Electroacoustic Music in Japan: The Persistence of the DIY Model

Japanese composers have been writing electroacoustic music since the early1950s. Musique concrète, called “gutai ongaku” in Japan, and the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) of Germany were the two major institutional models for early Japanese electroacoustic music. But the development of electroacoustic music in Japan has followed a very different trajectory from the government-sponsored German and French models, and the US academic research labs. A third model, a more uniquely Japanese one, is based on an ethos of experimentalism, but one which is tied closely to commercial industries, distinguishing it from the anti-establishment and the l’art pour l’art spirit of the American experimental school.

The first electronic music research lab was founded in 1955 at NHK Radio (Nippon Hoso Kyoku) in Tokyo, following the example of Germany’s WDR studio (founded 1952–1953) by only a few years. Even earlier though, composers such as Minao Shibata and Toru Takemitsu, were already discussing the possibilities of using electronic music in the late 1940s (Koichi Fujii 2004, 64), and in 1952–1953 had Yasuashi Akutagawa, Saburo Tominaga, and Shiro Fukai were among those who composed radiophonic works—music that uses tape and radio technologies found in radio stations (Fujii 2004, 64).

Early pioneers encountered new sounds during their travels to Europe. In 1955, Makoto Moroi traveled to Europe for the performance of his acoustic work Piano no Alpha and Beta at the Baden-Baden ISCM festival. During this trip, he also met Stockhausen at the WDR studio, and in Paris, met with Pierre Boulez. Toshiro Mayuzmi, studied at the Conservatoire in France, and later attended the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt in the summer of 1956, where he encountered Gesang der Jünglinge by Stockhausen.

Despite these early developments, however, recordings of musique concrète were not available in Japan until the late 1950s. This makes the radiophonic pieces, which seem to be no longer available for listening, quite enigmatic.

Still, the practice of electronic music has never had the kind of government sponsorship that Europe has enjoyed, and academia has been even less of a home. Arguably, since the very beginning of the history of electroacoustic music in Japan, the parties outside official institutions have been making the biggest waves. This is true of the earliest creators of tape pieces, as well as the more recent electronic music improvisers.

While the more official first electronic work may have been Mayuzumi’s Les oeuvres pour musique concréte x, y, z (1953), the composer himself pointed out the earlier experiments of Shibata and Takemitsu, associated with the arts collective, Jikken Kobo. Jikken Kobo consisted of a group of artists, poets, and musicians working on mixed media projects.* The members of the Jikken Kobo were largely self-taught, and operated outside of academic circles (Fujii 2004, 66). The lack of resources available at universities and conservatories forced these artists to be creative using alternative means, leading to projects such as the radiophonic works. A few years later, Takemitsu found a part-time job at Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (now Sony), where the prototype for a Japanese-made tape recorder had recently been created. Sony and the Jikken Kobo entered a collaborative arrangement, where members of the collective created demo tapes to promote the product, while the company aided the Jikken Kobo by providing space to present their creative works. Two months before the premiere of Mayuzimi’s Les oeuvres pour musique concréte x, y, z, the Jikken Kobo had already presented a full concert of multi-media works at the Experimental Workshop, 5th Exhibition, which utilized the latest technological innovations developed by Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Fujii 2004 66–67). Yet, much of the tape pieces created by the members of the Jikken Kobo during this period was used for commercial purposes including film, radio, and theater, and not considered a part of their official oeuvres.

In the next entry, I will discuss the developments of the onkyo and noise music movements that follow in the DIY trajectory.

Stay Tuned!

*For example, the Jikken Kobo is completely absent from Loubet’s history of electronic music in Japan, which focuses almost exclusively on the NHK studio. Of course, the title acknowledges the limitation of his scope, but the exclusion of such a major part of the history is interesting. For a history of the NHK studio, his article, The beginnings of electronic music in Japan, with a focus on the NHK Studio: the 1950s and 1960s (Loubet 1997) is very useful.

Resources:

Fujii, Koichi, 2004. Chronology of early electroacoustic music in Japan: What types of
source materials are available? Organised Sound 9: 63–77

Loubet, E. 1997. The beginnings of electronic music in Japan, with a focus on the NHK
Studio: the 1950s and 1960s. Computer Music Journal 21(4): 11–22.

––––––. The beginnings of electronic music in Japan, with a focus on the NHK
Studio: the 1970s.Computer Music Journal 22(1): 49–55.

Here are some links and resources on new music and new media arts in Japan. It’s a very partial list, so suggestions for additions are very welcome:

Organizations:

Japan Federation of Composers Inc.

Asian Composers League

Japan Society for Contemporary Music

Web Resources:

Music from Japan

Improvised Music from Japan

New Media Institutions:

NTT Intercommunications Center

Japan Media Arts Plaza

Labels and Online CD Sales:

Improvised Music from Japan

Mimaroglu

Tzadik

Books:

Asian composers in the 20th century. 2002. Edited by The Japan Federation of
Composers. Tokyo: Japan Federation of Composers.

Tanaka, Yuji. 2001. Denshiongaku in JAPAN. Tokyo: Asupekuto.