On the way home from spending a month in Northern Japan, I had a chance to visit Tokyo’s NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC), a new media art gallery that focuses on the intersection of science and art.
While most of my works for the last two years have been concerned with new media art and the engagement of humansand technology, I still feel like a bit green when it comes to intermedia works, and perhaps a beginner’s guide is just what I need, especially as several of my upcoming works (including Interesting Decisions, premiering this September at KISS2016) tread a fine line between music and intermedia.
The Open Space had a great number of fun and thought-provoking works, but three were standouts for me.
The clocks were slightly out of sync, so their clicks, emphasized by the silent environment, had the effect of moving around the room in surround sound. Sitting there silently the eight minutes flew by, and before I knew it, there was a tap on the door letting me know my time was up.
The piece aims to dissociate the participant from the sense of self, by, in the VR world, delaying the visuals of one’s movement, transforming you into another person, and rapidly moving you through different virtual spaces.
While I’m not sure that I lost my sense of self (and I was totally game to do so), the piece was consistently engaging, and I was happy to be along for the ride.
Finally, while relatively low-tech, I was impressed with Nellow Akamatsu’s “Chijinkinkutsu,” a room filled with dozens of glasses of water with pins floating on the top. Small electromagnetic coils were placed on the sides of the glasses, and these coils intermittently drew the pins to the sides of the glass for a satisfying “ding.”
One of the things I find especially appealing about all of these works is the clarity of what the artist is trying to convey.
It serves as a reminder that, in creating music, composers often run the risk of focusing on the “architecture” of music (understandable given our educational training), and neglecting actual content.
It’s always wonderful to rediscover the potential of art for expression and communication of the ineffable.
Hoping to “veg out” a bit upon returning from holiday travel, I put on one of the new Ghost in the Shell animated films.
It’s always funny how ideas connect, but, earlier in the day, I had been chatting with my friend and colleague, composer Aaron Rosenberg, about my current composition project, Hiraizumi, and, in talking about the piece, he had referred to the electronic parts as “sci-fi moments” (fondly, of course).
I previously wrote about how I was crafting the electronics to evoke distortions in digitally-mediated memory, and, revisiting Shirou Masamune’s world of Ghost in the Shell, primed to think about sci-fi music, I realized that my wind ensemble piece falls into the cyberpunk genre.
In Ghost in the Shell, memory (and its fallibility) is a recurring theme. People with cybernetic brains are able to directly access the internet, but this connection opens people up to having their minds and memories directly changed (and possibly hacked), and interacting with others on the web breaks down the border between self and others.
If one’s self is defined by memories and experiences, inaccurate memories (or memories curated by Facebook), might reduce the sense of individuality. This loss of individuality and the dehumanizing effects of technology are common cyberpunk themes.
As the protagonist, Kusanagi, says:
There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.
Hiraizumi’s cyberpunk elements seemed even clearer, when, looking back on my choices of sound design in the electronics, I discovered moments that seemed inspired by sounds from Ghost in the Shell and Vangelis’s score to Blade Runner, another cyberpunk film that questions ideas of self and identity.
That all said, I wasn’t thinking about Ghost in the Shell when I started work on Hiraizumi, but I am a fan of Japanese cyberpunk, and these things are all rattling around in my head
Created without conscious intent, these cyberpunk themes are a byproduct of the expressive goals of the piece, and I look forward to where the music will take me as I finish my journey to the double bar.
(As an end note, I should also mention that it’s no surprise that one of my old musical heroes, Cornelius, did the soundtrack for the new Ghost in the Shell series.)
Hiraizumi’s collection of temples were a quick trip from where I lived in Japan for many years, and I wanted to write a piece drawing from my memories of the site, centering on my relationship with the location as an “outsider.”
As I write the piece, it has been evolving from a simple homage to the temples into a larger exploration of memory and how the past is mediated by the present. My nostalgia about my time in Japan (and that time in my life) flavors my memory of Hiraizumi, and, in addition, the centuries of history embodied by the site is mediated by our experience as citizens of the modern world (who, for example, might go home from the site to our digital lives).
Expressing these thoughts in prose feels a bit clumsy, so that seems good reason to unpack these ideas using the expressive possibilities of art and music.
Here’s a teaser of the electronics, a kagura-suzu brought into the post-modern world of digital distortion:
Attention band and wind-ensemble directors! There is a consortium to commission me for a new large chamber work for wind ensemble, based on the temples of Hiraizumi, near where I used to live in Northern Japan.
More details are available here. Please spread the word.
Dusting off my old copy of Okakura Kakuzo’sBook of Tea, which I haven’t read for more than a decade (before my time in Japan), I found this quote in Liza Dalby’s introduction, talking about her training in Japanese tea ceremony:
American culture has traditionally stressed the Romantic notion that form and structure are things to be thrown off to discover the pure artistic soul beneath. In contrast, the idea that deep artistic freedom can lie within rigidly structured form is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my life, and I am grateful that I found it at an early age, in tea.
A wonderful quote that I completely understand. Though, instead of tea, this statement beautifully described why it took me learning the shamisen and shakuhachi in Japan to really appreciate the music of J.S. Bach.
Taking my first afternoon off in a while, I sat down to see what had been lurking unwatched on my Netflix queue, and I came across a documentary that I added a while ago, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, a 2009 film about avant-garde musicians and sound artists in Tokyo:
For a better idea of what this film is about, I think this review from the Seattle Times is pretty apt.
While not all of the performances in the documentary are to my taste (a statement that I don’t think would concern the artists in the least), I really enjoyed the film, especially in how it set “noise music” in the context of issues of modernity in urban life. Speaking purely from my anecdotal experience, I’m always impressed at how clear and confident Japanese artists are about communicating their creative impetus, and it was great to hear some of the musicians speak directly about how they feel their work fits in modern Japanese society.
If you’re interested in any of the above, consider taking an hour and a nineteen minutes to enjoy the film (especially if you have unlimited Netflix streaming).
For me, revisiting some Japanese, electronic-musical, cultural anthropology was a worthwhile break before returning to grading some Classical, German/Austrian, tonal analysis assignments.
I’m just now getting back to updating my homepage after a busy few months editing, recording, and defending my dissertation. But, with that all successfully behind me, I’d like to share some of the recordings from our reading of Act I of “A Lawn in the Sky.”
I had a wonderful group of volunteer performers (listed below) for this reading project, all of whom put in several LONG days of rehearsals to get everything sounding as good as it does.
And, of course, many thanks again to Katherine Hollander for producing and “enviable” libretto.
In his essay on Japanese Aesthetics, Donald Richie explains a three-part formula for classifying the arts, shin-gyou-sou:
“The first term, shin, indicates things formal, slow, symmetrical, imposing. The third is sou and is applied to things informal, fast asymmetrical, relaxed, the second is gyou and it describes everything in between the extremes of the two.”
These three divisions, though, can also all be subdivided in threes, such as shin no sou (the more sou end of shin), shin no gyou (medium-shin), and shin no shin (the highest level of shin).