At the risk of sounding like a salesman, I want to tell you about a promotional event that happened Wednesday night at Southpaw in Brooklyn, not because I'm particularly enchanted by what was being sold - I'm more in awe of the way the event was put together. Yamaha hired a bunch of excellent experimental electronic musicians to sell its blinky handheld version of the future, the Tenori-on. Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot, Pole, I Am Robot and Proud, Sutekh, Safety Scissors and Nathan Michel were given one of the instruments a few weeks before the mini tour (NYC and San Francisco) began, and each created a set that was based on Tenori-on to some degree. Here's what it looks like:
Robert Lippok, Sutekh, and Nathan Michel used the small but functionally expansive unit to create almost every aspect of their performances; the lights glow on both sides of the instrument, so while they programmed beats, melodies, and soundscapes on the fly the audience was able to see from the other side exactly which buttons were being pressed.
I Am Robot and Proud and Safety Scissors used the device sporadically throughout their performances, and Pole, who put on the most entrancing performance of the night, only seemed to be using Tenori-on a little bit, mostly to trigger the internal synthesizer sounds - they sounded kind of limp on top of the rest of his throbbing basslines and expansive reverb.
The middle of the set, though, was the real-deal pitch of the night: the creator, Toshio Iwai, took the stage for about an hour to describe in vivid detail how the Tenori-on evolved from concept to completion. And it was a pitch straight from the heart, unlike anything I've ever witnessed.
Toshio is a media artist in the purest and most accomplished sense: he considers himself a visual artist, and has spent most of his life finding ways to make music accessible to people in visual languages. He described getting a German music box long ago, one that used a hole punch system to trigger notes. He produced a punch card of "Happy Birthday," and actually played it live on stage. Then, in a twist that brought a twinkle to every software geek's eye, he stuck the punch card in backwards and cranked out his own version of "Unhappy Birthday." Clever!
The story of Tenori-on unfolded from there: in his quest to build a device that would make electronic music composition easy for everyone, he took cues from everyone from Piet Mondrian (his paintings can be flipped in any direction and still be functional, like the Tenori-on) to early music computers and drum machines (from...you guessed it...Yamaha) to many-time collaborator and Yellow Magic Orchestra guy Ryuchi Sakamoto. Here's a piece he made in 1996 with Ryuchi, where he played the piano and notes "flew" out of it and bounced onto another human-free piano that played the notes again.
After the audience was escorted through the heartfelt concept stage, another slideshow came that showed highlights from every part of the design phase. And I mean like every part, from cute early sketches
to a five-minute video, obviously shot on Toshio's cameraphone or something, of a robot polishing the fancy magnesium frame of a production Tenori-on at the Yamaha factory ("each one takes ten minutes to polish!" he exclaimed, "making this almost like a handmade instrument.")
So thorough was our introduction to the heart and soul of the little device and its creator that it wasn't even very shocking or out of line when Toshio compared himself to Dr. Leon Theremin: both of them, he hoped, had created new paradigms in instrumentation that would be remembered for their uniqueness for generations.
The audience, surprisingly less than 80% male, was made up almost entirely of people who might potentially buy a $1200 Tenori-on, and who would be impressed that artists like these would be using an instrument like this. Kind of like: Pole is to Tenori-on as Slash is to a Marshall stack or a Les Paul. Product endorsements are about to get a lot more fun, I think: there's a whole youtube account dedicated to showing off the latest musicians to adopt the little funbox. And I'm impressed. There are videos of Battles, Jim O'Rourke, The Books, Mouse on Mars, Atom Heart, and this perplexingly subtitled entry from Four Tet, giddily receiving his instrument in the mail and sitting down on the floor for a first-time jam: