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CROSS PLATFORM : Toshiya Tsunoda

by Jim Haynes
originally published in The Wire, 252: February 2005

"I try to observe the vibrations of everyday spaces and seek to find new different perspectives in listening to these spaces through my recordings," says Toshiya Tsunoda about his ongoing body of field recordings. For over 15 years, Tsunoda has been wandering the industrial landscapes around his home in Yokohama, Japan and documenting the aural phenomena of these boundary spaces where manmade and natural forces collide. "In effect, I am researching the aural conditions of those spaces with my microphones. I often return to the same locations, and I am continuously recording the sounds of those spaces. Many of these locations I have known since my childhood. I have witnessed plenty of changes to those locations. So these places can provide more reliable recordings than a space I have visited for the first time. Of course, you can go to a strange place and you can record an unexpected sound. But when you find an unexpected vibration in an everyday space, it's more exciting, isn't it?"

Tsunoda takes great care in explaining the context of his recordings, and he is quick to mention that he never processes any of his sounds. For example, on his recording Extract From Field Recording Archive #1 (Häpna), Tsunoda offers incredibly detailed accounts of a recording made at Misaki Bay in 1996: "A ship moored at the wharf and the surrounding environment provide the source for this vibration. The 60Hz stationary wave, generated by the vibration of the ship's engines, is fixed but the size of the amplitude of vibration shifts in a large cycle. Also, overtone vibrations of 125, 185 and 365Hz were observed. These stationary waves are related to the sound of the ship and the vibrations of small boats going past at the same time. In the latter half of the recording, the ship moored alongside the wharf close to the recording point moves away from the edge of the old market." As potentially dry as this recording may seem from Tsunoda's description, the recording opens up an expansive sound field of subtle modulating frequencies and dramatic suspensions of time and space. Sounds such as these would be the envy of minimalists like Eliane Radigue and Phill Niblock, and are commonplace within the Tsunoda catalogue. Tsunoda continues, "As for my field recording, I do not intend to recreate the atmosphere of a location; and I am not interested in recording special situations of historical incidents. I do not process any of my recorded material, and I do not record for the sake of making music or simply discovering interesting acoustics. I am also not interested in analysing these sounds scientifically. It is just the observation of a physical vibration of an actual space. These recordings may be regarded as a fragment of the real work or an extract of a peculiar condition of a certain place. When I approach these very concrete occurrences with microphones, the resulting recorded sound appears abstract. Concreteness and abstraction meet in an actual space. I am deeply interested in this contrast."

Each of Tsunoda's albums are extracts from his large collection of DAT tapes of field recordings, which he culls in order to piece together his albums. His choices are based on simple unifying themes of solid object vibrations, air vibrations, and the spatialization of environmental sound. Yet as he demonstrates his recent Scenery of Decalcomania (Naturestrip), Tsunoda applies a concentrated rigor to the act of perception.. For on this recording, he qualifies perception as an adhesive which binds the environmental landscape, the observer, and sound as a separate, but interconnected entity for which there are countless possibilities for interpretation. Tsunoda continues, "Please imagine yourself standing in an open space where you can hear environmental sounds, most of which are quiet and ambiguous, compounded by their various vibration sources. All of this sound is mixed together as an aggregate of distant cars, the noise of a town, and other external machines. It can be difficult to determine what or sometimes even where a source of a vibration is. However, particular vibrations can be observable within the small spaces of a bottle or a pipe. When those large vibrations intersect the cavity of a small space, it causes a peculiar vibration within that small hollow space. This change to an environmental sound and its specific frequencies sets up a relationship between the original sound and the means by which those sounds are observed. This problem of the world observed from the limited consciousness range is one of the most important themes which I am pursuing."

Tsunoda's installation work shares this inquisitiveness about the conditions for the reception of sound, perhaps heightened by an architectural immediacy of sound which does not always translate through recorded media. In August 2004, Tsunoda exhibited Listening To The Reflection Of Points at the WestSpace gallery in Melbourne, Australia. For this installation, Tsunoda fitted the gallery's concrete floor with a long, thin, polished metal box that housed a number of small speakers positioned inside at regular intervals. Tsunoda ran a fluctuating white noise signal through this linear speaker system in such a way as to make the soundwave physically move through the space. However, he also placed commonplace objects -- shells, plates, vases, etc -- on top of this metal box. The physical properties of these objects were enough to reflect the uniform sound signal, changing its pitch, attack, decay, and directionality.

Michael Graeve, the director of WestSpace, recounts, "After a short speech welcoming Toshiya to Melbourne, I asked for the audience to remain still for a short while in order to hear the work. The crowd of one hundred or so calmed down, but there was nothing to be heard. Within seconds I feared that their patience for a silent work would be soon at an end. As people's hushed breath and feet shuffling and wine sipping and clothes rubbing subsided more and more, the group began to hear the quiet rhythm of Toshiya's sounds. We started hearing the piece at its slowest point, and in two more stages the piece went from slow to fast. When the fast cycle finished there was laughter and clapping, and the feeling of having been privy to a privileged, communal moment. And with the anticipation of the audience, what was a simple structural/formal principle became a moment of unanticipated humour."

Tsunoda aptly describes this piece with a Zen simplicity that belies a set of complex relations which often go unnoticed: "In listening to the sound of our footsteps as we walk down the road, our footsteps echo in the surrounding area. The energy we use for each step and the place where each footstep falls mean the surrounding environment is not in the same condition as before. Also, the position of our ears, which pick up these vibrations, is moving due to the fact that we are walking. A very subtle Doppler Effect is probably happening to the sound of our footsteps as we walk. In this way, we can sketch the occurrence of listening to footsteps with our own body."

Thanks to Michael Graeve and WestSpace.