Looking deep: Recording lute music with Toyohiko Satoh
These days we are about to release the third, and most probably final solo CD of lutenist Toyohiko Satoh on Carpe Diem Records, featuring music of Esaias Reusner (1639-1679). For me, this is a milestone, maybe one of the most important albums that I have produced so far for maybe not so obvious reasons. What could be so vital, or even exciting, about a simple solo baroque lute recording? Don’t they all sound the same, somehow, with this soft instrument that has almost no dynamics, is never perfectly in tune, is so difficult to play in the first place? I guess it depends on how deep you decide to go inside a macroscopic sound world.
Toyohiko is a musician of considerable experience and knowledge, having spent the last 50 years playing the lute, and also teaching it at the conservatory of Den Haag in the Netherlands. When he moved back to Japan after retiring from his teaching position, he started exploring traditional Japanese arts, especially chado, the tea ceremony. If you have ever witnessed a chado ceremony, you might have noticed how calm and concentrated the atmosphere was, how complicated and difficult the ceremony is, paying utmost attention to the most minute details. If you look at it superficially, it quickly becomes boring, motionless, overly difficult. All this stress just to have a cup of tea? If you see the macroscopic world that lies within, there might be no question anymore: only being present, without time.
When we arrived at the recording location, a concert hall in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of south Japan, surrounded by wild forest and volcanic hot springs, we both unpacked our equipment and instrument, rather solitary, without talking more than necessary. I put up the electronics while Toyohiko started tuning and playing the lute, going through some of the pieces we were to record during the next days. I put up the microphone stand in front of him in what I thought to be an approximately fitting position, let it stand there, still a bit crooked and provisional, and went over to the control room to check if there was any sound coming in. When I put on my headphones and listened, the sound was perfect. No need to change anything. Instead, I had a sound more close to my ideal of a lute sound than ever before. No mind involved.
What does it take to make a great recording? I feel it is a lot about not making it. I spent a lot of time trying to make the best possible recordings, spending hours on soundcheck, learning the theory behind, comparing, improving, changing things. The moment I let go of everything, a simple perfect result emerges on its own. It was there all the time, obviously, just I would usually not let it exist.
Two or three days before a recording, Toyohiko stops practising, stops playing at all. When we record, we usually do two or three takes of a piece. It is not about achieving perfection. Perfection is already there, all the time. When a note sounds, obviously it is perfect. When we call it imperfect, is that due to the angle from which we look at it? Maybe calling a sound imperfect is a very superficial way of looking at it.
Esaias Reusner was a rare and peculiar figure in his time. Almost no information on his life survived, and he himself only survived for a mere 40 years. He published two books of solo lute music and nothing else. The first book is full of complicated, virtuosic pieces, almost impossible to play but highly imposing. The second book (written 9 years after the first) is just the opposite: The pieces are short, pragmatic, sober. They definitely do not try to impress, they are not at all virtuosic, they are of no use for putting up a big show. If you look at them superficially, they are very boring. What happens if you look not superficially?
When we needed a cover picture, I wanted a very Japanese theme, for some reason, but we also needed Toyohiko to be on the cover. We went for a painting instead of a photograph partly because we could not think of a good photographer. We thought it would seem neat to ask a traditional artist from Japan to make a traditional Japanese painting. I asked Carsten Dietz from Germany. Carsten is an electronic technician. In the evenings, he makes Japanese paintings. He made a perfect picture for us.
I almost feel we’re a family of people who in the right time and place just allowed very beautiful things to appear out of thin air (The Japanese say 無, nothingness): Toyohiko, Esaias, Carsten and my humble self. Four wanderers standing in a magic forest, self-absorbed, watching light leaves fly through a gentle summer breeze, for a short moment not interfering as the moment is so beautiful it luckily stops us from damaging it too much. I realize right now how thankful I am for this unexpected present. Who gave it to us, and why, and what is it for, and why would that matter after all? When I listen to the music, there might be no question anymore.