The sight of Midori Takada whiplashing between drums, cymbals and marimba is something few observers forget. She is a mesmerising performer of great physical intensity. So her billing as a “70-year-old percussionist” ahead of a performance at Melbourne’s Rising festival – a bit like calling Paul McCartney an 80-year-old guitarist – makes her smile. “It doesn’t quite tell the whole story,” she says, laughing good-naturedly. “I have a few more strings to my bow than that.”
Takada etched her name in musical history with the enigmatic ambient classic Through the Looking Glass, which she recorded over two days in 1983, engineering the album and playing gongs, ocarinas, chimes and every other instrument herself. Although the album fell into obscurity, Takada has in recent years become a cult figure, with her monk-like musicality and reverential cataloging of obscure world music. Her work, meanwhile, has been revived for millennials and generation Z by endless recycling on YouTube and social media, alongside her contemporaries Brian Eno and Steve Reich.
The newfound attention, turbo-charged by the rerelease of Through the Looking Glass in 2017 – which happened after Takada had a chance meeting with its retired producer on a subway platform – is lovely, she says, especially after being forced off the road by the pandemic. She played a few concerts in Europe, the US and Australia before the borders slammed shut in 2020. In Japan, Covid killed off all live performances. “Music, theatre and concerts were considered non-vital activities,” she says ruefully. Throughout her life, Takada has been, above all, a pan-globalist, working with artists and styles across borders, so it is clear that the lockdown was wounding. She says she felt creatively stunted.
Takada began picking out Chopin chords as a six-year-old while growing up in a cosmopolitan Tokyo home. Her mother was a piano teacher who lived in Shanghai before the second world war; her father taught English at university and set up the first Irish literature society in Japan. Her background and training, later at Tokyo University of the Arts, pulled her in the direction of a career performing classical western music. But her restless artistic curiosity took her elsewhere, first playing drums and keyboard in an “embarrassing” prog rock group modelled on Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
After a short spell as a soloist with the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchester, Takada began to produce and arrange her own music, and formed a percussion group with other experimental musicians.
“The categorisation of music by genre didn’t interest me at all,” she recalls. “I was interested in the humanity of what I was hearing. I realised that all I’d been listening to was western music.” She began to tilt towards the African and Asian influences that saturate Through the Looking Glass and its eventual solo follow-up, Tree of Life (1999). Among the styles that affected her most were the structural rhythms of Indonesian and Korean traditional music; she especially loved the simplicity of both. “It was unlike anything I had heard.”
Such observations could be controversial in Japan, where she found prejudice against Korean culture. But she didn’t care because, she says, she was drawn to quality wherever she found it. “I worked with traditional Korean musicians and performers and learned a lot from them,” she says. Souring political ties between the two countries in the past few years have made such exchanges more difficult, which depresses her: “If you deny culture, human beings start to go downhill. It is part of our development.”
She is confident that music will outlast petty political differences. “My musical education began with the Australopithecus era,” she says, referring to the African hominid that is sometimes dubbed the mother of man. “Our relationship with rhythmic music goes back over 3.5m years, even before homo sapiens. It’s such a fundamental question – why do humans need to make rhythm, and the space that structure creates?”
Her “phoenix-like re-emergence” from obscurity is now the stuff of legend, says Dan Grunebaum, founder of Japanese new music promoter AvanTokyo. “What has also been rediscovered is that she is a virtuoso musician and spellbinding performer, whose mastery of percussion and theatrical stage presence make her one of the most commanding live performers today.”
And longevity is in her genes. Takada’s earliest musical influence – her mother – is still alive, and 98 years old. “In Japan, artists keep going right into old age,” Takada laughs.