With a quiet devotion and hard work, Japanese sound artist Yui Onodera has steadily built up an impressive and critically regarded body of experimental and ambient work over the last decade. He has produced six solo albums, many released on his own Critical Path label, and contributed to several collaborations including albums with Celer and Jorge Mantas’ Beautiful Schizophrenic project. Fundamental to his critical reception has been the construction of each work around clear concepts and the incorporation of methods and inspiration from other artistic fields including architecture (in which he trained), fashion, modern art and even furniture design. A key concept in many works has been the identity of place and culture which he has explored through use of field recordings and has recently come to the fore in the beautifully packaged double CD compilation â€œVernacularâ€ which he curated and produced for the Japanese label Whereabouts Record. Cyclic Defrost caught up with Yui Onodera from his home in Tokyo to trace his musical history and discuss some of the multi-faceted influences that have helped define his musical evolution.
CD: Where were you born and what were your first musical memories?
YO: I was born in Iwate Prefecture which is located way above Tokyo. I started by listening to 70~80′ punk rock. I was really into the music including it’s fashion and from there, I bought my own guitar and started to play with it.
CD: So you started playing in rock bands, was that influenced by the Japanese bands at the time or Western music? Did you play gigs or record or was it only playing with friends?
YO: Well, I was just copying Japanese punk rock bands with my friends during high school so it wasn’ like making music nor doing recordings although we played some shows.
CD: What was the stimulus to make you move to electronic music from rock?
YO: Japan is just an island and ethnically homogeneous so we have very few human/class discriminations since the past. We were rather economically gifted and considered as a developed country which kept me away from going into the punk rock anti-social way of thinking. Soon I began to feel uncomfortable about just tracing the surface of punk rock. Around the same time, I had an opportunity during a class at a music school to study â€œMusic for Airportsâ€ by Brian Eno and I was deeply attracted by how the music existed, not for some entertainment nor commercial purposes but â€œmusic for somethingâ€. I soon began to compose music all alone using guitar, synthesizer and a computer.
CD: You also trained as an architect I believe and are also designing furniture. Are you still doing this kind of design?
YO: Architectural space is an inevitable design factor when I produce music. It would easily make sense if we put this [in terms of]a â€œmealâ€. 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. So that’s what made me enter school for architecture studies, and also engage in sound architectural jobs. I mostly design furniture for myself, but I used to design many console tables for music productions at work.
CD: How would you describe your method of composing? You said once that â€œcomposition method resembles spatial design to meâ€. Do you still have a lot of graphical influence in your compositional method? Are you interested in the other architectural composers and their ideas, like Iannis Xenakis?
YO: I always reckon that the process of making music is as important as the result. 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. Brian Eno’ generative music was about the â€structureâ€ and it is always important for me to think of alternatives like composing methods and concepts as well as the actual output. I also enjoy those times thinking about them. There’ a book entitled â€œMusic and Architectureâ€ written by Iannis Xenakis for which the Japanese modern composer Yuji Takahashi did the translations and it was a pity because I have been longing to read it, but it’s been out of print forÂ a long time here. But it was a coincidence that the musician Shuta Hasunuma recently brought this book and I was able to read itÂ for the first time. And indeed theÂ contents were mathematic and difficult.
CD: What would be your ideal space to listen to ambient music? Do you think an acoustic-architecture is lacking in modern urban spaces, as in there is a lack of a specially designed acoustic space to play and listen to modern music in â€œ3 dimensionsâ€?
YO: I’m more attracted in performing and recording inside temples or unconventional spaces such as caves and ruins rather than spaces which were constructed to play music like clubs and concert halls. As it’s more of a chalenge to figure out how to take advantage of that space than ordinary places installed with too much sound systems and speakers. Therefore, I enjoy designing sounds and the systems for public spaces like hospitals, school, office or for any commercial facilities. At the moment, I’m working on a project which is a composition for fashion designer’ co-working space. So I recorded some sounds from that space such as the noise of various sewing machines and laser cutters to use as sound materials.CD: What would be your ideal space to listen to ambient music? Do you think an acoustic-architecture is lacking in modern urban spaces, as in there is a lack of a specially designed acoustic space to play and listen to modern music in â€œ3 dimensionsâ€?
CD: What sort of venues do you play in Tokyo? Are you collaborating a lot between other Japanese musicians or mostly outside?
YO: In Japan, I’m playing in various places such as clubs, venues and galleries. Recently I also have many opportunities to play shows in suburban cities outside of Tokyo. Celer who I collaborated and released an album before now lives in Japan so we played some shows together.
CD: Who are your main influences from Japanese art and culture?
YO: Yes, you can say I was influenced by Japanese traditional thoughts and design methods. I think that artists are always more or less linked to their surroundings and the period which we live in. For example, 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 â€œinsect-listeningâ€ 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.
CD: You have been running the Critical Path label since 2005. What was your original idea behind starting it and what do you see as the direction for the label?
YO: When I started the label, there were no net-labels or things like Soundcloud so releasing as a CD format was the most common way. There were many independent labels worldwide at that time so I have referred to them and set up a platform of my own to publish my works. Right now, I’m aiming for more broad activities and rather than releasing music, it’s more of a music production for clients, and also organizing concerts.
CD: You just curated the release of the double CD compilation â€œVernacularâ€ on Whereabouts. How did you choose the artists that you wanted on the album? The theme behind the album was the artists local environment and the use of field recordings. Can you tell us a little more behind the idea? What is your own particular approach to field recording, do you find the locations by accident or are you looking for personal places?
YO: â€œVernacularâ€ was released on a Japanese label called Whereabouts RecordÂ and I was the compiler and the producer for the album. The concept for this compilation album is literally â€œVernacularâ€. But here, the word is interpreted in a wider scale, and not limited to just field recordings. I asked each artist to provide music pieces with their own interpretations of their aesthetics towards their country and region. When I go out for field recordings, I usually research the place beforehand but there are also times where you accidently bump into interesting sounds so both approaches are took into consideration.
CD: Can you tell us about your track on â€œVernacularâ€. There doesn’ appear to be any other instrumentation added, only the modified field recordings. Where were the recordings made, and what was your idea behind the track?
YO: The title is â€œBlue Planet Sky (for 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa). This is a piece for James Turrell’ work called the Blue Planet Sky better known as â€œTurrell’ roomâ€ which is exhibited permanently inside Kanazawaw 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art located in Ishikawa prefecture. I made this piece by recording sounds inside of this room, and processing these sounds through the computer. The idea is to analyze the object and was reconstructed by picking up the main elements. So it’s not about reproducing the sounds but to reconstruct them, sort of like making them more abstract like the De Stijl method. Constructing the story within limited materials – This is my concept as an artist and you can see this is a good example of what I have mentioned earlier about the â€œJapaneseâ€ design Karesansui.
CD: A similar themes to â€œVernacularâ€ was your 2007 album â€œSuiseiâ€ which was a sound impression of walking around Tokyo. You have always had a strong theme of place and identity in your work, like also in â€œGeneric cityâ€, your collaborative album with Celer. Is this an idea you will continue to develop in future work?
YO: Albums where I use field recordings as the main motive, I’m always wishing to consider the context of the place. But again, when I go out for field recordings, I often meet unexpected sounds which I use for my work in despite of the context or the concept because they are simply beautiful.
CD: You once said â€œTokyo is [not]representative of Japan at all. With a single phrase, it is “noise” and a place of various, mixed culturesâ€. Do you consider your music to be â€œnoiseâ€ or â€œquietâ€? Is there a relation between your idea of Japan as noiseâ€ and the heavy sound that a lot of Japanese bands have tended to use historically, like Les Rallizes Denudes, Fushitsusha, Acid Mothers Temple, for example? Is your music a way to â€œrestoreâ€ some Japan back to Tokyo by preserving the sounds and looking for sounds that you think are particularly Japanese?
YO: What I wanted to say was that Tokyo is a unique place where we interpret western culture in our own way. Not that Tokyo is a city left with most â€œJapaneseâ€ culture. But on the contrary, you can say that way of existence is very Japanese. I don’ know whether it’s â€œnoiseâ€ or â€œquietâ€ because that depends on the listener’ listening experience. But like I said in the previous question, I think the actions of people going out to listen to the insects is an evidence that we were enjoying the sounds as music, and this â€œinsect-listeningâ€ is no different to people going to concert halls to hear the orchestra. Japanese noise musicians are popular overseas maybe because we have this cultural background that we can capture â€œnoiseâ€ subconsciously as music or as a part of instrument very naturally.
CD: Do you listen to other electronic music like dance music or have you ever made anything with beats?
YO: Yes, I listen to dance music, Jazz, soundtracks all kinds of music and I also make varieties of styles. I’m thinking to release these materials under a different alias but there are no plans yet. I’m planning to focus more on these next year.
CD: Where is your studio? Do you have it at home or do you need to have some special arrangements to record something in Tokyo without making too much noise?
YO: My studio is separated with my residence and it also functions as an office. The outside noise is pretty big so I haven’ done any special arrangements, but so far no problem. In the daytime, I try to make rhythmic dance music and at night, I make ambient music to be a little careful about the neighbors.
CD: The album â€œRhizomeâ€ sounds like it has a lot of â€œrealâ€ instruments playing on there, like guitars and piano. Is that you playing or is it samples?
YO: In the album â€œRhizomeâ€, I’m playing all instruments by myself. Then I process these sounds with the computer and reconstruct them. I try to play all instruments on my own except for the ones that I can’ play and need help. This is more time and cost saving which would allow me to experiment to my satisfaction.
CD: Can you describe a little your live set-up (equipment/software) and how you are approaching performance versus studio work? You recently played in Barcelona at the StÃ¶rung Festival. Can you tell us a little of what you saw and learned at the festival, about playing live or new influences?
YO: I use a lot of Cubase, REAKTOR and Live software. Comparing [my live set]to recordings, I try to make [peaks and troughs]like making film stories during my performance. I’m also hoping that the audience can sit quietly on their chairs listening close to the sounds like watching a movie.
The experience I had at StÃ¶rung was just unforgettable. I thought the listener’ concentration and interest is much more deeper than to that in Tokyo. Not just live performances, but I was also impressed to see various programs like workshops by Ableton Live and artist discussions, these attractions to have people enjoy and understand more about the concept. I wish more of these kinds of festivals will be held in Tokyo. It was also nice to meet with other participants. I got along well with Pjusk (who is from Norway and releases on 12K) and after I came back, we are making a collaboration piece together.
CD: How has the recent clamp down on dancing affected the electronic music scene in Japan? There have been a lot of reports of authorities closing down bars where people are dancing after 1am to comply with the Fueiho laws (“adult entertainment” laws apparently dating back to the 1940s. It more relates to dance music than ambient, but have you seen a difference in crowds or trends in gigs or the audience? Is it harder to play.
YO: This is a very difficult issue. It seems that more clubs outside Tokyo are being shut down because of the illegal operation. Like you said, there are more dance music events held during midnight so I’m afraid these laws will lead to a decline in the quality of Japanese music culture. Not just the situation within Japan, I also wish they can think of ways to support Japanese artists to play in foreign countries. In Japan, there are not much social benefits for art and culture and we are almost forced to concentrate on the domestic market. I feel that this kind of situation is an obstacle to create â€œworld standardâ€ interesting music.
CD: You started an art group called ï¼‹LUS, are you still running that and working on similar art instalations?
YO: + LUS is run by 4 members including me and we did some sound installations previously. The 4 of them are all individual artists doing stuffs on their own and it’s not easy to get together so we are not that active these days.
CD: You mentioned there may be another 2nd album in collaboration with Celer. Do you have any plans to keep working together? You also had ongoing collaborations with The Beautiful Schizophonic for a 2nd album, Exit In Grey (Russia) and a collaboration with Hiroki Sasajima. Will there be some releases soon from these collaborators? Will you play live with them at some stage? What is the basis of each of the collaborations? Is it different working methods, different concepts?
YO: Right now, I’m concentrating on the project with Pjusk and I really don’ have much time to do other collaborations. Instead, I’m now spending a lot of time on my solo work. When I collaborate with others, sometimes we would exchange files, other times we would exchange demos that are already well-prepared. Rather than limiting ourselves by making the concept first, there are more times where we would compose freely and later come up with the concept.
CD: Do you have any other new material or shows coming up?
YO: In 2014, I will release my new solo album on Baskaru (sound art label from France putting out releases by Stephan Mathieu and Lawrence English etc.) [my first solo release]for the first time in 7 years. I’m also wishing to have more opportunities to perform abroad like in Europe, America, Australia and China.