The Wonderful Clusters of Atsuko Hatano

In the past year, Atsuko Hatano’s string-based music has become a fixture in my listening habits. Her work ranges from longform, more experimental sonic journeys to the intricate, beguiling worlds of her Cells series. Any time I listen to something she’s created, there is always something new and unique to discover and get lost within. She has her signature style based upon her interest in clusters and it shines through in her compositions and song structures. Hatano is always pushing herself, expanding her tonal palette and diving deeper into her ideas to craft something new.

This interview was conducted via email throughout May, June, and July. Atsuko Hatano can be found on Bandcamp and via her official website.

First off, how has the last year been for you?

About 2020… It was a slow year. There were few concerts (and those had no audience), live streaming and making music for Bandcamp, and arrangement and recording for other musicians. But I live in the countryside, so I could spend time almost the same as before the corona situation.

Let’s go back to when you were young. What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? 

I started to play violin when I was 3 years old. I’m not sure why, but I said I’d like to play violin when I was two. Maybe I saw a music TV show or my dad liked to listen to classical music sometimes, but I don’t remember it.

My first music memory is playing Bach Minuet or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” variations. I liked to play these songs.

Wow, that is amazing that you started playing at 3 years old! Has your family continued to be supportive of the music you are doing now? 

My family never really showed much interest in my music, but my late mother came to my concerts on occasion. My father was a fan of classical music in his youth, and he listens to my CDs, but he’s never given me any feedback. I suppose he’s not that interested after all.

What were some of the experiences you had as a child with sounds that have really stayed with you?

I loved to watch a music program on TV, Showa Kayo (70’s & 80’s pop music). It is pop music of the Showa generation. Especially, I loved Ihou-jin” – I think that effect is still alive in my music life. I really liked minor chord songs. 

When did you start learning to play music and how did you get started composing your own original works? 

Violin from when I was three years old and started to play the piano when I was five years old. But I quit classical music and then started to play drums when I was in high school.

I restarted playing violin when I went to university. There, I chose a violin course. After university, I started playing electric violin with some rock band, like The Doors. 

I made my first album in 2003, Water for 13. It was simple chamber music, and I released it myself, but some movie and commercial directors gave me some composing music work. Because of that, I could start my music life when I was 28 years old.

Did you always have an interest in exploring more experimental sounds and textures? I am always amazed at the depth and range of sound you get from your stringed instruments using different techniques and effects.

I only started exploring experimental sounds since the production of Cells#2 around 2017. However, the fundamental essence of my music has stayed the same throughout my discography. I have a weird obsession with clusters of small things, like ants swarming to candy, or small holes on a plant, and I wanted to express that through sounds.

I can definitely hear your obsession with clusters in your work, especially in certain passages of Cells#5. I wonder how you work to translate those ideas and images into sound. What is your process like to take these ideas or images in your mind and turn them into a composition?

In the beginning, it was a simple, repetitive process. I recorded violin performances that reflected the subtle fluctuations of my mind – which were evoked by images of wriggling clusters – as intuitively as possible. I made a massive collection of improvisational recordings without regard to structural planning, including keys or lengths. Then, I transitioned to arranging and assembling them into songs. On Cells#5, I composed songs based on the concept of a wrecked ship, and the millions of creatures (coral and barnacles) that cover its surface. The methodology of playing and recording I explored during the production of Cells#2 has greatly helped.

What is it about clusters that interests you so much?

I don’t really know why I’m so enthralled by clusters, but whenever I look at wriggling clusters, I experience a spontaneous surge of energy inside me, almost reflexively. My first memory of clusters was a toy doll I loved to play with that spewed clay strands of hair from multiple tiny holes. This sensation at the time has never left me, and this is probably what compels me to closely observe clusters of barnacles, lotus seeds, mushrooms, slime molds, and so on. Like how water and wind are harnessed into energy creation, I wanted to harness this exciting sensation into my musical performance and composition. This was the inception of the Cells series.

What are some of your favorite effects or processes you are working with right now?

I’m focused on making music with a synthesizer and strings now. I really like to find how to match the strings’ sound with the synthesizer’s sound. I tried to make a new song with them, that song will release tomorrow on my Bandcamp (ed note: this portion of the interview was done in mid-June). Insulated Paradise Saskia Griepink’s new work inspired me so much. 

The image of Saskia’s that is on the cover of Insulated Paradise is so beautiful and really embodies the spirit of the work. What was it about this image that inspired you so much? And how did come to be able to use it for the cover?

I was extremely moved when I first saw this piece of art. I instantaneously imagined various dramas and music. The title Insulated Paradise is based on imagining the tiny bubbles encapsulating individual humans in the future, each accessing their digital dream in nature.

Saskia is a wonderful friend of mine. She has done artwork for my album Cells#5 and multiple Bandcamp albums including Bleeding Heart and TRIOLA’s Chiral. I work with her in a unit called “Sweet Mold,” in which we participated in a live installation art exhibition at the gallery Tetem in the Netherlands. She uses my music on her website, while I use her artwork in my music. We have a great friendship based on mutual respect and trust.

I really enjoyed the longform pieces you started releasing last summer-like Foggy Thursday and the Fossilized Dreams recordings. What made you decide to record and release these more experimental longform works? 

I found some way to make drone sounds on piano by chance, so I started to make these songs. That kind of music is a good match with long pieces as Foggy Thursday.  

On Cells#5, you work with a lot of other great musicians. How did you come to work with Eiko Ishibashi and the others?

All my guest musicians are people I have worked with in the past and whose sounds I fell in love with while playing with them in a band or while providing string arrangements for their pieces. I composed each piece with each musician in mind. For example, the reason why I asked Eiko Ishibashi is that I needed her nuanced piano sounds. She’s a great friend of mine and my closest musical peer. The recording with her went very smoothly.

How did your Order Made Music idea begin? What have been some of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of it?

I started Order Made Music all because of my cat. I had a cat that became ill and required full-time care. In order to stay home around the clock to take care of her, I had to forgo my previous way of life where I’d travel everywhere to perform. “Custom Made Music” was my last resort I invented to make a living. I’ve had various customers, and there was a story and drama to each one of them. I’m happy that I was able to be a part of their lives.

What are you working on now?

In December, I’m scheduled to release a new album, Water Ladder (Alien Transistor, Germany), in which I collaborated with Midori Hirano. I am currently working on the preparations for it.

I am also finalizing the production of TRIOLA’s new album (TRIOLA is my strings music project). For the album jacket, I plan on using the beautiful art piece by Akiko Shinzato, a jewelry artist based in London.

I am working on Bleeding Heart 2 for a piece on Bandcamp. This is a sequel to Bleeding Heart (2019), a composition of viola and Leslie amplifier.

I am also currently creating the blueprint for my next Cells series!

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