This article, created by Paul Tingen, appeared in Sound on Sound, September 1996. Please note that all (c) are with Sound on Sound and the author. The original article can be found here. Because the digital article did not contain any pictures, we’ve added some relevant images.
One of the unwitting founding fathers of so‑called ‘new age’ music, Kitaro has journeyed down many musical roads in his 20‑year career. Paul Tingen reports.
With the dreamy, lilting synth textures of his now legendary Silk Road albums (1976/77), Japanese musician Kitaro was one of the founding fathers of ‘new age’ music, more than a decade before the genre was invented. Fresh and ahead of his time, Kitaro has remained extremely prolific and now has an array of albums to his name: 20+ solo albums; half a dozen compilation, live and ‘best of’ albums; plus an album with the London Symphony Orchestra. Although less and less at the cutting edge of musical developments as his career progressed, Kitaro’s albums have nonetheless continued to sell by the million, and have been considered innovative and artistically interesting enough to reap music industry awards such as the Golden Globe Award for his album Heaven And Earth (1993, the score to the Oliver Stone movie), and a Grammy nomination for the single ‘The Field’, from his 1987 album Light Of The Spirit. This year Kitaro is busier than ever, with three new releases under his own name, plus two productions of other artists playing his music under the umbrella of Kitaro’s World Of Music.
Of the three albums under his own name, two contain existing material: a live album called An Enchanted Evening, and his second album with a major London orchestra, this time the Philharmonic. The latter will be released this Autumn, around the same time as an album of new material, Peace Symphony, that features ex‑Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. One of the Kitaro’s World Of Music albums features the Chinese huquin (a Chinese violin) player Yu‑Xiao Guang, backed by a Western chamber music ensemble; the other is dedicated to Kitaro’s band member Nawang Khechog, a Tibetan flute player and vocalist, who is backed by nature sounds and traditional Kitaro synth washes. Both World Of Music albums re‑interpret Kitaro’s music for the ‘sophisticated Kitaro fan’, according to their cover notes. Altogether it’s quite a deluge of CDs, and so this is an especially appropiate time to talk to Kitaro and find out what drives and inspires him. A recent promotional tour of the UK to support these five releases on his new American record label Domo Records, offered SOS a unique opportunity to put these questions to Kitaro, face to face.
For a man who has lived in America now for five years (Kitaro moved from his native Japan to Boulder, Colorado in 1991) his English was still poor, and so it has to be kept in mind that all the quotes in this article are heavily edited. Kitaro, though clearly having great problems getting his points across, happily and imperviously made his generally rather short and cryptic comments to the questions I posed. Given that he is a man who wears his spiritual heritage on his sleeve (witness the ‘Great Spirit’ poem on the inlay booklet for Mandala), interestingly, it was my technology questions that received the most animated responses.
I asked Kitaro about his Shinto background — he was born into a Shinto family in 1953 — and all he wanted to say was that Shintoism is “like a way of life. It’s not really a religion, although it is classified as such.” Kitaro has gone on record saying that his music is “spiritual” and that “the human element” and “traditional values” are most important to his music, and I was trying to ascertain what these values are and how they fit together with his obvious love for modern Western music technology, and especially for synthesizers. Apparently, it was the legendary Klaus Schulze who first opened his ears to the magical world of synthesizers in the early 1970s, when the ex‑Tangerine Dream synthesist produced two albums with Kitaro’s group, the Far East Family Band. Kitaro remembered this occasion with enthusiasm: “It was the early time of electronic music, and people like Klaus and Tangerine Dream were pioneers. It was so interesting to see him operate these synths and perform on them. I learnt a lot of technical stuff from Klaus, and then I created my own spiritual style with this technology.”
His favourite synthesizers are the Minimoog, the Korg 800DV and the Mini Korg 700, all of which he has used since the time of Silk Road.
Continued questioning about the exact nature of this spiritual style and these ‘traditional values’ led Kitaro to remark that “we need to feel the old ancient stuff. Yesterday I watched the older architecture here in London, and it’s really good. It’s kind of beyond the times, and we can imagine how people once spent their time and money. I think that it gives a good opportunity for younger people to become aware of other times.” And why, exactly, is it so important for people to look into the past? Kitaro appeared unflustered by the interruption: “A long time ago people didn’t have any technologies. They connected with nature more naturally. I’d like to learn more of that natural feeling, how we can live, how we can feel, and how we can survive in the future. And in Shintoism we believe that gods live in nature, in the trees and the oceans, and so on. They’re invisible, but maybe if we close our eyes and make some image, we can feel something. That’s one of the gifts from the gods, maybe from nature; that’s kind of spiritual stuff.”
Well, quite possibly, depending on how you define gods, or nature, or both. What this latter quote does make more clear, however, is the nature of Kitaro’s attraction to synthesizers. He has said that synthesizers enable him to create visual images in music that he couldn’t otherwise create, that he can conjure up “an ocean, a winter coastline, a summer beach, a whole scene” with synthesizers, and so one assumes that they give him the opportunity to create images of these Shintoist gods that live in nature.
Kitaro continued emphasising that it was especially analogue keyboards that give him the most creative freedom to turn his visions into sound: “Synthesizers from the analogue era are much easier to programme. You can create sounds much more freely than with digital synthesizers. Analogue synths also have a much wider sound picture. Today it’s much harder. You spend much more time in the creative process and need big computers to change the data of your sounds. It’s much too complicated, and leads many people to just use flat, unoriginal presets. This is why I still prefer to use analogue synths.”
No Samples, Please
Kitaro laughed cheerfully, clearly aware that his attitude will be seen as slightly Luddite in some circles, and enjoying what he considered a spot of controversy. His favourite synthesizers are the Minimoog, the Korg 800DV and the Mini Korg 700, all of which he has used since the time of Silk Road. And, obviously wanting to press home the point of the hopelessness of modern, MIDI‑fied synths, he adds: “I have a MIDI‑Moog, but it’s no good. The sound is different. You know, I once changed the tuning pots on one of my oldest Moogs, and the sound changed even from that! They’re really sensitive, and so a MIDI‑Moog simply doesn’t sound the same as a Minimoog, and I prefer to use the latter. I don’t use MIDI very much anyway, because I don’t use sequencers very much. Most of the time, I play live to a click track when recording. The only sequencer that I do use is the one in my Synclavier, just to allow me to cut and paste parts. But often I don’t like the feel of it, because things sound too perfect when they are sequenced. I like to have a more human feeling and, sometimes, when I make mistakes I simply leave them in.”
With the admission that he owns a Synclavier, Kitaro instantly does away with the image of himself as a true technology retro man, adding that he uses the Synclavier mainly for “orchestrating and audio‑visual work. It’s good for that, with the samples, and it has an incredibly easy and well‑functioning SMPTE lock to picture. One touch of the button and it’s going.”
Other than for orchestrating, Kitaro claims he never uses samples: “I don’t even use drum machines. Most people use them as an easy option, but sampled drum sounds are not very good. I think original recordings always sound way better.”
The search for ‘real’, dimensional sound appears central to Kitaro’s musical quest. It’s why he prefers analogue synths to digital (even though his collection of 50+ synths at his Boulder studio, Mochi House, also contains a fair amount of the latter — Roland JD800, Korg 01/W, and even a Roland S760 sampler). Kitaro tends to play his synths through a PA system and then mike the sounds from the speakers, again in order to create the effect of a real sound. “I like to create a natural feeling, and for individual sounds it’s not important whether it is stereo or mono, or processed in some 3D system. It’s not what matters. I have a friend who has created a 3D virtual sound system, but if your sound is real you don’t need that much depth. Real‑life sounds can often sound mono, anyway. The important thing is to create good sounds and goodmusic. People often follow the technology too closely and sometimes they forget the music, and they are losing something.”
His search for ‘real’ sounds has led Kitaro to learn how to play various instruments, which he also uses to great effect on stage, such as the native American flute, the taiko drums and the six‑foot long Tibetan long horn. He plays them in addition to the electric guitar and his beloved analogue keyboards, plus a Roland VP330 Vocoder, a Kurzweil K2000 and a Casio FZ1, which are all part of his live rig.
For his most recent live concert CD, An Enchanted Evening, eight Tascam DA88 digital recorders were used to record Kitaro and his 8‑piece band across 64 tracks. Despite his pledged reservations about people being too focused on new technology, Kitaro spontaneously sings the praises of one particularly good piece of gear that enhanced the sound quality of his live CD: “We recorded directly to the DA88 via a special preamp which a friend of mine created. They’ve just gone on the market with it as a commercial company, called Luna Tech. We compared their preamps to many others, even George Massenburg’s, but the Luna Tech units were definitely the best. It has warmth and depth, and a really good sound.”
Kitaro’s obvious enthusiasm for technology keeps raising the question of how this relates to the self‑professed “warmth” and “humanness of his music.” So what is his angle on the generally held view that technology is somehow cold and inhuman?
Kitaro shrugs his shoulders: “It totally depends on how you use technology. Twenty years ago we didn’t have digital technology, and synthesizer music sounded really nice. Unfortunately as technology grew better and better, people became more confused. If we didn’t have any better technology, then the sound quality of today’s music would actually be higher. This is my opinion. The quality of original sounds, whether samples or patches or recorded music, is getting worse now. The sounds of digital synths are becoming too much like gimmicks — there’s no spirit in them. I like analogue synths much better; they’re much warmer. I think we should really think about how we can make sounds more real, and the way to do that is to create them via air and use microphones to pick them up. If we didn’t have air we wouldn’t have sound, and so we need to appreciate oxygen and air in our music. “
So good music needs air, and the important thing when working with technology is to not forget about the music… So how does Kitaro’s music hold up then?
Silk Road may not be everybody’s cup of tea (and certainly wasn’t mine), but there was an integrity and delicacy to the music that was undeniable, and that forced respect. It was the music of a man who had somehow found a way to forge synthesizers in the creation of an original voice that was entirely his own. No mean feat in the often rather faceless and bland world of synthesizer music. Yet listening to Kitaro’s newer material — Mandala and the live album, An Enchanted Evening, which contains the title tune from Silk Road — all that delicacy has somehow gone. Most of his music now sounds like rather derivative symphonic rock, a kind of sub‑standard Pink Floyd, weak on good tunes but heavy on the big drums, bombastic synth washes and long, ecstatic guitar solos. Occasionally there are some nice elegantly subtle touches, like the flute solo that carries the short piece ‘Planet’, but then it is off to the Andes again for a pan‑flute filled rendition of some cliched Andean music, and on to what sounds like an out‑take from Meddle‑era Pink Floyd in ‘Chants From The Heart’.
The sounds of digital synths are becoming too much like gimmicks — there’s no spirit in them.
One wonders what happened to Kitaro’s own voice? A normally rather tolerant and broad‑minded friend of mine, who was a fan of Silk Road, was seriously affronted on hearing Kitaro’s recent releases. Slightly more reflective about the whole thing myself, I chose to put my friend’s reaction to Kitaro, instead of my own as yet unformed one.
Kitaro didn’t miss a beat, hardly appeared to notice the criticism inherent in my question, and put the whole thing down to fans who don’t want to change with their artist: “My life is about change, and over the years my music has changed a lot as well. There’s a big difference with what I did 20 years ago. That’s OK. I don’t worry about that. I’m not losing the spiritual things. I go through different stages and I’m not going to stay the same in each stage. Silk Road was like a prototype for new age music, and they have since tried to pigeonhole me on that corner. But I think that most new age artists don’t have a recognisable identity — each person sounds almost the same. Vangelis and Jean‑Michel Jarre were also forefathers of that new age, but they do have their own sounds. Vangelis has melodies that are really identifiable. The audience can find true sounds in his music, but in today’s music that’s virtually impossible.”
World Of Music
It may be Kitaro’s quest for ‘real sounds’ that has contributed to the first two releases through his Kitaro’s World Of Music project, featuring Tibetan Nawang Khechong on flutes/vocals and Chinese musician Yu‑Xiao‑Guang on the Chinese violin (the huiquin), plus assorted acoustic instruments and/or nature sounds. Kitaro asserts that he started the project to “give new artists a chance. Nawang is a member of my band, and I thought that he and other great musicians can perform their own solo albums. They interpret and play my music on these particular albums, which were also produced by me and recorded at Mochi House, but on their next albums they will hopefully be doing their own music. All the nature recordings for Nawang’s albums were done by ourselves. I don’t like using sample CDs, and so we went out and recorded many things to DAT. I even recorded the cracking of the ice on a frozen lake. We made holes in the ice, then put hydrophonic, waterproof microphones into the lake and recorded the cracking sounds. We didn’t use that particular sound on these latest albums, but I will try to use it on my next album.”
Kitaro adds that other World Of Music projects are already in the pipeline, including one with a Peruvian player and another with an Indian player. On the evidence of the two existing World Of Music CDs one would hope that their quality improves, for the semi‑classical arrangements behind Yu‑Xiao Guang’s violin are (to my ears, at least) dreary and dragging, whilst the mixture of environmental sounds with Tibetan flute and chanting on Nawang’s CD sounds contrived and doesn’t hang together. Add to this the fact that, despite Kitaro’s valid claims to being an original voice in the instrumental music of the mid‑seventies, his last two albums (Mandala and An Enchanted Evening) sound rather derivative, and one wonders what has happened to his creative spirit and sense of adventure.
Kitaro himself, however, clearly holds the opposite to be true. He explained that the reason for the strong Pink Floyd influences on Mandala (and five of the eight tracks on An Enchanted Evening are also from that album) was a conscious effort to return to his roots: “I was trying to remind myself of my original music, and of the original spirit with which I started my musical life. 20 years ago I played electric guitar, then I changed to synths and orchestrations. Mandalais the next step, back to the original music that inspired me — Pink Floyd, ’70s progressive rock… The album that I’ve just finished with Jon Anderson, Peace Symphony, is also a little like ’70s progressive rock. I will soon start work on my next solo album, which should be out during next year, and this will be entirely different again. It will be based on the planets of our solar system, similar to Gustav Holst’s classical work The Planets. So my next album will be another step. I’m trying to keep in good shape. Life is different, and the time is good and passing by… and I’m happy.”
Mochi House Studios
Kitaro makes most of his original recordings in his Mochi House Studios in Boulder, Colorado, where he owns a 180‑acre estate surrounded by spectacular mountain views.
Mochi’s 2,500 sq ft control room is large enough to hold a 70‑piece orchestra. As everything with Kitaro, the studio is a strongly contrasting mixture of old and new, with a vintage Neve 8048 32‑input desk having pride of place in the control room. “I like old valve gear. The Neve sounds so much better than modern, digital boards. The only problem is the maintenance; it’s really tough!”.
His last studio album, Mandala, as well as his Kitaro’s World Of Music albums, were all recorded at Mochi House on his state‑of‑the‑art, 32‑in/32‑out, 16 Gigabyte Sonic Solutions hard disk recording system. “I’m using Apogee A/D filters and we’re actually working the whole thing as a 20‑bit system. And you know, 20‑bit does sound much better than 16‑bit. It’s a totally different dimension. You can feel the exact place of all the instruments within the stereo image. It’s much much more spatial and dimensional.”