Improvised Music from Japan / Otomo Yoshihide

Manifesto for "ENSEMBLES 09--Rest-ful Musical Devices"

There's music that directly shakes the eardrums. There are listening devices that leave almost no air, much less space, between speakers and eardrums. I'm referring to the small music players and earphones that everyone uses these days. In our daily lives, we're surrounded by this kind of music and musical equipment. This music does away with the space that naturally surrounds us; it goes directly, comfortably, into our ears. But it isn't the kind of thing I wanted to create when I started making music. This fundamental issue led to the idea that was the nucleus of ENSEMBLES, a large-scale exhibition held in 2008 at YCAM in Yamaguchi.

The life-changing fascination with music that came over me in my teens was rooted in the discovery that new and unfamiliar sounds could cause a reaction among a large number of people gathered in one place. All of the music I loved--free jazz, free improvisation, noise, alternative--had this kind of effect. The fascination was not only with the music itself, but also with the feeling of total unity that came from the aura and power of the space and the gravitational pull existing among the people who were there. I wanted to get away from the kind of music that leaves no distance between sound source and eardrums; I wanted to bring back space and noise. I wondered what would happen if I tried to make music not just for individual listening, but music that emerged as it passed through the ears, hands and bodies of many people. This is how ENSEMBLES got started.

It might sound impressive if I wrote something like, "In 2009, ENSEMBLES will take this idea out into the streets." But the fact is that to go out into the streets nowadays is to dive into rough economic waters. We musicians can't live on dreams alone--it isn't that easy. All the same, we will go out, into real-life spaces, running up against a variety of noises, getting a lot of people involved--including, maybe, you. We'll go out and, with the help of many people, create musical "devices" that defy labels--neither exhibitions nor live performances, but a little bit of both. They'll take various forms--actual devices, unseen mechanisms that produce music, project plans and so on--and be open to various interpretations.

They can be held anywhere--in a building vacated as a result of the recession, in an abandoned school, in a live music club or cafe run by friends, in a little back-street gallery. ENSEMBLES aims to create a variety of musical devices in all sorts of places. As a manifesto it would normally sound better to say, "We are creating this." But the subject here, ENSEMBLES, doesn't mean "us" or "everyone," and it certainly isn't my intention to use the word in a symbolic way. What's important here is individuals. A new ensemble created from an aggregate of individuals--artists, musicians, technical experts, planners, management staff--will be the driving force behind the works. The reason I made the title ENSEMBLES (plural) rather than ENSEMBLE is that I had an image of this sort of aggregate and of a number of works with various implications intertwining and developing in a multilayered fashion--not as a single event, but plurally and integrally--sometimes happening simultaneously, sometimes unfolding at a relaxed pace, sometimes leading to inconsistency and contradiction.

This time, the other key word I'm introducing is "rest." (In the Japanese title I use the word for a musical rest.) I mean rest as in an adult's way of dealing with the stresses of the real world, or the feelings of a child who holds his breath during a game of hide-and-seek, or a useless weapon that can't kill anyone. I mean rest that creates a place that anyone can enter, anyone can escape to; rest that makes possible a wealth of sounds or rest that can turn noisy reality into silence; and most of all, rest that gives us space to say, "Stop a minute!" It's my hope that, along with ENSEMBLES, the myriad meanings of the "rest" that dwells in music will go far beyond the current boundaries of music heard only through two-channel headphones, and resound in real-life, noise-filled space.

And so I recklessly announce the start of round 2 of ENSEMBLES. The title is "ENSEMBLES 09--Rest-ful Musical Devices."

For now, the idea is that between July and October, in a variety of venues, we'll present a wide range of new and previously existing works, performances, etc.--from very small to medium-sized events and from nearly individual creations to works involving many people--that unfold semi-improvisationally at times, guerrilla-style at others. The plan itself is not fixed; my intention is to develop something that will adapt flexibly to each situation, something that could not be realized in an established art museum or concert hall. What's more, based on the results this time, I'm hoping to continue ENSEMBLES next year, the year after that, and into the future. It will be a challenge, but I'm sure it will be interesting.

So I hope you're all looking forward to seeing what happens. I'm probably looking forward to it more than anyone.

Otomo Yoshihide
April 18, 2009 (revised April 20)

Translated by Cathy Fishman

Last updated: July 4, 2009