Interview

Transforming Everyday Life into Music

Toru Iwatake

Twenty-something devoted to computer music at MIT

From childhood, I liked music and enjoyed composing as a hobby. Although in college I entered the engineering department, I still wanted to make music after all, and so I continued to an American music graduate program. While composing modern music in graduate school, I grew dissatisfied with orchestral instruments and tried pursuing more of the possibilities of sound. At that point, I went to the MIT research facility to research computer music. That was the 1970s, the era of the hippies in America. Computers were precious items, and there were only about 5 places in the world where computer music could be researched. I wasn’t just making sounds with computers, but at the same time including cutting-edge research fields like Artificial Intelligence, and was able to change the manner of processing sounds themselves digitally. I continued my research and composition, and listened to concerts of entirely computerized music. In those days, it was nearly unprecedented.

Iwatake lab
Iwatake lab

Toward SFC created as antithesis

When I underwent the probe for the SFC (Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus) appointment, I was still in my 30s. At the festival held to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Setagaya Art Museum, my computer music concert was picked up by television, newspapers, magazines and the like, and I think it was thanks to that that people were kind enough to call for me to have a central role in the establishment of the SFC. I was asked, “Won’t you come to Keio University, since we’re making a new program where you can study media and art?” Since this was in 1987, the SFC wasn’t made yet.

At first, the SFC was interesting. Until that point, there was no educational system to bring up prodigies, so it was an educational institution that arose as the antithesis to the existing universities. They built the first complete internet environment at a Japanese university, and did things like bring in a lot of people with individuality through the AO entrance exam, so it was full of new experimentation. I think this was also the start of officially including computer music courses at a Japanese university.

A research facility that pursues sound related to art and expression

At the Iwatake Research Facility, we are researching sound that relates to art and design in something called the Cyber Sound Project. What we are putting our efforts into now is looking for sound expressions that can entertain in the public space. For example, if you move your hand, or even just turn your eyes in the direction of that interests you, the environment will respond and produce sound or twinkling light. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have that sort of space in an airport, so waiting for a plane wouldn’t be so dreary? The Cyber Sound Project is doing various research, such as synthesizing acoustics to produce new sounds, and although it is primarily oriented towards graduate students, undergraduate students are also participating.

At the same time, in the undergraduate research group, the advancing and arrangement of harmonies called “chords” are being taught strictly according to the logic of Classical Western music. We also have them compose piano sonatas. Of course, this may be dull for those students who entered with an interest in making novel computer music, but most of the melodies that are popular in this world still use conventional chords. If the students don’t master the fundamentals, they can’t deviate from them. Also, in this era when music is changing greatly, I believe it is important to understand music in 100-year units. That is to say, in order to make progress, it is necessary to learn one’s history.

Iwatake lab
Iwatake lab

Creating a Talented Person Who Transcends the Borders Between Researcher and Musician

I was predicting that the concept of music we had had until this point was on the point of dying. This has been said in other forms of artistic expression, but isn’t the style where these things are only expressed by those people called to be artists create works, perform them and then put them out on CD a relic of the past? For example, it’s wonderful culture that Western painting and Noh and things like that are being carried on, but do those forms really have the power to express new experiences that nobody has ever had before?

In my research facility, I want to make the everyday into music. I’m trying to create new ways for sound to exist in more mobile and interactive forms. To that end, I want to educate people who can make both creative activities and systems: people who can understand digital signal processing and write programs as well as find new kinds of expression. In fact, there are already many of this sort of people in the world. In America, that inclination is particularly strong, and less delineation between learning and art. In Japan, there is a strongly-rooted habit of thinking of things as vertically divided, so it is difficult to transcend the borders between fields, but transcending those borders is SFC’s reason for existence. Students from the initial stages have also gone on, after graduating, to produce Japanese media arts programs in other colleges. I think that by turning out the type of people who can transcend these borders in large numbers, Japan is moving in an interesting direction.