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Music that Breathes

In between minimal and ambient, Midori Takada makes music that isn’t obtrusive – and sounds all the more lively as a result.


Five concert tom-tom drums, ten cymbals and a marimba: these are all the instruments Midori Takada needs for a solo concert. On 16 November the legendary Japanese percussionist makes her debut in the Elbphilharmonie Recital Hall. The cymbals are mounted on stands and spread out over the concert platform; they look like a little forest of golden-topped trees. That’s not just nice to look at, it also tells us something about the way Takada sees music, instruments and sound itself. Ms Takada, who trained as a percussionist, regards and treats music as a living organism. Everything she plays breathes. No aspect of her music is purely mechanical, which is rather unusual for instruments that are mostly played with sticks and hammers.

Midori Takada


The world first took notice of Midori Takada nearly 40 years ago, when she played percussion for a while in the Berlin-based RIAS Symphony Orchestra (which no longer exists). But the young woman from Tokyo found Western classical music increasingly hard work: »It uses its spirit and energy aggressively to reach and dominate external goals«, Takada believes, »instead of strengthening the inner self«. She found the qualities she was looking for all the more in African and Asian music. The only Western music that still interested her at the time was minimal music, which she was attracted to by the absence of any need to express emotion.

This would seem to contradict the constant breathing that is a feature of her music. But Takada’s work actually sounds warmer and more elastic that that of Steve Reich, for example. However, the subject behind the sound seems to have vanished entirely. It is as if Takada was creating strange organisms from rhythms and notes that are completely independent of her.

Midori Takada


Midori Takada’s legendary status is derived from an album that she released in Japan at the age of 32: the title was »Through The Looking Glass«. Despite the colourful cover, only a handful of specialists showed any interest in the album at the time in 1983. The cover painting in the naive style shows a naked woman riding through a surreal landscape on the back of a mythical creature. And in the title of one of the pieces, too, the music makes express reference to Henri Rousseau, the grandmaster of naive painting.

Through The Looking Glass: Midori Takada


But the music that Midori Takada recorded here on her own, assisted only by a sound engineer, was anything but naive. Using a somewhat larger set of instruments than she does today – keyboards and a Coka-Cola bottle (!) among them – she layered one audio track after another onto an analogue tape, recording four pieces in very different timbres. The single-artist multiplay method was reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s »Tubular Bells« (1973), but the music sounded very different: modest and self-sufficient, with no interest in virtuosity and free of crowd-pleasing.


The album found hardly any buyers, and it wasn’t released at all on CD. But the record became a sought-after rarity on the second-hand market, with collectors paying as much as £750 for a copy. At the beginning of 2017,  »Through The Looking Glass« was reissued on both vinyl and CD, much to the delight of lovers of select music from prog-rock to neo-classical. And since then there has been a sharp increase of interest in the artist, who has only made a handful of records over the years, but has always maintained a stage presence.

Midori Takada


At Midori Takada’s solo appearance this April in London’s Café Oto, the »Financial Times« reviewer was especially taken with her marimba playing: »Takada is a skilful performer who traces precise circular patterns on her instrument. These patterns alternate between driving Western motifs and motifs that vary from atonal to Asian-folk style.« He summed up with these words: »I have rarely heard or seen anything like this. Takada’s work is guided by an alternative musical logic; she creates bright-hued parallel worlds that we witness with great joy, but will never truly understand.«