Interview with Atau Tanaka

This short but sweet interview about Tanaka's Global String was never published. In this beautiful installation Atau Tanaka uses the Internet as a musical instrument, in which the connection between two sites serves as a kind of guitar string.

JB: You are a sound artist since when?


Atau Tanaka: I have been a musician since as long as I can remember. As a young child playing the piano, in my studies working in the electronic music studio learning composition. All my studies were in the US. I did electronic music and science at Harvard University. I studied with the composer Ivan Tcherepnin, who is coming out of the Fluxus scene. A russian/chinese composer working in the States with analogue music. Thanks to him I met John Cage and came in touch with those people. Then later I was studying computer music at Stanford University. This is where I met John Chowning, who is the inventor of a digital synthesis called FM synthesis, made from some of these first digital synthesizers. There I shifted from an analogue way of working to a digital way of working. This was in the mid eighties. There was a very close tie between the studio at Stanford and IRCAM in Paris, so I got a fellowship at the end of my studies to come to France to do a year of research at IRCAM. At that point I stayed in Europe because the cultural life was too good for me compared to the US.


JB: What kind of venues do you perform in, and why do you call yourself a musician mostly?


AT: From my background I am really a musician. I am a musician in a time when the definition of music and the definition of sound art are changing and starting to mix more. Because of this I find my work being presented more outside of a pure contemporary music context in places like the DEAF festival at V2, festivals of media art, of technology based art. I also find myself in the musical world in concerts to do with experimental music or the underground scene. My interest is to take my background as a studied composer (it was never really interesting for me to stay in the academic music world), to break out of that and at the same time-share what I have learned in my trajectory with the world of visual arts or mixed media or experimental underground music.


JB: I met Brian Eno at the Doors of Perception, and he was actually not very enthusiastic about certain developments in music technology, let's say. He was not really sharing my interest in music through the internet for instance because in his opinion with every new technology you can almost hear from the music that is made when exactly this music was made, because of the specific synthesizer they used, because of the software they used etc. Do you see a possibility for artists to escape that? Or would you know good examples to pose to somebody like Brian Eno and say: "Your pessimism could be removed somehow..."


AT: There's two things there. One is, if it is a specific question of  'is the network an interesting place to do music?', then I would say: we cannot say yes or no whether the Internet is a good medium or not for music. It is a question of: what is our imagination as artists with respect to this medium to create new work for it.


JB: Appearantly a lot of artists working with new media are satisfied already when they know how to make something with this new technology instead of going to the depths of making a truely artistic piece. Would you share this opinion, or would you say there is an escape there...


AT: There is definitely an escape. Maybe this technology means it is easier for everyone to make music, but this is what we have always said is the power of new technologies: it should have a democratizing force. But the fact that it has a democratizing force does not guarantee there is good work coming out. For good work to come out we always have to explore deeper and find the voice of any new medium. If we associate today music on the Internet with Napster and mp3 and copying CDs, then I say this is really only a limitation of how we imagine the way the Internet is being used for music. This is why for my musical projects in using the net I am taking a different approach. The new project I have does use mp3 files, but in a different way then copying CDs. In this way I try to find for myself what is the characteristic or personality of each medium to make music. In that way I am thinking of each medium like a musical instrument. A violin and a flute can play melodies nearly in the same pitch register, but they sound very different of course. Each instrument has its own personality to be able to articulate different kinds of sounds. Each technology has the ability to articulate different kinds of music.

In this way, with that idea, the fact that we say: ok, we can timestamp each kind of music and hear what era it was done in from which synthesizer they have used or which technology they have used... this is true and maybe it is not such a bad thing. Then we can say: this synthesizer has a certain kind of sound, it has this voice, and it has this personality. It is tied to time. We are living in time. The fact that something is timestamped does not make it cheaper. It is a reflection of the time we are in and I think it is more interesting to find the characteristics of this time, these machines, their voice, and their personality. From that one can maybe make a kind of work that surpasses time. Then this becomes very interesting. But it is always one in relation to the other. I think the pure goal of making a timeless artwork is a bit an outdated model for art production anyway. Maybe we say the music of Beethoven is timeless, but at the same time for me it is music of the 19th century. We can hear in the synthesizers he is using (his orchestra, his piano, his writing, his language of tonal harmony) it is timestamped in that time. But he is a composer that has lasted and is remembered more then other composers from that era, because with that language, with this timestamped sound he has made something that maintains a compelling interest for us at a later time in history. This I have no control over. I just try to do work as well as I can and we see what happens.


JB: Do you think that with a technology that has quite severe limitations, like the time delay on the Internet, it is very hard for an artist to rely or work with what you called 'anticipation'? It is almost as if the artist then starts to play with himself with some kind of background instead of playing in this background rather then in a collaboration maybe. I am wondering how an artist can keep his sensitivity, his intuition, all these things that mattered so much in the twentieth century? Is it still in order to work with those?


AT: Yes! These questions you raise, of whether anticipation in time, time delay and the responsiveness of a system are rich for a musician are very much the topics I am dealing with in these pieces. If a musician has to anticipate, to catch the entrance of a conductor, then he is working in what I call 'negative time'. He is working in the time that approaches the moment when he is supposed to be there. When in a network the delay is longer then we say the negative time scale is stretched somehow. The musician has to anticipate more. I don't think this creates a situation where the remote sound becomes a background. This again would be a question of how the musician is dealing creatively with the situation. For myself, the projects where I have explored this, the Global String uses a direct network connection to another location where the delay is very long. We have maybe ten seconds of delay from one side to the other. I have worked in '95, '96, with video conferencing systems that are making direct digital telephone connection via isdn lines between two concert stages. Here the latency in time was about one second. Half a second to go, half a second to come back. Again a significant delay, but something that was manageable somehow in a musical way. To these kind of problems there can be technical solutions or there can be musical solutions. My work as an artist is to find musical solutions to these problems. If I propose a network concert to a musician often the question is: how do we get rid of the delay?