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London-based Hatis Noit is a Japanese vocal performer who hails from distant Shiretoko in Hokkaido. Her accomplished range, is astonishingly, self-taught, inspired by everything she could find, from Gagaku — Japanese classical music — and opera, Bulgarian and Gregorian chants, to avant-garde and pop vocalists. It was at the age of 16, during a trek in Nepal to the Buddha’s birthplace, that she realised singing was her calling. While staying at a women’s temple in Lumbini, one morning on a walk Hatis Noit heard someone singing. On further investigation, it was a female monk singing Buddhist chants, alone. The sound moved her so intensely that she was instantly aware of the visceral power of the human voice; a primal and instinctive instrument that connects us to the very essence of humanity, nature and our universe.

Where you at at the moment?

I’m in London, where I live.

I was reading about how your interest in vocal expression started when you were 16 and you were in Nepal and heard a female monk singing.

When I was 16 or 15 years old I went to Nepal, a place called Lumbini, where Buddha was born. It’s very much a sacred place for Buddhists. I stayed at a temple run by female monks. I woke up early one morning and I could hear someone singing outside. I came out from the room and I was searching for this sound. Then I found some kind of a tiny room, which was very simple, with only one female monk inside. At first I thought she was singing, but actually she was not. In Nepal reading out sacred sentences – chanting a Mantra – is just like singing. It was not a song actually but it sounded like a song and it was just so beautiful. The Mantra has no harmony, and not many singers, only the one female voice of the monk. I realised how strong the human voice is. Even if it’s just one single line it’s strong enough to make us feel the energy.

And the spiritual side as well?

I didn’t understand what the mantra meant, but still, I could feel the energy. Voice comes from our body. In that sense, I believe the human voice has so much information through our body and genes. There’s a long history of the human species inside the body. The sound of voice contains this memory of our long history.

You also mentioned that you are inspired by various vocal traditions – including Bulgarian and Gregorian chants. In Sofia, I met the conductor of the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares choir and she described how young girls had been gathered from the mountainous areas of the country and trained in the capital. After the fall of communism, there was no more funding to support this.

People shouldn’t be pushed to do anything by communism but it sometimes happens in communist politics that they try to preserve traditional cultures in a way, although it’s obviously just to take advantage of art to give them power. I can’t really say if it’s good or bad… as sometimes, on the other hand, capitalism destroys traditional art and folk culture. I personally believe there is some synthesis, always, like the Middle Way in Buddhist philosophy.

Anyway, generally, I just really love the human voice and any culture or tradition that uses it. Obviously, there are so many different cultures using voice as music or in a religious way. For me, that contains so much raw energy and I’m just very interested in that. I collect many sounds from all over the world to see how they use their voice. Not only Gregorian or Bulgarian traditions, but also Solomon Islands’ folk and Aka Pygmy music, for instance. Japanese folk is also very interesting. Shima-uta, folk songs from the southern islands in Japan, or folk songs from Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan where I was born, whose native people – called Ainu – also have a very interesting way of using the voice. I think it’s also related to Inuit music somehow.

Have you met any of the people practising these traditions?

I had some vocal training from an Amami island singer in Japan. I also had some training from a singer of Indian Raga in India last year. I don’t think I have enough time to get trained properly as my life is way too short to do it. But at least I’m trying to mimic them and mix them to somehow create something new, hopefully in a respectful way.

You were basically self-taught? How did you do that?

It happened naturally. I didn’t learn music in an academic or classical way. I just love singing and listening to powerful vocal music. I like playing around with music and voices, especially by using my body and voice. It’s like a child playing.

When you work with your voice, do you first try to do the vocal part or the sonic part – or do you have some sort of melody in your head? How does it come together?

I don’t use any instruments. My voice is my only instrument. Usually, there’s a melody that comes to my mind. I start singing, mostly using my looper to improvise and create some kind of composition. Sometimes, I use a piano to follow the note. But mostly I only use my voice.

Are your songs born out of concrete inspiration or is the process more abstract?

Melody-wise or harmony-wise I enjoy listening to lot of vocal music, which inspires me. At the same time, I’m also inspired by memories, which I can get through meditation. When I meditate, I have many kinds of sensations and feelings. Sometimes, it’s my personal memory, but also a collective memory I can reach through meditation. Peace, love, awe etc. It’s very hard to describe this feeling in words. Some kind of memory or emotion of a human being, even of an animal. Sometimes it’s not even a living creature. I can get a sense of plants or the wind, the flow of springs. I connect the feelings and try to translate those feelings into sound. To me, performing is very similar to meditating. When I’m on stage, I can be very focused on that moment and space. I can connect to the energy of the space and the audience.

You participated in a ceremony commemorating the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I made a song especially for that occasion. It’s called “Inori”. I made a field recording 1km from the power plant. I recorded the sound of the ocean surrounding that nuclear power plant. The sound was just the sound of the ocean as usual, but you can feel the memory of the sea. That sound contains so many sad memories, but before that, there could have been much happier memories of the people living in Fukushima. I wanted to make the song while not forgetting their memories. I talked with local people and could see their real lives. In Japan in general, people seem as if they are trying to forget about the accident and the fact that a lot of people had to be evacuated from their home town and they still can’t get back to their homes. We can’t forget about them as we are also a part of the issue. That’s why I made this song and dedicated it to them.

This kind of empatheic way of working as an artist is important to you?

Totally. To be honest, before I went there I was actually planning to make a song as a warning about the dangers of nuclear power. Once I got to Fukushima, my mind totally changed because there was clearly something more important for me to do as an artist, not just warning about danger. I wanted to emphatise with them and be with them first of all.

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on my new album, mainly, which will hopefully be out next year. I’ve already done the recording session, so now I’m editing and mixing the tracks. At the end of this year, in December, I’m going to perform with some of the members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at Southbank Centre in London.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

Photo by Özge Cöne

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Photos: SHAPE @ Sonica Festival 2019