Interview: Ami Yamasaki

Ami Yamasaki is a vocalist from Japan who has been doing innovative work for quite a few years now. I had the opportunity to see her perform with alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos in the Limited Resources series at Muchmore’s on February 6, 2019, and after that I approached her to do an interview. Yamasaki just released a solo record in August, Quantum Quantum.

Cisco Bradley: How would you describe the music that you make?

Ami Yamasaki: Communication. I communicate with the space where I sing to.

I’m singing not only my thoughts or emotions inside of me but also trying to describe how the space could sing like: every space has its own acoustic, according to its shape and material, and it has already been “singing” long before you entered it. My voice is like a medium to realize the situation to hear.

I use a similar skill which some animals e.g. whales or bats use, it is called echo-location. It is literary a communication using vibration to know/touch the circumstances to get some different reflections coming from different parts of the space.

To say more about communication, I have a happy story with a baby. When I sang with a dancer he brought his 6-month baby at that time. In the middle of our performance that baby talked to me by her language when I was singing like talking by my own language. We exchanged some voices which we never translate to any usual languages, we really understood each other though. For her, my vocalization was related to her linguistic mind. It might mean, my vocals have some senses of primitive. Actually in Japan I’m talking with a scientist of Bio-psychology of communication for the future collaboration.

CB: What did you do to develop your vocabulary as a vocalist?

AY: Listening to the whole spectrum of sound carefully. Listening to the sound with watching the structure of its body like through MRI, CT scan or a microscope. Remembering everything as sound. Also my vocabulary as a vocalist was developed by philosophy, myth, or cultural anthropology. I did many interview researches in Japan, US, Philippines, and Australia to many types of people. Putting myself into unfamiliar place to talk with different types of people inspired me a lot. They cultivated me to find a new vocabulary.

CB: Who have you worked with in the US?

AY: Musicians: Ned Rothenberg, Yasunao Tone, Carl Stone, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ikue Mori, Erik Friedlander, Earl Howard, Denman Maroney, Chris Pitsiokos, Tim Dahl, Tamio Shiraishi, Jad Atoi, Andrew Drury, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Joe Moffett, Michael Evans, Zach Roden, Daniel Neumann, Thomas Buckner, Carlo Costa, Sam Weinberg, Julia Santoli, Kevin Shea, Sam Kulik, Jim Strong, Brian Chase, Robbie Lee, Akio Mokuno, Jen Shyu, James Ilgenfritz, Shodekeh, Max Bent, Eugene Chadbourne, Sunwatchers, Camille Norment, Sergio Krakowski, John McCowen, and Corey Fogel. I also worked with other international musicians while they were in the US: Nicola Hein, Seungmin Cha, Fritz Welch, Ernst Reiseger, and Shuta Hasunuma.

I have also worked with visual artists and dancers: Kazu Kumagai (tap dancer), Daniel Mckleinfeld(visual artist), Miah Altola(visual artist), Michael Smith-Welch(visual and sound artist), Jim Tuite(visual artist).

CB: Where do you come from in Japan?

AY: Ehime Prefecture. I was born on a big island.

CB: What were your formative experiences there that shaped you as an artist?

AY: I don’t know. My core as an artist always relates to ontological matters. Growing up in absolute solitude in childhood made me consider the circumstance, existence, boundary between me and others (or the world). At university, I could delve into my vague ontological ideas which I had embraced from childhood as my subject of study. Through those four years, I tried to verbalize my non-linguistic images by learning sociology, cultural anthropology, and ethics. That was a big thing for me to get the thought process to express an abstract concept in a concrete form. But after I became to an artist, I found that my work was to describe something that is abstract as it is, without interpreting it in some way.

My “serious” career as an artist started in my second hometown, Ishikawa Prefecture. After graduating from university, I moved to this city and worked as management staff of an art festival. At that time, I wanted to be a curator. But through this experience, I found that I wanted to be an artist. One day I met a Japanese famous movie director in Ishikawa and talked with him a lot. That conversation made me want to know more about movies. At the same time, coincidentally someone lent me a video camera. Until then, I only used an old camera given by my mother. It was rangefinder camera. I was frustrated that the scenery I saw through the finder and the result/print were totally different, I didn’t know the system of it. Therefore, I was so impressed when I saw the monitor of a video camera. “I can record exactly what I see! ” It never happened if I grabbed a single-lens reflex camera after rangefinder one. I directed 18 short films in Ishikawa. The owner of a cafe who saw my films suggested me to have a concert only by my voice once a month. He liked the music I made for the films. That was my starting point as a vocalist. While I was there, my way of singing was more concrete. After I moved to Tokyo, my style became more abstract through exchanges with some interesting improvisers based in Tokyo playing all over the world.

CB: What do you consider to be your primary influences as an artist?

AY: My mother. She isn’t a musician but a poet before I was born. She sang and played a guitar sometimes in her usual life. Her voice is most beautiful one in the world, I think. When I was a child I felt she has a “cathedral” inside of her mouth: I mean, her voice had a special acoustic because of the structure of her mouth. I found differences in voice between my mother and others. That’s my first memory of hearing in analytic way to distinguish human voices with looking through the system of the body. Here is a recording of my mom and me, I’m learning Japanese from her. She played a guitar as well.

Radio. My family loved to hear the radio. They ran a bookstore and radio was a good BGM. To be influenced by them, naturally I grew up with radio. I didn’t care the genre or contents. I enjoyed whole types of music every day. I feel the relationship between DJ and listeners is similar to the one which we have in concert. On the air, there are lots of listeners in front of the radio but DJ and each listener can make one on one relationship. When I sing with the audience, I’m making the similar relationship, I feel so.

I don’t have any strong synesthesia but I remember the color and light of sunset as a sound. My vocal chords remember its vibration. I listened to the light and saw a sound much more than now when I was a child. So the beauty of my circumstances soaked into my body in a different way.

Cover Photo Credit: Tom Yossi

Cisco BradleyInterview: Ami Yamasaki