Thursday, July 29, 2004
"We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?"
-- A zen koan by Hakuin (1686-1769)
Insert opening pyrotechnics here
Oh, would that the philosophical shot of espresso that is the zen koan not have been denatured by the authors, purveyors, and consumers (no liberties shall be taken with the misnomer "readers") of the countless volumes of drivel that fill the New Age corners of American book mega-retailers into the philosophical equivalent of a Mocha Coconut Frappuccino! Then the task to which this writer has been set might become somehow . . . less absurd. While on the one hand, it cannot be denied that the former beverage lacks in indulgence what the latter cannot possibly hope to make up for in acrimoniousness, on the other hand, for the purposes of an essay, opening quotes such as the one above might best be found if found to be a bit less than easy to imbibe. Why? Well, to quote John Cage quoting David Tudor quoting the sutras "This is not idle talk, but the highest of truths." If all of this doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever now, just wait until later. Things should become even more obfuscated before they become more clear.
A second (f/v)olly
So what do koans, Starbucks, and John Cage have to do with one another? And what on earth have they to do with Sachiko M (the "M" stands for Matsubara, her surname), Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide, three of the leading exponents of the 'No-Input School' of experimental sound artists from Japan? Superb question! If only there were an answer of equal caliber. Then, as per assignment, all of this spuriousness might be neatly dispatched within x number of pages. Naturally, this feat might not only be grounds for the bestowment of the coveted "high-pass" but it might also warrant the early conferment of a diploma and/or psychic evaluation. Academic laurels ahoy! Yet seriously, to venture an answer, other than the fact that making reference to koans, Starbucks, and John Cage in the opening paragraph of a "serious" essay amounts to the academic equivalent of having a death wish, it could also be said that they function in relationship to the No-Input School (in a roundabout way) in that all may be seen as serving as containers of nothingness. It's just that Starbucks seems to contain a tastier, more indulgent sort of nothingness than the others, that's all.
By way of a definition
At this point, something which might either be mistaken for a disclaimer or the actual beginning of a paper seems to be in order. It must be said that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a little nothingness now and then. This is especially true when given the idiosyncratic nature of the burgeoning "onkyo" scene in Japan from which this nothingness pours forth. Incidently, onkyo is a fairly generalized Japanese word, and as such, possess the predictable range of meanings including "sound; noise; echo; acoustic" and so on.
In the span of just a few decades this multivalent scene has undergone an exponential expansion across the void in experimental music that seems to have existed before the effects of European and American experimental music were fully felt in Japan. Onkyo now occupies a sound-space containing radically differentiated artists: From the electronic ferocity of the acolytes of "harsh-noise" (e.g. Merzbow, for whom stylistic imperative is synonymous with maintaining a decibel level at least as high as the atmosphere of his music is dark) to the muted electro-acoustic murmurs of "the new quietude" (e.g. certain members of the Improvised Music from Japan collective), with roots running not only through 60's & 70's European and American avant-garde improvisation, but also tangled about a host of other styles and influences, such as free jazz.
Due to a variety of reasons: a general lack of up-to-date, literature from both sides of the ocean, a paucity of acceptable translations of extant information, the relative isolationist tendencies of the American underground experimental music scene, etc., "noise" as a movement per se now seems to survive only outside of Japan, flourishing in Western countries where this style has become as pervasive as it is outmoded.
Incidentally, it is interesting to note that many older "noiseicians" (a noiseician is a Japanese word coined by combining the English words noise and musician, which describes persons who are engaged in the making of this type of sound), are taking a cue from the younger generations of noiseicians in Japan (e.g. Kazumoto Endo). They have more or less abandoned older methods of sound production (e.g. microphone & guitar efx pedals wired together in a tangled web of din-producing connections) and are having a go at 'spacebar music'.
PwrBk boy meets Eastern girl . . .
To make experimental music in the early 21st century without contemplating the laptop computer can only be considered anachronistic, naive, or more exceptionally, original. For more penetrating ruminations regarding the deeper implications of the "laptopper" au naturel (that oft invoked neologism which might be better defined as simply that PwrBkg-sporting, pasty-skinned, twenty-something, malnourished Caucasian male with purposely stylized, unkempt hair, black-frame glasses, ironic Girl Scouts T-shirt, and a veritable mountain of student-loans waiting to be repaid...oh, and there is usually an Asian girlfriend somewhere in the mix), in repose in his native habitat of arty coffee houses, austere clubs, and over-funded modern art galleries, one could to do no better than to peruse the frenetic pennings of the mircosound-artist/microsound critic/self-styled lecturer Kim Cascone are highly recommended. He seems to have more to say, more energy with which to say it, and fewer reservations about saying it than almost anyone else. (However, you should send your 'japtopper' inquiries directly to this writer.)
Thankfully, at least some of the reactionaries who had readily traded in their power electronics for PwrBks at the onset of the "common practice" laptop performance period (which this writer estimates as beginning a number of years after Carl Stone's now historic first PwrBk performances) have since reconsidered (in the wake of a host of new converts, perhaps), and now at least a more moderate, hybrid-type approach is emergent, combining the best of both worlds. However this is of course not to say that a given number of young noiseicians (e.g. the young Guilty Connector from Kyoto and his frequent collaborator Facialmess from England) in Japan are not content with pursuing careers that are the sonic equivalent of putting that one brief, ultra-manneristic peak in the history of the style (harsh noise) on what amounts to little more than an endless playback loop.
3 . . . 2 . . . 1
Decreasing magnification for a moment, Tadashi Usami, a member of the Tokyo based experimental sound unit "Kaiten Mind", shared his thoughts on the various possible trajectories that the members of the experimental music scene in Tokyo might take in a recent interview with this writer.
Robert Duckworth: What are your thoughts about the current experimental music scene in Tokyo?
Tadashi Usami: There seems to be a "back to basics" movement going on these days. Many sound artists like to use new technology, but they don't really have convincing reasons for doing so. They can choose their attitude among three types: (1) try to find a reason, (2) substitute childish ideas for solid reasons (3) maintain an air of nonchalance. If one chooses (2) then at least one is clever enough to earn popularity with the snobs of haute couture. If (3) is chosen, this is somewhat more forgivable, because it is a wiser choice. Personally, I have chosen (1) and studied a part of the history of experimental history. One may say that this approach seems conservative, but recently, the future of our music is in the past. Maybe it is not a particular situation in Tokyo, but I can't compare things on an international level, because I don't know how the scenes are in other places.
Out of the myriad of possible criterion by which to evaluate the legion of movements encompassed by Onkyo, taking this triad of possible behaviors proposed by Mr. Usami as a practical, functional model seems at once advisable. His intimacy with the scene itself might lead him to regard this dynamic system in a fundamentally different way than some outside observer (particularly a foreign observer). The merits of such a uniquely informed viewpoint as this are almost undeniable, making the next pressing question simply: "What might result in an application of this criterion to the No-Input School?" Needless to say, the No-Input School places in general much more emphasis on timbre and sound texture than on musical structure, distilling elements of techno, noise, improvisation, and electronic music into a unique hybrid, thus making them considerably more difficult to pinpoint in this fashion. Yet in the opinion of this writer, preliminary reflection would indicate that at least tendencies toward (2) and (3) seem evident. Detecting the presence of (1) (if indeed extant) seems nothing less than formidable. Of course, if the purpose of such a task is taken simply to be a more accurate characterization of the No-Input School through inquiry, then the matter of judgment might best be left to personal taste, but not left altogether unheeded.
The No-Input School...
As a collection of disparate individuals, the members of the No-Input School are exceedingly versatile, and appear to be constantly engaged in an array of paradoxical projects, from experimental sound to DJing.
From 1994 to '97, as a member of GROUND ZERO (which disbanded in March '98), Sachiko M performed at festivals and concerts around the world. She played an important role in the group's chopped-up, "plunderphonic" (or "plagiaristic" sampling) sound.
Since the disbanding of GROUND ZERO, Sachiko M has pursued a unique performance style which brings to the forefront the sampler's own test tones and noise, to develop nearly memory-free sampling works. Her solos consisting entirely of sine waves have attracted a great deal of attention.
Currently she is involved in many projects, including the powerful post-sampling project Filament; the electronic improvisation group I.S.O., with Yoshimitsu Ichiraku and Yoshihide Otomo; an electronic duo with Toshimaru Nakamura (formerly a guitarist with SADATO and Paragon of Beauty); and Cosmos, a duo project with Ami Yoshida, known for her "howling voice." In addition, Sachiko M is active as a CD producer and distributor. She founded the AMOEBiC label with Otomo, and started the private distribution system Chansa.
Guitar and no-input mixing board player
Toshimaru Nakamura formed "A Paragon of Beauty" in 1992, and the group released the CD A Paragon of Beauty in 1995.
Since 1994, Nakamura has frequently visited Berlin, working and performing in various projects. In the course of these visits, he formed the duo Repeat in 1998 with the American drummer Jason Kahn. They put out their first CD, Repeat, in the same year, and have toured in Japan, Germany, Switzerland and France.
Nakamura set aside his guitar around 1998 and began to concentrate more on producing electronic music. He developed a unique style, playing the "no-input mixing board."
In 1999, Repeat played in more cities and released a second CD, Temporary Contemporary. Nakamura also released the CD Un, a recording of his duo with Sachiko M ("no-no duo," with Sachiko M's no-sample sampler); and since then they have continued to perform together occasionally.
In addition to these activities, Nakamura has since 1996 been a composer/sound designer for the theatrical works of Bagnolet Choreography Concours-winning dancer Kim Ito. These works have been performed in Japan, the U.S., England, France, Germany, Israel and so on.
Since 1998 Nakamura has also organized, hosted and performed in a monthly improvised music gathering with guitarists Taku Sugimoto and Tetuzi Akiyama in Tokyo. The original venue was Bar Aoyama, but in August 2000, it moved to the gallery Off Site. This event, featuring guest musicians, has been growing as an important meeting point of the Tokyo improvised music scene. The CD The Improvisation Meeting at Bar Aoyama, a compilation of live recordings of performances at the bar, was released in October 1999.
In November 2000, Nakamura released his first solo CD, No-input Mixing Board. This title describes the way in which he was creating music at that time. He participated in the UK "Japanorama" tour at the beginning of 2001.
Turntable and guitar player
Yoshihide Otomo was born on August 1, 1959 in Yokohama, Japan. He spent his teenage years in Fukushima, about 300 kilometers north of Tokyo. Influenced by his father, an engineer, Otomo began making electrical devices such as a radio and an electronic oscillator. In junior high school, his hobby was making sound collages using open-reel tape recorders. This was his first experience creating music. Soon after entering high school he formed a band which played rock and jazz, with Otomo on guitar. It wasn't long, however, before he became a free jazz aficionado, listening to artists like Ornette Coleman, Erick Dolphy and Derek Bailey; and hearing music, both on disk and at concerts, by Japanese free jazz artists. The musician who influenced him most at that time was alto sax player Kaoru Abe (two of whose concerts he went to hear) and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi. For Otomo, this was a turning point--the point at which he decided to play free jazz.
In 1979 Otomo moved to Tokyo to attend a university. While continuing to play jazz and punk rock, in his third and fourth years of university he took part in an ethnomusicology seminar directed by professor Akira Ebato. Otomo became increasingly involved in the study of ethnomusical history, and of two subjects in particular: Japanese popular music during World War II, and the evolution of Chinese musical instruments during the Cultural Revolution. In 1981 he went to Hainan, China with a group led by Ebato, to research ethnic music. In the same year he began playing free improvisation professionally--using guitars, tapes, radios, etc.--at Goodman, a live music club in Ogikubo, Tokyo, where he continued to play for about a year.
Otomo became very active in live performance in 1987. Until about 1990 he often played duo concerts with Junji Hirose (on sax and an original self-made instrument). In that period he also played in a band called No Problem, with Lim Soowoong (junk), Jun Numata (electric bass), Kenichi Saitoh (guitar) and Hirose; performed with Kan Mikami (vocals); and was a member of pianist Kyoko Kuroda's group ORT. Starting in 1990 Otomo collaborated extensively with other musicians, in a wide range of styles. He joined bassist Hideki Kato's group Player Piano ('90-'91), and organized a Japan tour with Hirose and percussionist David Moss ('90). That year, he also started his own band, Ground-0 (later Ground Zero). Until it disbanded in March 1998, the band was always at the core of his musical creativity, while it underwent several changes in style and membership.
Otomo first played outside Japan in 1991. In April of that year he took Ground-0 to Hong Kong to play with two local musicians (bass and drums) in the "Best of Indies" concert; and in December he played in Berlin with Koichi Makigami (vocals), Yuji Katsui (violin), Hiroshi Higo (bass), David Moss (percussion), and Frank Schulte (turntables). Since then, Otomo has played overseas every year.
Otomo has created and organized various bands and projects in addition to Ground Zero. He had two bands between '92 and '94: the Double Unit Orchestra, comprised of two groups which he conducted simultaneously; and Celluloid Machine Gun, which he described as the Hong Kong movie-style music world. Otomo also formed Mosquito Paper, which was active from December '93 to late '94. The name came from the slang term for Shanghai tabloid newspapers filled with gossip and fake news stories. In their performances, Otomo set to music not songs but text readings, seeking to bring about the emergence of something between music and speech. He has had many connections with the Hong Kong/Chinese music and movie scenes, especially in the early and middle '90s. Both the Celluloid Machine Gun and Mosquito Paper projects were eventually absorbed by Ground Zero, when the band launched its monumental work Revolutionary Pekinese Opera. Another of Otomo's major projects at that time was the Sampling Virus Project ('92 to '98), in which sampling processes were applied to musical works which were "passed around" among musicians. In this way, the sampling acted in much the same way computer viruses do--invading, multiplying in and transforming the works --thus bringing new works into being. Otomo developed the project through his various musical activities--solo work, collaborations with other musicians, his bands, etc. One example is Ground Zero/Project: Consume.
Since the disbanding of Ground Zero, Otomo's sound has changed greatly. The difference can be heard especially well in his current major projects: I.S.O., his trio with Yoshimitsu Ichiraku (drums, electronics) and Sachiko M (sampler); and Filament, his duo with Sachiko M. The sound, which tends to embrace simplicity, minimalism, and texture much more than dynamism and instrumental performance, contrasts sharply with the extreme chopping and plunderphonics ("plagiaristic" sampling) which used to characterize Otomo's style. In another departure, in July '99 he started a new jazz project based on his own concepts--a jazz quartet with Naruyoshi Kikuchi (saxes), Kenta Tsugami (saxes), Hiroaki Mizutani (bass) and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki (drums). (Half of the compositions played are those of jazz giants such as Charles Mingus, and the rest are Otomo's). He plans to keep the quartet together at least until the band has made a CD and appeared at the Music Unlimited festival in Wels, Austria, in November 1999.
In addition, Otomo has been very active as a co-founder and a side member of other groups and projects, the major ones being drummer Tony Buck's Peril ('92-'95); Hoppy Kamiyama's Optical*8 (March '93-late '94); violinist Jon Rose's Shopping project ('93-); vocalist Tenko's Dragon Blue ('92-); drummer Chris Cutler's P53 ('94-); vocalist Phew's Novo Tono ('94-); Les sculpteurs de vinyl with Sachiko M and French DJs ('96-); and his duo with Tenko, MicroCosmos ('98-).
Otomo has demonstrated an exceptional talent as a composer of movie/TV/video sound tracks. He has in particular enjoyed an excellent relationship with creators in the Chinese and Hong Kong film worlds (See Major Movie/TV/Video Sound Tracks). He also served as music director of the theater group Rinkogun from '92 to '95, creating the music for such works as Bird Man, Inu no Seikatsu, Hamlet Symbol, and Picnic Conductor.
Finally, mention should be made of Otomo's vital and wide-ranging writing activity. Since the eighties he has presented his ideas on music--from distribution problems in the music industry to sociocultural considerations of such topics as sampling and free improvisation--in his articles and essays for various magazines and books in Japan.
Yet despite these radically divergent backgrounds, when taken as a homogeneous group, The No-Input School is characterized by an almost inseparable marriage of technique and aesthetic. Indeed, regarding their activities as exponents of this style, Sachiko M ("no input sampler" test tones played on a sampler with no samples), Toshimaru Nakamura ("no-input mixer"), and Otomo Yoshihide ("no input turntablist" turntables without records and electronics) seem to share a common denominator: That certain nothing which they intentionally put into their music. Or to rephrase: That certain something which they intentionally withhold from their music.
Two of the major figures in the Onkyo experimental scene from Japan, Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M play stripped down electronic devices that work in registers of sound both extreme and elemental, ranging from barely audible dog whistle tones to quaking sonic violence. M has long experimented with sine-wave improvisation – here she uses a sampler to capture these pure tones in midair, manipulating the frequencies in ways that can lacerate your skull or seem to surround you as firmly as walls. Nakamura uses a no-input mixing board: he runs a patch cord from the input jack to the output, tweaking the knobs to generate pops and ripping sounds and grinding static, and then sending these signals through various loops and processors.
A mixing board with functionless inputs; a sampler emptied of all but its test sine sounds. In less able hands, these elements wouldn't add up to much. Nor should they. But Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M, working in various solo, duo, and group settings, have developed the responsiveness and instincts required to transform such self-imposed instrumental limitations into powerful musical means.
...vs Fred Frith
It is interesting to note that all of this may not be without precedent. In terms of functionality, the performance practice of the No-Input School might be seen as a kind of electronic equivalent to the 'prepared table-top guitar' explorations of Fred Frith or Keith Rowe.
"I think with these musicians, focuses are on hearing the sound, not physically playing musical instruments. Sometimes the instrument is an obstruction. They just want to listen more to the sound."
-- Sachiko M
In the case of Frith or Rowe, the guitar is regarded as nothing more that what it really is - a resonating body to be 'sounded out' by the performer-turned-prober brandishing an array of thingamajigs. This as opposed to being relegated to the traditional role of mediator between the manual dexterity of the virtuoso and some external composition which must be manifested through the exertions of the performer.
"Rowe is a master of an invented instrument made out of electric guitar, amplifier, speakers, various accessories (mostly quite ordinary), radios and himself . . . The playing interweaves and overlays human and electric forces in such a way that they become extensions of one another. As solo performance it involves a remarkable virtuosity, in the ingenuity inventing the system and its components, the ways in which they are deployed, the sustained energy and presence of the sound produced."
"I think the charm of improvised music is often lost in the recording process, which may result in it being more difficult for the non-initiated to `get into it' or understand what's going on. Frith's live shows invariably place a high emphasis on humor, and the humor is often visually rooted. It's not just the strange sounds that Frith coaxes from his guitar that are interesting. It's also typically quite engaging to watch him assault his guitar with handkerchiefs, toys, kitchen utensils and such. He makes a habit of shopping local hardware stores for tools before his live performances. There's a sincerity and seriousness to his playfulness that shines though, and I suspect that those elements are rarely transmitted well via recordings on lp or CD. One should see Fred Frith live to really capture the full experience of his improvising."
-- Malcolm Humes
However, since in the case of the No-Input School there is observable a marked absence of "gestural theater" or "trinket fetishism" of the prepared table-top guitarist, such comparisons as the ones above can only be taken so far. Yet it is interesting to note that the No-Input School is not without its vices or pre occupations. Indeed, a penchant for all things minimal seems to pervade their album covers, the venues at which they perform, their fashion sense, and so on. Of course, when making such an austere music as this, it is perhaps only natural for even a person’s very lifestyle to transform gradually into a carefully arranged constellation of all things demure. Each tribesman proudly bears the mark of his own tribe.
The boy and the koan
Of course the real coup de maitre can be seen in the particular way that the No-Input School has solved for this Koan, this Chinese puzzle: Have you heard the one about the sound of one hand clapping? Of course not, no one has! The optimal "answer" is simply for the mind to realize the paradoxical nature of the question, and in an instant be catapulted to a state of enlightenment (or 'satori' in the Japanese). Of course, there is another completely different way to venture an answer. However, to more fully address this, a demon from an even higher pale than Starbucks must be invoked: Bart Simpson.
Lisa and Bart sit atop a mountain.
Lisa: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Bart: Piece of cake. [by rapidly opening and closing his fingers and smaking them against his palm, he produces clapping sounds with one hand]
Lisa: No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. It's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought.
Bart: No answer? Lisa, listen up! [again, 'claps' with one hand]
Only one of the slightly more esoteric moves of psychological judo is required to turn the energy of this conversation into a striking parallel between Bart’s (typically pragmatic) reply and the employment of 'no-input' techniques by sound-artists such as Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide. When faced with a seemingly "closed" system (be it a sampler, a mixer, a turntable, or even a Zen Koan) that is commonly regarding as having no real value outside of the information that it returns after receiving input from the 'real' world, both Bart Simpson and the No-Input School have hit upon a the perfect foil, and their ingenuity cleaves this Gordian (Casconian?) knot in one swift stroke. There is no paradox. There is no crisis. Everything that they will every need is right there within their grasp. This is not a critique of digital culture, it is a celebration.
Before closing, mention will be made of the extremely visceral nature of the sound of the No-Input School, and how it compares and contrasts to the idea of 'post-digital' computer music. Given below are a few descriptions of various recordings and concerts by members of the No-Input School.
"The key [is] . . . silence . . . a few short blips and bleeps, a crackle here, a short cluster of sound there, followed in silence. Another cluster, this time louder, more concrete, followed once again in silence. This exchange continues unevenly for a period which seems longer than it actually is, the listener never knowing when the next little burst will come through the vid of silence."
"I don't know of any music being created anywhere that exerts such a profound physiological effect. If I try to write while I listen my hands freeze on the keyboard. If I'm concentrating or listening, my head falls into a sort of Rodin posture as if grabbed by the ears and eased downwards. I find myself staring at a spot on the floor, contemplating nothing very much. A bit like meditation then, if I could ever manage that, except that this state of reverie tends to be punctured quite quickly by our cat switching to red alert and the family rushing around the house trying to locate an apparently terminal system malfunction."
While it must be granted that these descriptions may bear a striking resemblance to descriptions of post-digital computer music, this writer does not consider the sound of (the Japanese incarnation of) the No-Input School to be directly related to this movement on anything deeper than a cosmetic level, and certainly not in terms of its aesthetic or philosophical underpinnings. This is because, simply stated, although a certain amount of interpenetration is evident, at the foundation of post-digital computer music, the age-old concept of "materials" may be seen as dominant. In realm of the post-digital, the idea of a somewhat cynical critique of the "failure" of the digital medium through a kind of obsession with the magnification of atomies of errors via compositional hyperbole is paramount.
While technological failure is often controlled and suppressed-its effects buried beneath the threshold of perception- most audio tools can zoom in on the errors, allowing composers to make them the focus of their work. Indeed, "failure" has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.
This as opposed to the No-Input School could be viewed as stemming from the idea transcendence of the medium by glorifying its properties as "a vessel made empty" (whatever the vessel may be) and of the a self made similarly void (wherever, or in whatever state it may be).
"Japan's No Input School is still for many Europeans an unfamiliar and new phenomenon in both its technological concept and its sound. The no input school, also known as the onkyo school, emerged in the late 90's. It could be offhandedly called minimal noise, but somewhat untypical for noise music it also deals with such traditionally Japanese issues as the minimization of the musicians' self-consciousness and the 'I'"
Thus in stark contrast to post-digital music, it may be said that at the root of the No-Input School, the concept of "spiritualis" appears to hold sway.
The No-Input School (as part of the larger experimental music scene in Japan) has, after a period of initial flux, reached a point of temporary crystallization in terms of style and technique. This particular moment in time finds three key composer/improvisers (Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide) united and actively working together under one aesthetic. Through their individual and collective efforts, they have already initiated the process of redefining their genre and revitalizing outmoded ideas about what new music is in Japan. Internationally, those who keep abreast of events there will no doubt be affected in kind. The only question is how soon, and to what degree. The nature of the final trajectory of The No-Input School is a point of great speculation, but as they ascend to reach their zenith the world will doubtlessly be there to applaud with one hand tied behind its back.