Digital composer Yasunao Tone's paramedia assault on old paradigms has led him from Tokyo to New York, via Japanese Fluxus pranks, work with Merce Cunningham and Yoko Ono, and destabilising CDs with Scotch tape. This article originally appeared in The Wire 223 (September 2002).
"My task is to wake people up from the 19th century," declares Yasunao Tone. "Walter Benjamin said that people are still dreaming in the 19th century, he wanted to wake people up from it. Concert halls are just that, a 19th century dream place."
As a composer, writer and artist, Tone has made avant garde performances since the late 50s in spaces ranging from Tokyo art galleries to New York's Shea Stadium. His obscurity might be explained by the fact that he somehow managed to avoid recording his music until the early 90s. To some, he is a key figure from the Japanese wing of the Fluxus art movement and Japan's 60s radical art scene; others may have seen him playing at multimedia festivals such as Lovebytes and Sonar, or heard his legendary Tzadik release, Solo For Wounded CD (1997), composed entirely of malfunctioning CD skipping, or caught one of his rare performances with Christian Marclay and Jim O'Rourke. Tone admits that his work is "hard to categorise - it's off-category". The diversity of noises that emanate from his digital-era electronic works rivals that of his own activities over the last four decades. This year, his achievements have been recognised by the Austrian Prix Ars Electronica, who awarded him this year's prize for digital music.
After studying literature at Chiba University, Tone began to
frequent Tokyo's contemporary music concerts, where he kept running
into former classmate Shuko Mizuno, who in turn introduced him to a
fellow musicology student, Takehisa Kosugi. Kosugi and Mizuno had
been improvising together on violin and cello respectively, and
Tone soon joined them on saxophone. While he maintains he had no
formal training, Tone did practise the sax, which he chose because
it "was easier than the violin". Other students followed, and they
became the first free improvised music group in Japan (if not the
world; this is 1958). "We thought then, our improvisational
performance could be a form of automatic writing, in a sense that
the drip painting of Jackson Pollock was a form of automatic
writing," he says. When a name was required for a dance
performance, Tone came up with Ongaku, Japanese for 'Music'. An
archival CD, Music Of Group Ongaku, released on Sound Art Library
several years ago, provides an invaluable glimpse at the random
noise generating that most listeners would associate with mid-60s
Europe. "The question I posited then," he says, "was could
Duchamp's Paris Air or urinal be translated into musical
performance? That led us to use everyday objects as instruments."
Tone's study of Dada and Surrealism provided the conceptual
framework, it was only later that he listened to Ornette Coleman or
Eric Dolphy. Tone also points to different ethnic musics,
particularly Indian and the music used in Noh and Kabuki theatre,
as an influence. In 1961 and 62, Tone and Kosugi also participated
in Tokyo concerts by Yoko Ono (mostly pieces later published in her
book Grapefruit) and Toshi Ichiyanagi (including a piece in which
IBM computer punchcards were distributed to performers as a graphic
1962 also marked Tone's first solo concert, billed as One Man Show by a Composer, whose 15 pieces lasted six or seven hours. One of the pieces premiered at the concert was Anagram For Strings, another graphic score composed of all glissandi (much later recorded by Kosugi and Malcolm Goldstein for a Fluxus issue of the cassette magazine Tellus). Through a connection with Ichiyanagi, Fluxus founder George Maciunas had asked the group for tapes and scores. Tone submitted Anagram; Maciunas published it, and had it performed at a Fluxus festival in Copenhagen in late 1962. Maciunas asked Tone for more scores, which Ono offered to translate and send off to NY via a GI friend, but they never arrived. In 1965 Tone organized a Fluxus week in Tokyo, and since moving to New York he continues to be invited to Fluxus events and retrospectives, collaborating frequently with Alison Knowles, although he concedes that Fluxus was only properly "historically meaningful" from 1962-66. "Works are on exhibit in museums," he comments, "in such a way that works originally meant to be played as a game or toys [are placed] in glass showcases only to be looked at, and the audience can't play with them. How can it be possible to make Fluxus still alive?"
By the mid-60s Tone was at a peak of activity, using a broad approach he refers to as "paramedia". In addition to composing for films and dance - even collaborating with the psychedelic group The Mops on a score for a ballet based on Mishima's Patriotism - Tone became increasingly involved with the Tokyo art scene, participating in performance group Hi Red Centre's Cleaning Piece during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (they posed as street cleaners in the Ginza district, stopping traffic for three hours and even receiving cooperation from the police), Closing Event (which locked out a gallery space for a week and then opened the last day for an opening for the closing) and the Yamate Loop Train Event (a happening on a commuter train). Group Ongaku only performed publicly a few times and was largely inactive after 1962; Kosugi left for New York in 1964. When he returned in the late 60s, he asked Tone to join his new ensemble, Taj Mahal Travellers, but Tone declined ("wasn't my style"). By this time he was writing for art magazines, organising a computer art group, Team Random, which created the first computer art festival in Japan, Biogode Process, and running a workshop for art students out of his home. He took on a year long project in the summer of 1971, editing a complete retrospective of 60s avant garde art in Japan that was spread over 12 monthly issues of the magazine Bijustu Techo. The task culminated in two 400-page issues devoted to 50 years of avant garde art in Japan from 1916 to 1968. This actually led to Tone's departure from his homeland. "I summarised everything [in the articles] and I summarised myself," he says. "What could I do after this? I felt a sort of emptiness, that I was finished... New York was the natural place to go." He first detoured to San Francisco to visit a friend "in the last year of the hippy movement, I stayed in a commune... I was attracted to hippy culture." Leaving Japan in June 1972, he finally arrived in New York in December, where he's lived ever since.
Two years later he began a long association with Merce Cunningham's Dance Company. First he created a video piece, "Clockwork Video", in which three turntables were set to run at different speeds (one revolution per minute, hour and twelve hours) while video cameras were mounted on them showing the dance studio and the outside landscape; this was later modified to show three parts of a naked woman's body. Tone also asked Jeff Lohn, who later formed Theoretical Girls with Glenn Branca, to read texts for one Cunningham performance. Another long-lived piece composed for Cunningham was Geography And Music which accompanied the dance Roadrunners from 1979 to 1987. A text translated from Chinese is read alternately by word, syllable or phrase through two microphones that gate a piano and viola ("the player can't predict which sound comes out"). John Cage and David Tudor were two of its distinguished performers. Kosugi became music director of the Cunningham company after David Behrman left in 1977; apparently Kosugi was uncomfortable with using such a close friend, so Tone did not compose for the company again until the mid-90s.
Tone went on to form unusual collaborations in New York,
performing in John Zorn's "Jai Alai" ("George Lewis and I were the
special guests; we ignored John's instructions!") at the legendary
Club 57 on St Mark's Place (run by Ann Magnuson); in Butch Morris's
"Current Trends In Racism In Modern America" (Morris's first
improvisational orchestral piece); with new music flautist Barbara
Held (who commissioned him to write two pieces which would turn up
on her Upper Air Observation CD); with Roscoe Mitchell at the
Vision Festival in 2000; and more recently with Christian Marclay,
Stephen Vitiello and Russell Haswell, and a one-off group with
Elliott Sharp, Jim O'Rourke and Zbigniew Karkowski. "I have more
venues and a broader audience now," he says. "In the 90s there was
a secession of art from Western classical music, which became part
of institutions such as conservatories, opera houses, orchestras...
it is not art music, but nothing different from mainstream music.
Or from folk music - they both stopped developing and
deconstructing themselves. So there's a vacuum. In this vacuum,
club music has evolved as electronic/experimental music. Young
musicians emerged in this vacuum with the democratisation of
technical means for recording/generating sound by development of
technology, which brings about awareness of new art form, sound
Now it's become common for experimental music to be found in museums and galleries, but Tone had already done a sound installation in an annual group art show, Yomiuri Independent Salon, back in 1962. "I used a tape recorder with mechanical loop device," he recalls. "So the recorded sound was always running without any interruption. Then I wrapped it in a large sheet of white cloth which was crumpled, so it looked like just a white cloth making sound. An art critic wrote of it, 'Finally, a museum sounds'." Unsurprisingly, Tone finds a kinship with the younger artists who have, however unwittingly, followed his path. "My direction hasn't changed since the 60s, I just coincide with this phenomenon. I have always been outside the Western classical tradition, which they are, too."
Tone's own work in digital audio began in the mid-80s when he began experimenting with CD players. He chanced upon a book, Science Seminar For The Familiar, with a chapter on digital recording, which alerted him to the error correcting program in CD players which kicks in if a one is misread as a zero in the machine's binary codes. Since the error produced "a totally different sound, unknown sound", he looked for a way to override the error-correcting system; a friend suggested using Scotch tape with many pinholes in it on the CD itself, which worked. Although it sounds like CD skipping, that's not really what it is. By blocking some information bits on the CD with the tape, "The numbers are altered so it becomes totally different information," he explains. "The Scotch tape enables me to make burst errors without significantly affecting the system and stopping the machine. The error-correcting software constantly interpolates between individual bits of misread information, but if adjacent bits are misread, a burst occurs and the software mutes the output. If a significant number of bursts occur in one frame the error increases until it eventually overrides the system."
The tape also changes pitch and timbre, plus the speed and direction of the disc. The results are uncontrollable, unrepeatable and unpredictable. The sheer number of brief, corrosive phrases can be mind-boggling. Tone uses primitive CD machines because they malfunction more effectively than newer ones. He first used "prepared CDs" in Kay Nishikawa's dance suite Techno-Eden in 1985. "For a live performance I made a memo that briefly described characteristics of conspicuous sounds, indicating track number and time counter as a broad guide map which served as a score," he relates. "During the performance the memo was almost unusable, so I had to rely on sheer chance. Playing prepared CDs according to the score was like advancing in a maze where ambush was everywhere, and that made the performance situation all the more interesting." This was followed by his own performance of Music For Two CD Players at Experimental Intermedia a few months later. Tone remembers John Cage laughing out loud throughout this performance, then rushing up to him to shake his hand. In both cases, the CDs Tone used collaged "famous music, so you recognised parts of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky tunes but very much distorted".
The digital era also brought Tone into recording for the first
time. Previously, he says, "I was not satisfied with recording
because it presupposes to repeat the same sound over and over."
Indeed, pieces like Molecular Music (1982-85), in which oscillators
were controlled by films and light sensors on a screen, had been
constructed in a way that they would never sound the same way
twice. He had long considered his pieces unrecordable. "In a
performance the audience in the front rows can hear the contrast
between amplified and unamplified sound," he claims. "In a
recording that disappears. It's also more spatial, and you can't
reproduce that in a record - maybe if you sit in the centre
[between the speakers] in one position. [In the 80s] a producer for
Nonesuch offered to have my pieces recorded, and I told him that's
very good, but if I think about it, for my pieces, there would be
too much lost. I turned him down."
However, Thomas Buckner of Lovely Music offered to release a CD in 1992, and Tone found a way to use the medium to his satisfaction. He took ancient Chinese poetic texts and converted each Chinese character (in their original form, which are closer to images than the modern form) into photographic images. He put the images into the computer and digitised them, transforming them simply into zeroes and ones. Then he obtained histograms from the binary codes and had the computer read the histograms as sound waves. "The result was noise in all senses," he says. "When you play the CD, what you receive is not images as message, but sound which is simply an excess. According to information theory this is none other than noise; and as the French word for noise, parasite, indicates, it is parasitic on the host - that is, message. But in this case there is no host, only parasite on the CD. Therefore this CD is pure noise. Technically speaking, the sound of the CD is digital noise, also."
The result was Musica Iconologos, an exercise in a variant on
sound poetry taken to a logical technological extreme - text
translated entirely into a long series of short phrases of
splintering electronic noise, each unique. "It was never recorded -
the sound was in the computer and transferred to CD," he says.
"There was no conflict between the spatial element and the record.
My whole principle is, I don't want to represent myself in sound. I
converted text into images and images into sound, so that's
perfect. And it turned out nobody had ever done that before. I was
very pleased." Tone's Solo For Wounded CD was simply Musica
Iconologos prepared with Scotch tape: "I alter my own CD, this time
totally distorted so nobody could recognise the original." Coming
at the height of the remix fad, this berserk, stuttering
reconfiguration was rightly hailed as a milestone.
Tone has taken these ideas even further in a CD-ROM project he's been assembling since 1996. He's doing another sonic translation of an ancient poetic text, this time the mammoth Man'yoshu, 4,516 poems dating from 9th century Japan, and considered an early masterpiece of the country's literature. Again the characters are transformed into pictures and then sound waves, but in this case the poems (which were still primarily transmitted orally) were set down in an odd system that combines 2,400 Chinese characters with 89 Japanese syllables, with some characters chosen based on Japanese phonetic value and others based on puns or wordplay. The irregularity of the transcription is tailor-made for Tone's penchant for unpredictability. He shows me the program on his computer: he has logged 20 books of the poems, having made a "sound dictionary" of the characters and syllables and realising the poems through combination and permutation. On top of that, he transfers them to CD-R and prepares, or "wounds", the CD. One example has just been released on the Spanish compilation, Un Tributo A James T Russell.
An earlier piece, Trio For A Flute Player (1990), commissioned and recorded by flautist Barbara Held also used poems from the Man'yoshu. Here the poems are read through the flute's mouthpiece; in the score, the calligraphy of the poem is overlaid on the staff but corresponds to the flautist's fingerings rather than notes. The fingerings trigger an oscillator. The results sound quaint compared to the rapid-fire digital miniaturism Tone is specialising in now (no wonder he has a CD coming out on Mego in the unspecified future). Once accused by George Maciunas of being "too Cageian", Tone has effectively pushed the idea of indeterminacy into the 21st century. Where eliminating the spoken text might have once seemed cold, in wounding the CD he actually humanises the process. "Machines are designed not to make mistakes," he concludes. "In our behaviour we often make mistakes, so why not machines also? I added that reality to it. So, it's not destruction but an addition."