Interview: Patrick Shiroishi

Interview: Patrick Shiroishi

When I hear Patrick Shiroishi’s solo saxophone on his album Tulean Dispatch, I hear someone using the instrument to articulate the extremities of emotion and experience. Those unstable groans reach beyond the semantic boundary of words such as “despondency” and “dread”. Those erratic spasms of arpeggiation – which twirl and cartwheel across the cold echo of empty space – offer the perfect means of conveying a rich, resilient strength. And then there are the moments where the saxophone is an amplification chamber for those raw bursts of non-language: the compounded spew of tone and human scream that haunt the final moments of the 12-minute “Form And Void”.

The below email conversation has the LA-based saxophone player digging deep into the roots of this record, which I’m incredibly grateful for. Read on for discussion on living through the dark, recording in the dark, and screaming into the horn.

I understand that the conceptual/emotional basis for Tulean Dispatch resides in acts of human atrocity: both within the context of your own personal heritage and throughout the world, both historically and in the present day. To the extent you feel comfortable, could you tell me about how these events and contemplations came to the forefront of your thinking, what led you to bring them all together?

The world has seen some dark times.  My optimism tells me that the future will be bright, but I feel like we may be entering one of those times. There were so many hateful, unnecessary acts in 2015, 2016 and even now. The countless terror attacks around the world, or the violent crimes and fatal police shootings in the US – it was and is depressing to turn on the news.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting a hero of mine, Martin Kuchen. The majority of what we talked about wasn’t music, but about acts committed in the present day and the past, and how we must do our best to prevent such things from ever happening again.

When Trump was campaigning, he spoke about “rounding up” and deporting people of specific ethnic backgrounds. Immediately, I thought of the concentration camps where all of the Japanese people living in America during WWII were forced to leave their homes with only one suitcase and put into poorly built “houses” in a gated area with armed guards. When I was in high school, I asked my grandmother what it was like to be in the camps. She shut down and told me she did not want to talk about it. Her mood for the rest of the afternoon was not her joyous self, but one of pain and sadness. I never asked her that question again. Fast-forward to this past spring when I was able to visit where my grandparents were held in Tule Lake. I had an overwhelming urgency to cry when I stepped onto the soil. I had such a difficult time picturing how all those people spent four years of their lives there. The idea that this could take place in the present day really struck a chord with me. 

Yes, we live in a time full of fear, but it shouldn’t cause us to act irrationally or retaliate with even more hatred. What we need is quite the opposite – acts of love and hope.

What led to the decision to confront these ideas through sound?  Does the process of sonically addressing these themes have a particular function for you?

I find that I am much better at expressing myself through music and that the listener will have a better idea of what’s going through my mind without having to hear me stumble with words. This may be optimistic of me, and the listener may be equally confused, but I feel like my solo music is an honest representation of myself. I hope people may lend me their ears for 20 or 30 minutes.  

Could you tell me about your memories of the day that you recorded this? Are you able to recall how you felt before, during and after the recording experience?

I don’t remember much of the day or during the recording besides taking my time settings up mics and being frustrated with preparing the piano. It wasn’t as easy as I was hoping it would be. I do remember that I turned off the lights before hitting record. It’s the first time that I’ve recorded in the dark. I typically close my eyes when playing, but doing it this way allowed me to focus more on what was at hand and what I wanted to communicate through the music. After the recording, I remember feeling drained but in a good way, if that makes sense. I laid on the floor for 20 minutes before packing up.

The acoustic framing of this material is incredibly striking. The echo is sharp to the point of hostile; it feels like you’re in a concrete bunker of some sort.  How much of this inherent within the space itself, and how much was crafted in post-production?

The acoustic framing was part of the space that I recorded in.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t as cool as a concrete bunker – that is a great idea though! It was just a really great room with some amazing natural reverb. I was much better prepared to capture this in the recording process compared to previous projects. My first record was recorded in a church and it sounded really great while playing, but we weren’t able to bring it out as much as I would have liked. Felix Salazar, who mastered Tulean Dispatch and several other projects of mine, helped bring this out in the mastering process as well.  

I get the sense that you’re also in dialogue with this echo – there’s this wonderful feedback loop in how each note wades out of the reverberant remains of the one prior. To what extent is your performance informed by the space in which you play?

The space definitely plays a part as to how the improvisation will go – especially if it’s an acoustic instrument with no electronics involved. I will definitely try and go down different avenues and avoid certain things. For example, there’s a difference when I’m playing at a bookstore compared to somewhere like The Smell.  It also makes it interesting not only for me, but for the listener as well.  I know that I will not be able to do relatively the same things as the night before, or even a month ago, and will need to try something new.  But that’s the beauty of improvisation. 

Each time I listen to this, I’m unsettled by the latter minutes of “form and void.”  I’m pretty sure I can hear you screaming into your saxophone at certain moments.  Did you plan this escalation of intensity in advance, or did it organically emerge out of the music as you were playing it?

When I started the record, I had a general idea as far as how I wanted to structure each piece and what it should convey.  The intensity at the end of “Form And Void” just sort of happened; thankfully, to my favour. I tried the screaming through the horn once in a live context and it sort of worked. It was not really audible – especially against other instruments – but it has found a home in this solo setting. 

I notice that you refer to the presence of a “prepared piano” on this record. When your saxophone fades out, I can occasionally hear a soft hum of strings in the background.  It’s beautiful. Am I correct in thinking that this is the piano? How was the piano “prepared” so to speak? 

Good ear! You’re absolutely correct. The room that I recorded in not only had really great reverb, but a piano in there as well.  As I was setting up the mics for myself, I had the idea of making use of the piano in the room. I “prepared” it by weighing down the sustain pedal, removing the lid of the piano, and placing mics at several different points to capture the low, mid and high end of the strings. It surpassed what I was hoping for and really adds to the presence of the record. 

I understand that this album is the second instalment of your Black Sun Sutra series, the first part of which was released back in 2013.  Could you tell me more about the series, and what brings these two releases together?

I’ve been exploring the different possibilities of solo saxophone music since 2013, and I have come across three paths to explore further. First, Black Sun Sutra is purely acoustic saxophone – primarily dealing with the basic mechanics and ways to expand the vocabulary of the horn through extended techniques. Second, White Sun Sutra is experimenting with electronic possibilities directly.  With the help of Paul Lai, Noah Guevara, Dylan Fujioka and Mark Kimbrell (my brothers in Upsilon Acrux), I have been able to create a setup that allows me to play my horn through various effect pedals and out through an amp. This is not to say that I want my saxophone to sound like a guitar, but my goal is to achieve different timbres and other alternatives that wouldn’t be possible in an acoustic setting. Ima is the third, which is adding outside electronics/field recordings and such into the process. 

Tulean Dispatch is the second record in the “acoustic” setting format. Although there is an inclusion of prepared piano in this record, it is there to emphasise what I am doing on the horn. Also, I’m not sure if this is coincidence or not, but I have been dedicated my solo music to people that have impacted my life in a huge manner. The first Black Sun Sutra record is dedicated to my grandmother on my father’s side, and Tulean Disaptch is dedicated to my grandmother on my mother’s side.  

It’s been over a year since you recorded this material.  Has your relationship with this material changed over time since you recorded it?  

I personally like to step away from my solo works after they are recorded since I have a tendency to be extremely self-critical. I have deleted recorded material because of this habit. Typically, I hand the record over to Felix for mastering. This gives me time away from the material so I can listen with fresh ears once he’s finished with it. Listening to it over a year later, I am very proud of how it came out. I think I was able to convey to the listener what I was feeling at the time: frustration, anger, as well as hope.  

On a similar note, you’ve been playing saxophone for many years now.  How has your relationship with the instrument changed? Do you still find it possible to be surprised by your instrument?

Like any relationship, it has definitely had its ups and downs. When I first started taking the instrument seriously, it was through a very naïve and narrow point of view – that it can only be used in a straight ahead manner. As the years progress and I hear different people play the instrument in different ways, I have definitely been surprised by what the instrument is capable of doing. It has opened up the possibilities of the instrument and encouraged me to move forward and try to do the same. I am also very blessed to play with an incredibly talented group of individuals in a number of different bands. They definitely put me in positions where I constantly have to push myself and figure out how to fit the horn in to enhance the music – be it colour or for technical reasons.  

What records have you been listening to recently?

I’ve been listening to a lot of black metal, free improvised music and with some R&B sprinkled in there.  Some things that are currently in heavy rotation are: Yellow Eyes, SZA, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, False, Angles 9, Mayhem, Nate Wooley, Sanguine Relic, Uskumgallu, Snakeoil, Kvist, Young Thug, Matt Mitchell & the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  And of course, Magma.

What’s next for you and your music?

The next installment in the White Sun Sutra series is recorded and currently getting remixed. I hope to have it out sometime next year.  I also have plans to start the next instalment in the Ima series before the year ends. My two sax-drum duos (In the Womb with Dylan and Oort Smog with Mark) are also recorded and will hopefully see the light of day in 2018. Other than that, I’m hoping to do a short West Coast tour in the spring, a tour of Japan in the fall, and work on continuing to evolve with my instrument.