Music That Doesn’t Give An Answer: An Interview With Eiko Ishibashi

Eiko Ishibashi
May 1st 2024

Eiko Ishibashi makes meditative, raw, and sometimes raucous music that relentlessly shifts into unexpected territories yet is always grounded by intimacy and grace. From tender singer-songwriter pieces to astonishing ambient and noise work to buoyant jazz-pop compositions, Ishibashi’s multi-instrumental music—and the precise way the sounds are mixed and edited—conjure cinematic scenes and landscapes. When Ishibashi and her partner, the musician Jim O’Rourke, are not in the studio, they spend a lot of their time watching TV and films. Their devotion to one medium has been expressed in the other. In 2022, Ishibashi released Songs for McCoy, an excellent record named after Law & Order’s beloved district attorney Jack McCoy.

In advance of Ishibashi’s arrival in New York to perform at Film at Lincoln Center and Le Poisson Rouge, we spoke via Zoom to discuss cinema, music, and improvising alongside film. Many thanks to Jim O’Rourke for interpreting my questions and Ishibashi’s answers.

Max Levin: You have two new projects with Ryusuke Hamaguchi coming to theaters in New York this week. How did your collaborations begin?

Eiko Ishibashi: The producer of Drive My Car first introduced Hamaguchi to my record The Dream My Bones Dream (2018). After Hamaguchi heard this music, he decided that he wanted me to do the music for the film.

For the new films, it started out because I received an offer from Europe to do live music performances with accompanying visuals. The visuals for these performances are always very abstract and I was not as interested in playing in front of experimental films. I thought it would be much more interesting if there was some sort of story for the accompanying film. The idea was for Hamaguchi to make a film that would accompany my live performances in Europe, but then it changed.

At first, Hamaguchi did some experiments by coming out to where [Jim O’Rourke and I] live and filming me and other musicians playing in the studio. Then, Hamaguchi started filming the surrounding area out here—this is up in the mountains, about two hours outside of Tokyo. As he started gathering more material in the area, he decided that he wanted to write a script, as opposed to just filming material and trying to make a silent film. So he went away and wrote a script based on a few things he had heard from people who lived out here and events that he heard about. He came back with the script for Evil Does Not Exist.

ML: What did you think when you read the script? How did it influence your score?

EI: Once Evil Does Not Exist started to come together, I could see from the rough edits that it was a very angry movie for Hamaguchi. From there came the decisions on the instrumentation and orchestration. Some of the more electronic parts of the film pre-existed as demos, but the bulk of the music—such as the strings sections—came in once it was decided to make the more traditional film. This music really came from seeing the tone of Evil Does Not Exist, which wasn’t there for the filming of what was going to be GIFT.

ML: GIFT consists of the same footage as Evil Does Not Exist, but is edited to achieve a different effect on the viewer. Is the music for these two films also different?

EI: Every time I perform the live version of GIFT, there is some element of improvisation because I’m reacting to that particular day. The materials are very similar, but the organization and how they happen within each performance of GIFT changes. There are also shots in GIFT that are not in Evil Does Not Exist. GIFT is about a half-hour shorter than Evil Does Not Exist, so the pace is different.


ML: How is it to play the music for GIFT alongside the film in different venues and different countries?

EI: From the first performance up until now, I’ve noticed how the quality of the theater—the size of the room, the echo, the size of the screen—affects each performance. Maybe it’s because GIFT is a story. It’s not an abstraction.

ML: I read that Hamaguchi used an abrupt editing style in Evil Does Not Exist to preserve the beauty of your music and to separate the music from the images. What are your thoughts about the balance between image and sound in cinema?

EI: In general, I feel that films don’t need music. When possible, I aim to make music that doesn’t give an answer for how the audience should be feeling or how they should be reading the scene. Hopefully, questions remain unanswered so that the thinking continues after someone has seen the film and the music helps bring back memories.

ML: Is there a written score for GIFT? Is there anything set that you’re going off of?

EI: There’s no score. There’s similar materials, like the recordings of the strings from Evil Does Not Exist and recordings of various instruments, but they’re used differently each time—in different combinations, in different places. There’s a score in the sense that things are prepared on the computer and with the gear. How they actually happen during the performance isn’t decided until the performance—it is prepared improvisation.

ML: I’m curious what these experiences writing music for the screen have meant to you in terms of the music you’ve released and performed earlier in your career, and what you are making now and in the future?

EI: When I make music for films, it is different from everything else I do because it’s a collaboration with the director. I only want to do it if I have a connection with the director and the material. I don’t really want to make film music. I enjoy it when I have the opportunity to collaborate with a director who I enjoy working with. I don’t really think of it as work or as part of my musical career exactly—it’s something different.

ML: How have images been part of your music in the past?

EI: Fundamentally, I’m much more interested in films than music. [Jim and I] are both very similar that way, but unfortunately we have to make music. With music it’s possible to do it by yourself—you don’t have to have a huge staff. Both of us have much more passion for films than with music.

ML: I have a question about one film in particular. You have a song called To The East. I’m curious if that is a reference to Chantal Akerman’s From the East.

EI: [Laughs] No, it wasn’t the Akerman. That song relates to the history between Japan and Manchu, or Manchuria. Manchu was an area in China that Japan took over and was going to build a New Japan in. My grandfather worked there and my father was born there. After the Second World War, they came back to Japan and they were treated as criminals. That generation that was sent to Japan to build this propagandistic New Japan was shunned when it came back to Japan. Japan is East of Manchu.

ML: How about GIFT ? How did it end up with that title?

EI: Hamaguchi decided on the title. It has a lot to do with nature—the things that are gifts from nature that can be misused and abused. Gift means poison in German, so the title shows that there’s a level of violence in the film.

ML: People can only experience GIFT live, but there is also a CD that was recorded from its world premiere at the Viernulvier theater in October 2023. It seems, in the spirit of loving your music, that we can listen to GIFT out in the world, beyond the cinema.

EI: There is silence for a while in GIFT. So each performance—the sound of the audience moving—is different. On the CD, you can hear people coughing.

GIFT: A Film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi X Live Score by Eiko Ishibashi will be performed live tonight, May 1, and on May 2, at Film at Lincoln Center. Evil Does Not Exist opens May 3 at Film at Lincoln Center. Eiko Ishibashi will perform music from Drive My Car at Le Poisson Rouge on May 4 and 7.