Japanese Musicians Turn Obsolete Machines Into Musical Instruments: Cathode Ray Tube TVs, Overhead Projectors, Reel-to-Reel Tape Machines & More

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 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to an Archive of Record­ings by Delia Der­byshire, the Elec­tron­ic Music Pio­neer & Com­pos­er of the Dr. Who Theme Song

Hear the One Night Sun Ra & John Cage Played Togeth­er in Con­cert (1986)

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Steven Hale says:

    They’re good. But no match for an actu­al game­lan orches­tra. Or Lam­onte Young. Or a cou­ple of bag­pipers. Or Tan­ger­ine Dream. Or Soft Machine Spaced. Or J. E. Main­er.

    It’s the play­er that counts, not the instru­ment.

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