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“All Music Is Noise for Me”: Tamio Shiraishi in Conversation with Tony Price and Alex Zhang Hungtai

Nina Interviews

Exploring the sonic boundaries of the saxophone with a quite literal NYC underground legend.

Tamio Shiraishi is a near-mythic figure in the New York City underground. I say this both literally and figuratively, as over the course of the last 20 years the Japanese-born saxophonist has been showing up to various New York City subway stations with his instrument to unleash torrents of piercing, high-frequency squeals that ricochet off of the tiled walls and steel columns of the subterranean train stops. After starting his career in the late-60s free improvisation scene of Tokyo, Tamio went on to co-found the avant-psych duo Fushitshua with Kenji Haino. In the early 90s, he moved to New York and eventually found a kinship with the city’s flourishing punk rock and avant-garde scenes after discovering a weekend concert series in a Delancey Street squatters’ flat. 

It was in a long tunnel above the train platform at a subway station deep in Queens that Alex Zhang Hungtai—the composer, multi-instrumentalist and artist formerly known as Dirty Beaches—and I first encountered Tamio and his saxophone in the autumn of 2021. Upon arrival, we were both immediately stunned by the sheer power and volume of the tones emanating from Tamio’s instrument: it seemed as if he was playing a duet with the trains as they pulled into the platform areas below, locking into dissonant harmony with the shrill grind of the squealing brakes. In order to produce tones of such a high frequency at such an enormous volume, Tamio was biting down so hard on his mouthpiece that he was breaking reeds with every blow, stopping to replace them every few minutes. It was immediately evident that Tamio was playing the tunnel as much as he was his saxophone. The long, glassy trails of reverberation made his saxophone tones seem even harsher, louder, and brighter as they sped along the tile and concrete surfaces towards us some 80 feet away. People walked by, a few with fingers jammed in ears, one laughing and one looking over with disdain. The whole thing was very New York, and very, very loud.

We left the station that night with ringing heads. I can confidently say that this was amongst the most physically taxing musical performances I’ve ever experienced. The amount of energy required on both the part of the performer and the audience was immense and unlike anything I had experienced prior. 

When the opportunity arose to interview someone alongside Alex for this series, we immediately knew that it had to be Tamio. Besides being the first performance that Alex had experienced since moving to New York City, both of us had been unable to get Tamio off our minds since. Alex and I are musicians and producers who have explored the sonic possibilities of the saxophone both on record and on stage, together and separately, for many years over the course of our 15-year friendship.

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Beyond hoping to satisfy our curiosity about this mysterious individual, we wanted to talk to him about how his work engages with the relationship between sound and physical space, the nature of the performer-audience relationship and, of course, the saxophone.


Tamio does not do this for money. He is not a busker. Though he has a series of recordings released under his name on various record labels, he has a tempestuous relationship to recording studios and the process of recording in general. A large part of our desire to interview him came from us wanting to understand why he feels compelled to play in public—but as our interview will reveal, his musical intentions and inspiration seem to often evade even him.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tony Price: You’ve been performing in New York subway stations for quite some time. How do you choose a space? Is there a recurring theme or goal?

Tamio Shiraishi: It was about 20 years ago that I started, at a pretty quiet station where there were four train tracks—two express tracks in the middle and two local tracks. It was at around midnight that I started playing, when the trains were coming less often so there were almost no passengers, no audience, and it was very quiet. But sometimes the train would come and make a very big sound. New York subway stations have very good reverberation. The playing might not be so good, but at least sometimes down there it sounds good! [Laughs] I love the sound of trains, that’s why I started.  

Alex Zhang Hungtai: So was this 30 years ago that you started?

Well, more than 20 years ago for sure.

AZH: The album of yours that we listened to yesterday was the one that you did with Sean Meehan.

Yeah, he was one of my first musical acquaintances. There was a squatters’ building somewhere near Delancey Street, and there was a concert series on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays were punk rock and on Sunday it was avant-garde so I visited those. Sean Meehan was one of the people who performed at the avant-garde shows. I am forgetting details but he is one of the first people I became acquainted with.

TP: We were listening to the record you made with him in 2003, In The City. It was amazing. 

Yeah, once a year we performed outdoors near Riverside. Some other guy recorded our sounds and made that record. 

TP: With your performances in the subway, are those mostly improvised or those compositions? 

Completely improvised. I’ve never studied.

TP: Me neither. [Laughs]

AZH: Me neither. [Laughs]

TP: I’ve seen videos of you performing in Tokyo as well. Would you agree that the sounds of cities inspire you? 

I’m not sure. At the very beginning, before I started with music when I was 20 or something—you know, the time of the Vietnam war, and the beginning of hard rock, a little after the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I had started listening in small cafes in the city to big sound systems. Big sound systems were kind of new, right? Now it’s everywhere, but almost 50 years ago it was not familiar for young people, so we found this to be something new. Music in the city has a very kind of active atmosphere to me. So maybe that means my sound is related in some way.

AZH: You started playing music at 26. Would you mind talking about what you were doing before you started? 

I went to the Tokyo Institute of Technology. This was during the anti-war movement. So, in my second or third year, there was a strike. No class suddenly, so I started to visit Shinjuku. It’s a kind of red light district where I started to listen to rock music. A little later, I started to visit the free jazz music performances. There were very few free jazz performances, with very small audiences. Do you know Kaoru Abe? He was one of the performers I would see. In many cases, I was the only one in the audience! 

TP: What was the first instrument that you played? 

After I graduated at 26 and started performing by myself, the first thing I bought was an electric piano or synthesizer. 

TP: Do you remember which synthesizer it was? 

It was very big. 

TP: Did you take that to venues to play or did you just keep it at home? 

Sometimes I would bring it, but it was very big and heavy. Yeah, but you know 40, 50 years ago it was so cool and new!

TP: When did you start playing saxophone?

When I was 27 or so, just after studying, I made new friends at a new venue in Kichijoji, a small venue that was very important to my musical history. This was the place where I got acquainted with Keiji Haino and many other people. Keiji Haino and I were relatively older, most of the others were around 20 or 18 years old. It was there that I started performing by myself.

Maybe one year later, one of my young friends there asked me to lend him some money. So I answered: Give me some pawn! Instead, he gave me a saxophone. 

TP: And that’s how you got here!

I’ve never studied saxophone. I, and almost everyone I know, purely play out of passion. That’s why I bite my reeds, to play with passion and without official technique. That’s why I started that style. I told my friend that he didn’t need to pay me back any money, because I was keeping the saxophone. 

TP: Why did you start playing in subways? 

I forget the details, but I realized quickly while taking the subway that the reverberation might be good. So I had the idea to play with the reverberation in there at night when it’s very quiet. Some stations are very quiet.

TP: Would it be accurate to say that you’re more attracted to the reverb in the room or the sounds of the train? Do you find the actual sound of the subway trains to be a very musical sound? 

No. [Laughs] My sound, from the beginning, was like this. You know, Keiji Haino, he was my first experience of this sound. I believe he is a musician. His sound was one the most important sounds to me. 

TP: Do you prefer playing the saxophone in indoor spaces or outdoors?

It depends. If it’s a big wide place, inside is okay. But you know, inside of a small room, I don’t like listening to myself. It’s too much! [Laughs] In the case of outside spaces, it also depends. Somewhere like a very big ruin or something, that might be very good. Actually, in East Riverside, around 20-30 years ago when I arrived, before starting in subways, I occasionally visited East Riverside and Williamsburg. Now there are kind high-rise buildings and it looks very expensive. But it was mostly just the ruins of old factories. I have a private video of me playing in East Riverside, Brooklyn.

AZH: Do you ever interact with people in public while you are playing? What are some of your interesting memories of interactions or encounters?

I no longer perform there, but at the very beginning, I found the 2nd Avenue F station showed a relatively good response from people. 14th Street by the E train was not good. They would yell, “Stop!” [Laughs]

TP: Interesting how there are different responses in different stations!

AZH: So West Fourth, good, but 14th Street, no good!

TP: Have you ever played inside a train?

Never. Usually on the platform and with no trains stopping, just passing by. 

TP: You mentioned that your sound becomes very loud in a small room. You seem to prefer really high-pitched tones. Is that something that you’re attracted to?

I can only play that style. [Laughs]

TP: Well, you’re clearly very good at it! 

AZH: When you perform with other people, what do you look for in a collaboration?

It’s a very difficult task for me. Maybe because I never studied music. It seems like I can’t listen to others. Recently I found that I like to perform with less than three people. You know, even in the case of a duet, I may not listen to the other musician! [Laughs]

TP: Do you listen to the trains while playing in a subway? Is it easier for you there?

In the case of subways it’s strictly physical. At the beginning, you hear a small sound from far away and then it gets louder as it gets closer, so it’s relatively easy.

AZH: When you say that you don’t listen to others while playing with them, does that mean that you try to focus on just yourself?

Yeah. As I told you, I’ve never studied music. So I guess when they teach music, they force you to listen to others, But I didn’t have this experience so much. Maybe listening is a kind of technique necessary to perform music, but I don’t have technique. [Laughs]

AZH: Since you can’t listen musically, do you think that there is a different kind of communication between you and other musicians, maybe spiritual or emotional? 

Yes, not only spirit, but also behavior. I try to see the performer.

AZH: Can you describe this process of trying to see more?

While playing, or even as an audience member, you are listening and seeing. Seeing a performer is very important for me as an audience member. To see how someone performs is very interesting for me. But anyway, I haven’t thought so much about this, so maybe I can’t explain it. 

TP: How do you feel about recordings of your work? Do you feel that recordings can accurately capture what you’re trying to do?

I guess I don’t. I don’t like recording. I seldom go to studios to record. Most of the recording I do is by myself, so it might not be good. [Laughs] In the case of subways, it often happens that there is no audience at all, but I still prefer that to a studio.

TP: Do you listen to much recorded music? Or do you prefer to go out and see it live?

No. When I was in my 20s, I started listening to recorded music. Now, I only occasionally listen to old, nostalgic music. 

TP: What do you think of people calling your genre of music “noise”? Does that bother you?

Almost all music is noise for me! [Laughs]

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