Pixelsumo is a blog about interaction, with an emphasis on play, installation, video game culture, playgrounds and toys. Written by Chris O'Shea.
I’ve had the pleasure and honor of seeing Toshio Iwai do the keynote lecture at Futuresonic 2006. As an inspiration for many years, having only read about his previous work and seen static images, it was fantastic to actually see videos of his older work, truly amazing.
This post is not a transcript, but some observations and details of things that really stood out.
Here is a little video (shot on broken photo camera, I need a DV cam):
Maria has also posted a video of the Tenori-On demonstration here.
Toshio began talking about his childhood and obvious early inspiration. First he showed books that were bought for him as a young child, one of insects and one about the science of light, sound and heat. At the age of 9 or 10, his mother said he would get no more toys. Instead she gave him materials (paper craft etc) and he started using his imagination to make his own toys and games. Then a video of his first animation was shown, a series of flipbook doodles in the side panel of his school notebooks, ranging from cartoon characters to planets in orbit. Then he began to get technology into his life, like the hifi, super famicom, microscope etc.
He was inspired by pre-cinema moving image. In 82 and 83 he made Phenakistiscopes, animations on a circular spinning disc, using a photo copy machine (more here). At university he made more animated flipbooks, this time printed and then stuck together. One shown was a 3d vector shape animation (XY Plotter Flipbookk) and another printed from traditional film (Video Books 1984).
In 1988 Toshio created zoetropes, but instead of using flat images to create animation, using real clay models. Like the mechanical music box, the 3D zoetrope was spun using a crank handle. At the age of just 23, he made a 3D zoetrope titled Time Stratum I. This led on to another three Time Stratum works, winning him the grand prix at the 17th Contemporary Japanese Arts Exhibition, making him the youngest winner.
Using his experience of 3D zoetropes, Iwai was asked by Studio Ghibli (famous Anime film makers) to help with zoetropes for the Ghibli Museum. A little of ‘Bouncing Totoro‘ can be seen in the above video (around 01:00). Breathtaking! This website says Toshio conceived an LED strobe system, as well as using computer to work out positions of the models. The 2nd zoetrope was titled Rising Sea Stream.
He discussed how for his moving films he could never compose music through lack of understanding traditional score. He wanted to create every part of this work, but was not from a traditional music background. A mechanical toy music box allowed him to punch holes in the paper, feed it through to create a tune, making a very visual way of creating sound.
In 1992 he created an installation called Music Insects. This was then turned into a game for Nintendo called Sound Fantasy (unfortunately it wasn’t released by Nintendo, later turned into Sim Tunes from Maxis I believe). We were lucky enough to see a video of this, an early precursor to Electroplankton. These music insects react to color dots on the screen. When they pass over them such dots, they trigger musical scales, sounds, and different light patterns. The user selects colors from a palette with a track ball, and paints in their path, and
the insects perform the colors when they pass over them. The insects’ direction can be changed with certain colors, and colors can be painted to achieve less random musical performances.
The score of the mechanical music box is something that clearly inspired the score in Piano as Image Media (1995). Players would use a trackball, drawing dots of light on to a projected score. These dots travelled up and hit the keys of a real grand piano, playing that key and the shooting into the air as projected shapes and visuals.
He then went on to describe Composition on the Table (see below) and his installation for Bloomberg, written about previously (using 800 infrared sensors).
Toshio collaborated with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to create ‘Music Plays Images X Images Play Music‘, a series of works for live performance using the piano in 1997 (Ars Electronica Archive has described all 10). Thanks to youtube, we have some videos!
This created a really interesting relationship between Sakamoto, the visuals he created which then went into a feedback loop, playing the second piano. There was also the interaction between Sakamoto and Toshio during the performance, each playing off each other and the medium in which they were using.
Nintendo finally saw sense :) this time releasing Electroplankton, his latest sound based game. Electroplankton is really like an archive of his previous artworks. The tiny creatures reminiscent of Music Insects. Two plankton Lumiloop & Luminaria being portable game versions of his installation Composition on the Table from 1999. It’s great to see that a media artist is now taken seriously by a game publisher, creating not musical sequencer or games with rules and objectives, but a toy for creative play and exploration. Electroplankton gave Toshio room to experiment with ideas that may have not been possible in interactive installation.
The keynote ended with a demonstration of Tenori-On, a new instrument in development at Yamaha. He talked about the concept, rather than any specific technical achievements. You can read some of those details here, and I won’t bore you with an introduction to Tenori-On as you should hopefully know it by now. Nothing new to report on this, although I did see the laptop screen showing Tenori-On software. It took up a quarter of the screen, was a photo style copy of the instrument, with the grid lighting up at the same rate of play (with no apparent latency).
He wants to create a new kind of electronic musical instrument. Traditional musical instruments have been around much longer than digital media, so this is a difficult task. Although there have been many new controllers for synthesizers, he believes the Theremin is a true new instrument invention, as the movement from the performer and the sound it creates is very unique.
Tenori-On is a fantastic instrument for electronic music. Toshio has really thought about this from a performers viewpoint during development, allowing us to save performances and playback, perform with other Tenori-On and communication via Midi. Enabling the display of lights on the rear lets the audience see what the performer is doing. Many of the play modes borrow from earlier work (like Chess, Electroplankton and Music Insects), but can be layered on top of each other. No details yet as to possible release date or price, but I am certainly looking forward to it.
I think that the way that the performer holds Tenori-On is like playing a portable game system in your hands. I wanted to ask this but we ran out of time for questions.
Toshio has posted details of his trip to Manchester on this blog.