In the 1940s and 50s, experimental composers like Halim El-Dabh, Pierre Schaeffer, and Pierre Henry began making experimental compositions that Schaeffer would call musique concrete. They used tape recorders, phonographs, microphones and other analog electro-acoustic devices to create music, as Henry put it, from “non-musical sounds.” These techniques became mainstays of more familiar audio art, such as the radio and television sound designs of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. With the advent of synthesizers, electronic music overtook these sound experiments, just as other new technologies replaced the playback and recording devices used to make them.
A Japanese group called Open Reel Ensemble recalls this legacy of musique concrete, deploying reel-to-reel tape machines, cathode ray tube TVs, overhead projectors, and other analog technology to make 21st century music with “non-musical sounds.” Headed by programmer-turned-composer Ei Wada, the group embraces a very different compositional philosophy than the experimental electro-acoustic composers of the past, who worked in reaction to European classical music, opposing “concrete” sounds to abstract musical ideas. Wada, on the other hand, was first inspired by hearing a gamelan ensemble at a performance in Indonesia as a very small child.
Given a collection of 70s reel-to-reel recorders by a family friend, he attempted to re-create the polyphony of those traditional Javanese gong ensembles. He has, writes Motherboard, “been on a quest to reproduce otherworldly sounds with tech that nobody wants.” But he freely combines these outdated machines with contemporary mixers, amplifiers, light shows, beats, and tempos. Formed with friends Haruka Yoshida and Masaru Yoshida, Wada’s Open Reel Ensemble might be compared to both the avant-garde experiments of composers like John Cage and the popular experiments of hip hop turntablists, both of whom used analog technology in innovative, unconventional ways.
Some of the group’s work is a kind of experimental dance music, as you can see in the live performance further up; some is more ambient sound art, as in Wada’s solo ventilation fan performance above, with implicit commentary on Japan’s economy and the disposable nature of consumer technology. “All these tech objects are a symbol of Japan’s economic growth,” says Wada. “but they also get thrown away in great numbers. It’s good to not just say bye to things that are thrown away but to instill old things with new meaning, and celebrate their unique points.”
The detourning of technology that would otherwise end up as landfill requires some ingenuity, given the increasing rarity of such instruments. In the performance above, we see Wada play with invented devices his group calls in English the “Exhaust Fancillator” and in Japanese a kankisenthizer, a neologism formed from the word for ventilation fan. “We used laser cutters and 3D printers to design the ventilation fans,” he says. This willingness to improvise, invent, and repurpose whatever works makes for some fascinating experiments that are as much performance art as sound composition.
In the Wada performance above from 2010, he uses old tube TVs as drums, hitting the screens to trigger both sound and light effects and bringing to mind not only the sound art of the early 20th century, but also the 1980s video installations of Nam June Paik, fully immersive experiences that foreground their technological artifice even as they produce an inexplicable kind of magic.
via This is Colossal