Like John Cage's inclination to define a territory and use all of the
sounds within that territory as the sound material for a composition,
sound artist Atau Tanaka has selected such soundscapes as cyberspace
and the human body for his work. And like Cage's sonic structures that
convey a sense of adventure, Tanaka invites the Internet and muscle
movements into his compositions to add spontaneity within form.
Tanaka studied electronic music at Harvard, "in the era of analog,"
when he had the good fortune of attending lectures by John Cage, who
according to Tanaka was one of the first musicians to have a strong
conceptual approach. For instance, "He made contact with the visual art
world," says Tanaka, whose musical style is likewise interdisciplinary.
Which is why he recently participated in Rotterdam's fifth bi-annual
Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF00). Tanaka spoke about music in
time and space at an interdisciplinary symposium and launched his
Global String installation, in cooperation with the Ars Electronica
Center in Linz, Austria. For the later, Tanaka designed a virtual
string that stretched from Rotterdam to Linz. Within the physical
spaces of each city was an elongated steel wire and big screen
videoconferencing system. In between: conceptual space (aka
cyberspace), whose Internet traffic caused the string end-points to
Tanaka is an Artist Ambassador to Apple Computer France for new
technology and speaks about the current "PowerBook music movement,"
which allows sound artists using computer systems to become
increasingly mobile. Tanaka, for instance, spends six months out of
every year away from his Tokyo home, and says, "I can now take my
electronic instruments into different contexts, as a saxophonist can
take the saxophone to a jazz club or big concert hall or the street.
Digital technology has allowed me the same sort of flexibility."
Tanaka visits Toronto November 24 to perform his Corporeal at the Glenn
Gould Studio, which is part of the Digitized Bodies - Virtual
Spectacles project (http://www.digibodies.org) curated by Nina
Czegledy, presented by InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Center, and
supported by the Japan Foundation (in Canada and Tokyo) and The Daniel
Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology (Montreal).
"Digitized Bodies has to do with bodies in this digital era," starts
Tanaka, "and that's another concept I've been working with in the field
of music." In his Toronto performance, his own gestures will cue sound
and image processing with a neural musical instrument controller called
Tanaka has been performing with the Biomuse since 1992, during his
graduate work in computer music at Stanford's CCRMA (Center for
Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). An invention of medical
researchers, the Biomuse was designed to pick up EMG and EEG signals
from "sticky electrodes on the skin" and turn them into MIDI signals -
"signals to control digital synthesizers," explains Tanaka, who later
went on to study at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination
Acoustique Musique) in Paris.
Tanaka based himself out of France for five years before leaving for
STEIM in Amsterdam, where he endeavored to build interactive and
gestural instruments. It was here also that the Sensorband group was
born - Tanaka (on Biomuse), with Edwin van der Heide (on infrared
sensors) and Zbigniew Karkowski (on MIDI conductors).
Sensor instruments became a family of instruments for Tanaka and his
band mates, like string instruments or brass instruments. "Each of them
was different but united," says Tanaka, "in the way they took corporeal
gestures and turned them into musical signals."
Tanaka is admittedly tired after a Biomuse performance. It is physical
in a "corporeal" sense, in the absence of physical objects. "The way to
get an interesting articulation or expressivity out of the instrument
is in a very, very physical way, which becomes internalized."
Those in attendance will see Tanaka clenching his fists or shaping
things with his hands, as if molding clay, "but there is no clay. I'm
not holding on to anything. The muscle gestures are evocative of that
action and give me interesting muscle tension trajectories to work
Tanaka's style is not to purposely recreate everyday actions. He's more
interested in the intuitive process that emerges during a performance.
"It's a process of discovery," he says, about the responses from and
interplay between the Biomuse and his body.
Tanaka will also be using a system that derives image synthesis in real
time, dealing partly with the investigation of the relationship between
sound and image, whereby a similar gesture controls the sound and also
the image processing. Tanaka uses an external synthesizer for the sound
and a second computer to run an early version of Videodelic (a
real-time video art synthesizer designed by a friend of Tanaka's, from
Paris) that will generate abstract colors in motion.
"The possibilities - as we often say with technology - are limitless,"
admits Tanaka. "But in the end I prefer not to do everything. I try to
find a kind of language for the instrument. I'm interested in the upper
body movements of a musician - to explore what the gestures mean in a
pure musical way, in the absence of the instrument."
© Jennifer Leonard, 25 November 2000