Tatsuya Nakatani, a Kobe-born percussionist who now lives in Pennsylvania, pulls a bow across a large gong, slicing the air with long, shocking tones. The sound is hauntingly melodic and mesmerizing, like the cries of an enormous metallic bird.
Or Nakatani picks up Tibetan singing bowls, coaxing out their purr with a stick. When he's not satisfied with that sound, though, he smashes them together or throws them to the ground, getting his music that way.
Perhaps it seems nontraditional or even a little crazy. But Nakatani makes it seem so easy, so intuitive.
"Considering the 'traditional use of musical instruments' is interesting. There are so many ways to play sound from the objects, but mostly people are influenced by one or a few basic rules somehow," Nakatani explains from Japan after a European tour. He refers to the National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D., where early pianos, clarinets, guitars and saxophones show how the shapes of instruments and the sounds they make have changed over centuries. "You can see the stages of musical instrument development, from the experimental stages, like a trumpet with many bells sticking out from the main pipe section, which are never seen on standard instruments nowadays. Even the piano was not always that same black box as we see everywhere."
There's a historical precedent for musicians like Nakatani, then, who use extended techniques with relatively standard instruments to produce the tones they want. If his drums won't make a certain noise, he finds out how they will. All instruments have changed over time, he says, and the evolution isn't over—at least not for him.
"The whole process of bowing a gong took me about 13 years. I discovered longer sounds. I'm able to play musically," he says. "It sounds to me like a cello or contra bass. I can produce sounds with many pitches and harmonies."
In its peculiar way, Nakatini's music is ultimately postmodern—he uses unamplified instruments to create a music that is sometimes more menacing than that of some contemporaries in metal, noise and industrial fields. Nakatani isn't alone: English drone master Z'EV, for instance, uses specially designed acoustic instruments to produce enormous, bellowing resonance. Nakatani's tonality is precise, and emotion trumps rhythm in his performances. It's as if he is playing the rigging of a sinking ship. Such experimental sounds are older than rock 'n' roll, older than amplification.
"[Nakatani] does not use any electronics," says Robert "Crowmeat Bob" Pence, a Triangle saxophonist and composer who has collaborated frequently with Nakatani. "There are some Japanese bowls that he uses, and some gongs. [He] strikes them with a mallet or bows them—I think he uses a bass bow—so he gets this fantastic multiphonic resonance."
Sonically, Nakatani's work can be incredibly unsettling, and its suggestion of primitive and futuristic music can be extremely disorienting. It grabs you by the cerebellum and makes you wobble. Abiogenesis, his latest album, explores a set of very large gongs—ranging from 37" to 40" in diameter—and their reactions to handmade bows and beaters.
"The sounds shake your brain," he admits. "Those huge gongs' low-frequency sounds are amazing, but it was not easy to work on the recording. The frequencies were making me sick."
That doesn't mean Nakatani—humble and disarming, especially in the way he downplays the creativity involved in what he does—wants to hide that music away. Just locally, he has collaborated with Greensboro legend Dr. Eugene Chadbourne, accomplished oboe and English horn player Carrie Shull and Crowmeat Bob. Much like his half-hour solo sets, these have been purely improvisation.
"Usually if it's a band he's collaborating with, like it is in our case, we don't have a chance to practice with him," says Crowmeat Bob, referring to his "doom folk" band, Nervous Creep, which first played with Nakatani in 2008. "He's a really good jazz drummer, so he always comes up with something good."
Nakatani has an ongoing collaboration with New York guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Reuben Radding in the ensemble MAP. Several years ago, he worked with the late Peter Kowald, an improvisational German bassist.
"I used to be a good friend of Peter Kowald before his death. We would play together and record, eat and drink together," Nakatani remembers. "Peter Kowald was a person who connected music and people on a global level. Now, I realize, that I do the same work he was doing."
In fact, Nakatani doesn't just tour internationally and play with professionals. He gives percussion workshops to schoolchildren, hoping to persuade them to think of music, not just the drums, outside of their generally strict roles.
"Schools can easily pay for a simple plumbing fix for about 500 bucks, no problem, but it's not easy to pay a little money for an actual musician to come to school," he says. "At the workshops, usually students get very excited. I feel it is a fantastic experience for them and I treat them the opposite from society."
You know, just as he treats his drums: capable of more than everyone else assumes.
Tatsuya Nakatani plays Nightlight Tuesday, March 23, at 9:30 p.m. He opens with a solo set before joining Pence's Nervous Creep and a free jazz set with Pence and Christopher Thurston. Nakatani then plays in Raleigh at Marsh Woodwinds Wednesday, March 24, at 8:30 p.m. Microcephalic Superintendent—featuring Chris Eubank, Craig Hilton, Carrie Shull and Todd Hershbeger—headlines.