Membrane – Window – Mirror

(The folded worlds of Toshiya Tsunoda)
Michael Pisaro
Issue 3
February 2015

How does the observer take part in what she observes? At what distance does observation take place? How much of what might be observed lies outside of our sensory capabilities? How does the observed observe us? Perhaps we can learn, as Oswald Egger writes, “to observe the obverse.”

The conditions of observation, like those of consciousness itself remain unclear. We move in a fog of uncertain proportions in a reality we hardly grasp. The only clarity we succeed in finding is that which we create by deliberately limiting our view or our point-of-view. Occasionally it happens to us that we find a moment of relatively uncluttered observation, and for a period the fog clears.

Observation is Toshiya Tsunoda’s word for listening, and that shade of difference between the two words (observation/listening) is important. Observation carries an echo of object and objectivity. It places itself between object and subject, in a continuum where the fog of our senses operates.

Tsunoda’s work over the past 20 years explores the complexity of this continuum in a dense variety of radical and often quite beautiful ways.


The microphone is a membrane.

The medium of sound recording can be viewed as a mediator. It is a flexible place between subject and object, like the membrane on the outer wall of a cell. It transfers vibration from one being to another. The receiver perceives the movement of the world outside through the vibration of this membrane. The membrane may approach a kind of transparency, but it cannot truly achieve this; it will always impart something additional to the message it wants to send: distance, distortion, even in some cases, interpretation. It is with this concept that Tsunoda’s work begins in the mid-1990’s, the work of his documented in the four volumes of Extracts.[1]

Tsunoda has often insisted, especially early in his career, that his primary interest is in the phenomenon of vibration. He carefully seeks out locations in which to observe this phenomenon: a stairwell, a pillar, a bottle, a large or a bent pipe. Most are fairly mundane sounding and looking. (Why is it that places which often sound the most interesting, are either difficult places to get to or unattractive places to be?) Most are not too distant from his home in Yokohama. The precise locations are usually given, and the recording situation described. In his early work, he also usually characterized the kind of material he used in the recording.

The sounding world is porous.

A whole category of Tsunoda’s objects is described as “solid” (including, but not limited to the Extract From Field Recording Archive #3: Solid Vibration). His work reveals that they are also (perhaps mainly) “fluid”—in that they are moving and changing at all times (hence the recordable vibrations). The world we see looks stable, but the world we learn to hear, with Tsunoda’s help, is in constant flux.

The most vivid scene in The Matrix is when Neo begins to see the world transform before his eyes, as it bends and flexes, and then changes to streams of numbers. It is vivid because we know this is the case: the world is different from the evidence given by our direct perception. In The Matrix the illusion of the world is maintained by a computer program, hence, when Neo sees the numbers, he is seeing a real world not apparent to others. This is a relatively simple way of showing that things are not as they seem, that there’s another reality hidden in what we think we perceive. In Tsunoda’s work there is a similar impulse, but allows us to hear that the relationship between these things is not simple; that it operates in a whole variety of non-linear, non-dialectical ways[2].

Since everything vibrates, what serves as the process of selection from amongst the vibrating worlds? In Tsunoda’s work observation is not a neutral activity, the vision has to be trained on points of interest. There is therefore an aesthetics that guides the choice of what to observe. One of his earliest preferences was for varieties of standing waves.

Spaces and materials of all kinds reinforce specific frequencies; essentially by creating a reflection of the signal back through the medium in which it occurs. This creates something that is and sounds (relatively) regular or patterned. In musical terms, we hear first and foremost the fundamental tone of the vibrating material. But very often at a secondary level, more softly a whole set of tones may be audible, creating something like a harmonic drone or even a chord. (One could conjecture that the everyday occurrence of this simple fact accounts for the instant familiarity of the drone.)

Listen to track 5, “Nagaura Bay: Solid vibration of a steel plate at a loading area”, from Extract from Field Recording Archive #1, and you will hear a low fundamental (the loudest sound) and a series of quieter sounds above it (which at times seem to form a minor chord). It is steady but not exactly stable. There are other vibrations and other tones interfering with the fundamental tone, causing it to change (a semi-regular beating effect audible throughout the track). We hear a mixture, therefore, of stability (the periodic vibration producing the tone) and instability (the turbulence of the physical system of the solid plate under the influence of the motors of the ships in the area). This very familiar trait of Tsunoda’s music is something I would call quiet turbulence. Audible turbulence is perhaps the first indication in Tsunoda’s work that the worlds we hear are different from the ones see: they are in constant motion; unstable and we hear on one side of the membrane what happens on the other.

I [heart] space.

Sounds are intensities: successive compressions and rarefactions of air molecules. Our ears are extremely acute sensors of these movements, with a complex and very highly developed system for translating these vibrations into “sound.” Who or what ordained that these vibrations would be “heard” as opposed to felt (on the skin)? Our ancestors must have relied on this apparatus to sense danger and food, to determine whether the animal met was predator or prey. How else to account for the sensitivity that lets us hear sounds from miles away (i.e., from distances we can hardly see in any detail, let alone touch)? At some point we no longer need to see to believe: hearing is believing.

Obviously, we also learn to use sound to evaluate, understand, communicate and even sympathize with the activities of those sources (animate or inanimate). So this extremely subtle mechanism gets put to use to read the finest shades of expression, including a vast range of non-verbal sounds. Is there any question about whether the tiniest sonic inflection of a word can become meaningful? There are certainly millions of examples, but if any reminder is needed (and for the pure pleasure of listening one more time), just listen to the first three lines of Le Dépeupleur (Samuel Beckett) as read by Serge Martin:

Séjour où des corps vont cherchant chacun son dépeupleur. Assez vaste pour permettre de chercher en vain. Assez restraint pour que toute fuite soit vaine.
(Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Narrow enough for flight to be in vain.)

Hearing is both a form of investigation and a form of empathy. Listening to Tsunoda, I often sense that a response to space is required that is on par with our ability to interpret speech or music. In the best work of this period something is riding on the outcome of a recording. The fragility of the situation means things can go well or poorly. The caw of a crow can still be bad news.

Does this empathy account for the subtly monastic atmosphere that emanates from “Misaki Bay: Solid vibration of the surface of a concreted wharf where a marine products market used to be” (also from Extract from Field Recording Archive #1)? Here (again) we hear a low fundamental (this time of 60hz, reflecting the rigidity of the material). Experienced listeners of his work will know that low frequency is something that clearly resonates for Tsunoda on a psychological level. In this piece, it develops a kind of throbbing, insistent rhythm. The upper “harmonics” (at 125, 185 and 365 hz) coming and going, apparently the result of boats passing by, leave a distinctly ghost-like presence. This must come in part from the fact that the media (water, air) radiate waves, so that sound comes to us through a whole series of individual reports, more and less direct, both there and not. For me there is the distinct feeling of looking out at something from the other side of a shaded window.

[Brief, parenthetical analysis in the form of a koan:

What is the name of the monk who sings into the curved pipe? (See “Curved Pipe” in Scenery of Decalcomania)]

To return to space.

What accounts for the melancholy of “Bottle at Park” (from Extracts #2)? The “chord” here consists of three elements: a low fundamental (more felt than actually heard), and higher, intermittent, insect sounds. In the center range is a hollow wind, circulating, changing in volume, with a band of distortion at the upper limit. The changes in intensity in this “wind” are sensed as slight changes in the harmonic balance.

Like so much of Tsunoda’s music, there would be no way to hear these sounds without the small microphone that goes inside the bottle. We are both inside and outside. The outside is audible but utterly distorted by the container. The inside is empty, except for the microphone and the air.

My description does not tell you why the piece is so strangely moving. Perhaps this object tells us something about ourselves, or at least about ourselves in certain states: both empty (or hollow) and not fully in touch with the outside world. Our minds are chambers in which thoughts and sounds circulate in the much larger room of that which is unthought (i.e., that which is deliberately avoided or repressed and that which cannot be thought). Unthought is a medium, like air, surrounding us at all times. Will what we think make sense outside of our brains? (This is the kind of question Tsunoda will ask two decades later.) The crickets outside the bottle don’t think about our thoughts, and their sounds will never fully penetrate our consciousness, we will never hear them in their entirety. There is joy or fullness in perception, but sadness too.

The “Drain Hoses” of Extracts #2 (Track 4) produce sounds reminiscent of a bowed contrabass, or a section of them. The low frequencies, here more or less uninflected by upper harmonies, have the texture of multiple layers of friction. The outside world can be dimly, occasionally perceived, from the small opening at the other end of the hose. (At about 8’00″ we hear the astounding sound, for this context, of a car skidding.) The pitch is not entirely stable. The turbulence of the air creates many small deviations, glissandi, articulations, and variations in loudness. Inside the hose there must be many layers of moving air, articulating not just the full length of the space, but also the activity of the inner walls. It is a profound music, grounded very deeply, of uncanny solidity. Here, as elsewhere, a kind of music is made that one we might have wanted to create (with an orchestra?), but in fact can only be found already formed.

The low frequency vibration of “Asphalt Road Surface” (Extracts #3, Track 5) is even more bereft of atmosphere, with just hints above the fundamental. The fundamental varies dramatically in loudness with unstable, edgy shifts. I picture not a road, but some kind of rounded, half-mechanical, half-biological entity, jutting back and forth, in an irregular, slightly threatening way, at about head level. It’s a surreal image, to be sure, but (for me) shows the necessity of getting away from a strictly “scientific” or analytic view of this music. The actual physical characteristics of the recording location (and what we find out about it) are only part of the story. In this case my head is too taken up with the proximate vibration to keep picturing the road. Sound is, obviously, not very much like sight. The uncanny nature of this sonic world tells me as much about what is suppressed or hidden (in me, in you) as it does about the physical system. Which is to say that even “real” objects in the world, have “virtual” properties and processes.

To be a torus, to rhyme with Reimann.

Music is the word we use for sound that follows the actual and the real at once. Music exists in the world of physical vibration and in our head at the same time. We’ll never know, exactly how one connects to the other. At some point between the inner ear and the brain, the transformation of mere “sound” into music occurs. It is more, much more, than a decoding of signals.

So, in music, what is low frequency, otherwise known as bass, about? It is movement from below. The ground is not stable, not on earth, not anywhere. Even the apparently solid sonic dimension of low frequency is curved like a Reimannian manifold. Philip Glass connected Carole King (“I feel the earth. Move. Under my feet.”) with Albert Einstein. For a while disco carried a potential (virtual) movement of social upheaval (there is no ground, no fundament, that’s one reason why we dance). But both stability and movement are relative. One of the attractions of Tsunoda’s music is that it seems to promise a stable situation; but as one listens this is gradually undermined.

So the flexibility of the membrane applies not just to the vertical dimension, but also the horizontal. We walk on a membrane (the unstable ground) even when we walk through a medium (like air).

Throughout his entire body of work, for Tsunoda the microphone remains a membrane. However, it is possible to picture the membrane as being a bit like (or tending towards) a door that can swing open (to field recording) and shut (towards the mechanisms of human perception and thought). In the later work, we start to have a much more complex view of space presented to us, one that adds layers (or folds) the one already present in the early work.


The microphone is a window.

In the recording Ful (1996) by m/s and Tsunoda, a contact microphone is placed on a window. For close to an hour we hear the low, unsteady vibrations of the window (the familiar low frequency of fundamental of Tsunoda). We also hear the abrupt sound of a small window that is warping in response to the atmospheric changes (it sounds as if something is thrown against the window on which the contact mic has been placed). We hear some of the world outside the window: those sounds that reach a certain threshold (mostly birds and vehicles). These sounds are played back into the room in which the recording was made, a feedback loop of sorts. In a certain sense, we become a magnified version of the window by hearing what it hears, by being inside of it.

A closed window is a perfect example of a membrane. It vibrates between inside and outside. It is also a drumhead, a wave and a conduit. For someone standing inside, we are conscious of the fact that those objects on the other side of the window, reflect the fact that they are passing through it–they are distorted by the membrane. The light is a little dimmer, the sounds are a little softer. We are inside, hearing inward, but simultaneously on in the inside hearing outward.

Open the window.

But most windows can be opened, and that changes things. So we open the window, and what do we hear? (Pieces of Air?) The open window forces a confrontation with what is outside and potentially, with the idea of the outside. We are, or can be, as John Ashbery put it, “on the outside looking out.”

When we place a microphone in contact with the outdoor air, there is, at the very least, the illusion that we are achieving some kind of direct contact with the world. Isn’t this the promise of field recording[3]? Attempting to hear the world-as-it-is is based on the desire to transcend human perception.

There is little, at least in the early stages of his work, to indicate that Tsunoda is interested in the transcendent. This early work (i.e., from the 1990’s) is created with clear limits. A largely controlled recording situation is set up (one might at times even call it staged). The location is carefully selected and prescribed. The resulting recording seems to be tightly focused on a narrowly defined register of sonic eventfulness. These conditions conspire to “make music.” That is, they allow structures to emerge that feel as if they were composed. I am continually amazed, for example, by how much the motor + environment of “Air Vibration Of Elevator Motor Room In Stairwell” (Extracts #1) feel like they could be a performance by trombonist Radu Malfatti. The tone and the timing, though obviously random, in a certain sense feel that perfect.

But the sounding world, in its raw, out-of-doors state, is excessive: there is always more to hear than one can recognize. Even though a recording is already a reduction, a location recording nonetheless often presents a complex situation that has to be taken whole to be heard. Many details will elude us. A sampling rate of 44.1k (or 88.2 or 96) is obviously faster than we can directly perceive: we hear the composite it produces, not the interstices. But if one inserts a single foreign sample into the mix it will (or can) be audible. Even this extremely high density of sonic indicators is less dense than the continuity of sound. (With analog there are different but related issues.) We somehow sense that the numerical density of the sounding world is even beyond that of the sophisticated technology, and our ears. The awareness of this excess, I think, creates a sense that we are at least in the vicinity of (if not in direct contact with) the “real” of the outside. The desire to make field recordings is, at its core, driven by its proximity to this limit.

In Tsunoda’s works after the period of the first four Extracts recordings, there is an increasing tendency to include “pure” location recordings along with those of constructed environments. What force was acting upon his music to make him start to include these simpler, more open recordings along with the more controlled work? To be sure, an outdoor location, even when one is not focusing on it, still contains a wealth of vibration (which will remain one of Tsunoda’s core interests). But there is an audible difference in situations that appear mostly under one’s control and situations where contingency will rule.

Some differences in air.

Pieces of Air (2002) is the transitional work. From this point on, Tsunoda will continue and intensify his exploration of the “inside,” with later pieces like “Metal Pieces with High Frequencies,” from Ridge of Undulation moving very much in the direction of abstract electronic music. But at the same time, and with increasing frequency, he takes his work into the relatively uncontrolled outdoor environment. The transition is gradual, and to some degree present even in the earlier work. This is already a significant difference between air vibration and surface vibration. And there is some continuity between open air recording in inside and outside spaces, at least in terms of the kinds of microphones used. A bottle is a small piece of air and a seashore is a large piece. But now the explicit differences between these spaces (or “pieces”) will be explored in his work.

Relatively closed spaces feedback upon themselves, and therefore tend to provide tonal information. This is demonstrated in a beautiful way by the two bottle pieces on Pieces of Air. The 121hz wave in “Bottle + Signal 121hz” is more “in tune” with the vibration of the air in that space than the 111hz wave in the piece immediately following. The two 2’16″ recordings thus move perceptibly from relative stability to turbulence.

“Echo of a Room” is to my mind one of the finest short pieces in the Tsunoda canon. A pure sine tone at a discrete frequency (moving higher in steps as the piece progresses) is projected into a room. The recording is edited so that the sine wave (of about .4 seconds) is heard in the left channel, and as soon as it turns off its resonance in the room is heard in the right channel, for the same duration. Thus for a brief moment after each pure tune, we hear the singular decay of that tone (along with whatever environmental sounds might leak into the gallery). It is a piece whose description does not prepare one for its audition. The instantaneous movement from the “no space” of the tone to the full space of the echo at a steady rhythm creates a strangely recognizable archetype. Haven’t we been hearing this our whole lives, in something close to this form? At the same time: isn’t this one extremely odd sounding piece[4]?

This piece reinforces the sense we might already have gotten from the “membrane” recordings: that a situation can be composed. That is, the circumstances can be set in such a way that they behave in structure like a composition. It ushers in a series of pieces along these lines on the following discs, including, among others, the beautiful “40 Oscillators” and the brilliant “Heater and Amplifier” from O Respirar da Paisagem (2003). But it seems that at some point during this work, Tsunoda starts to recognize found compositions as well.

On Pieces of Air, “Echo of a Room” is preceded by an outdoor recording of “the same concept,” as Tsunoda says in the notes to “Middle of the Hill.” A gunshot-like sound is heard to echo at a regular interval through the field. (It is actually a device placed in a planting field to protect the crop from birds.) Like “Echo of a Room” the signal is in the left and its report is in the right. But the source sound carried along multiple echoes, waves of sound ricocheting against the borders of the space.

“Rocky Coast on a Windy Day” sounds exactly like its description. The turbulence of the wind and water occurs in a much freer, more chaotic way than the controlled environments. The roiling of the waves breaks on to a bed of low frequency noise. The wind and birds wrap themselves inside of the high frequency waves. There is white everywhere–white noise, white foam. Its sound is irresistible but also threatening, with the force of wind, held at bay in the bottle recording, here encountered in something like its raw form.

This low frequency wind is still present on “Cider Forest on a Windy Day,” but here its force is heard (and felt) in the twisting and bending sounds of the wood. The high frequency glides are presumably from the twisting of the wood, but they are also nearly vocal in character. They reveal in sound the folded character of the tree, externalizing this inner song. (Like “Echo of a Room” there is both an internal and an external space, but there they are simultaneous.)

The “Seashore, Venice Beach” (recorded on 1 July 2001, and released on Ridge of Undulation in 2005) is a pure field recording that captures the raw but still gradual transformation of the shift from high to low frequency as a wave turns into its undertow. As a musical device, the pattern of waves is an elegant form unto itself, the physical and the sonic repetition seem necessary. No matter how many times one hears these sounds (in whatever context), they retain something unknown and unknowable. In California, at the edge of one continent, facing another, Tsunoda reaches the external limit of his work in the forbidding uncanniness of the “great outdoors.”

This piece however is immediately followed by another situational composition, “An aluminum plate with low frequencies-1,” a piece that mirrors the wavelike shapes of those heard in “Seashore, Venice Beach”. This concept of mirroring would undergo a radical turn two years later with the Maguchi Bay recordings.

With the various pieces discussed above as templates, one can wind interesting pathways through the three fine albums that followed over the next few years (O Respirar Da Paisagem, Scenery of Decalcomania and Ridge of Undulation).

The ultrasonic life of your speaker cone.

Low Frequency Observed At Maguchi Bay (2007) is a pivotal work in the Tsunoda canon. It deals head-on with several of his obsessions in an extremely elegant and suggestive way (and is, from my perspective, a candidate for one of the most significant works of art in our still young 21st century). The concept seems very simple. Wanting to capture the vibrational movement of a mysterious old pier at the bay (in Miura City), he carried a DAT recorder and contact microphone there and made four recordings. They capture the vibrations of the surrounding area through the medium of the vibration of the pier (itself vibrating because of the movements in the seabed). Like a fusion of the membrane recordings discussed above with the window recordings here, they feel like controlled compositions in the wild, emphasizing the low vibration of the medium, applying a specific kind of filter to the environment (steady-state turbulence). But then Tsunoda does something extraordinary: he sequences each of these recordings on the CD with a mirror track of the same recording, but with all frequency above 20hz cut off. Now as you may know, human hearing does not in practice extend below 20hz (though in special conditions frequencies as low as 10hz have been heard by humans). On top of this, the frequency range of a speaker rarely extends below 40hz (and you need a subwoofer to hear below this properly). (Is a subwoofer that goes below 21hz even commercially available?) Thus, for all intents and purposes, you will not hear anything emanating from the speakers during these mirrored low frequency recordings. But this does not mean nothing is happening. There is of course the ambient sound in whatever space you happen to play the recording. But much more importantly, the bass speaker cone will be moving. Get up close to the cone and watch–or even touch it. It is vibrating, in a visible and tactile (but for us, silent) way. Pure vibration, abstracted of sound. One of the subtlest shades of feeling our senses possess. If you have had this encounter with your speaker, you will not forget it. If you make recordings as works of art or fun, you should not forget it.

Here we are at a crossroads in Tsunoda’s world, one that I continue to find transformative. One way of looking at Tsunoda’s work would be to say that it began to move in a conceptual direction, away from the powerful world of low vibrations and of extra-scenic dimensions, into more abstract structures that represent ideas about listening. But I think that what is shown with this work, with how it works, is that there is a false dichotomy between “concept” and “sound,” just as there is between “inside” and “outside.” The travel between sound and thought isn’t between the physical and mental; they are interwoven, with the tendrils of one reaching into the other. Every sound begins with vibration; we hear some of those vibrations; we feel or see others. Vibration is a physical thought in a world.

It is hard to overstate the potential this seems to open up for making music. The hidden door which Tsunoda finds, swinging back and forth between the environment and the mind, with the ear as a hinge, with the mind composing sound, and sound composing the mind, throws conventional notions of the roles in making music, of composing music, into chaos.

A sonic image for this existed very early in Tsunoda’s work, in “Inside of a Pipe-Radio and Water Level” (recorded on May 4, 1994, released on Pieces of Air). Microphones are placed in two identical pipes at the seashore. Earphones are used to project a sound source (in this case radio broadcasts). In one pipe (left channel), the earphone is above the water line. In the other (right channel) the earphone is at the water line. In the right channel we hear the sound change as the source goes above and below this line with the incoming waves. In this complex situation, sense moves fluidly between perception and construction, between incoming and outgoing, between hearing and imagination.


The microphone is a mirror.

From this distance–of about seven years after the fact–it seems fairly clear to me that Tsunoda began to work with the consequences of his discovery in Maguchi Bay only gradually, as if its importance was such that it opened up something of an abyss. How does one (anyone) continue with their work when they reach a crisis, especially one that challenges the very foundations of the work they are doing?

Tsunoda pursued collaborations: with Luke Fowler (Familial Readings, 2008), with Michael Graeve (s/t, 2009), with Seijiro Murayama (Snared 60 Cuts, 2010) and then with me (crosshatches, 2012).

In retrospect the reason for this becomes clear. Unless one is improvising[5] a collaborative work requires coordination, communication and planning. The work inevitably becomes structured. I would argue that Tsunoda’s way out of the crisis was therefore not just through collaboration, but composition.

We’ve seen that a composed situation is a kind of composition where spontaneous details and features occur within a limited and planned set of variables. And we’ve seen that a field recording is a kind of composition, one of whose authors is the contingency of the situation itself. But the conscious ordering and timing of individual elements, and the work with sounds recorded as raw material to make new structures, were relatively new to Tsunoda’s work. In the end a compositional process was necessary to the work’s ability to follow the consequences of what it had opened up. But what develops is no ordinary compositional approach. It brings with it all of the work and thought of the previous two decades. When the work edges towards composition it brings with it the poetry of space and the wild of the field.

An ocean of blue connecting me to you.

I had a window into Toshiya’s thought and methods when we worked together on crosshatches, starting in early 2011. In fact, at this early stage, he wanted us to begin by composing a score(!). So we started with that. Toshiya began by making a graph which indicated times and kinds of sounds (tones or noise) to be used. Then, gradually, and with the help of Yuko Zama (who translated for us some of the more tortuous trains of thought we sent over the Pacific), we arrived at a co-composition. The object of this was to structure the recordings we were about to make, to give us something concrete to guide what would otherwise have been too many options, given the varieties of work we both make.

When it came to the recordings themselves, Toshiya did in part produce material in line with some of the things he had done in the past (i.e., composed situations). But the diversity of the material, and its inventiveness was striking. In one instance he affixed a contact mic to a long rope to record its (very) low frequency fundamental as it moved and twisted. (See image below. From a drawing Toshiya Tsunoda made to show Michael Pisaro how the individual recordings he sent were made.)

As we can see, it is mixed with sounds I sent him. The combination gives this recording a very different, more harmonic character than anything one finds in his earlier music. (This recording forms the first long section, after the Introduction, of the first track, 1.1.)

In another instance, he placed each of a stereo pair of microphones under a stone in a hollowed out area by the seashore (shown in the next illustration), an extended “stereophony” where the sand listens to the sea. (And then we listen to the sand listening to the sea.)

This was, as before, mixed with tones I provided to Toshiya. The result found its way into the complex of things that formed the final track (2.4).

In our discussions of the material Toshiya sometimes expressed doubts about whether some of the forms of processing (such as the looping that appears in some places—the first part of track 1.2 is one example) were consistent with his work at all. Field recording is haunted by some idea of purity (i.e., of the idea that a recording is a true document of its place in time). Even though Tsunoda has more often distanced himself from this perspective, it remains, even in his work up until this point, a part of the intellectual background in which it and other work that references field recording is made. Nonetheless, in the context of crosshatches it was clear that nothing we were doing would truly appear as a document—that anything we recorded was simply one part of a much larger assemblage. Toshiya, in building upon the work done the other recent collaborations, was already headed in this more synthetic direction. From this point on this tendency was accelerated in ways to be discussed below.

I believe the critical hinge for the composition of crosshatches however was not sound, but time. What became clear as we worked on the piece was that we were dealing with several simultaneous layers of time within each musical segment. The multiple dates and times of recording (some embedded in others by re-recording one set of sounds in a new situation); the cutting of time into segments and the looping, and other subtler forms of displacement occurring in the editing process: all of it led to a sense that time and duration as they occurred in the piece had to reflect this multi-dimensional orientation. Thus the work gradually became organized into segments or capsules of time: collections of moments arranged like constellations. From the very beginning of the project, Toshiya talked about how our respective places of residence (Japan and California) should be present as locations, but also in time. This implied some conception of space-time in a worked-out way that was new to both of us. (The mystery of a good collaboration is that it forces you to do something you might have wanted, but never otherwise would have conceived.) A sonic sense of the space-time continuum would find its way into both O Kokos Tis Anixis and detour.

The mind is a temple.

It may be pure accident, but when I first saw the title The Temple Recording (for a pair of discs that followed upon crosshatches, in the following year), I thought for a moment, even though I knew better, that Toshiya had recorded religious temples! But in fact, and to my relief, the title refers to a person’s temples. A confusion of the outside with the inside–which in its own way, is emblematic of the work itself.

The technique Tsunoda developed here is to affix stethoscopes with a small, built-in air microphone to a person’s temple. The stethoscope records the minimal activity of the body (blood flowing, muscle movement) and a dim record of the environment nearby. This could be done with one person, with a microphone affixed to both temples. However his preferred method is to have two people sit a short distance from each other (a meter or two) and then put this stethoscope-mic assembly on the left temple of the person on the left side, and the right temple of the person on the right side. The recording is made as the two subjects focus on an object in the landscape that is of interest. This extended stereo or “stereophony” as Tsunoda calls it, carries deep within it what I think of as one of the most profound images of contemporary listening: multiple subjects, diffuse object.

The technique conjures up an interesting background. Listening to listening has been a central theme of experimental music at least since Silence and Cage’s reports of his experience at the Harvard anechoic chamber (hearing “nothing” but the sound of his heart and his circulation). The theme of listening has always been integral to Tsunoda’s work. And while there are parallels between Cage and Tsunoda, there are also significant differences. The listening object is not the more abstract “sound itself” that one can see lurking behind Cage’s writings. For Tsunoda sounds are material things of the world and their connection to material is important. It is physical, and indeed the physical limits of the sensing parts of the body are often explicitly a part of his work. (And our senses develop and change through contact with his work.) But listening for Tsunoda does not involve a split between the mind and the body. We will always want to know something about how the sound was made, where it was heard, what it might be doing there. We may want to know how it was recorded. The overlap or interpenetration of thought and sound is part of what gives the work its special charge.

Also in the background of The Temple Recording/One Stereophony By Two Persons is Alvin Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer (1965). In this piece EEG electrodes are strapped to a subject’s scalp as a way of converting brain waves into a source of vibration. (The vibrations are then greatly amplified and played against percussion instruments that respond sympathetically.) The idea that something poetic is happening “inside the head” is an interesting point of reference for The Temple Recording—because as Tsunoda notes in a text that comes with the disc set: “there is no relation among temples, air microphone and brain waves. Our brain waves do not stir the air.” Exactly: it’s the space between, the place in which the overlap that concerns him.

The location of the microphone is at a critical juncture between the head (and brain) and the zone outside the body. The microphone is not hearing what a person hears, it is hovering in the space where sense becomes thought and vice versa. So as listeners, we are in the unique position of listening both to the once-removed results of the brain and body (from the temples) and the distant echoes of the point on which the subjects concentrate.

Furthermore, as we listen, we have the distinct sense of being on the surface of a large head. The distance between the two microphones (i.e., between the two people) is just enough to pull the left and right channels out of focus. Distinct events occur in one channel that do not occur in the other. The image (sound, location, sight) is that of the physical locus of thought. This is critical because I believe the force of Tsunoda’s work comes from the sense that outside worlds occur inside our bodies and in our brains. (This is another version or way of expressing folded sound space.) When we hear, we also project, and even create an image (sonic or otherwise) of the objects that move the air. In the listening worlds that Tsunoda creates, we vibrate and these vibrations are sent back to us as an integral part of our sensory mechanism. Another way of saying this is that we mirror our own process of listening. By the time we make sound it has already bounced back and forth in our body. But at the same time, we as listeners are hearing (or attempting to hear) beyond ourselves, to somehow reach the impulses of the world and to learn from them. This desire is a critical part of the whole mechanism, and is certainly one of the main sources of attraction for field recording itself (see Appendix for further discussion).

Tsunoda however does not “deliver” on the desire for the “real world” in any immediate sense: he constructs systems that mirror the complex set of twists and turns that thwart this immediacy, and makes art of that passageway. I am not for a moment forgetting that most of his work just sounds good, i.e., that it has immediate sensory appeal. But there is more to it than that, its beautiful sound surface often stirs something deeper.

When, on the second disc (this one, recorded at a different time, is called One Stereophony By Two Persons), Sachie Hoshi (in the left channel) and Teppei Soutome (right channel) begin to hum, it comes as a shock, an externalization of the internal worlds. By the fifth track, the blend of voice and environment even approaches something recognizable as music, and this marks the outer limits of the project.

If in the whole project what emerges is not necessarily music (or at least instantly recognizable as such), it is composition. But what is being composed (i.e., brought into relation)? The situation? The recording mechanism? The performers? The listener? All of them.

The grains of time.

Hearing is physical, but it is not objective. Cartesian doubt about any clear separation or categorization between what is heard and who is hearing, renders the ontological status of music (always) problematic. How much of it actually takes place in the mind of the listener? How can anything heard on a recording be categorized as real? And if the sounds of small fruits falling in the grass as the wind shook the tree[6] are real things we hear, what about the displacements of time that come along with them?

In 2013, fans of Toshiya Tsunoda were treated to two epoch-making statements of his new position, as O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) was released on his label at the same time as The Temple Recording. Whereas the technique of two-person stereophony placed the listening perspective near the surface of the head (i.e., “in the vicinity of thought”) Grains of Spring stirs, even physically shakes, the mind.

Although as part of the attempt to form my own perspective on his work I’ve hardly, until now, quoted Toshiya Tsunoda, I will let him describe the genesis of this project:

The ancient Greek philosophers thought that the world is constituted of a series of grains of space and time. When I walked around Miura Peninsula in the springtime, I felt the same way—the quality of the space and the time seemed to be formed by a series of grains of sounds. Each place has its own unique character. You could label it as a particular quality of the place. The quality of the sound. Or in other words, you could label it as a fundamental character of the space. What we focus on here are the events happening in a short unit of time. I decided to present the recorded materials as a composition with the least amount of modification, mainly by replacing one unit with another. (from the liner notes to O Kokos Tis Anixis)

Tsunoda, like everyone else who makes field recordings, knows that there is no reason for the things he is recording to occur: they are contingent (or in his words), “accidents.” “We cannot manipulate accidentalness. The only way for us to relate to the events is to closely observe what is happening there.” (emphasis mine)

This focus on accident, on contingency, for Tsunoda jars something else loose, something that, for lack of better words, we may call the death of time. In dealing with the question of units in the composition of field recording piece, he eventually asks the question of how long they should be. “When a loop is used in a longer unit, we can recognize it as a certain concrete sound. But if it is very [much] shorter, pushing the limit of the editing software, it becomes like a simple electric sound.” So he proceeded to make these loops of various (but always short) lengths with between three and a hundred repetitions and then inserted them into the work. Like many of Tsunoda’s formal decisions, it is so simple. Yet the impact of this work on me when I first heard it was staggering. I was elated for days, returning to it in small pieces, convincing myself that what I was hearing was actually something someone I know had made.

We can say, as Hamlet did, that “time is out of joint.” But it is quite another thing to experience it first hand, and to have the experience made concrete in the form of a work of art. There is almost nothing that creates the illusion of the flow of time better than a well-executed field recording. It is very easy to be lulled into a sense of naturalness, a sense that things will continue indefinitely and of their own accord. The structure of this work offers a multitude of ways to be lulled and then awakened, to be placed into the natural flow and then jarred loose from it. One way of listening impinges upon another. After a sequence of discontinuous repetitions one hears the continuity of the field with a different sense of depth (how continuous is it?) and a different sense of how things will continue (given that they can be interrupted at any moment). When the loops come, at apparently random intervals, they draw our attention to the tiniest, most ephemeral moments. For much of the piece the looped sounds are unrecognizable. When very short, as Tsunoda says, they become pure electronic artifacts. Sometimes they are easily identified: a tweet, an echo, a drip, a resonance. In these instances we start to appreciate the complex set of circumstances that surround any sound in the field, because by means of repetition their otherwise hidden sonic characters are underlined. In a few places one series of loops is joined to another, with a connection that suggests a musical or gestural intention (like one chord changing to the next). The looped grains stand as individual events, but no one will remember the whole set of them in the 146 minutes of listening. Nonetheless they alert us to the grains occurring everywhere both inside and outside the work.

To engage with O Kokos Tis Anixis is to enter a recognizable world, but one that has more dimensions. We discover that we are mobile in directions that were previously fixed. We can move forward and backward, and oscillate between the two at different rates of repetition, where previously we could only move forward at one speed. This new version of the old world is sonically more beautiful than the one with which we are familiar, but it is also treacherous. A sense of continuity is replaced by a thin-ice fragility. This world is also, in part, virtual. We cannot swim, eat or love in the dimensions Tsunoda creates for us–only hear them. That could change.

Misdirection as contingency.

In the next work, detour, Tsunoda and collaborator Manfred Werder discovered another strategy to challenge our habitual ways of listening. At first detour feels more like a naturalistic field recording than either The Temple Recording or O Kokos Tis Anixis. It seems to be captured in an open space near a pond, bordered by a road. Trees with leaves blowing and branches cracking; birds; a carp jumping occasionally. But from the beginning one has a sense that it is not as straightforward as it appears. There’s more going on than would be expected in such a situation, including layers of sound that do not quite mesh. Starting at 6’50″, for instance, there is an apparent disruption that seems too near and present to square with the perspective given by the central microphone. At 10’30″ the character changes: what sounds like a temple recording moves to the forefront, with the pond recording moving back in the mix. For a while we hear breathing and the temple sounds as a kind of frame around the pond sounds. At various points one hears someone walking around: Are we on the move[7]?

In fact, as Toshiya confirmed to me, there are always two layers of recordings: a basic track by the pond that runs for the full duration, and other, shorter recordings that have been overlaid. One of these (starting at 23’57″) is even a temple recording from a live performance by Tsunoda and Werder in Tokyo.

The decision to work with this layering grew out of a series of discussions between the two collaborators. One starting point for these discussions was a score from Werder (written in 2012) in which a quote by Alain Badiou taken from Logiques des Mondes, appears: tout objet a un inexistent propre (every object has one proper inexistent). In this section of the treatise, Badiou attempts to show how change occurs (particularly at the highest, most life-altering level, which he names an event). One part of his complex argument is the demonstration how, in some situations, something with minimal presence (i.e., the inexistent propre) can be turned into something with maximal presence. This happens when something previously unknown or hidden in a situation is revealed to be central as the situation changes (a spontaneously revolutionary force, the declaration of a love hidden to those concerned, etc.).

Now let us attempt to think this in the context of a recorded work. No situation can be completely captured, not even with the best microphones. There are, in every situation, things present that cannot be heard—because they are too small, too distant or too obscure. To record is to be plagued by the awareness that something (potentially something critical) is always missing. Yet how does one know or find out what one is missing?

At the first stage, as Manfred wrote to me, the two decided to try to record “all kinds of layers, physical and psychological.” An attempt was made to do this at a live performance by the duo at the “i and e” space in Tokyo. They hoped “to render an ‘empty space’: the frame of the concert format from different perspectives that actually are always present in our layered experiences.” Several recordings were made of the situation, including the live sounds of the performance and temple recordings of various audience members. This did not really work, for various technical reasons.

Next they tried to do this in a place outdoors. The question of perspective became critical, i.e., where should they place themselves and the various microphones? As Werder writes:

Where to put the contact mics? (into the ground, under branches, on the tree trunk, etc.?)

Where to put a ‘general mic’ (what could be kind of a center of a place)?

Where to put ourselves with the temple recording mics within this place? This included our directions/inclinations, i.e.: toward to tree with the contact mic, or toward the general center of the place, or toward to ground of the place etc.?

They proceeded spontaneously: how else to deal with the infinite multiplicity of a situation, where the unseen/unheard predominates? And again, for various reasons, aesthetic and technical, this did not work. Still the idea remained to explore multiple perspectives in one place. As Werder puts it: “rendering a place would need both very general and very particular views on it, like different vectors that traverse the place in unknown and unpredictable ways and by doing so touch all kinds of views that often are more grey than sharp-cut.”

After Werder departed, Tsunoda made another attempt using the same methods they had developed. (In the terms established above, I would call this a composition.) This time he went to his beloved Miura peninsula, and made most of the recordings that would appear in the final result.

At 40’25″ something extraordinary occurs: a sound one does not recognize takes over and then sustains itself until the end. When one first hears this, it comes as a shock. Within the frame established, many things seem possible, but not this, apparently synthetic sound (it seems like something processed, even electronically produced, or, at the very least, like a small buzzing engine). Added to this is the fact that this sound dominates what had previously appeared to be a “natural” setting (which continues to be heard, but now very much in the background). But what is this sound? And: how important is it that we know what it is? Part of the mystery of this recording is how it is able to evoke this whole set of considerations, initially through the medium of sound itself. Contingency plays out on multiple levels: the (contingent) renderings of space; the (contingent) discovery of the inexistent; the (contingent) potential of the listener to discern these perspectives; and the (contingent) discovery of the source of this mysterious final sound on the part of listeners.

In fact, as Toshiya confirmed to me, this apparently electronic sound was obtained by placing a stethoscope on the ground very close to an insect. Even now, as I clearly hear the insect, my first apprehension of it as something synthetic stays with me. My attention here, and throughout this magical work, wavers between one mode of listening and the next, never resolving itself to a stable perspective. The “detours” (or misdirections) that formed the recording process yield something hidden in the situation. This would not amount to much if it were just a question of form. But it is not just the piece that takes a detour, it is our way of listening. It is gently pried loose from its habitual sense of single perspective, of near and far, natural and unnatural, planned and contingent.

There is no world—

there are worlds: multiple, infinitely varied, unstable. If one draws such conclusions, one enters a chaotic and confusing universe, too dense to know, without any foundation other than its own contingent existence. It is a difficult place in which to move with any clarity. The clarity that one does achieve comes at a price: the subtraction of critical elements; the commitment of time to potentially meaningless work; the squandering of a life. But this is a wager that experimental musicians (along with revolutionary leaders, radical science and so on) make. We struggle to actualize unreal worlds in one of worlds we inhabit, without any assurance that this will happen, for us or for anyone else. The strange momentum of Tsunoda’s work comes from the fact the he has shown us that these unreal worlds are very near to us, waiting to be actualized, if we can only discover the correct way to dignify them at the edges of our perception.

This will make us different. We might no longer recognize ourselves. Strangers to the world, we might change it, by hearing in it those things that would otherwise remain hidden.

Theoretical Appendix on the Subject of the Outside in Field Recording

Among other things, field recording seems to offer an encounter with the real of the environment, of that which, if is not actually outside of us, appears to be the medium within which we exist and to which we are bound. This may appear simple or obvious, and I suppose, on some level, most of us continue to operate with conventional concepts of nature and environment. But any sustained examination of them, especially in the light of the philosophy, aesthetics and science of the last century will convince us that we are well past the point at which simple notions of these terms, or even the word “outside” can be defended. Although it has been the focus of much of my creative work and a fair amount of reading, I do not make any claim to have mastered the dialogue. I also think that some concept of the outside becomes increasingly important to Toshiya Tsunoda in the development of his work (especially in pieces such as Low Frequency Observed at Maguchi Bay and The Temple Recording), so it is useful to broach it in this article.

For the present I will use three linked (and for me, useful) descriptions of the problem of inside and outside. (For the moment the best I can do is sketch the problem.)

  1. Concept: Quentin Meillassoux’s “great outdoors.” The question is whether humans can have any genuine access to something outside of ourselves or if that outside is always mirrored by a correlate of our own thought.

    As Meillassoux puts it: Is, as current philosophical thought would have it, the “space of exteriority is merely the space of what faces us, of what exists only as a correlate of our own existence”? If that’s the case, “we do not transcend ourselves very much by plunging into such a world, for all we are doing is exploring the two faces of what remains a face to face – like a coin which only knows its own obverse.” Then “contemporary philosophers [will] have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.”[8]

    Questions: Does field recording offer us any access to the great outdoors, or does it lie fully with in the realm of human experience? If we conclude that field recording is not capable by itself of revealing the nature of things, does it nonetheless echo them?

  2. Concept: The real. Here I refer to both in the sense of the mathematical concept of the “continuum” (which as defined by Cantor and Dedekind used the real number line as part of the demonstration) and Lacan’s related concept of the psychological real.

    Essentially, the real number line allows us to picture an unbroken continuum of numbers for which we are not required to know each and every one. We can identify the transcendental number, “π” and mathematically speaking, we know there is one number higher than it (i.e., we know that it has to exist and its location can be formulated), but we don’t have to have access to the actual number in a direct way. (There are many more numbers that we cannot identify than there are numbers we can identify. I use the word “real” here to indicate the horizon of this multitude.)

    For Jacques Lacan as well this word resonated. He used it as a concept for that which lies on the outside of the (largely linguistic) symbolic order. The real is the directly inaccessible (or impossible) continuum of our primordial, undifferentiated sense of reality, which disappears with the introduction of the sign. Breaks in the symbolic order are a kind of trauma, where the real (or what is repressed) comes to the surface.

    Questions: Are there aspects of the (mathematical) real in the recording of a location? Are there aspects of the (psychoanalytic) real in the reflection of the recording medium onto the listener? Does field recording make contact with or touch the unseen or unheard (which we might also call the uncounted) and that which is ignored or repressed?

  3. Concept: Folded space, derived to some degree from Gilles Deleuze’s book, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (University of Minnesota, 1993). Here we can conceive of a physical model, where by an internal space is merely a folded (or infolded) version of an external space (which itself can be viewed as an unfolding of internal space). Viewed in this way, the division between the internal and the external is broken down, even to the level where what transpires inside the body can be linked to the outside.

    Questions: How porous is the space of listening to that of recording? How deep in our ears, bodies and minds do the experiences of location recording extend? Can we can conceive of an aural space that is somehow beyond the dialectic of the inside and outside?

    I do not take a definitive stand on which, if any of these of these is “right.” I can be easily persuaded by any of these approaches to the question, and tend to use them when they seem to best fit the nature of the work at hand. There is no way of reconciling them without the creation of some wholly new concept, which may lie down the road, as Tsunoda (and others) continue to do what is artistically engaging and, indeed, necessary work.■


(significant solo works and a few collaborations, given in the approximate order discussed)

Release Year Label
Extract From Field Recording Archive #1 1997 WrK
Extract From Field Recording Archive #2: The Air Vibration Inside A Hollow 1999 Häpna
Extract From Field Recording Archive #3: Solid Vibration 2001 Infringitive
Ful (with m/s) 1996 Selektion
Pieces of Air 2002 Lucky Kitchen
O Respirar Da Paisagem 2003 Sirr
Scenery of Decalcomania 2004 Naturestrip
Ridge of Undulation 2005 Häpna
Low Frequency Observed at Maguchi Bay 2007 Hibari Music
The Argyll Recordings (2 discs) 2008 edition.t
crosshatches (with Michael Pisaro) (2 discs) 2012 erstwhile
The Temple Recording/One Stereophony By Two Persons (2 discs) 2013 edition.t
O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) (2 discs) 2013 edition.t
detour (with Manfred Werder) 2014 erstwhile

About the Author

Michael Pisaro is a member of the Wandelweiser composers collective and teaches music composition at the California Institute of the Arts.

Photographs by Toshiya Tsunoda unless otherwise noted


  1. In the first part of what follows I limit myself to the first three volumes of the Extracts, recorded and released from 1993 to 2001—records I’ve been listening to for several years, and true classics in the field recording genre. A fourth volume, from recordings made at Nagaura Bay during the same time period as the others, has been added to the forthcoming box of all four Extracts on the Presto!? label (due in 2015). The principles discussed here are well represented on that very beautiful and necessary new volume.
  2. We may note, however, that after a recording Tsunoda was once questioned as a spy. (See the liner notes to Standing Wave of Nagaura Bay, Extract from field recording archive #4, Presto!?, 2015.)
  3. In order to maintain the continuity of this discussion, I’ve put some of my thinking about the terms used in the foregoing into an Appendix. For some it might be useful to take a look at it before proceeding.
  4. To get the full effect of this work, I would recommend you listen to it with headphones. (On the whole, I think all of Tsunoda’s music benefits from listening on both speakers and headphones—but there are a few which seem to demand one or the other as the primary experience.)
  5. There is a nice improvisation from this era with Tsunoda, Mitsuhiro Yoshimura and Taku Sugimoto, SANTA (Presqu’île Records, 2008).
  6. This is one of the track titles of O Kokos Tis Anixis.
  7. The question of movement in detour is subtle. In the end it is created through the changes in perspective. It may be that the excellent TramVibration (Skiti 07), which Tsunoda recorded with Haco in 2006/7, but edited into final form and released in 2013, was a kind of study. Here the literal movement of the tram is heard as both electromagnetic waves and (with contact and stethoscope mics) as vibration.
  8. After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux (trans. Ray Brassier), Quotes are drawn from pp.17-18.