Original Creators: Experimental Sound Pioneer Yasunao Tone

Original Creators: Experimental Sound Pioneer Yasunao Tone

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Yasunao Tone.

As a student at Chiba Japanese National University in the 50s, Yasunao Tone showed promise across his fields of study, from poetry and prose to literature. But it was a separate artistic discipline that would eventually bring him to notoriety. Today, Tone’s experiments in sound have earned him wide respect as a pioneer of avant-garde music, as well as the Golden Nica Prize from Ars Electronica in 2002. The style that he developed, one that has evolved along with the accelerating advances of music technology, began with an experimental group of Japanese music students called Group Ongaku.

Started by Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music students Shuko Mizuno and Takehisa Kosugi, by 1960 Ongaku had added four new members, including the sonically curious Tone. They conducted their experiments in sound in group jam sessions where each member would contribute sound to an improvised ensemble using instruments as well as random objects, creating an abstract dialogue. The first of these, Automatism and Object, were recorded in 1960.

1974 Composition by Ongaku founder Takehisa Kosugi

These experiments soon led Tone and several of his Ongaku collaborators to join the Fluxus movement, a global creative collective bending various genres of the arts. Tone took cues from a fellow musician in this group name John Cage. In his music, Tone began to employ the concepts of indeterminacy that Cage’s work exemplified, and with this style as his guide, Tone took sound into new directions, creating compositions of computer music in which you can sense the precursors to modern day glitch and electronic music.

Anagram For Strings (1961)

In 1972, Tone moved to New York to continue his musical exploration. As the formats and technology at the foundation of music changed, so did Tone’s approach to their manipulation. With the advent of the compact disc in the 1980s, Tone saw an opportunity to extract unusual sound from a new medium. His experiments in damaging CDs, allowing the player to read these errors and play them back, led to Tone’s celebrated 1985 album Solo For Wounded CD. While it embodied the nature of chaos also reflected in his contemporaries’ work, Tone’s music, channeling the repetitive stabs of sound generated by damaged CDs, carried with it a rhythm in composition that inspired the processed sounds in several styles of minimal electronic dance music to follow. Though Tone’s work contained none of the accessibility of the music it inspired, he continues to be a monument of sound manipulation for modern musicians.

From Solo For Wounded CD (1985)

Until January 25th at MoMA PS1 in Queens, you can catch Exhibiting Fluxus: Keeping Score in Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, an exhibition featuring work by Yasunao Tone and his Fluxus contemporaries.