PRINT November 2007


Teiji Ito

TEIJI ITO IS INVARIABLY LINKED to Maya Deren, since their professional and romantic relationship spanned the last decade of her career, 1952–61, and the first of his. Deren’s account of their initial encounter is as steeped in self-mythology as any of the images in her films:

“Teiji, I have the feeling that if ever you were approached by an inquiring reporter and asked for one or two of the most important or critical moments in your life—you certainly would have to mention that one where I ran into you in front of the five and dime store.”

“When you asked me to do the score for your film.”

Ito was only seventeen years old at the time. Born in Japan to a samurai-class family with long-standing ties to the theater, he had immigrated with his parents to the United States shortly before Pearl Harbor. By the time he met Deren, then thirty-five, he had learned to play a variety of instruments and performed onstage accompanying his mother, a dancer, with percussion, but he had yet to compose any music. Nevertheless, as Deren remarked of their first meeting: “I suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. Things went clickety-clack in my head and I said ‘You’re the one!’”

Deren’s waking-dream logic was impeccable. Ito proceeded to write the score to her just-completed film, The Very Eye of Night (released in 1958), playing all the instruments and recording it himself—a score that Deren found so complementary she asked Ito to add music to her already classic, and heretofore silent, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943; music, 1959).

This past summer these two key film scores, together with music Ito composed for other film projects both underground and industrial, were released on CD as Music for Maya: Early Film Music of Teiji Ito—the third volume of Ito’s music on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, which has announced plans to continue documenting this underappreciated composer’s work. Together with the two CDs already available—King Ubu (1961), the score for an off-Broadway production of Alfred Jarry’s play, and Tenno (1964), the score for an unrealized documentary about the Japanese emperor—Tzadik’s series demonstrates the breadth of Ito’s work in the New York performing arts of the 1950s and ’60s. In addition to filmmakers, Ito collaborated with numerous artists in theater and dance, including Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, Jerome Robbins and the New York City Ballet, even Broadway producer David Merrick (Ito composed music for the original production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). More than one hundred hours of tapes of his music are included in an archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; nearly all of the music has never been heard outside its original context.

Although Ito was the consummate collaborator—he once said (in the same interview with Deren quoted above, published with the Music for Maya CD), “The object of working together . . . is trying to express a large principle which is bigger than any personal thing you might have”—his music was in fact almost always both played and recorded entirely by himself, with a battery of instruments from around the world, and a self-operated tape recorder. As accordionist Guy Klucevsek, who met Ito shortly before the composer’s death in 1982, writes in the liner notes to King Ubu, “For Teiji, there was no such thing as an ‘instrumentalist.’ There were only ‘musicians,’ and it seemed perfectly natural and sensible to him that a musician should be able to make music on any and all instruments, and so he did.” For example, the instrumentation for King Ubu consists of “alto saxophone, clarinet, hichiriki, orkon, nohkan, voices, whistling, electric chord organ, electric and acoustic guitars, ukelele, bells, bottles, castanets, cymbals, congas, meringue, o-daiko, other assorted unidentified drums, maracas, marimbula, mbiras, metal springs, steel drum, tambourine, temple blocks, vaccines, wood blocks, xylophone, zither, magnetic tape manipulation.”

All are played by Ito, overdubbed to conjure a piebald orchestra the likes of which no pit has ever housed. The results range from an Albert Ayler–like overture of sax fanfares accompanied by insistent, slightly out-of-time percussion, to a rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka” that sounds like a synchronous accident between disparate games at a carnival. Equally at home with traditional instruments and techniques, modern jazz, and what was then called New Music, Ito may well be the paradigmatic Tzadik composer—his work is the exemplar of the postvirtuoso, postmodern type of “cut-up,” or pastiche, music that has characterized much of the downtown scene of John Zorn’s generation.

King Ubu and the equally impressive Tenno are works that have never before been issued as recordings. The surprise of Music for Maya, with its relatively familiar pieces, is the effect of Ito’s scores without the well-known films they were meant to accompany. Juxtaposed against the ethnographically unconcerned music of King Ubu, for instance, Ito’s Japanese-sounding score for Meshes of the Afternoon loses the ponderous orientalism that Deren’s images reinforce. Was the young Ito having a go at Noh, in the same way he later hurled himself into the polka? Indeed, despite its seemingly careful tailoring to image, Ito’s music was intended to have a different, even if complementary, effect. As he himself explained, “If you were to listen to the music alone, the [film] image wouldn’t be what the music sounded like.”

What this music does sound like is very different from the Surrealist-influenced, mythological images of Maya Deren. In place of her symbolism, Ito’s vagabond-like treatment of instrument and genre suggest a highly fractured, multivocal, multivalent world—in other words, one very much like our own.

Damon Krukowski is a musician and writer based in Boston.