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Space Is The Place: An Interview With Yui Onodera
Russell Cuzner , January 10th, 2017 10:07

Yui Onodera’s music has the power to transform your listening space using insights the Tokyo-based composer gained from studying architectural design. With new pieces featured on the latest instalment in Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series, we discuss acoustics, ambient music and audio technology

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If the trite and unhelpful analogy that compares music writing to "dancing about architecture" were to somehow be brought to life, then the sounds leading the dance would be by Yui Onodera. The alluring compositions the Tokyo-based composer has been releasing since the mid-noughties draw upon his experience as an architectural acoustic designer. Largely using field recordings, electronics and various instruments such as piano and guitar as its building materials, the audio environments he constructs transform ones listening space to induce a still, contemplative mode.

His carefully cultivated, tender palette of unrecognisable sounds recalls the 'lowercase' form of minimalism suggested by the American artist Steve Roden and released by Taylor Deupree's 12k label, that amplify and explore extremely quiet found sounds. Meanwhile, the harmonic qualities of the more traditional instrumentation bring Brian Eno's original ambient music to mind, particularly Music For Airports. However, Onodera's music can also seem anathema to Eno's concept: instead of producing music as an aural comfort blanket or serene wallpaper suitable for background applications, his pieces can evolve in complex ways and, as such, benefit from focused listening. Meanwhile, the inclusion of exterior sounds is as if Eno had chosen to deftly incorporate the airport's own everyday ambience with his evolving tones.

With a marked sensitivity to the spatial properties of sound, Onodera provokes an uncanny choreography of light and shade that an 'ambient' dressing risks concealing. This came across strongly on the seven rich audio environments presented across his last full length release, 2015's Semi-Lattice for the French label, Baskaru - the only album I'm aware of that is named after and inspired by an abstract structural model used in urban planning! But the ambient association is very much embraced on three new compositions Onodera has produced for the latest in Kompakt's highly-regarded Pop Ambient series curated by Wolfgang Voigt, including 'Locus Solus’, a collaboration with the UK electronic composer Robin Rimbaud (AKA Scanner).

In an interview conducted by email to coincide with the release we discuss how notions of ‘ambient’ and architecture inform his extraordinarily spacious music.

You studied music at the same time as studying architecture. Did this give you insights into how acoustics work?

Yui Onodera: Yes, inspiration and ideas often come from non-musical fields. Since the late noughties I have worked on designing sound from the perspective of not only a temporal axis – music – but also a spatial axis, such as contemporary dance, traditional dance, and sound installation. I naturally became interested in architectural design and engaged in architectural acoustic design and went on to work in the design of concert halls and music studios.

Basically, this work was about how the reflection and diffusion of sound in a certain space changes depending on shapes and materials. Sometimes I would have to consider sound insulation against an exterior space, electrical voltage, or the influence of cable wiring as well.

Anyway, while working there, I gained a deep understanding of the relationship between spaces and sound - how people perceive sound in a certain space, and how space influences sound… architecture is a direct embodiment of more complex, physical elements, whereas sound is a structure of abstract phenomenon.

However, I don’t think you have to have such knowledge in order to understand what I do in composing. I disagree with the idea that works are regarded as representing the composers themselves. For instance, characters in novels are not necessarily direct depictions of their writers. I think there should be some distance between the personality of composers and their works, so that the essence of the works become more obvious. When it comes to music it seems difficult, though.

How does your experience in architectural sound design affect or influence your music?

YO: I find it very enjoyable to analyse how an architect has designed certain architectures. This [kind of analysis] can apply to films and music too. Architectural design is based on philosophical concepts as well as modern art, and, basically, the workflow is not so different from composing as both combine various elements and seek to stabilise the relationships between each of them.

What is your compositional process? Do you start with some kind of plan (like a blueprint perhaps)?

YO: I always think of an entire album as one work, and start by finding interesting concepts. I sometimes get directly inspired by the process of architectural design and, once I have a vague concept, I proceed by thinking about which materials to choose and, specifically, how to construct them. There remains room for randomness/contingency to a certain extent, but I hardly ever start by hammering at materials without any preparation.

Your last solo album, Semi Lattice, was named after an abstract structure used by architect Christopher Alexander. Please tell us how his theory influenced the compositions on the album.

YO: Christopher Alexander is an architect who played an important role in the Sixties and Seventies. I was inspired by his theory that a function develops by overlapping/changing itself - a myriad of aggregate structures pile up on each other as time goes by instead of spreading into a tree-like shape from a single perspective. It seems to have similarities with the concept of ambient music that does not have a precise ending or intro and you can access it at any time you like. While each sound keeps its own unique moves, they are gathered together with others to become a single aggregation and transitioned. I have been interested in expressing such changes in sound like a flock of birds flying in the sky.

The album has various styles and techniques such as musique concrète, electro acoustic, ambient, drone and, like structures in architecture, they secure their stability through mutual pressure; the album not only has comfortable [passages] but also some with the tension of high density.

I like the idea of sound changing like “a flock of birds” – the phenomenon of starlings murmurating is a good analogy for diffusion in sound. Do you draw much of your influence from the natural world perhaps?

YO: Yes. The movement of clouds and water I find interesting and inspirational. On the other hand, I have a perspective that human beings and even what they make are a part of nature. Graphical visualisations that show diverse data of cities in real-time, such as electricity usage or internet connections, change in a very organic way from moment to moment.

Many artists working with field recordings use the sounds of nature but you often use sounds from urban environments - what makes you choose these types of non-musical sound as a starting point for your compositions?

YO: In most cases I start composing by gathering materials that have been created by experiments in field recording and playing with instruments/software. Most experiments take a lot of time and often end in vain, but those processes are very important in my work as well as fun for me. When I started field recording, I was strongly inspired by a philosophy that encouraged people to “listen actively”, which you can see in R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the soundscape, or Luc Ferrari’s album Presque Rien. I used natural sound mainly in some of my early works. However, what I really want to do is not to make a documentary [through field recording], or to evoke sentimental moods through music ‘scenery’, but to dismantle and reconstruct images that are inherent in real sounds (which can include instruments), to transition the focus by magnifying subtle sounds from particular environments of which people are usually unaware. So, for me, there is not any difference between natural sound and urban sound, or musical sound and non-musical sound.

You studied the Shō - an ancient, traditional instrument – with Ko Ishikawa and then used it in modern, hi-tech performances involving surround sound and computer music. Do you see your music as an extension of older forms of music?

YO: I have never been conscious [of that], but I hope so. Well, I am learning Shō just because its timbre is so beautiful. You can hear it on In An Autumn Garden by Toru Takemitsu, and Cathode by Otomo Yoshihide. I am interested in expanding historical and traditional forms through technology, but, at the same time, I would like my work to grow in the context of electronic music and not of gagaku (or traditional music).

Having worked extensively with surround sound, do you feel that stereo will become outdated as a technology and three-dimensional sound will replace it at some point in the future?

YO: No, I think every music style has its appropriate format. For example, I think rock music should appeal to audiences strongly by being right in front of them. On the other hand, electronic music has always had the possibility to create totally new musical experiences using technology.

Of course, a larger number of channels do not necessarily result in a richer experience. I love Phillip Spector’s unique work created by monaural recording - you would not be able to have such a rich experience with a multi-channel sound system. The important thing is to design an appropriate format and an environment that fits with the music.

There are three new tracks of yours just released on Kompakt's Pop Ambient 2017 compilation. Brian Eno originally defined ‘ambient’ as music that is "as ignorable as it is interesting”. I find some music that gets described as ambient, such as yours, requires the listener to focus on it rather than leave it on in the background. What is your understanding of 'ambient'?

YO: I have been thinking about that for a long time because Eno was the most influential person when I started composing music. I think the most important/essential point is that ‘ambient’ is not [understood as] a music format or genre, but as one of the new philosophies of listening to sound. It has a role that brings out the potential abilities of our ears and consciousness. So, when you consciously hear the environment that surrounds you, every sound – someone speaking, distant traffic, the tweets of birds – can be ambient music, even if there is no music.

And what then is 'pop ambient'?

YO: For me, it's Wolfgang Voigt himself.

The compilation includes a collaboration you did with the UK's Robin Rimbaud (AKA Scanner) - how did this come about?

YO: I have been a big fan of his and was strongly influenced by his ideas, concepts and music in my youth. When I performed at an audio-visual festival in Barcelona in 2015, he played there as well and I saw his performance for the first time— I have longed for that moment for more than ten years.

It was a very simple and smooth collaboration. I thought the Pop Ambient project would be a good chance for us to work together, so I sent him some demo tracks including my piano, guitar and some noises. With them, he finished up the brilliant piece. I am honoured to be able to work with Robin.

Your collaboration with New York sound artist Stephen Vitiello is in the pipeline - how did this come about and what can we expect?

YO: I saw a sound installation of his at the exhibition called Art & Music – Search for New Synaesthesia held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo where Ryuichi Sakamoto had been invited as a general advisor. It was his work called A Bell For Every Minute. Many artists had exhibits of their work there, such as John Cage and Paul Klee, but his work was the most attractive one for me. I sent him a letter and some of my work to convey the impression he had had on me. He understood my works very well and we have kept a good relationship since then, such as announcing this reconstruction of each other’s work, our album, which will be a release from Mikroton Recordings in 2017-18.

Pop Ambient 2017 is available now on Kompakt. For more information on Yui Onodera visit critical-path.info