Toshio Iwai (media artist) launches Tenori-On at Phonica Records, 51 Poland Street London W1 4-9-7


I almost missed this event completely, and only found out about it on the day through an old Rhizome digest that I had neglected to read. Drew Hemment publicizing the Manchester launch also mentioned that Toshio Iwai (media artist) would be talking about his new musical instrument ‘Tenori-0n’ at an official launch in the basement of a record shop in Soho.

This seemed to good to be true, an opportunity to See Iwai San present and talk about his latest project. It was actually even better than that as he started by presenting to us documentation of previous projects that were forerunners of Tenori-0n, these included some of his installation and game projects, as well as previous collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto.

The only real letdown on the night was the fact that the event was largely taken over by Soho bores, and music industry types, many of whom were more interested in the free bar, and listening to the sound of their own voices, than the presentations and performances that were taking place.

Iwai started his presentation, revealing his love of both music and computing, by showing us images of an old 8-bit Yamaha computer on which he had first created music and multimedia, the keyboard of which he had inscribed with musical notes. While his initial attempts at composing music on a computer as a student were fraught with difficulties, (these were the early years of personal computing), his creative impulses were sparked by a little hand-cranked musical box. The music box played music via a punch card, and the first composition he heard on it was ‘Happy Birthday’. To the delight of the audience, he played the tune on the music box for us, and then, turning the card around, explained how he had wondered what Happy Birthday might sound like played in reverse. The sound that emanated from the little box was as Iwai described, a “beautiful, lonely” version of the original song. The holes on the grid of the punch card were much more understandable to Iwai and made him wonder, “what is top, what is bottom?” the transcription of a visual element into a musical one provided a different take for him on creating and playing music and was to have a direct bearing on the development of many future projects, including and perhaps even culminating in the Tenori-On.

These projects, which Iwai discussed and showed examples of, included the early Nintendo game ‘Starfly’. Starfly invites users to create music by activating stars, and connecting them via lines that they draw in a grid like space on their screens. These visualised musical scores are then ‘played’ by a series of insects that traverse this virtual cosmos, following the paths transcribed by the user and playing notes whenever a star is encountered. Starfly combined music and pictures to create an early example of immersive multimedia.

The next project Iwai presented was the gallery installation, ‘Resonance of 4’(1994). Four gallery visitors are able to interact by using four linked consoles. Together they manipulate a musical grid system that is projected onto the gallery floor. Iwai commented that what was interesting about this project for him, was the way that melodies gradually overlapped throughout the day as different visitors came and went and added their individual compositions to the overall work.

This piece led on to a collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, ‘Piano as Image Media’(1995) enabled the sound of a piano to be visualised. As Sakamoto struck each key a corresponding vector on a grid was plotted and projected behind the instrument. With each note played the projected score scrolled up and away from the piano, creating a virtual musical box in reverse. While in this version sound generates images, a further collaboration treated live video footage of Sakamoto’s movements in front of a video camera and turned them, via a grid system, into a visualised musical score which was then played directly on to a piano, in a kind of virtual, real-time, physically created, musical box.

Musical Chess (1997) developed these ideas further. Users position glass balls on a chessboard, once more utilising Iwai’s familiar grid as musical score system. Once positioned the balls glow and trigger musical notes. What interested Iwai was that the work fell between the virtual and the physical, while the installation has physical weight and temperature, “sound and light we cannot touch”.

So the scene was now set, the prehistory written and everything previously described lead directly to Tenori-On!

In 2001 Iwai started working with Yamaha on a new product with which he sought to transform the way that musical instruments are perceived of and used. The device presents itself as a laptop sized 16 by 16 matrix of LED’s that are also buttons. These buttons are accessible, and can be activated from either the top or the bottom of the device. Together with several other push button controls around the Tenori-On’s frame and a small LCD display, which tells you the current BPM, these are all the controls required to create and play your own musical compositions. Tenori-On can work with your own sampled sounds and you can also save your compositions as midi files and share them with your friends. In basic mode a playback head scans (in the form of a line which traverses the screen from left to right, one LED column to the next) ‘playing’ each note it comes across upon its journey, but Tenori-On has much more hidden depth and sophistication, with six different performance modes and each LED being musically programmable on many different levels. Tenori-On is marketed as “a new digital musical instrument for the 21st century that allows everyone to play music intuitively, creating a "visible music" interface”.

Interestingly it will only be available in the UK, Yamaha higher up’s don’t seem that convinced of it’s potential, and will retail at £599. The marketers at the event assured everyone that demand would outstrip supply but we wait to see what musicians think about the product, certainly those I spoke to on the night were very keen to play with it and saw potential in the product.

I certainly enjoyed the presentation, and it was great to see Iwai talk about the product and his previous projects, but my main criticism is that there is no opportunity to output the visuals that Tenori-On creates. Iwai has created a beautiful instrument that enables those without musical training to create and present complex soundscapes. I do think however that he and Yamaha have missed a trick, in not creating an opportunity for the visuals the instrument creates to be interpreted and projected (or simply projected as they are) Tenori-On does not fulfil its full potential as a 21 Century musical box, but perhaps version two is on its way…