Interview – Sound and the Universe

Interview – Sound and the Universe

From The Onion Cellar:

Before KanZeOn’s Vietnam premiere at OTO | EIGA (the Japanese Music Film Weekend organized by Japan Foundation Vietnam and The Onion Cellar), The Onion Cellar conducted an email interview with the two directors – Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham. The answers we received exceeded our expectations in every way, leading the interview into various interesting directions, bringing us incredibly insightful details covering the process of making the film, the people and inspirations behind it. Like the film itself, their answers somehow reflect a pure sense of wonder, of being one with the universe.


What drew you to making a film about traditional-ish music in Japan? What inspired the original idea? How did the two of you get to collaborate on this project? How did you ‘choose’ the three main characters?

Tim Grabham (TG): Meeting Neil unplanned at a friend’s party, at a time when I had already made a couple of short films inJapan, was very fortuitous as I wanted to embark on a long form project out there. Problem was, I was missing a subject. Fortunately Neil had met and worked with these fascinating musicians whilst living inJapan and had some very strong concepts and ideas he wanted to express so the project began to incarnate from that moment.

Neil Cantwell (NC): I had been living inFukuoka for a couple of years before returning toBrighton, where I met Tim. Initially I had been studying Japanese and then doing research about Japanese religion, and the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage in particular, but as I’m a musician, it turned out that the most progress I made while I was living in Japan, i.e. making friends and learning the language, was actually through music.

And so it was through music that I encountered all of the three main characters who came to be in the film – you ask how we chose them but there wasn’t any element of choice about it. My first and best Japanese friend, Ko, who I make music with under the name shi_ne_ko_sei, is a school-hood friend of Tatsumi (Akinobu Tatsumi) and so they are into the same music and hip-hop culture and so on – once Ko and I had been recording together for a while, we took a couple of trips down to Tatsumi’s place in the country to work on some music with him and then we just became friends from that, playing a few shows together and going on the types of crazy little trips into the countryside that you see in the film.

Similarly, I met Eri (Eri Fujii) as she was on the same bill as a concert that Ko and I did together at a place called art space tetra in Fukuoka – I was amazed by her performance and we got talking afterwards to see if we might be able to collaborate on some recording and so then Ko and I went to stay with her for a few days to make some music.

And then finally Iitomi-sensei (Akihiro Iitomi) was actually my teacher when I was studying the kotsuzumi drum for about 6 months – that came about through one of the staff in the International Office of the University where I was studying being his student and taking me along to a trial lesson because she heard I was interested in music.

So when it came to thinking about making a film, I just kind of realised that there were these people that I knew who could fit together in an interesting way, all showing different aspects of music in Japan but then with a common theme of there being a religious aspect to their engagement with sound.

TG: With Neil being so sure about all three of them being strong contributors I was more than happy to trust his judgement. As soon as he showed me a photo of Eri in full costume with the Sho performing on a mountain I was utterly seduced by the possibilities of how we could present her on camera. I didn’t need much convincing.

NC: Then the overarching unifying idea of the film, which isn’t really made explicit but was definitely present throughout our formulation of the project, comes from the Shingon Buddhism that makes up the fourth section. I had come to be a Foreign Research Fellow atShuchiinUniversity, which you see in the film, and which is aBuddhistUniversity that trains priests in Shingon/Esoteric Buddhism. Within the philosophy of Shingon Buddhism, there is the idea that the entire universe is a series of vibrations and that through the ritual use of sound and religious music one is able to unite with the universe in order to achieve certain realisations. This idea seems to have permeated a lot of Japanese thinking towards music – there is an interesting similarity with a quote from the great composer Toru Takemitsu, which we were very inspired by, where he talks about being in the sound and becoming one with it.

(Neil Cantwell & Tim Grabham)

KanZeOn does not look (and sound) like a conventional documentary – I’m not even sure if I should call it a documentary or whether it could be put into a category. Was this a conscious decision with the project –or is it simply your way of making films?

TG: I hate conformity and I am not much of a fan of the repetitive form and structure many documentaries are burdened with; for example, a constant voiceover walking the audience passively through the work, or assuming the audience doesn’t have its own mind to decipher the meaning in what is presented to them. My favourite films (be they fiction or non-fiction) draw me in as a viewer and activate my brain, so I become involved and integral in completing or interpreting the work. This is the direction I also prefer to pursue in the films I make.

The film has a mysterious and otherworldly vibe to it, almost border lining spiritual. What is your take on spirituality and its place in the modern world?

TG: There is an undeniable sense of wonder I get from the world around me. Creative mediums such as film allow us to channel that wonder into reflecting our personal experiences and emotional responses to it. Filming KanZeOn was very potent as we were invited into extremely sacred spaces in the hope of capturing something of its atmosphere. And if you slow yourself down and take time to observe and listen to the small details around you, a powerful world opens up before you, and if you are very lucky, you capture something of it on camera. The modern world is infused with this potent energy, or spirit if you prefer to call it that. You just have to work out how to tap into it.

NC: Well, obviously that is a very large question, which hopefully we answer better in the overall form of the film itself rather than being able to put into words here. Personally speaking, I’m definitely of the view that spirituality, or religion, or whatever you want to call it, is something of massive importance and I hope that this film does something to celebrate that and causes people to reflect about these kind of questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean advocating for one institutionalised religion over any other, but growing up in a culture where historically a religious understanding of life has been and is in decline, there was certainly something I found living in Japan that led me in directions that I wasn’t expecting and those feelings went into making this film.

(Akinobu Tatsumi)

I’m really pleased that we have Tatsumi in the film, providing what to some people might be a shockingly contemporary viewpoint when set next to the other more traditional parts of Japanese culture that we look at, but I think its very important for religion to always be re-made and re-created into new forms to keep up with the passing of time. Obviously traditional practices are immensely powerful and have to be respected, and they are preserving incredibly potent means of transmitting an ability to connect with what could be thought of as the core of religious experience or spirituality. But its very important that these are active things that are done, that they are experiences that people have, and the context of different people at different times are always going to be different and changing, and so therefore the means of getting in touch with religious experience has to change as well.

There is actually a book I’ve written that in some way accompanies the film – it was the project I was working on and researching that then got superseded by working with Tim on KanZeOn. Its based around walking the Shikoku 88 Temple pilgrimage, but then also has some philosophical essays alongside that as well that get into these kind of questions. It’s called dissolvingPath: Indications on Not-knowing Nothing – I don’t want to take up too much more space talking about it here but it contains a fuller explanation of many of the thoughts and feelings in this area that went into making the film if anyone is interested to pursue those a little further.

In KanZeOn, both visuals and sounds are intricately and wonderfully crafted. Could you elaborate on how the lush soundtrack and sound design of the film came about? Some details about the filming location would also be appreciated.

TG: The soundtrack developed in tandem with the picture edit, right from the beginning. With both of us being musical it was always going to be a very strong force in the structuring of the scenes. We would have Neil’s analogue sampler routed out of the computer during the edit, then manipulate the soundtrack before feeding it back onto the edit line. It was a wonderful way to work, keeping the process very live and spontaneous., manipulating sound as we went along. The audio became very complex and multi layered so when we took it to be mixed and mastered we chose to use a recording studio normally used for bands to record albums. This gave us much more the atmosphere of writing musical tracks as oppose to sound mixing a scene in a documentary film.

NC: Yes, we should definitely credit the contribution of Paul Pascoe who was our mix engineer and did a really fantastic job over the course of the 8 days we spent with him in the dark working on the mix. It’s probably also worth mentioning how this approach we took to the soundtrack also fed into and was fed by the KanZeOn ReIndications project that was going on at the same time as we were doing the edit – we sent out our sound recordings to different artists from Europe and Japan who were interested in remixing them and then these are collected together in an online release and on the CD that we have accompanying the DVD of the film, and some of them even made their way back into the film itself.

As for more details about the filming locations, we have actually made a map which shows everywhere where we shot for the film – it was a contender to be part of the DVD artwork but didn’t quite make it in the final selection. But we will certainly put it up on the film’s blog at some point soon so please check back there if you would like to know more about where these places are and maybe even visit them one day.

(Akihiro Iitomi)

In Sight and Sound Magazine, KanZeOn and We Don’t Care About Music Anyway.. (dir – Cedric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz) were reviewed together (coincidentally, The Onion Cellar screened the latter in Vietnam earlier this year). Having now watched both, I think the two films complement each other so well it feels like they are two sides of the same coin. Have you watched We Don’t Care About Music Anyway.. and if so do you agree?

NC: Unfortunately neither of us have seen the film, but I know a bit about some of the artists in We Don’t Care About Music Anyway. Firstly, there is Goth-Trad, who actually watched an early edit of KanZeOn and gave us some advice we used on one scene, so I think that definitely qualifies as at least one connection between the two films. Tim made a video for him recently and he is kind of part of the The SRK studio who have been great supporters of KanZeOn – Tim edited the film the SRK made about Dubstep called Bassweight, which Goth-Trad features in quite heavily. There is definitely something about the quality of his sound that marks him out from other Dubstep producers, and I suppose makes sense given his background in the kind of scene that We Don’t Care About Music Anyway depicts.

Then there is also a link involving Yoshihide Otomo – a friend of mine from Fukuoka. Greg Sullivan, who was a big supporter while we were in Japanon our filming trips, had some contact with him and was suggesting we try to include him in KanZeOn. For some reason I can’t remember nothing came of it but definitely Greg showing me the DVD Multiple Otomo had an influence on my contribution to KanZeOn – thinking about it now his participation probably wouldn’t have worked but it’s great that our film can be seen and thought of alongside We Don’t Care About Music Anyway and people can feel some kind of connection between them, as you suggest. Actually it was Greg who organised the concert at Art Space Tetra that I played at where I met Eri, thus leading to her involvement in the film – I saw many really great sound art performances there through Greg, and for anyone passing throughFukuoka, I would definitely recommend dropping by there.

(Eri Fujii)

The Sight and Sound reviewer observed that in both films there is a sense ‘that music is somehow out of your hands’. (I am also reminded of Eri Fuji’s story, the time she passed out at a performance and heard some voice saying the music was being given to her). What is your thought on this observation?

TG: For me this is a perspective I share and endeavour to explore whenever I am involved in a creative process. I like to position myself as that of a conduit, acting as a channel through which something external is transmitted – be it secular or supernatural, whatever, just as long as you remain committed to the idea during the process. When I was doing a lot of painting a few years back I really immersed myself in this idea and would perhaps get a little too lost in treating art as a ritual act – performing ceremonies around the artworks and materials in a kind of way that now I think is a bit insane but at the time seemed to be totally right. I wasn’t very successful making a living as a painter though as I could never bring myself to sell the works because I felt they were so infused with magical energy I couldn’t bear to part with them.

NC: I agree that this sense of the music being out of your hands can be a very important part of the experience of playing music, or any creative process, as Tim says. I always think of it in terms of that sample from DJ Shadow’s Building Steam From a Grain of Salt that says “the music’s coming through me”. I feel like I recognise that feeling Eri talks about from my own experience of performing music and its incredibly powerful and affecting, and makes you feel capable of things that you wouldn’t have imagined possible ordinarily.

Thank you very much for your time.

Questions and Vietnamese translation by The Onion Cellar
September 2012
(film stills plus Neil and Tim’s photos provided by themselves. Tatsumi’s photo taken from KanZeOn website)


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