like Yokohama and its neighboring Tokyo, San Diego has LA and there definitely were some parallels. SD was a bit more provincial and a lot quieter. So it was culturally slower but it also afforded you the luxury of developing your own thing without constantly being under the microscope. If you wanted to “make it” then you had to move to LA or some other place, but if you didn’t want to join the fray then you could still keep your eyes and ears on what was going on. And once you discovered the richness of the trans-border region (Tijuana is a stone’s throw away), then it opened up a whole new vista of ideas and possibilities.
Dan: What did you like about the music scene in southern California?
Marcos: I think it’s like anywhere else. Once you find the right people and there’s a community that supports what you do then you get things done. Granted, it took a while but it gave me a lot of opportunities to learn and experiment and grow. There are peaks and valleys to every “scene” and I remember San Diego having growth spurts around ’82-’85, and then again in ’92-’95. It seemed to plateau around 2000.
Dan: How did the Trummerflora Collective start?
Marcos: Trummerflora started when a few like-minded people found each other. I was trying to organize an experimental music concert series. Basically, my friends and I wanted to find a venue that would let us put on monthly experimental events, and we ran into some other people who had the same idea. So you can say we evolved out of necessity. The collective idea was proposed to us by George Lewis who was teaching at the University of California at San Diego at that time, and some of these musicians I had encountered were George’s protoges. It was my idea to appropriate the name, which is a term coined by the Harrisons who were environmental artists at UCSD.
Dan: What would you say are some interesting highlights of Trummerflora?
Marcos: The initial concert series were very exciting. We had a monthly series for about six month followed by a weekly series that ran for a year and so on. You develop a network and things start to coalesce. Of course, once we officially collectivized, which was about a year after we’d first sat down and talked, things happened rather quickly. There is some truth to the notion of strength in numbers. We got written up in The Wire and all of a sudden we had arrived. We did a couple of tours including one to Japan, releAsed a CD and started our annual Spring Reverb Festival, all in a period of like two years. The burst of all that creativity was quite exhilarating.
Dan: Your label Accretions has released a lot of great recordings over its 25 years. How did you come up with the idea to start the label?
Marcos: Accretions was initially conceived as an arts and culture magazine. It was also a collective concept and I was going to produce a soundsheet or flexi-disc for insertion in the maiden issue. But things fell apart and I was stuck with all these flexi-discs so I decided to start a label. It was a vanity label for the band I was with at that time and it eventually turned into a full-fledged label with a wider roster of artists. But it was always meant to be an artist-based independent label. This was back in ’85 when things were still being dominated by major labels and distributors. I knew I never wanted to be part of that racket and that’s right when the whole DYI thing emerged. So if you’re doing something interesting and are serious about it then we provide the mechanism for you to get it out. I’m proud and honored to have so many amazing artists working with us.
Dan: What are some recent developments with Accretions?
Marcos: We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year so it’s been an exciting few months. We’re offering lots of special online deals — the 5 for $25 bundles — as well as free downloads and we’re adding new features to our site to make it a fun and creative resource. We’re currently trying to set up a web radio station. We’ll essentially be streaming live recordings by our artists around the clock. We’re just coming out with our second release for the year followed by an anniversary compilation. We have a couple more cd releases planned for the fall and we’re also getting ready to put out our first DVDs.
Dan: What have you been doing in Japan recently?
Marcos: I returned to Japan after 35 years, so I’ve been rediscovering this land. I’m also busy fixing up my old family home, which I moved into a few months ago. It’s taken a lot of time to go through decades of accumulation. There’s a lot of junk, but there’s also a lot of memories and personal history within those walls.
Dan: What are some things that you’ve been rediscovering about Japan?
Marcos: I now realize that Japan has very unique soundscapes that are very seasonal and site-specific. I am encountering new soundscapes and rediscovering nostalgic ones all the time.
Dan: Are there any things you’re discovering, as you fix up the family house, that you might want to work into an arts / music project? Some artists find inspiration from things they find in their home — something in the attic, old photos in a shoebox, etc. For me, I’d like to go through some old photos, or maybe some letters I found that were written by my maternal grandmother before I was born.
Marcos: I’m definitely rediscovering my roots as I go through the house. I’ve discovered old documents and photos which help me to piece together parts of my personal history. Of course, I uncovered a lot of materials relating to my maternal grandfather — whose buildings I have been “sounding” — and so much of it has actual historical significance. I’ve been working with an architectural historian who has been helping me catalogue all the materials. It’s all part of my story, and thus bound to make its way into my music.
Dan: What kinds of musical projects have you been doing recently?
Marcos: I’ve been playing a fair amount of gigs and working on a few recording and performance projects. I recently started a concert series focusing on phonography and am also organizing a couple of large events in Tokyo.
Dan: What do you like about the music scene there?
Marcos: I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some wonderfully, creative people over the years and I keep meeting new people who want to collaborate with me. It’s basically about the people you work with. And right now, I’m happy to be here negotiating the currents with these people. Of course, it helps when there are venues and organizations that support and encourage your activities.
Dan: What are your plans for World Listening Day?
Marcos: I’m presenting my phonography series, Possible Spaces, at a gallery space in Tokyo called 20202. Six phonographers will be performing solo and collectively over a period of 5 hours. It’s going to be 5 hours of non-stop soundscapes.
I realized that there are many field recordists here but very few have performed live. So I’m interested in developing the performative side of phonography.
Dan: How has “Music for Architecture” been coming along?
Marcos: I started that project last year. I performed in four historic buildings around Japan, and I’m doing another one in October this year. These are buildings designed by my grandfather Uheiji Nagano, who was a seminal Japanese architect. A DVD that documents last years’ project will be coming out later this summer.
Dan: What’s an example of one of your grandfather’s buildings that you’ve been exploring with that project?
Marcos: The Okurayama Memorial Hall in Yokohama was the last building my grandfather designed, and is a perfect example of his work which integrated elements of Japanese and Western architecture. Originally built in 1938 as the Center for Spiritual Research, the fundamental design draws on the pre-Hellenic Minoan style but also incorporates Shinto, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Persian elements. Both the architectural historian and the director of the research center were able to illuminate the finer details of the building, and thus provide insights into my grandfather’s philosophy as well as offer an important historical perspective of his work. More information including photos of the buildings can be found at soundingthespace.com. And the upcoming DVD of my project contains plenty of footage of the buildings.
Dan: Are you interested in other artists who have used buildings as instruments? In a way a building is a giant cavity, or multiple cavities, and it contains resonating bodies, like the resonating bodies found in musical instruments such as acoustic guitars and mbiras.
Marcos: I’m always looking for other projects involving architecture. I’m curious to find out how other people are “sounding” these spaces. As a friend remarked, a room is like an instrument waiting to be played. You activate it or realize its potential by introducing sound and thus movement. Alvin Lucier and Max Neuhaus are two of the pioneers in this aspect. And I was fortunate enough to experience one of Maryanne Amacher’s performances. Of course, recent studies about early humans “sounding” caves seem to suggest that we are naturally inclined to explore space.
Dan: Have you read “Spaces Speak, Are You Listening”? That’s a really interesting book.
Marcos: Yes, that was a very informative and inspiring book. I’ve also found Tuned City to be an excellent resource. It’s actually amazing to see how many bookmarks I’ve accumulated relating to sound! People are really starting to rediscover and reconnect with their sound environment. It’s accreting!
Dan: What recording projects have you been working on?
Marcos: I’ve been working on a couple of long-overdue recording projects. One is a collaboration with a guitarist named Marron. It’s an ambient project with guitar and field recordings. The other is a trio improv recording we did in LA back in ’08. I’m also hoping to work on a phonography cd that I’ve been threatening to finish for three years.
Dan: What other projects are you working on?
Marcos: I’m trying to put together a band. I just feel like it’ll be fun to work with a group of people on a regular basis. I want to experience and explore that particular energy — the energies of a band — again.
You can subscribe to the “Experimental Arts Examiner” article series by clicking on the “subscribe” button under this article’s title.