Atau Tanaka (Photo: Martin Delaney)
Atau uses muscle sensing with the EMG signal in musical performance where the human body becomes musical instrument. Atau’s first inspirations came upon meeting John Cage during his Norton Lectures at Harvard and would go to on re-create Cage’s Variations VII with Matt Wand and :zoviet*france:. He formed Sensorband with Zbigniew Karkowski and Edwin van der Heide and in the Japanoise scene he has played alongside artists like Merzbow, Otomo, KK Null and others. He has been artistic co-director of STEIM. His work has received awards from Ars Electronica, been funded by the European Research Council, and been presented internationally at Sonar, Transmediale, SFMOMA, ICA, Eyebeam, NTT-ICC, and ZKM. He is professor at Goldsmiths in London.
Why do you make music?
I continue to make music because despite my attempts to do something else, I somehow, naturally return to music. Also, in the research I conduct on embodied human-computer interaction, music is a special case, a challenging context in which to make digital technologies responsive to human input. In this regard, making music with machines is a provocative challenge to get digital technologies as rich and expressive as wood or string.
What music do you make?
I make experimental music that explores details of sound in a zoomed in way. The movements and evolution in the sound is neither timbral nor rhythmic, it is microscopic in a way. More importantly, the evolution and movement in the music happens in an organic, living way, as I use sensor systems capturing body movements and states to articulate this sound.
How do you make music?
I make music with my body. The visceral energy I create in performance are translated through physiological sensors and signal processing to amplify the body, or turn the body itself into a musical instrument. I do this by using the electromyogram signal, which picks up electrical impulses as the central nervous system causes muscle contraction. These signals are picked up by electrodes, digitized, sonified, and mapped to articulate computer generated sound.
Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?
I work with raw sound, noise, and non-auditory signals in a musical way. I compose with these materials to make a music of sonorous elements.
How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engineer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?
I am a composer, as I create structures for music to take place in. These structures can be interactive systems, software, or architectural spaces in which sound sounds. In a more classical sense, I compose musical works that have form, are open, invite interpretation and improvisation within compositional structures. I perform my own works and my own systems, so these boundaries are indeed fluid.
What is the cultural context for your work - how are you inﬂuenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?
I work across traditions spanning 20th century music to underground noise music. I have created installation work and location based work that are inscribed in movements from the 1990s and 2000s in media art and locative media. I have been interested in the relationship between sound and image. In this regard, I take inspiration from contemporary art. As a Japanese-American, I have always been seeking out my own roots in Japanese culture.
What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?
Reading music, programming, and playing an instrument are basic skills that while not necessarily necessary in our time, are a fundamental boost to any musician. Besides this, scientific method, problem solving, and conceptualization are key intellectual skills that enhance the viability and quality of what we do.
How do you use mobile and interactive devices in your work?
I have made my career on interaction and music. Music is by nature an interactive art form, so to extend this to digital interaction seemed not just natural, but an excellent challenge for computer-based interaction to become rich, embodied, and palpable. I have been particularly interested in sensing the body through physiological sensors. In so doing, I seek the intention of musical gesture, rather than just detect the resulting movement in the way most external sensors do. I have also worked with mobile technologies in the early days, looking at location sensing through GPS as a musical information to remix sounds and shift polyrhythms. In the early 2000s when the processors when mobile phones became powerful enough to do realtime signal processing, porting computer-based synthesis algorithms to the mobile became a way to make post-laptop music. With the touchscreen and accelerometer as sensors, a CPU capable of sound synthesis, and the audio output minijack, the mobile was attractive as a self-contained musical instrument akin to an electric guitar.
What is your approach to interactivity and virtual media?
Interactivity needs to be real, it needs to be visceral, it needs to speak musically, and it needs to communicate if not directly, then through spaces of intersubjectivity. Virtual media is a separate topic and we have been developing shared immersive projection spaces that counter the socially isolating nature of virtual reality headsets. Goldsmiths’ Sonics Immersive Media Labs, or SIML, is the facility we have been building for this kind of research.
Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?
I came of age at the transition period between analogue and digital. I trained at Harvard on open reel tape recorders and original Serge and Buchla analogue modular synthesizers. As I was graduating, I helped my teacher, the composer Ivan Tcherepnin install the digital studio with a DX7 and Ensoniq Mirage sampler. When I began my PhD at Stanford’s CCRMA, we learned on the Foonley mainframe. The idea to run DSP in real time and perform was in the air and happened in my time in California. But having lived at the cusp of the analogue/digital transition, I have a deep sense of the analogue that I seek to find in the digital. And I’m convinced it’s there, between the zeroes and ones.