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YUI ONODERA, building new worlds for us to live within

Interview by Heather Sparks


Auteur Brian Eno and his groundbreaking Music for Airports may be famous the world over, but for the uninitiated, the definition or allure of ambient music may seem as ephemeral as the composition itself. What ambient is exactly, who it is for, and why it’s interesting is not easily answered. But in a world increasingly influenced by technology-based commercial interests and virtual realities, what ambient lacks in categorisation, it makes up for in inspiration and perhaps even a way to reconnect tangibly with the world around us.

Yui Onodera is one Tokyo-based ambient artist whose compositions continue to push the boundaries of what music can be. Onodera originally studied architectural acoustics design. Now he uses electric violins and guitars, field recordings, found objects, and scientific instruments, as well as looping, mixing and processing tools to build experiences that listeners can live inside.

The album Quiver, along with collaborator and fellow ambient artist Stephen Vitiello, has been said to create an accessible and optimistic world. Other albums, like the solo album Subsrate/The Garden, which builds upon around the irregular sounds generated by the electrolysis of water, makes it plausible to inhabit extremely different environments than the ones we know today. Still others, like Generic City rely almost entirely on field recordings of Los Angeles and no matter where you’re from, it can sound like home.

Onodera often credits the influence of Japanese tradition in his work. For instance, the custom of Karesansui, or rock gardening, involves building a space with minimal objects—just sand and stone. This practice is meant to help attain an atmosphere of harmony that is not easily accessed in more frenetic surroundings. Similarly, Onodera builds contemplative spaces, like with his work in the art collective “nor” which recently presented a project titled dyebirth at the Alife conference in Tokyo. Onodera, as sound producer for the piece, brought it to life in ways that are at first unnoticeable and soon central to the experience. In video of the piece, ‘dyebirth’ is assembled inside a cavernous room overlooking Japan’s megacity.

The physical phenomenon that the dyes perform, and which are mimicked in many living systems, still cannot be recreated digitally. ‘dyebirth‘, for some, might bring to mind those economic, social and political systems that largely but surreptitiously shape our lives—influences so large and intrinsic are they that they can easily go unnoticed. However, once we are ‘woke’ to their presence, their influence becomes abundantly obvious.

As the invisible fingers of technocracies wrap an ever-more virtual world around us, seemingly plotting to meld our minds directly into our phones (or whatever platform comes next), perhaps ambient artists like Onodera provide an enormous service by building an alternate, more personal, highly human way to consider and experience the physical environment that is immediately around us. Eno himself wanted to write music that could allow for sounds in one’s home to become part of his compositions. Today, Onodera’s work allows for that to an even greater extent by taking those everyday sounds and placing them in considered compositions.

Your background is music and architecture design and you have worked creating sounds and music for tangible locations;  how does your background in architectural sound design influence the way you approach music?

Inspiration and ideas often come from non-musical fields. I developed a deep interest in introducing thought and design process, outside of the musical field, to my sound, such as how architects know theory and aesthetics. Not just in terms of space design, but also fashion, dance, visuals. I very much enjoy the design process of these creations which may also have given me a lot of influences. Architectural space is an inevitable design factor when I produce music.

It would easily make sense if we put this [in terms of] a œmeal. Each ingredient will be the sound source, and composition is like the arrangements of food on dishes, and the dish itself is the architectural space. Anyway, while working as a architectural acoustics designer, 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. If music is a part of the environment, we need to participate with it with an active attitude. It is same in the field of soundscape design.

You are also a member of nor, a Japanese art collective made up of architects, designers, musicians, engineers. You also presented the piece ‘dyebirth’ for Digi Saloon during MUTEK Japan. Could you tell us the intellectual process behind the project?

The installation “dyebirth” uses a live game algorithm (a simplified representation of evolution and natural selection) to perform a self-controlled distillation, where ink creates a physical phenomenon (Viscous Fingering and the Marangoni effect) resembling a “dissipative system”. It draws out beautiful organic patterns that cannot be digitally produced. The power of media and technology has given birth to many digital expressions in film and graphic design in everyday life.

Many of the visual expressions we see in projection mapping and VR/AR are easily reproduced, yet bound by the resolution of displays. Originally in paintings, a finished work was the result of ink that dries over time on the canvas. However, what is always missing and underrepresented was the process and the moment the ink was still living and wet across canvas; a beautiful moment never to be captured before. Like improvisations in a performance, “dyebirth” creates colours and patterns that are constantly moving as if alive in a cinematic picture.

As a sound artist you explore notions of perception, memory and sonic affect; what is the role of sound in your art pieces?

The album “Suisei”, was released in 2007 by experimental and sound art label and/OAR(USA). This approximately 45min-long piece of music is a work composed of field recordings and pump organ. “Suisei” means “aqueous” in Japanese. This work is through a process of layering and synthesis, I was create minimal, yet dense sound textures from very singular materials. I try to reduce the “material” to its basic aesthetic structure by using digital and analogue processing in order to release it from its original meaning and context.

In Japan, there’s a very old tradition for garden sound design using the natural elements and many western musician and artists and writers have been fascinated by it. John Cage composed Ryoanji, a musical translation of the famous karesansui garden in Kyoto. One of your compositions The Garden reflects around the idea of a garden. Which elements of garden spacial sound design are the most inspiring for your work?

I am interested in architecture and garden design, their influence may be unconsciously reflected in music as my personal originality. The aesthetics of subtraction are important. They delineate how to compose  space and time at a minimum volume and with as few sounds as possible. This principle is based on the old Japanese sense of beauty, often represented by the Japanese garden, for example. It is a very Japanese approach to think that there is not time first, but that there is time between one sound and the next.

In Japan, we have traditional rock gardens called Karesansui which are gardens composed of limited materials – sand and rocks, and that sort of obscurity and minimalism comes from a very Japanese way of thinking that we shall put the priority on keeping the harmony with it’s environment than over-decorated designs. I was more influenced by these kinds of thoughts which I feel is very close to the ambient way of thinking.

We also had customs which is called œinsect-listening which is to go out in the suburbs and listen to the sound of insects under the autumn sky. It is said that back in the Edo era, the common people to samurai warriors all went outside into the autumn dusk pricking up their ears to the sound of insects, and there were even famous spots for that. I think this is also something very Japanese to enjoy the soundscapes of ordinary life.

And, next spring I’ll be releasing my next solo-album.It’s music that I composed for a Jon Cage documentary film by a German director, and there are some unique points in it compared to my previous solo works.

Are there any unexplored artistic fields you would like to take your work into?

I’ve been interested in working with artists who are active outside the field of sound. I actually collaborated as a musician with a contemporary dance company and also contributed my music to a film.
Anyway, I 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.

For example, “Semi Lattice” was inspired by an architectural theory advocated by urban planner Christopher Alexander where, rather than developing the perspective of a bird’s-eye view, or an image from one point of view, there is an overlap from the myriad of assembly that features duplication and change that develop in accordance with the changes of time.

As much as possible, I tried to make the “situation” that resembled the abstract individual elements similar to the process in which biological functions and cities are generated, with sound. Some artists and their works including ideas behind those have given me huge influences. If my music could be something special like theirs, nothing could give me more pleasure.

And, in art collective “nor”, have centred their work on the theme of Artificial Life, focusing on the relationship between humans and artificial objects. In the interactive installation “shoes or”, shoes become a medium used to approach the idea of existence. Another installation “herering” is based on the synesthesia of sound and colour, introducing the sensory phenomenon of “hearing colours.”

This project allowed people to directly interact with the works through their own movement, resulting in an infinite number of combinations of sound and colour that provokes one’s imagination into the realm of synesthesia. Each work explores concepts and ideas across different fields, following the guidance of researchers and experts while gathering the necessary tools to execute our projects. Through the expression of art, we are able to understand information that could not otherwise be seen up to now; creating possibilities for new discoveries.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

E-mail and Social Networking Services.

You couldn’t live without…

The artists and labels I can share something with. I’m keen on working with those like-minded people. And, family and friends, and music.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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