Master Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani Hears Music Everywhere

Tatsuya Nakatani plays a gong like a fiddle — literally.
Tatsuya Nakatani plays a gong like a fiddle — literally. Courtesy of Tatsuya Nakatani
The first time I saw Tatsuya Nakatani perform, it was during a blazing hot night at the old Trunk Space location. A small white-shelled fan was spinning over the comic book section, offering blessed relief in oscillating waves of cold air. Waiting between acts for Nakatani’s set to start, I was leaning over the fan, face pressed as close to it as possible to keep cool. “Ah, you’re listening! Good,” said a voice behind me. I turned, and there was Nakatani with a wry smile, pointing at the fan with his index finger and then craning that same finger up toward his ear.

Not wanting to admit that I was just trying to stay chill, I nodded knowingly and kept “listening” to the fan as Nakatani walked over to the middle of the room and started setting up his kit. As soon as the drummer planted that seed in my ear, though, I couldn’t help but listen to the fan as pure sound: massive and whirring close to my face, like getting within shaving distance of a plane’s propeller. Watching him perform live after that, his comment made even more sense: Only someone who can see sounds where other people see quotidian objects would be capable of making such amazing music.

Tatsuya Nakatani is a sound artist and master percussionist hailing from New Mexico. Whereas so many new music/avant-garde musicians tend to stay rooted in one place, Nakatani is a veteran road dog. He frequently tours across the country, either doing solo shows (like that night at Trunk Space) or as the ringleader of his Nakatani Gong Orchestra. While he’s issued a decent amount of recordings over the years, the real magic is watching Nakatani live. It’s like watching live-action painting: The final result isn’t the point; it’s the process, the high-wire act tension of seeing someone’s imagination flare to life in a blur of hands and furrowed brows, that makes it worthwhile.

Originally from Osaka, Japan, Nakatani was mostly self-taught as a musician until he started working with jazz drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki. A founding member of the band Altered States, Yoshigaki was a regular collaborator with avant-garde composers and folks like John Zorn. Working as a roadie for Yoshigaki, Nakatani learned his craft by watching the master play. Moving to Boston in the '90s, Nakatani became immersed in the world of minimalist music, playing out with musicians from the New England Conservatory of Music. But it’s when Nakatani moved to New York City for a few years that he discovered noise music, and it’s what opened up his “third ear” to a whole new world of sound.

Live, Nakatani plays a wide array of instruments such as drums, singing bowls, bells, sticks, cymbals, and gongs (he has 17 of them). Drawing from his experiences with jazz, noise, metal, and traditional Japanese folk music, he can conjure intensely dissonant sounds from his kit in one instant, and then turn his clamor into something meditative and serene the next. He also makes his own bows, which he uses to saw at gongs and cymbals to create hauntingly strange sounds.

The first time I saw him perform, he picked up a cymbal in mid-performance, flipped it upside down, and started running his fingers in circles around it like he was trying to scratch a record. He had a look of intense concentration on his face as that sound rang through the room, the look a hunter might have trying hear his prey through the jungle noise. That’s the thrill of watching Tatsuya Nakatani live: getting to watch a master musician hunt for an elusive sound that’s just out of reach.

Tatsuya Nakatani. Tuesday, May 21, at The Trunk Space, 1124 North Third Street; Tickets are $10 at the door.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley Naftule