Interview mit Yutaka Makino

Das Gespräch fand am 2. November 2010 im Wellenfeld-Studio des elektronischen Studios der TU Berlin statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

The first question is somewhat stupid. I imagine a young boy playing a Mozart sonata, thinking: "Oh, this is nice, but I would rather be going chchrzch."

(lacht) I was never interested in the virtuosity in music. I was always interested in originality or independancy from mainstream music. So that is why I started looking for alternatives in different types of genres. The first could be experimental rock music going toward more instrumental music like Xenakis. And I was also starting to shift more towards elektronic music, which was Gottfried Michael Koenig, Xenakis, Herbert Brün, that type of music was the kind I found the most interesting and could be more expressive for my taste. So that is how my interest shifted from being a young kid, interested in music, punk rock, but looking for some experimental alternatives to that.

And you were a listener in the beginning.


Then how did you become someone who made this music.

It is a long story. I studied earth science, and I was more interested in chaos theory and dynamic systems. And when I was making noises with guitars, making experimental music, I was frustrated about the actual content of the music. So I tried to deploy my background, what I had learned in college, which was the dynamic systems of the earth and growing of crystals. So I was trying to implement those ideas into music. And that was the first encounter with computer music, which had actually already been developed in Europe, which I never heard when I was in Japan. But that was actually a good cause for me for shifting towards electronic music with a completely different background. Maybe Xenakis had the same idea, so I always refer to him as my biggest influence.

When you talk about dynamic systems and crystallization, we are talking about algorithms?

It could be translated into algorithms, but I am more interested in this kind of emerging behaviour or emerging structures, which is not a decision by the composer himself, but more like a conversational creation between the computer, the software or the algorithm and the artist, myself.

So you try to create a situation where there is a dialogue with the machine.


The machine gives you answers, and you give answers to the machine?

They behave me back, so I actually try to contrabehave. I don't have 100 percent control. So it is more of a struggle rather than answering each other.

When you build a system like this, is there a sound image in your head. Do you know what it is going to sound like?

I tend to prefer a sound, that is more or less full spectrum. So my sound in general has a broad spectral distribution over the entire frequency. So that I tend to deploy as a possibility into my programme, so that I can have control over tendencies of the system, not exactly which tone, there is no tone in the music, I try to make it as abstract as possible. That is why I try to inherit all kinds of possibility in the frequency.

Why abstract?

That is the idea I got from the sixties and seventies, from what was called systems art or process art, where an idea could be abstracted through a process, experiencing a process, that is experiencing time, so this for the first time involved the idea of time into the pieces, and in my musical pieces time is always the most basic function. So I try to capture this idea of time but in a broader sense, not in the sense of sequence, but more as a process over time.

So the time of the piece is also the time of the process.


Does the piece then come to an end by itself?

Yes. I am not sure what piece you are talking about but most of my recorded pieces that have been done for the CD format, they are all about one process. The shortest piece is about 3 seconds, the longest piece is about 3 minutes. So it depends on how I execute it, what the situation of the system is, and so on.

So the 3 second piece is also a process by itself?

Yes. Just early termination by itself.

You mentions system art and process art. You also mentioned the idea of abstraction. That means leaving out the depicting and expressive qualities of the sounds. Do you avoid these aspects?

My music is not about human emotions, that type of expression. It is more about gestures and movements of the sound materials. That is the reason why I deploy systems that have, I wouldn't say that there is 100 percent no emotional content, but that stay away from any romaticism or classical emotional expression.

I often find that a lot of electronic music is very abstract content-wise, but becomes very emotional when you listen to it. One reacts physically. The noise might just trigger an physiological alert. Whatever. It's not that I start shaking and trembling, but it is not completely cold. How do you listen to your own music? Do you transcend the system when listening to the music?

I am not sure I understand what you mean by "transcending".

The music is more that just the system. The formula is not the piece. The sound and the communicative function of sound lies beyond the system. I don't mean it to sound religious.

Right. I am interested in emerging content and emerging meaning in the music. Not in music which has been defined as music by the history of music. I am more interested in the question, what can be music. So it is less emotional in the classical sense, but I am also interested in what arises between the audience and the piece itself. So there is some type of meaning that emerges. It is not about me delivering a certain meaning to the audience. It is not about me and the computer in conversation, but is also the audience and my piece, who are involved in this conversation, from which the meaning might arise. It doesn't have to be called music.

This conversation could also be a struggle like between you and the computer.

Yes. That is why I try to make pieces as abstract as possible, which then could be translated as "could be wind", "could be a thunderstorm", could be anything. But I always try to leave the material in-between sounds.

You mentioned your liking of full spectrum sound. Is that a personal preference. Or is it a conclusion that derives from certain premises?

It is based on experience and perception of my pieces and the process of making the pieces. I am trying to create a perceptual space. And this kind of situation requires different types of frequency to stimulate the audience's perception, so in that sense it helps me to create a new kind of environment for the audience.

It is rich and gives you a lot of possibilites, of course. I am not sure I understand.

For instance, if you add a low frequency to a wave field and you utilize a higher frequency, so that it is not just a surrounding plane, but it can stretch out to different dimensions in the music. So if I have a full spectrum I have control over the entire environment. Not just the horizontal plane to move around in. I am not interested in sound moving around, but how I can create an environment where people can immerse themselves.

When you start a process and the process becomes audible, are you sometimes disappointed? Do you change things and start over? Or do you take it as it is?

The depends on if it is a CD or a recorded medium, is it a concert situation or an installation. All of that has a different meaning to me. A CD is a one to one discourse. So it is different from my compositional pieces, where I want people to have different perception in different part of the installation or the audience, so they can experience different landscapes. But on a CD there is only one environment.

The spacial component is very important. Is stereo a handicap?

I'd rather use mono or wave field at the moment. So that is my answer to that. I don't make stereo pieces in general. I used to, but it doesn't have any meaning for me anymore to make stereo pieces.

But mono and wave field also opposed to 4, 6, 12 and 16 channels?

Wave field has its own advantage, which I use a lot. Actually I can create an emerging component inside of the environment by using more complex phasing interferences, which you can here but are not in the sound files, but only by phase cancellation does this sound emerge. So that is the component I am interested in. So that is the reason why I don't do any other type of work at this moment.

What happens when you play live? Do you play with other people?

I used to. I used to play with Takuro Mizuta Lippit, also known as DJ Sniff. He is artistic director at STEIM in Amsterdam. So we used to collaborate together as Audile, which is a duo. We did performances in an improvisational context.

You played in Cologne recently.

Yes, I did. I played at the Nachtjournal festival.

And those were not improvisations

They were not improvisations, but I don't have any fixed structure in general when I perform. It is always fluid in the sense that I can correspond to the place itself. Because all my performances now are totally dependent on acoustics. And also the speaker setup and the nature of the speakers. So according to those components I have to change my setup sometimes. And also that changes the setup of speakers according to the acoustics.

You are making the music rare by that. I becomes hard to get it performed. On the other hand there are MP3s; the music is full of audio files. And you create a situation where it becomes difficult to listen to your music in a proper way. Is it about retreat? About listening, I would guess.

Music is more about the experience for me. Listening is part of it. But it is not just about listening with your ears, but it is a full body experience. That is why I use the full spectrum to stimulate the whole body of the audience and the spectators. Making music more site-specific is my interest, and not distributing music in an MP3 format.

I was talking about the social aspect also, and the economic aspect. Sharing and selling it. Of course you can say, that doesn't interest me. And I choose a different setup for aesthetic reasons. At the same time the retreat is a side effect that you have to live with. And it hasn't become a problem for you?

It could be a problem, of course. But so far I am in a situation where it is not a problem. And I feel that I am quite lucky that I can still do that kind of work. Without going into so many compromises. Of course there are budget limitations, but so far the organizers have been quite cooperative and I have had good opportunities.

I guess one doesn't have to make it problem, when it is in fact not a problem. Have you written instrumental music?




Did you study composition?


The computer has always been your instrument. But there was a time where you played the guitar?

No, actually I started making sound pieces maybe five years ago. That was the first time I created electronic pieces seriously. Before that I was more interested or I was working more towards installations and art works. The reason I picked up this material, the sound material, was because I was more interested in immaterial material. Such as air, could be a fog, could be a light. And sound was the material I found to be the most insteresting and I felt most comfortable with. In a way I could translate my idea into practice rather straight forward. So that is the reason why I shifted toward sound and electronic music. Which has the most abstract material, in the sense that there are not so many associations with other things like an instrumental sound does.

You never played on analogue synthesizers?

I had a couple of analogue synthesizers, but I never utilized them the way I utilized my computer.

OK. A technical question: You use different softwares?

I use different softwares, as normal as Max/MSP and Supercollider, but I also use Mathematica, I use a 3D software to generate a 3D form that can be translated into sound. So the computer for me has different types of environment where I can easily sculpt many things and turn them into sound.

And it is all done on the computer for the first to the last moment.


Until it reaches the speaker, obviously.


But there is never a piece of paper, a pencil, notes or a sketch?

I never studied music. I can't write notes.

No, no, not notes as in musical notes, I wasn't expecting you to write a C#, but more as in sketching an idea.

The thing is, these are not scorable pieces. And there is no representation. So there is no reason for translating music into graphical expression so far.

I would like to talk about the titles. They give the sound a meaning. Are they of any importance?

Giving a title to the pieces is also a struggle. Sometimes I use a term which comes from natural science or numerical numbers, but there are also titles that have little association with so-called music. So I try to stay away from the classical meanings in music, trying to add a new dimension to the music. I am hoping. I am not sure I have succeeded, but that was my intention.

Marcel Duchamp once called the titles of surrealistic paintings an invisible colour. It doesn't have have to do anything with what you see. But it will shape your perception. With music it seems to be similar. Your collaboration with Lee Gamble on Entr'acte is a cassette tape. Does that seem to be a good medium.

It was a surprise. Lee Gamble is a good friend of mine. We were talking about doing a collaboration, because we have a similar approach to music. And the cassette tape came as a proposal from him and his label, Entr'acte. So I took it as an opportunity to try out this medium which I had never done before. It is good to have two sides, unlike a CD or a MP3.

It is funny that you say "new medium".

It is a new medium for me. I had cassettes but have never done a piece for one.

It's special just because of the noise that is already on the tape itself. Have you heard it on tape?

No. I am still waiting.

There was one thing I forgot to ask about making music on the computer. The sound generation process, it is very noisy. So there is a noise generator at the beginning, and this noise is somehow sculpted? Is that correct?

It is not really a noise source. Recent pieces use additive synthesis, but it is not controlled by knobs or anything. I use the idea of collective behaviour. Sometimes I use flocking algorithms. How the birds flock. Most of my pieces or almost all of my pieces are generated by behaviour of those agents in the computer. So I utilize the behaviour of some sort of system. Or the behaviour of systems in general.

Each tone is then a tone and it changes according to the movement of one bird in the flock? The frequency changes? The sound quality changes?


So the computer has the movement of the flock with so many points and there are as many tones as there are birds.

Yes. I call them agents instead of saying birds. (lachen) Each agent has his own sound material, so that depends of the position of the agent. It might change pitch or frequency or amplitude. So when many agents flock together they create this kind of additive synthesis.

OK. It's not just about sine tones.

No. Each one has a unique wave form.

I see. For me additive synthesis always has to do with sine tones. Maybe I read too much about Cologne in the fifties.

No, but it is true. It used to be an additive of sine ways. But I changed that so that each agent has a unique waveform for himself.

Is Berlin the first place in Europe you've live in?

No, I studied in Holland.

In Den Haag?

Yes. I studied art science.

Not at Sonology?

I attended Sonology for a year. But I studied art science which has to do with new media art practice.

And this was before you came to Berlin?

First I went to Chicage to study art and technology, and sound, where the former DAAD guest Nic Collins my teacher.

But in Japan you studied earth science?

Yes, earth science and environmental science. And after that I moved to Chicago. I am now doing my PhD at the University of California in Santa Barbara with Curtis Roads.

While you are living in Berlin?


You talked about liking punk rock in your youth. There has come a lot of radical music from Japan. Where you involved with any Japanese musicians? Or do you feel as a part of the tradition of Japanese electronic music?

I was never active as a musician in Japan. So I don't consider myself as a part of the Japanese noise scene. Of course I listen to them, and of course I am fond of their music. But I am trying to take a different path. That is why I moved away from Japan and to Europe and the US.

I see. Musicians like Toshimaru Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide seem to be a different generation already.

Of course they are quite famous, as you know.

I would like to talk about one of your pieces, just as an example. It should be one of the stereo pieces which allows you to describe the process and which would be comprehensible for the listener of the piece.

For instance, the piece called ephemera. I already mentioned that I use agents to create sound materials. So 100 percent of the material for that piece was generated with a Max patch which is based on this agent behaviour. Where there are simultaneous groups of agents, that move in different directions and have different types of attraction to the center of the agent group. You don't have to hear it that way, but that is how I made the piece.

Is there also a process. This came to mind when you were talking about the flock, because there doesn't seem to be a process there. Or does the flock have a goal? When is the flock done?

That is where my decision comes in: I control the tendencies of the system. How the flocks are attracted to the center of the group: that I can control. How many attraction forces there are and how the dynamic shifts, and how the speed changes. I control the components, which have an effect on the whole system. I don't control each of the agents to go to any specific place, but I am guiding them inside the space.

Is there a beginning and an end?

There is no end for this purpose in this Max patch.

It could go on ...

... forever.

God forbid. Great. What is the purpose of such a flock? It is not just a gathering. It is also about creating hierarchies?

It is about creating a situation where the emergent behaviour takes place.

But why is it important for a bird or a fish?

That isn't really my point.

Oh, I know. I am just curious. Are there birds that are more important than others?

No, that is the point of this behavioural system. It may be true for penguins, but the bird flock it is more about creating a mass in order to protect themselves from predators. So it is not at all about hierarchies. Everything is treated equally. That makes the system quite interesting. It has more dynamics than having one bird control the rest.

But this is not important for your music.

This is important for my music. That is the way I utilize the behaviour which is quite unique. And I am always fascinated when I create different types of systems with new types of behaviour.

But it doesn't have to do with politics and a utopian society?

Yes and no. Everything I do is political in the sense that when you present something it can't not be political. Whatever you do is political. You can't get away from that. But it is not about propaganda. My idea is that collective behaviour, be it humans, be it animals, create emergent behaviour of some sort. So you don't have to copy existing collective behaviour, but creating a new type of collective behaviour is the kind of research I do.