Musician Rory Viner turns Japan’s suicide statistics into a song

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

Train delays due to jinshin jiko, which euphemistically translates to “human accident” — often a suicide on the tracks — are far from an infrequent occurrence in Tokyo.

Reaction to such suicides — of people you never knew — depends on the individual, whose response might be one of grief or, perhaps, inconvenience. Or, as is the case with actor Robin William’s suicide last week, the response could be one of genuine shock and sadness.

The difference between the two cases — one: anonymous and distanced, the other: personal and identifiable — is similarly explored in a provocative composition by Tokyo-based Canadian Rory Viner, in which he seeks to humanize suicide statistics through music. Titled “One Year of Suicide Statistics in Japan for Piano,” the piece is a sonification of suicide figures for each prefecture in Japan in 2013. It stands at 22 minutes long and comprises low, discordant rumbles of notes, piercing, isolated high keys and numerous stretches of silence.

“Usually, when we have historical information or statistics it’s presented really coldly,” Viner explains. “Instead of it just being a number, I wondered if we could listen to trauma — social trauma presented in an audible way — perhaps our experience of that trauma would be different.”

Viner created the composition by taking the statistics — sourced from the National Police Agency online — and feeding them into a synthesizer via a piece of software called Pure Data. Each note represents the number of suicides in a prefecture in one month, and the timing of each note is triggered randomly, resulting in an abundance of negative space, while pregnant pauses and calmness abounds — all the more unnerving given the subject matter.

Viner is a classically trained musician, citing contemporary composers such as Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki as influences, and is also currently working alongside a vocalist on a Crystal Castles-esque glitch-pop album, but it is his work representing data sets through music that has recently garnered the most attention. As well as for suicides, he has since utilized similar techniques to sonify other data sets, including birth rates in Japan, and murder and rape statistics in the United States, but it is the former that has elicited the greatest response.

“A few people thought that it was making light of a situation, but the overwhelming response was not like that,” Viner says. “I had some Japanese people email me and some of those were really meaty responses, which I really didn’t expect. They really wanted to make sure that I walked away with a positive image of Japan, so they were saying that ‘It’s not just suicides, we have other things going for us (in Japan), you know.’ ”

The semi-apologetic tone to such reactions points to the way in which suicide continues to be stigmatized in societies across the globe, and yet it is surely an issue that needs to be discussed. Suicide figures in Japan are so high that it is deemed newsworthy when it falls under 30,000 per annum; in the United Kingdom, it is the single biggest killer for men aged between 20 and 49.

Viner agrees that this is concurrent with his experience in Canada.

“I was surprised when I came to Japan because the train stations back home would never even acknowledge a ‘human accident.’ Nobody in Toronto knew how many train suicides there were, the transit commission never released that data. There definitely is a stigma and a reluctance to talk about suicide. People see it as shameful and embarrassing, I just see it as tragic.”

The absence of discourse on the subject stands in contrast to the reaction to the composition: Aside from all the emails, the piece has also generated more than 20,000 plays on Vine’s Soundcloud page — no mean feat for something that is unlikely to be most peoples’ first choice for background music. Next, Viner will turn his attention to another controversial issue, as he looks to sonify radiation data from Fukushima.

“There’s a factory in Japan that makes radiation detectors, and I got them to customize a board for me,” he says. “My next project is going to be a live piece: As the board detects the radiation, it will trigger a note on the computer. I’ll either wire it all up and hopefully exhibit it somewhere, or I might set up a server online and stream it live, so anyone can listen to it in real time.”

Conceptually, it is another project that will surely provoke a heated response, although criticism is not something that Viner shies away from: “I thought — if nobody complains, I’m not doing it right. Nobody complains about a painting of a bowl of fruit on the wall. If people are complaining about it then you’ve actually caused people to feel something about it, and I think that’s the purpose of art: to elicit a response. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, right? I just don’t want to be the bowl of fruit on the wall.”

Rory Viner’s music can be heard via his Tumblr site at www.rory-viner.tumblr.com.