Making a face near the peak of Mt. Merapi at dawn with Mt. Sundoro and Mt. Sumbing in the far distance.
Celebrating an exciting, sound discovery in front of the Shuanglian Sound Environment, an audio installation by Tsai Kuen-lin in Taipei, Taiwan.
The call to prayer as heard from near the summit of Mt. Merapi at around 5 am. This recording is contaminated with high levels of noise due to strong winds, but it still conveys some of the magic of the moment.[audio:|animation=yes|titles=The call to prayer as heard from near the summit of Mt. Merapi.|artists=Daniel Miller]
Paper streamers (shide) around Atago Jinja, a Shinto shrine near the peak of Mt. Atago, Kameoka, Japan, blow gently in the wind (one of the loudest sounds to be heard in this extremely low-noise environment!).[audio:|animation=yes|titles=Paper streamers (shide) around Atago Jinja, Kameoka, Japan.|artists=Daniel Miller]
Standing on the north crater rim of Mt. Merapi, Indonesia just after sunrise.
Masami Tada-san, from Japanese music collective Marginal Consort, blows into a ram’s horn at a Tokyo, noise-music concert.
A suikinkutsu, a Japanese garden ornament consisting of a subterranean, brass resonating chamber into which water drips, at the Enkō-ji Zen temple in, Kyoto, Japan.[audio:|animation=yes|titles=Suikinkutsu at the Enkō-ji Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan.|artists=Daniel Miller]
Uguisubari at Nijo Castle in Kyoto. A traditional woodworking technique causes that the floorboards here to sing like the uguisu (Japanese Bush Warbler) whenever weight is placed on them, thus protecting the Tokugawa Shoguns against nocturnal treachery. (The name is an interesting example of an ecological, sound metaphor in the Japanese lexicon from an earlier time.)[audio:|animation=yes|titles=Uguisubari at Nijo Castle in Kyoto.|artists=Daniel Miller]

I recently submitted my second quarterly report to the the Watson Foundation. Since my first report was was written at the end of October, that report only covered my first weeks in Indonesia. In this summation of the last three month I’ve written about the bulk of my time in Indonesia and all but the last few weeks in Japan. I leave for Argentina this Sunday having now almost run through my 90-day tourist visa in Japan. Perhaps I will write one more post about Japan however, since I’d like to post some photos of the robotic recorder quartet I saw last night! It sounds strange because it is in fact very strange…

Here’s my report. This version has been edited and condensed somewhat.

As I start work on this report, I’m sitting in a 4×6-foot cubicle. I have a reclining armchair, coffee, plastic slip-on shoes (two sizes too small for me), and I will be here all night! Reverberant snoring noises are piped in through a PA system over my head, giving me a vague sense of being in the presence of a sleeping giant. This is a Japanese mangakissa, a “manga café,” basically a 24-hour internet café that charges by the hour and has private booths, food, blankets, and a manga collection larger than the entire fiction section in my hometown library. In Japan, it is common for people to sleep at mangakissa when other cheap options aren’t available. This particular mangakissa (I’m its sole foreign customer this evening) is in Matsue, a medium-size city in Shimane Prefecture that faces the Sea of Japan (“the cold side of the mountain,” as they say here). There aren’t many options for short-term housing that fit my budget here, so I’ve been forced to be creative!

I arrived in the second-to-least populated prefecture in Japan yesterday, hoping to record the “singing sands” of Kotogahama Beach. This odd phenomenon, in which a special type of sand actually produces a tone when disturbed by the wind (or an errant foot), is only found a few places in the world. Unfortunately, today it’s raining, which will likely prevent the sands from singing, so I’m watching for better weather to dry out the sand in the next day or two.

In the three months since my last report, I’ve crisscrossed the island of Java, moved to Japan, taken a quick trip to Taiwan, and then returned to Japan for some serious winter backpacking! The last few months contained some of the greatest challenges of my Watson Fellowship thus far, including getting robbed in Bandung, Indonesia, and struggling with the Japanese language and customs, but overall, my pack has never felt lighter! I really feel that I’ve become more confident and resilient through these experiences.

At the time that I submitted my first quarterly report, I had just arrived in Indonesia. After a short stay in Jakarta, I moved to Yogyakarta, an ancient center of the arts in Java. Here, I quickly became involved with a community art collective called LifePatch, whose founding members include musicians, computer hardware and software artists, a yoga instructor, a chemist, and a traditional farmer! I’m fascinated by their past work, which includes sound-art pieces based on the biochemistry of growing plants, fermentation, and ocean chemistry. The Yogyakarta electronic music scene is dominated by “maker culture”; many local artists prefer to solder together their own circuits from cheap components rather than use “plug-and-play” technology.

As I mentioned in my last report, a member of LifePatch, Andreas Siagian, placed an ecological, digital art piece on the rim of the volcano Mt. Merapi. However, he believes it was destroyed shortly afterwards by a small eruption. After checking the status of current volcanic activity, I climbed Mt. Merapi with an international group in hopes of learning the fate of the installation. The five-hour ascent to the rim of the volcano—up a washed-out path and pumice-stone scree slopes—was possibly the hardest physical challenge I have ever attempted. Unfortunately, we were unable to find Andreas’s work. However, around 5 am, I experienced the first call to prayer of the day projected by dozens of granny loudspeakers in the valleys far bellow. The sound reverberated between two titanic volcanoes for many minutes. It was an incredible moment, a “soundmark” for Indonesia.

Later I participated in a locally organized digital-noise-music festival. Highlights include soldering together a Theremin (an early electronic instrument) from basic components; learning open-source music software programing from a local artist, and meeting Wukir Suryadi, who builds instruments from traditional Indonesian farming implements combined with electronic or digital components. Although Wukir’s instruments—built from old plows, digging sticks, and other salvaged materials—are unique, his method of work particularly interested me. He begins each piece by living for months in isolated, traditional villages, learning from the farmers the name and the symbolism of each component of the tools. He sees his work as a political voice for rural Indonesians. It would be hard to get closer to “hearing nature through computer music” than this!

Oddly, in Yogyakarta, I spoke with artists and composers who had known previous Watson Fellows in other years, in particular, Solomon Adler. Of course, it makes sense that others Watson Fellows would have been drawn to Yogyakarta, even to the very same artists I interviewed, but it still gave me a shock and also an odd sense of following in the invisible legacy of other Watson Fellows.

In Surakarta, I broadened my experience of Indonesia’s musical heritage by attending a private gamelan evening at the home of a famous dhalang (puppeteer). I was told only that I should tell the taxi driver to “take me to the house of Ki Purbo Asmoro.” The taxi driver wasn’t quite as familiar with the luminaries of Javanese traditional arts as my hosts assumed, but after stopping to ask directions four times, he got me close, and a local woman showed me the rest of the way. I won’t soon forget the grey-haired gamelan masters from across Java jamming together late into the night with a haze of tobacco smoke hanging under the eves of an ornate Javanese pendopo (pavilion).

I’m down to my final two weeks in Japan now. I will be sad to leave. My previous contact with Japanese culture was limited to Aikido (a martial art) and the Suzuki Method violin lessons I had as a child. Japan has been full of wonderfully new cultural experiences for me.
The first third of my trip I spent in Tokyo, where I bounced between underground galleries and shows. In one case, I attended an event where participants kneaded udon noodle dough with their feet while dancing to an experimental DJ! (We then cooked and ate the noodles.) Another show that stands out for me was a three-hour noise-music show. Despite the length and unremitting experimentalism, the show was packed! Four stony-faced Japanese men surrounded the audience at tables covered in numerous, quite-unexpected objects mixed with tangles of audio cables, and computers. For hours without respite, they manipulated an air stone (a bubbler in a mic’ed goldfish bowl), scraped contact-mic’ed bamboo rakes on the floor, started and stopped tiny crawling robots (their footfalls hugely amplified), thrashed about in piles of bamboo shims, and performed on a range of traditional Japanese instruments. Despite how strange all this sounds, the means fit the aesthetic, and within that aesthetic, I believe I sensed a hint of an ancient, animistic respect that may lie at the root of the Japanese love of creative and the quirky objects.

My trip to Taiwan in mid-December was the opposite extreme from this chaotic, kinetic performance. I went to Taiwan specifically to attend the 2013 International Workshop on Computer Music and Audio Technology (WOCMAT) at Kainan University in Luzhu, a town near Taipei. This conference brought together computer-music composers and academics from all over East Asia, as well as a few performers I had met earlier this year in Australia. While staying in Taiwan, I arranged to stay with a family in the countryside, a very different experience from either Tokyo or Taipei. I also had several days to explore the country, and I even made it to a wonderful sound installation—Shuanglian Sound Environment, by Tsai Kuen-lin, at Taipei Metro Shuanglian Station—that overlays the structure and environment of a modern Taipei train station with the sounds of a historic station that once stood on that spot.

Back in Japan, I discovered that the Japanese Ministry of the Environment defined “100 Soundscapes of Japan” in 1996, as part of the precious cultural heritage of the nation—to my knowledge, the only list of its kind in the world by an official government agency. In the last few weeks, I’ve set out to experience and record some of these unique sound environments. (This brings me back to the “singing sands” at Kotogahama Beach.) Other soundscapes I’ve visited recently include suikinkutsu (a kind of audio-based ornament found in traditional temple gardens), uguisubari (floorboards specially built to squeak as a kind of medieval security system), and two of the three Peace Bells in Hiroshima. My next and final destination before returning to Tokyo will be the Inland Sea, where several remote islands host a surprising collection of sound art pieces installed in traditional Japanese homes, nestled among fishing villages and rocky coastlines.

My next quarter will be dominated by the South American leg of this adventure. A number of leads have emerged which incline me to start in Argentina, not Ecuador, as I had planned. I began to consider this alternative in Australia after meeting Dr. Gerardo Dirié, a composer of Argentine extraction, who urged me to make contact with the Orchestra of Indigenous Instruments and New Technologies in Buenos Aires. In addition, databases of South American computer-music composers list three times as many Argentine, computer-music composers as the next three most numerous nationalities combined. I may well find that Ecuador holds equally fertile opportunities later in the spring, but to start with, I plan to fly to Buenos Aires on February 9th.

Leave a comment