About Atau Tanaka

An article by Jennifer Leonard, on the "Global String" project, and the artist Atau Tanaka.

About Atau Tanaka

still from "Global String" performance

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 resonate.

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 Biomuse.

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 with."

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

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