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Crosscurrents in Early Electronic Music of Japan

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Continuing our geographic excursion on crosscurrents in early electronic music, this episode focuses on classic tape music of Japan from two primary sources and polar opposite practices: the NHK broadcasting studio for electronic music and the independent collective of artists known as Group Ongaku, who were mainly students at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Whereas the NHK studio, part of the Nippon (knee-PON) national broadcasting system, began experimenting with electronic music on tape in 1955, Group Ongaku took a live approach to electronic music in performance, forming in 1958 and giving themselves the name Group Ongaku in 1960.

One aspect of early tape music that fascinates me is that the work of one country could be so distinct from that of other countries, despite the fact that they were experimenting with the same technology. What was happening in tape music was culturally distinct in France, Germany, and the United States, as we have seen in earlier crosscurrents episodes. And while Japan was only slightly later to take up tape music, and while they drew inspiration from Germany both in studio design and musical style, it did not take long for their electronic tape music to become culturally distinct and incorporate elements of Japanese music. You will hear the transition in the examples in this episode, from imitating the processes of the Germans and their serial music practices, to the incorporation of Japanese instruments and more importantly, an Asian cadence or sense of expectation in the music that is distinct from their Western counterparts. Even the improvisation of Group Ongaku illustrates this, and while they were inspired by Cage and Tudor in the United States, Cage and Tudor themselves had originally been inspired by Japanese Zen cadences, so the music of Group Ongaku, in a real sense, represents a return to the original spirit that was appropriated by the West.

As I have said, the establishment of the NHK electronic music studio in Japan was inspired by practices from the Western Hemisphere, specifically Germany. The German approach to tape music, then still fledgling, was to use only pure electronic sounds as the material for composing tape music. This concept quickly took hold in Japan, forming an active interchange of ideas between the two countries as early as 1954. It was about this time that staff members of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, or NHK took an interest in the potential of tape composition for the creation of radiophonic effects and music. Members of the NHK staff actually translated a handbook from the WDR Cologne studio into Japanese, and this document reportedly became their blueprint for the creation of their own electronic music studio. Composer Makato Moroi (1930-2013) visited Cologne in 1955 to view the German studio first-hand. Upon his return, he worked with fellow experimenter Toshiro Mayuzumi to guide NHK into the creation of a studio of its own. The studio was founded by a coalition of NHK radio producers, engineers, and composers and the first composers associated with the studio included Toshiro Mayuzumi, Minao Shibata, Joji Yuasa, Makoto Moroi, and Toshi Ichiyanagi. Toru Takemitsu also became a regular user of the studio by the late 1950s. Works by all of these composers, with the exception of Shibata, are included on the NHK recording featured in this episode.

The original NHK studio was equipped much like the German studio in Cologne and featured a wealth of tone-generating, audio-processing, and recording equipment. There were 6 stepped sine wave oscillators and 3 continuously variable sine wave oscillators; tape recorders, 2 ring modulators; a Band pass filter with 32 bands, various sound mixers, and some instruments including an ondes martenot, and the German-made keyboard instruments the Monochord for generating sawtooth signals, and the Melochord.

The first pieces completed at the NHK studio acknowledged the influence of the German studios and had an inherently mathematical structure. Mayuzumi completed three early works at the studio, all based on the process used by Karlheinz Stockhausen to compose Studies number I and II; these were strictly serial pieces in which all parameters of the sound, including envelopes, were determined by using numerical plans. While none of these three pieces are included on the recording from the NHK featured in this podcast, Mayuzumi’s fourth tape piece, composed with Makoto Moroi, is found here and follows a similar composition method.

By the mid-1950s, the NHK studio was one of the world’s leading electronic music facilities. But it wasn’t the only advocate of experimental music in Japan. The work of composer Takehisa Kosugi (1938-2018) and Group Ongaku represented a transition from the tape music studio of the 1950s to live, improvised, and experimental composition that took shape in the 1960s. Kosugi and his colleagues represented a decided break from the German-influenced work of the NHK studio toward a more indeterminate trend in music as influenced by John Cage. In 1961, Kosugi co-founded Group Ongaku, an avant-garde performing ensemble, with several other Japanese experimenters. They included Yasunao Tone on saxophone and tape, Chieko Shiomi on piano, Mikio Tojima on cello, Genichi Tsuge on guitar, Shukou Mizuno on cello, drums, and tape, and Kosugi on violin, saxophone, and tape. The group gave its first public performance in Japan in 1961 and, during the course of their short two-year tenure, sparking interest in a type of electronic and experimental music in Japan that was disconnected from Western music, inspiring a new generation of Japanese composers.

In this episode we will hear six works from the NHK studio from the years 1956 to 1967 and three works by Group Ongaku, dating from 1960 and 1961. Details for the tracks are found in the podcast playlist.

Note that I’ve explored vintage Japanese tape music in two previous episodes, 16 and 17. But the works heard in today’s episode are different.

Episode 103

Crosscurrents in Early Electronic Music: Japan


Experimental Music of Japan (1968 Victor)

Album produced and recorded at the NHK Electronic Studio and supervised by K. Akiyama and W. Uenami. The tracks have been slightly reordered to represent the correct chronology of the works.

1. Toshiro Mayuzumi and Makoto Moroi, “Variations Sur” (1956) from (1968 Victor). On this album, this piece was called the first work of electronic tape music produced in Japan. Not so. I know of five earlier works (by the NHK Studio engineers, Mayuzumi, and Shibata) dating back to 1954-1956. This work is also known as “Variations on the Numerical Principle of Seven” and actually dates to 1956, unlike what the liner notes tell us. I have two of those works in the archive and will feature them in a future episode. 14:54

2. Toru Takemitsu, “Sky, Horse And Death (Concrete-Music)” (1958) from Experimental Music Of Japan (1968 Victor). 3:22

3. Joji Yuasa, “Projection Esemplastic (For White-Noise)” (1964) from Experimental Music Of Japan (1968 Victor). 7:40

4. Maki Ishii, “Hamon-Ripples (For Chamber Ensemble, Violin And Taped Music)” (1965) from Experimental Music Of Japan (1968 Victor). 9:53

5. Toshi Ichiyanagi, “Situation (For Biwa, Koto, Violin, Double Bass, Piano and Multiplier)” (1966) from Experimental Music Of Japan (1968 Victor). 6:31

6. Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Campanology (For Multi-Piano)” (1967) from Experimental Music Of Japan (1968 Victor). 8:01

Group Ongaku (2011 Seer Sound Archive)

Remastered at Inoue Onkyo Kikaku by Kazuya Sakagami, Yukio Fujimoto.

1. Group Ongaku, “Automatism” (1960) from Music of Group Ongaku (2011 Seer Sound Archive). Japanese pressing, includes English language insert, edition of 300. Recorded on May 8, 1960 at Mizuno’s house. This is the recording of a live performance for which the players used a piano, a pedal organ, a cello, alto saxophone and various everyday objects such as a vacuum cleaner, radio, an oil drum, dolls, and a set of dishes. The music was spontaneously created and recorded in real-time. Performers were Chieko Shiomi, Mikio Tojima, Shukou Mizuno, Takehisa Kosugi, Yasunao Tone, and Yumiko Tanno. 26:20

2. Group Ongaku, “Object” (1960) from Music of Group Ongaku (2011 Seer Sound Archive). Japanese pressing, includes English language insert, edition of 300. Recorded on May 8, 1960 at Mizuno’s house. Performers were Chieko Shiomi, Mikio Tojima, Shukou Mizuno, Takehisa Kosugi, Yasunao Tone, and Yumiko Tanno. 7:34

3. Group Ongaku, “Metaplasm 9-15” Parts 1 and 2 (1961) from Music of Group Ongaku (2011 Seer Sound Archive). Japanese pressing, includes English language insert, edition of 300. Recorded on September 15, 1961, at Sogetsu Kaikan Hall, Tokyo. Performers: Cello, Mikio Tojima; Cello, Drums, Tape, Shukou Mizuno; Guitar, Genichi Tsuge; Piano, Chieko Shiomi; Saxophone, Tape, Yasunao Tone; Violin, Saxophone, Tape, Takehisa Kosugi. Part 1, 14:16; Part 2, 11:26.

Opening background music, Makoto Moroi, “Shōsanke” for electronic sounds and Japanese traditional instruments (1968) from Experimental Music Of Japan '69 (no. 2) (1969 Victor). Issued also as part of the Prospective 21e siècle series, both Electronic Panorama: Paris, Tokyo, Utrecht, Warszawa Box-Set and self-contained Japanese Electronic Music LP. 13:20.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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