Sound And Media Artist Makiko Nishikaze: ”You Can Make Music With Anything”

Interview by Lölä Florina Vlasenko.

Makiko Nishikaze is a Berlin based sound and media artist, musician and composer from Japan. In December 2023 she spent time creating sound, video and visual art in Oulu within the artist residency in Art Hub Pikisaari

It was the second time Makiko was creating in the space – she has been making and installing site-specific art in Art Hub Pikisaari during Pikisaari Biennale and artist residency in Summer-2022. 

Now the soundscapes and landscapes of Oulu were explored by Makiko in the darkness and occasional light of the Finnish winter night. Makiko recorded sounds of Oulu and created a series of light art and photography from different city sites – gently mining out the hidden gems of art from busy crossroads, crunchy snow, howling blizzards and roaring snow blowers.

Makiko Nishikaze kindly shared her beautiful experiments and experiences in an interview with Oulu based journalist Lölä Florina Vlasenko

– Modern music, videos and photos are all equally music to me, sometimes – music without sound. I am a trained musician and I use all my knowledge about music when working with image. 

Take moving water – it is always music to me, even if you capture it in a video without sound. Water videos are one of the things I have been doing here with other site-specific artwork I was invited to do.

How did it feel to come back to Oulu?

My connection to Finland is a long story (laughs). I grew up in a very rural place in western Japan, quite far away from Tokyo, in a town of prefecture Wakayama with a population around 12-15 thousand people back in the days. The nearest big city was Osaka. 

As a child growing up in a small town I was fascinated by geography. At that time we didn´t have the Internet, so atlas and all sorts of maps were something I kept looking at over and over. Atlas was my game: I was looking for capitals of different countries and trying to remember the names. One name was catching my attention and boosting my curiosity more than others: Scandinavia. I am not sure why – maybe I was captivated by how this word sounds. It sounded like music. It was also fantastically far away to the North from my town of Wakayama (smiles)

Like other places you have been studying and creating in, Berlin and Oakland, California. What has been so special about creating in Northern Finland that made you come back? 

I keep looking for ways to explain my childhood fascination about Finland, but I still cannot precisely describe it. I have been dreaming of coming here since I was a child and I have been finding ways to come back as an adult. In 2019 I had a great opportunity to work in Ii as an artist in community. I got to know Tuomo Kangasmaa, who was also working on the same project. That in a way predestined our Oulu art residencies in Art Hub Pikisaari. And in between Ii and Oulu I worked as an artist is residency at the Serlachius Residency in Mänttä. So I can say that my childhood dream came true.

Finland resonated so much with me when I first got here that I thought: ”Maybe in my previous life I was in Finland. Or maybe I will become Finnish in the next life (if there is one at all)”. The nature in Finland touches me – especially after the density of Japan. I love traveling in Finland by bus or train. When I see the landscape where no village appears for an hour or so, my heart starts beating with excitement. The endless forest is so beautiful. And suddenly appears a small settlement. It is quite amazing, how they built such a high quality life in the middle of nowhere. This is Finnish, I like it so much.

At the same time there is something similar between Finland and Japan, something I don’t have words to describe…

I had this childly vision that a very long time ago Japanese and Finnish people could have been neighbours in some central Russia (laughs). They were seeing each other from two opposite river banks, not talking, but waving each other hello. This neighbours´ friendship didn’t prevent them from getting physically further and further away from each other, however, until they didn´t see each other over the river anymore. I have a special spiritual connection to Finland which I cannot yet explain. 

In 2023 I had some dental treatment to go through: some teeth out had to be taken out. I carefully brought them to Finland to burry, so that a part of my body can live here forever. I choose special locations for this ritual. Now I am so glad that I did it! 

What Finland natural soundscapes have impressed you most – Summer or Winter ones? 

I grew up in a warm countryside never having this much snow. In Berlin, much snow is also unusual nowadays. There is so much in snow artistically! Walking in the snow was one of the favourite things to record! In Kuusamo the temperature was suddenly zero degrees, and the snow began to melt – and I recorded it. Summer is also very interesting. Water, water, water – there are water soundscapes to listen to everywhere in Finland. The sound of the river, the ferry trip to Hailuoto….

You said that you create your visual works as if you are making music. How did you discover this approach and how did you come to music in the first place?

I started learning piano and music theory as a child. As a child I just wanted to make music. I didn’t know why – and nobody knew. I thought it’s nice to make your own music, not imitating somebody else. That is how I started making my own little sounds and songs and learning composition. Quickly I realised that writing music requires big skills and training, and I continued on this path. 

I felt that I had my voice. This is one thing to recognise it, another is to find a way to express it. You cannot learn your own voice from your teacher, you have to hear and express it by yourself. You can learn technical skills, but you have to find your own way. That’s the most difficult thing. All art is like that. That’s why many people give up – because it’s difficult to find your own way. And it is a long process. 

I think I knew what I wanted to do, and I kept going forward and becoming more and more interested in making something experimental. ”Experimental” is also a very ambiguous category (smiles). I saw it as something unconventional – until then I had been composing for instruments, for orchestra, for chamber ensembles, voice and piano… And then I started performing with no instrument, making sound with any object you could find, or using instruments in an unusual way – playing piano with my feet, for example.

Through experimenting with music I came to experimenting with video. I had been collaborating with experimental theatre and performance artists, and always somebody made a video documentation which I felt like editing. So I started to make videos myself – that way I had more freedom to document my performance. Video is also time-based art, like music. You know how you start and how it ends and how it goes in between. 

Most of the time my videos have no sound. To me it is about listening by seeing. It doesn’t have to force people to feel like ”Listen to the sound which is not there”. It’s more about trusting your inner ears. And enjoying it as music. I also have videos with sound (smiles)

How did you break free (if you felt the vibe to break free) from the classical tradition of classical music education? Experiments don’t often go in line with this classical conservative way of perceiving music… In other words, how did you get from the point of being told how to play the piano to playing piano with your feet?

I just thought that I wanted to do it. Freedom is your choice. Nobody is forcing you to not do it (smiles)

In Japan my studying of music could be referred to as rather conservative. Then I went to California, and at Mills College where I studied you can do anything. Nobody could say that I was stupid if I did it, and I have been making experimental music ever since. After two years in California I moved to Berlin where I still live in the fantastic environment with very many possibilities. 

I still have connection to classical music though, I often work with music based on Bach. Before I came to Art Hub Pikisaari in 2023, I was working on a new orchestration of Bach. To me it is the same as playing piano with my feet or cooking in front of people to make sound. Writing notes for doing a new version of Bach is the same. Taking music videos without sound is the same. One shouldn´t be short sighted. The possibilities are wide open. It took a long time to get there. I wouldn’t be saying something like that when I was twenty. 

Bach brought a lot of system and theory to music making and performing. How do you combine working with his legacy and experimentation? 

The combination of the experimentation and classical tradition are organic to me. And I like Bach (smiles). Music is my home. From there I go to the expedition and come back home, and go again…

Were your parents musicians, Makiko?

No, I am a very unusual human being in my family (laughs). Nobody understood why I became like this, choosing music and sound art, being the only one in the family living abroad for such a while. I just kept doing my thing all the time. I´ve been very stubborn (smiles). My parents call me an alien. 

It is sad that we have no common theme to talk about. But my life is my decision. 

How exactly did the format of art residency inform your artistic research, how did the residency change your routine? 

Away from one´s daily life is always good. At the same time you are not a tourist. You live in a different way, and the time is limited. The residency routine is always unusual and full of explorations, getting to know the space. Sometimes you get lost, and it´s ok to get lost. You are in a new place, you can enjoy each moment. And each moment is there to enjoy. I like this creative expedition very much.

Do you hear any harmony in the soundscape of our world or is it rather a cacophony to you?

Depends where you listen (smiles). It is quiet in Finland. What bothers me is how one gets exposed to sound. I like travelling in Finland by bus. Finnish bus drivers often put on radio that none of the passengers can turn off. That’s when I put on my Bach (laughs) in the headphones and looked at the beautiful landscapes.  

Sound pollution can get very annoying.  Luckily it is low in Finland, but it is very high in Japan (so much noise!). Whenever I go to Japan, as soon as I arrive at the airport, I realise, “Ah, it is not Europe”. Japan is very noisy country. I remember the acoustic oppression, especially during the Corona pandemic era, when there were so many “unnecessary” announcements in public places and stores, and you also could hardly breathe…

It is curious how the sound and the smell are underestimated as very dominating background sensations. You can avoid the touch, close your eyes or look somewhere else, but you can’t easily avoid the smell and the sound.

Yes! You can’t live with your ears and nostrils closed! Which smell bothers you?

Oulu is a city of wind. Sometimes it feels like the smell of the sea, when the wind comes from the ocean. But sometimes in certain districts one can smell the cardboard factory. What about you – what’s your least favourite smell or sound?

The smell of garlic. Especially when I didn’t eat it, and meet someone whose smell is strong, I think “Oups!” But in Korea, for example, the smell of garlic is everywhere. You are enveloped by the smell. It´s the air, which doesn’t bother me at all.

As to sounds – I prefer to hear none actually. Silence is not possible though. I like natural sounds. The sounds of the river, the rain and the birds. I often record natural sounds, cut, edit and add many layers and occasionally a bit of effects. However, I like when the source of sound is clear and the sound remains pure. 

Like the sound of the wind. My name – Nishikaze – means ”west wind”. I am wind. Wind can be cold and it can be comfortable. If you listen to the wind from inside the house, it sounds different. I enjoy that. 

What art practices did the wind of Oulu inspire you for this time?

I was taking a lot of photos of the lights in the city – street lights, shop lights – so that they are moving. Sound recordings – more collecting and listening. The pictures and the soundscapes were presented in Art Hub Pikisaari. I was also walking and meditating and just enjoying being in Oulu a lot. I was also thinking about my daily life in Berlin, previous and future activities. This is what residency gives – seeing yourself from the side, from an ”objective” way. 

Do you miss your instruments when away from them?

Yes! I miss the keyboards I play. I have piano, harpsichord and clavichord at home.

Do you think that the keyboard which is used for music and sound is nowadays more powerful than the one producing statements of words? Some hope art is harder to chain than free speech.

Art is strong enough if art is strong (smiles). Art can be the statement of your political opinion, but it doesn’t have to. 

I was so keen on what is going on in the world that I think I watched too much news. There are so many conflicts in the world that I couldn’t sleep without nightmares in the end. I don’t express this in my art. I am a human being artist living in today’s world, aware of what is going on through not just main media, but different sources. I digest it and I create artwork. It is necessary for an artist not to ignore what is going on. If one wants to make a statement, it is fine. I want to shake people with different methods.

And the method of silence has a rich history. There was a reason John Cage instructed the performers to not play their instruments for 4 minutes 33 seconds in the legendary ”4´33”. The moment of silence is a powerful ritual to commemorate a loss, uniting people in grief in ways no words could. Playing silence in the world of noise can be so awakening for many. You have been playing it a lot in Oulu, recording videos without sound and channeling the viewer to her own, inner soundscape.  

There is always sound, but sometimes without sound (laughs). It is not missing. It is in there. You don’t always have to acoustically hear it. Or think of the sound at all. Dealing with visual image and moving visual image does not imply lack of sound. 

Movie directors ask composers to make music inspired by the movie. I do the same simultaneously,  interlacing these creations in one composition process. Established ways are familiar to me, I can make and play music and I am educated and experienced as a musician. Composing videos has been very interesting, but I have to take a pause of making videos for a while. Maybe I will compose a string quartet and a pianist asked me to compose a new piece, so I have a feeling I am getting back to music.

One of the sound compositions you made in Oulu was basically a beautiful melancholy story, told by the creaking door. How many stories like this do you think might be missed out on a daily basis – the ones told by objects making sounds, by the wind accompanying leaves and such jazzy doors?

The sounds I notice from the noise are the ones I can make music with, but I don’t hear the story behind them. Sound is sound, it is not a narrative to me. When I find sounds I want to make composition with, I might start ”playing” doors and chairs. They can form a particularly interesting piece indeed! 

Making music for piano, doors and chairs or a string quartet is the same to me. The sound sources are all the materials you´ve got – instruments and non-instruments included. You make sound all the time, but it is noise until you notice it. When you truly notice the sound you make, you can play music with anything. Doesn’t mean you should play it with anything (laughs)