Above the Tenor, A Subversive Message about Masculinity

On Thurs, Dec 21st my friend Tako Oda performed his experimental music set in a remote atrium of Julia Morgan’s Chapel of the Chimes, as part of their annual Winter solstice celebration. Even though he was in the midst of recovering from the flu, Tako played with polished gusto in Oakland's "most desired cremation venue."

The opening song cycle was written by his favorite composer, Fumio Hayasaka, who scored Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, as well as films by Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa. In addition to the Hayasaka cycle, he played his new homemade wind chime instrument (with an ABS tube frame designed by his daughter), a cycle for slide mandolin and countertenor by Music for People & Thingamajigs founder Dylan Bolles, John Cage's Ryoanji, and Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. He sings in a counter tenor voice, what a man’s voice sounds like when it sounds like a woman’s.

Because of the still cold in the columbarium, Tako’s voice condensed into fog, lit by a solo beam of whitish blue light from his headlamp. During the first number, everything concentrated into the air coming from between his lips, and the ringing coming from the bell mallet brushing and striking his chimes. He seemed to concentrate on silencing and dampening the bells’ sounds as much as he did playing the notes in-between the quiet spaces.

Later in the set, he changed the color of his headlamp to red, which again lit up his breath as it wavered about two inches out from his face.

I conducted a brief email interview with Tako after the show.

Terri — What is a counter tenor? Describe your voice, and how it relates to your interest in gender issues.

Tako — Countertenors are men who sing in the traditionally female alto or soprano ranges. Countertenor is short for contratenor altus which just means “above the tenor”.

Two modes of vocalization available to both sexes are the “chest” voice and “head” voice. The chest voice, which produces low pitches, is what most people use to speak. For head voice, the larynx makes a gear shift, allowing for higher pitches. Most women use both modes when singing. Most men use only their chest voices, but I use both.

Gender issues are built into the term “falsetto,” which is often (inaccurately) used to describe the head voice of a countertenor. It raises the question of what is “false” about a man singing in this range. To me it feels perfectly natural to sing this way. There is nothing physiologically or acoustically false about it, so the implication is there is something intrinsically wrong with a man singing in the same range or manner as a woman. Our gender binary does not tolerate much overlap between the feminine and masculine, so a man singing in high voice is therefore not a “real” man, singing in his “real” voice. So I guess countertenor singing carries a subversive message about masculine identity, regardless of musical context.

Oddly enough, many modern countertenors spend their careers singing operatic roles written for 18th Century castrati. The castrato’s voice was about as “false” as could be, since they were hormonally altered men… Yet the most virile, heroic roles were written for these guys!

Farinelli was the spandexed, long haired rock star of the Baroque era.

Terri — What’s it like to perform in the Chapel of the Chimes? Does the cold stony structure affect the sound quality? Do you feel like you’re playing for the dead?

Tako — The Chapel of the Chimes is an amazing space for music. On one hand it is incredibly reverberant because of the hard surfaces. Marble reflects sound very well. On the other hand, the mausoleum is set up like a gigantic labyrinth, which insulates the various chambers from one another. It allows visitors to experience many discrete acoustic environments in one building.

For the Solstice event, I was singing for the living, but I visited the space alone earlier in the week and sang to the dead. I guess I wanted to make a musical offering to the residents first before using their space to sing for the concert. It’s a different dynamic singing to the dead… much more personal and introspective.

Terri — How did the night progress for you, with each successive song?

Tako — As I mentioned before, it is different singing for the living! I was trying to be mindful of what songs were resonating with the audience members… there was a level of improvisation in what I chose to sing and when based on how different pieces connected with whomever was there. I did plan ahead a little, though, knowing some repertoire works better when my voice is fresh, while others better when I’m warmed up.

Terri — Do experimental musicians care about whether or not they have an audience?

Tako — Ha! The official answer is “No!”, but everyone is different. On principle, experimental artists must have the courage to do what it is that comes from them regardless of what kind of praise or money flows their way. Still, everyone wants to feel appreciated… It’s mixed for me. It is hard for me to prepare a solo set for people because I constantly second guess myself about if I am making honest aesthetic choices or choices that might make me look smart, intriguing, avant garde, or whatever. Maybe it’s a good thing for me to have to work through that and reflect on my purpose as an artist.

Terri — Do you sing for your kids? Do they also enjoy experimenting with music, and building musical instruments? How has music bonded you with the people in your family or others?

Tako — I love singing for my kids. I sing them to sleep at bedtime, but mostly during the day they are barely tolerating it or ignoring it. They are way too cool now to want to be around a grownup who sings to himself. Still, I laugh because they are turning into me! They are all capoeiristas and I catch them singing their roda songs at the top of their lungs to themselves or each other all the time.

We had a lot of fun building the chime instrument I played for David Solomons’ Solstice Song. We went to the hardware store together to pick out parts. My daughter drafted a frame design that used three 10 foot tubes of ABS without wasting an inch of plastic. My sons had fun using the miter saw! Of course the funnest part was having this giant thing in the living room for a month. They tried out playing the chimes with all sorts of implements.

Singing is a big part of our family life, though I wish it were more so. My dream is to be like the VonTrapp Family Singers, except we would go to old folks homes and sing songs to seniors instead of escaping from the Nazis.

I’ve been trying to find a good service project we could do as a family, and it seems like it would be a perfect fit once they learn to carry harmony parts on their own.

Terri — Do you perform very often locally? Where can we expect to hear you next?

Tako — I don’t perform all that often. I’m still struggling with the notion of promoting myself, because I’m trying to keep my ego in check as it is! Basically I end up doing a show if someone asks me to, and given the state of arts funding nowadays, that’s not very frequently. I’ve been seriously thinking about how to make it a bigger part of my life again, though, now that my kids are getting older.

Terri — What was the first instrument you learned to play, or was it your voice, or your hands clapping?

Tako — My mother thought I was tone deaf, and tried to steer me towards painting. I did finally convince my parents to get me piano and cello lessons. I did not start singing with any sort of seriousness until I got to college, actually, and did not convince anyone to train me as a countertenor until after graduation.

Terri — Tell me about your interest in Hayasaka, John Cage, and Sinead O’Connor, and how they might relate to one another.

Tako — I think there tend to be political motivations behind my repertoire choices, though ultimately it boils down to the music itself. To me it’s important to include as many non-establishment (i.e. gay, female, non-academic) composers on my programs whenever possible.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Sinead O’Connor because she is such a genius musically and yet conspicuously imperfect as a person. She tries so hard to make a difference, and is willing to make a fool of herself from time to time. She reminds me that people are not perfect, but that their personal journeys can be. I think that’s what her song I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is about.

The Hayasaka songs have special meaning to me because the poetry is by Sato, a poet from my hometown in Japan. The text really spoke to me. He’s got the sad thing down pat! Hayasaka is a modern composer, but has a great love for and literacy with traditional Japanese music. It is a musical voice with which I can really identify. It feels very natural to sing.

Terri — What are you working on now?

Tako — A sound engineer friend has been talking about recording me. It would be fun to create a permanent record of some of the songs I sang at the Solstice event. I don’t know that anyone has ever recorded the full Hayasaka cycle.

Terri — Is there anything you’d like to see happen in the world(s) of experimental music?

Tako — I don’t know if I speak for most experimental musicians, but I would like to see more outreach to young people. There is a natural affinity between experimental music and kids. The work of an experimental musician is much like the work of a child… dreaming stuff up, putting stuff together, using it once, seeing how it works, then dismantling it and forgetting about it, but remembering the lessons learned. No preconceived notions about form or genre.

I am involved with the Thingamajigs Foundation, which has been putting on an annual festival for musicians who build their own instruments and use non-traditional tuning systems. A couple of years ago we put on a program at the Oakland Museum of California, where kids could see musical installations and make their own instruments at a booth. It was incredibly well attended and very fun for everyone.

Terri — Did you see the film that played recently at the Pacific Film Archive about the experimental composer Fred Frith, called Step Across the Border? If so, what did you think of the film?

Tako — I hope I get to see this film some day! Although I haven’t seen Step Across the Border, I can say Fred is a positive influence in my life. I have studied composition privately with him, which I enjoyed, but mostly I am impressed by how he chooses to live his life. He has kids, he plays around a lot, but also teaches music to keep life comfortable for his family. He doesn’t have major hang-ups about the life of a musician, like it makes him the most important person in the universe. It’s a job, and a job he enjoys and is very good at.

Terri — Do you find inspiration for your music in films? Which ones in particular?

Tako — Absolutely, but not any particular films, or maybe I should say there aren’t any particular films that have inspired me in a particular way on particular compositions.

To me, the compositional process is most rewarding when it is created in collaboration with someone else. In fact, the vast majority of my writing has been for modern dance choreography. When I experience a film, I am mindful of how the music works with the moving images, creating something new and sometimes better. I marvel at what must have gone into it – the compromises, the coordination, the intuition, the countless hours of lining up details together.

That said, I love Koyaanisqatsi, the silent battle scene during Ran, and the banjo solo at the end of Raising Arizona.

Terri — Thanks Tako~

Tako — Thank you, this was fun!

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