Chordophone brings the harmony of diversity to Powell Street Festival

James and Marcus Takizawa apply classical training to their take on electronic music and improvisation

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      It’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit for next week’s Powell Street Festival than Chordophone. Like the long-running Downtown Eastside fixture, the Vancouver-based electronic outfit blends high art with pop culture, is both undeniably beautiful and slightly surreal, and is the product of Japanese Canadians, in this case brothers Marcus and James Takizawa. The Japanese connection will be strengthened further at the festival, when the two brothers will collaborate with Australian-born koto virtuoso Miyama McQueen-Tokita, along with guitarist Adrian Verdejo. But it’s not Chordophone’s Japaneseness that Marcus Takizawa wants to flag; it’s his electroacoustic act’s diversity.

      “What makes this collaboration interesting is that maybe it’s reflective of Japanese in Canada,” he explains, in a telephone interview from his home. “My brother and I are both second-generation Japanese Canadians, and Miyama is half Japanese: she lives in Tokyo, but she’s Australian. So, if anything, maybe this is a celebration of Japanese diversity abroad.

      “And the Powell Street Festival is a celebration of generations of Japanese living in this area, in Vancouver, so it’s very interesting,” he continues. “We meet people who have been going to this event for a very long time, and who’ve gotten involved, whether it’s a second generation manning a food stand, or a second wave of volunteers. So, yeah, it’s great.”

      Fittingly, Chordophone’s music is diverse by design. Both of the Takizawa brothers are classically trained musicians, Marcus on viola and James on cello. But only Marcus chose to pursue a full-time career in music, and he’s now frequently seen with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, and the Turning Point Ensemble, along with a number of smaller chamber groups. Throughout his classical career, however, he’s nurtured a parallel interest in electronic music and DJ culture, and it was while getting his master’s in performance at New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School that he discovered how to integrate those two streams with another of his interests, improvisation.

      “The year I got there was when they introduced the jazz program, and so, as an elective, you could actually take jazz for classical majors,” Takizawa recalls. “I don’t even know if they still offer this course, but I figured, ‘Oh, what the hell. Why not?’ So it was pretty funny. It was a bunch of us and we were all typical classical musicians, right? None of us had any experience with improvising. We just started with this class, and I really liked it.”

      Takizawa doesn’t claim to be a jazz musician, and Chordophone’s dreamlike, sequencer-based compositions are carefully structured by the time they hit the stage. Improvisation does play an important role in their creation, though. Takizawa’s current methodology involves recording freeform viola explorations, extracting moments to be fed into a sampler, and then building lush washes of electronically augmented strings, with James’s cello usually playing the role of bass guitar. Earlier on, Marcus would play viola in performance, but he says he’s now concentrating more on the electronic aspects of the music, leaving live improvisation to other musicians, such as Verdejo and McQueen-Tokita.

      “I’ll let others play,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just there making sure that nothing crashes, or maintaining a groove, or changing samples—which is plenty of things to manage.”

      Miyama McQueen-Tokita

      Even without live viola, however, the Takizawas and their guests seem to have hit on the perfect blend of their formal training and their populist inclinations.

      “I think they go hand in hand,” Marcus says. “In some ways there’s a bit of obsession to learning to play an instrument at a high level. It’s a little compulsive; often you’re just working over and over and over again on something—and that process lends itself to working on the computer or on the sampler, ’cause it’s also very repetitive.

      “I enjoy that kind of meticulous work,” he adds. “I have other colleagues who just have no interest in it at all.…But maybe Chordophone is just an honest mix of what I like to hear.”

      The Powell Street Festival takes place at Oppenheimer Park and nearby venues next Saturday and Sunday (July 30 and 31).