Composer Eiko Ishibashi thrives on imbalance

The prolific musician and “Drive My Car” soundtrack composer reveals more to her methods and recent release on Black Truffle Records.

The prolific musician and “Drive My Car” soundtrack composer reveals more to her methods and recent release on Black Truffle Records.

Header Photo: Cover art of Eiko Ishibashi’s original soundtrack release for “Drive My Car” (on Newhere and Space Shower Music), and Ishibashi (left) sitting with film director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (right). They both face the camera amid the ultra-modern glass architecture of the Shibuya Fukuras building behind them.

Editor’s Note: Read more about “Drive My Car” this week in our review ahead of the UW Cinematheque screening on January 28.

Since its premiere at Cannes last year, Drive My Car and its director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi have gradually won the steadfast attention of major critical voices and cinephiles alike (including this local one [review link]), and that is still peaking as the calendar has flipped to 2022. In addition to its meticulous writing and earnest performances, the film boasts a lovingly subtle score by Eiko Ishibashi, a prolific multi-instrumentalist whose career (much like Hamaguchi’s) has spanned over 15 years, and began with a genre-fluid mission statement, Works For Everything, in 2006.

Ishibashi’s first major compositional work for film, which you can hear on the big screen this Friday, January 28, at UW Cinematheque, stole the heart of UK critic Mark Kermode; and last month, he named it his favorite score of 2021, praising its capacity to not only amplify the film’s themes but function as a standalone album (to listen to in his car, of course). In a general context, that sort of versatility defines Ishibashi’s repertoire Her thrilling musical approach intersects with an array of avid communities. Whether your ear favors mellifluous chamber jazz, lavishly arranged progressive pop, or more avant-garde modes in ambient drone, electroacoustic improvisation, and sound collage, her fusions of sound and rhythm leave an unmistakable impression.

Since 2020, Ishibashi has released over a dozen projects on digital platforms (primarily Bandcamp), including the ambient and jazz-inflected standout For McCoy (2021), a two-track, 40-minute tribute to the Law & Order character of Jack McCoy (portrayed by Sam Waterston). As of this past Friday, January 21, the record has received a new mix courtesy of Ishibashi’s collaborative partner Jim O’Rourke on a vinyl release through Australia’s Black Truffle Records. Intrepid label founder and fellow experimentalist Oren Aramachi has been putting out Ishibashi’s more audacious accomplishments for the past few years, an artist he believes is “always trying to move forward and push herself into new areas” like many of Black Truffle’s labelmates.

The evolution of her compositional and improvisational abilities directly relate to her refinement as a multi-instrumentalist, as she plays flute, synth, Rhodes, and assumes wordless vocal duties on For McCoy (with accompaniment from Joe Talla, MIO.O, Jim O’Rourke, and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto). Ishibashi further adds piano, melodion, and vibraphone to her credits on Drive My Car, which is performed with a full band that includes O’Rourke, Yamamoto, Marty Holoubek, Toshiaki Sudoh, and Atsuko Hatano.

Amid her surge in recognition in the international music and film scenes, Ishibashi spoke with Tone Madison via email to further elucidate the methods behind her music. She also addressed how the opportunity to work with Hamaguchi came about, the relationship Drive My Car has (or doesn’t have) to her other work, the significance of sound design and field recordings (which may peripherally recall Ryuichi Sakamoto), finding inspiration in imbalance, and the urge to “scoop up” the personal life of Jack McCoy in her music.

Tone Madison: How did you get involved with the film? Did you approach Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, or was he already familiar with your music?

Eiko Ishibashi: I was told that a producer of Drive My Car, Akihisa Yamamoto, recommended me to the director. [He] listened to my 2018 album, The Dream My Bones Dream, and decided to ask me.

Tone Madison: Did you talk to Hamaguchi about what sort of sound palette and instrumentation he had in mind for the film, or were you able to work all on your own? The mellow chamber jazz / “post-rock” of the predominant instruments (piano, electric piano, drums, percussion, strings) has this introspective and wintry tone, at least to my associative ear, which suits the emotional quality of the film and its complex characters.

Eiko Ishibashi: Thank you. There was no particular instrument specified. However, from the beginning, I had in mind music that was mainly based on drum rhythms, and the director agreed with me. As for the rest of the instrumentation, I put in what I thought was necessary as the music was developed. The director asked for a dry but memorable melody that would connect the audience with the images.

Tone Madison: How did COVID-19 restrictions and quarantine affect the process of composing music for this film? Or did it not really change anything?

Eiko Ishibashi: The shooting was once interrupted due to the corona, and we were not able to see the completed images for a long time. During that time, however, I was able to take my time and think about the phrases that would become the theme.

Tone Madison: Your original music, as heard in the context of the final cut of the film, is surprisingly minimal, but it always feels essential to the mood. The first thing viewers actually experience is not an image, but your music, which pierces the darkness and the dawn’s silence in the main character’s bedroom—”We’ll Live Through The Long, Long Days, And Through The Long Nights (Oto).” However, this piece does not feature the instrumental palette I referenced in one of my last questions. Rather, it’s an ambient-drone composition that hints at your more experimental avenues. Could you talk about writing this shimmering, haunting “Oto” theme in particular? Did you write it before or after the other pieces? What instruments and techniques did you use to create it? It stands out so beautifully to me.

Eiko Ishibashi: Thank you. The song is a variation of the fifth song [on the album release], “We’ll Live Through the Long, Long Days, and Through the Long Nights.” After recording this song with the band [Jim O’Rourke, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, Marty Holoubek, Toshiaki Sudoh, and Atsuko Hatano], I connected my new Infinite Jets effects pedal to a Rhodes and experimented with playing this opening credits theme by myself. While I was doing this, I heard an interesting sound and wanted to record it, but luckily Jim had already recorded the whole time.

That’s what’s playing in the scene at the beginning of the film and the scene in the car in the middle. I am very grateful to director Hamaguchi for his precise placement of not only this song but all the songs. I was so lucky to work with a director who has a clear vision of when and where the music should flow from and to.

Tone Madison: When I first listened to the full film soundtrack as it’s sequenced, I thought of your 2014 album, Car And Freezer. (Maybe it’s just because of that titular “car” overlap, haha.) While it seemed somewhat silly, I then thought there might be something more to that impression. Drive My Car OST could almost be a template for the more expansive production heard on Car And Freezer, as that 2014 album similarly features your lively piano melodies and marching rhythms that complement the vivid jazz-pop songwriting that I first came to know you by.

Is there a deeper relationship between these projects, or is that purely a coincidental connection that I have made? Or maybe you would emphasize that the sound of the music you composed for Drive My Car has a closer relationship to another one of your albums.

Eiko Ishibashi: I honestly didn’t have Car And Freezer in mind when I was making the soundtrack for this film, as I don’t consider the Drive My Car soundtrack to be my own work. Final decision is left to the director, which means that you don’t get to make it the way you want. When I listen to a soundtrack, I can have an image of the movie but also put something like my own imagination on it. So it can exist as something individual and personal in a way. But maybe I [am saying] it’s not my work, because I don’t think the soundtrack I made is in the realm of soundtracks I like. (For McCoy could be called my own work, because I was able to give shape to my imagination as an audience member, not as the production side.)

However, since the theme of Car And Freezer was the scenery seen from things forgotten, discarded, and left behind (in my hometown, cars and refrigerators were dumped in the rice paddies), I think it naturally had something to do with the theme of the film. Also, for the theme song, the director asked for a song without voice, which may have had something to do with it.

Tone Madison: Field recordings, sound effects, and environmental audio have become increasingly integral to the moods you create. Whether it’s loops of radio static/tuning/frequencies and fireworks on the eerie, electronic palette of After The Smoke (2018); train whistles and locomotion on The Dream My Bones Dream (2018); clanging of miners in a coal mine on Memory Of Future (2020); rushing water and chatter of the city on For McCoy; and car doors closing, roadway ambiance, cassette tape rattling, engine ignition on Drive My Car, to me it sounds like you’re layering and creating audio diaries and sound collages that are separate from live performance and unique to the process of recording and mixing. Is this aesthetic choice inspired by anything or anyone in particular? Why did you choose to continue this aesthetic and incorporate those effects into the compositions on Drive My Car OST?

Eiko Ishibashi: The inclusion of field recordings and sound effects seems to have been a physiological part of my childhood, even before I heard the music of people I loved like Luc Ferrari and Albert Marcœur. I liked to record with two radio-cassette players, mixing the sounds of the outside world with the sounds of the radio. When I play music live, I also feel more relaxed if there are noises.

There was a factory near my house, and I loved the sound of it. I think the rhythms of the machines had a great influence on me. So in driving my car, the sound of the car, the sound of the boat, and the voice of the Oto on the tape were naturally more important to me than my own music. The sound is the wonderful work of Miki Nomura (re-recording mixer), and Kadowaki Izuta (recording). Thanks to all those wonderful noises I decided to make a soundtrack that I have no interest in releasing.

Tone Madison: Your shifts among various modes of writing and performance often make listening to your work thrilling and ultimately rewarding. Your more traditional song-based albums with English and Japanese language vocals have been released in the US through the Drag City label, but there’s also a wide world of Eiko Ishibashi beyond that, from self-released projects to others attached to international labels like Rhythm Tracks, Superpang, and Black Truffle.

Your repertoire includes live electroacoustic improvisations on synthesizers and piano, dreamy vocal-based drones, and textural chamber pieces. How do you balance standard composition and more free or structured improvisatory modes? Do you start working with a specific intention or performance in mind, or is the general writing process more unpredictable?

Eiko Ishibashi: Whether I’m creating a structured piece or an experimental piece, the songs are created by a back and forth between the conscious and the unconscious. I don’t have a particular mode, and I never try to find a balance. Rather, when there is an imbalance, something interesting comes out unexpectedly. However, I know that this method is very inefficient and time-consuming. For example, when I have to create a piece with a solid structure, I sometimes end up with a long experimental piece that has nothing to do with it. But it can’t be helped.

Ishibashi’s sketches of Jack McCoy in greater detail (which can be seen more vividly in the vinyl release of For McCoy). Another drawing of characters Ed Green and Lennie Briscoe from Law & Order can be seen on the bottom right.

Tone Madison: For McCoy is your third release with Black Truffle, Oren Ambarchi’s label out of Australia, and it’s been a home for some of your more adventurous material of the last few years—from your intriguing live collaboration with contrabassist and multi-instrumentalist Darin Gray on Ichida (2018) to your solo Hyakki Yagyō (2020), which meshes multiple synthesizers, discordant strings, percussion, and monologue/spoken word in a grander historical meditation.

By contrast, For McCoy is a bit more melodically inviting, more playful, and it prominently features the flute-playing that has continued to pop up on many of your recent projects. Also, this recording is a sort of tribute to the fictional character of district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) from the long-running American TV show, Law & Order. What about McCoy inspired you to write these two pieces or at least dedicate the album to him?

Eiko Ishibashi: Law & Order is my favorite drama and Mr. McCoy, Mr. Briscoe, and Mr. Green are very arresting characters [on the show]. Law & Order also serves as a timekeeper for Jim when he cooks. In other words, McCoy is a part of my life. Almost every day when I was making For McCoy, his voice was always echoing through the house. I like to mix the sounds of my mind with the sounds of the outside world, just as I mix the sounds of the outside world with the sounds of the radio. Eventually, McCoy’s lines and voice began to invade the music. Because McCoy’s personal life is rarely discussed in the drama, I wanted to scoop it up with my music. So I decided to dedicate this music to McCoy.

I can’t thank Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke enough for always supporting me in what I want to do. Thanks also to Lasse [Marhaug] for designing the cover from my bad drawing!

Tone Madison: Did Mike Post’s music from the Law & Order TV show have any influence on you, too? Is there a larger theme of television and film music influencing your own music and compositional preferences?

Eiko Ishibashi: I love Mike Post’s Law & Order music, but I don’t think it has much influence on me. In fact, I think I’m more influenced by the show than the music itself.

Tone Madison: In 2021, you were so prolific. In addition to the music for Drive My Car, you released a plethora of studio and live recordings that include solo projects and collaborations with Riki Hidaka, Hiroshi Minami, and Jim O’Rourke (who is featured on many of your albums, including Drive My Car OST). O’Rourke also re-mixed For McCoy for this 2022 Black Truffle release. Are you working on anything new with him? Are you interested in composing other scores for film? What plans do you have for this year and next?

Eiko Ishibashi: I already have a lot to do this year, and I’m working every day, but that’s a secret. I would like to go abroad for live performances. I haven’t decided on the details yet, but I hope to make it through this difficult situation and go to various places.

Special thanks to Oren Ambarchi at Black Truffle Records.

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