How a Digital Rabbit Hole Gave Midori Takada’s 1983 Album a Second Life

Posted May 21, 2018 9:59 p.m. EDT

YouTube is known for shining a spotlight on viral stars, but sometimes it can act more like a hip record store clerk, digging in the crates. Five years ago, if you clicked on a video for Brian Eno, ‘80s new age or spiritual jazz, the site’s recommendation algorithm directed you next to an obscure and mysterious pick: a Japanese modern classical album from 1983 titled “Through the Looking Glass.”

It was the work of the Japanese percussionist and composer Midori Takada, and while little was known about her in the United States, the video soon topped over 2 million views. (It has since been taken down over a copyright violation.) Original vinyl copies of the album started fetching over $1,000.

“I didn’t know about her music when I grew up in Japan,” said Miho Hatori of the duo Cibo Matto, who first learned of Takada from that YouTube algorithm. “But Midori’s music has the energy of the spirit of the early ‘80s when music and culture was changing in Japan.”

Such a renaissance was news to Takada. “I didn’t know about that YouTube video, because I don’t do social media; even a PC, I didn’t have one,” the musician, 66, said by telephone from Los Angeles, where she was about to embark on her first United States tour. (She makes her New York solo debut this week.) "After recording ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ I knew that my music was not popular, so there was no offer to make a new one."

The intervening years have changed Takada’s fortunes.

“Anything ambient, Japanese, electronic or vaguely related was linking to this video,” said Jacob Gorchov, who runs the Palto Flats label and reissued Takada’s enigmatic album last year in conjunction with the Swiss label WRWTFWW Records. It became the No. 2-selling album at the online retailer Discogs for 2017, behind only Radiohead’s “OK Computer.”

In the wake of the YouTube video’s popularity, Takada has toured Europe multiple times and her other albums have been reissued in the last year; next month a reissue of her short-lived first band, Mkwaju Ensemble, will be released as well.

Classically trained as a percussionist, Takada originally performed in the Berlin RIAS Symphonie-Orchester at the start of her career in the mid-1970s, but soon found herself dissatisfied with the Western classical musical tradition. “If I continued to play westernized contemporary music, it needed many more instruments like an orchestra,” Takada said.

Instead, she gravitated to the minimalism of composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And much like these composers, she was also interested in African drumming and Indonesian gamelan. In these unfussy world music sounds she heard something far more abundant. “People say it’s poor, but from very few materials, they produce rich sounds just using their body and hands,” she said. “How to make a worldly sound by your body and with simple materials was an important thing to me.”

Unable to learn much about African music in Japan, Takada instead studied African drumming by way of two albums of field recordings, from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. “I copied from the vinyl, writing down the rhythm structures, and tried it by myself,” she said of her rigorous daily practice to learn polyrhythms, likening it to a daily mantra. “It changed my body.”

Takada founded Mkwaju Ensemble, a three-piece percussion group that performed a hybrid of African, Asian and minimalism, releasing two records before financial strains forced them to disband. Takada decided to record solo. “Not stress, because playing solo is just you and your materials,” she said of conceiving “Through the Looking Glass."

In January 1983, she went into the studio for two days. The album was an arduous process, with Takada composing, producing, arranging the microphones and playing everything on it, from marimba to drums, harmonium to Coke bottle. The end result is a fascinating mix of contemplative ambience and childlike wonder, building up to the intensifying polyrhythms at its thunderous climax. “It required great concentration to make all the sounds, four pieces recorded in two days,” she said.

Marketed as a modern classical recording, it did not sell well at the time and Takada would not record another solo album until 1999. In the years between, she performed in various ensembles, composed for the theater director Tadashi Suzuki and his Suzuki Company of Toga, and taught music theory, environmental formative theory and percussion at various universities in Tokyo.

So why did the sounds of “Through the Looking Glass” connect with listeners so recently? “Midori Takada’s music sounded so pure and new that despite it being three decades on, her sense of rhythm and space ticks all of today’s boxes,” the BBC radio host and D.J. Gilles Peterson said in an email.

Takada said new audiences in the West don’t change her approach. “Whether in Europe, Africa, Asia or USA, it doesn’t matter, each person is important,” she said. “My vision is to give individually my sound to everyone.”

She added that she named the album after the famous Lewis Carroll book not because of the protagonist Alice, but because of the story’s reversal of time. “I made the album as a perspective of sounds, so when this new generation listened, they felt something different, recognizing the space,” she said. “Nowadays it’s easy to play it by electronics, but I played it myself by hand. Even the staff at the studio couldn’t understand it. I was misunderstood.”

— — — —

Midori Takada performs on Monday at the Kitchen in Manhattan, thekitchen.org, and on Wednesday at Murmrr in Brooklyn, murmrr.com.