The mathematics of music


So forward-looking that it’s hard to categorize him — Is he an artist? A musician? A conceptualist? — Ryoji Ikeda makes the music that we’ll lull the robots to sleep with when they ultimately try to take over. Or that we’ll use to convince ourselves that we are the robots.

For performances, Ikeda — who says the most important aspects of his works are “ideas and results” — matches his dense electronic compositions with visuals that could come from a monitor of whatever machine would produce such sounds. The scale of his works feels immense — his last performance in Japan was of “datamatics [prototype]” at the Tokyo International Forum’s cavernous Hall C, in which a screen stretched across the full stage projected digital noise. James Brown it’s not.

Earlier, Ikeda worked with Hiroshi Sugimoto to produce the crunching sonic backdrop at the Mori Art Museum’s exhibition of the photographer’s iconic prints of ocean horizons. For his latest, the multitalented artist is revising “datamatics” as a “[ver. 2.0]” in Itami on March 13 and Tokyo March 16. Standing on the edge of what music can be, and thus bleeding into the world of art, Ikeda spoke to The Japan Times about mathematicians and the future of music.

How do you see music changing?

We know that we can’t concretely predict how music will be in the future, but everybody knows that music will definitely change. Of course, this is not only about music changing, this is about everything changing. It seems to be obvious that the form, style and way of representation will be endlessly transformed by technological trends, which has long been a tradition within music — from the invention of notation, or instruments such as the pianoforte, to digital downloads today. But I am more interested in thinking about what will not change — I naively believe that the essentials of music will never change.

What about “entertainment”?

As long as capitalism continues, entertainment will always be driven by the stock exchange. Aside from such dry thoughts, I like to believe that popular entertainment genres will always have a mutant or alternative form, such as art films in the movie industry — that any genre always keeps its “Art,” that which raises questions and encourages deeper considerations about the genre itself.

In the melding of art and music — as in your work and the recent collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani at the NTT ICC — is it possible to separate the visual and sonic parts?

My job as an artist is to compose elements. Composition is the key. So any elements, which are brushed up carefully, are the subjects to be composed. I compose sounds. I compose visuals. I compose materials. I can’t put, or analyze, myself in the context of something between art and music; I am naturally doing what I am doing.

Who were your original inspirations?

Most of the mathematicians in our modern history, especially Leibnitz, Cantor, Godel, Grothendieck.

Can you compare your works to others’?

First, I believe that the works speak absolutely for themselves — this has always been a strong belief of mine. And if they are too extreme for some people, at least the works can speak much better than the artist can. To be honest, I cannot judge, or even think about, my works myself. I think this should ideally be left to the critics — or at least anybody except me.

What do you think of participating in collaborations?

It depends on the project or work. But I am somewhat skeptical about collaboration. A novel, a painting or an orchestral composition cannot be done by two people — even movies, choreography or architecture. There are some exceptions, but essentially, a work of art is for a single artist. I am saying this through my experiences, such as a decade of collaborating with Dumb Type (Teiji Furuhashi’s avante-garde performance group active in the 1990s) and others. Being solo is direct and straight, which I like for the moment.

Who would you like to work with?

At the moment I am collaborating with a mathematician at Harvard whose specialty is pure math, number theory. But it is not a real collaboration, it is to share or confirm the deepest aesthetics between math and art (in what I am doing). I will keep doing so with other mathematicians.

What is your creative process like?

The process happens in a trial-and-error and a back-and-forth way. It’s an adventure between the hands and the brain that is both systematic and intuitive, and cannot be generalized. For example, first I make different cookbooks for each project or work — the score or “idea” making. I then follow this plan, preparing all recipes carefully — the production process — and then every single element is judged intuitively by the chef at the very moment when he starts to cook — the live performance or installation of an exhibition. I think this is quite normal for any artist.

What are the most important recent technological advances for what you do?

Many interesting things have happened in the last decade, especially in the development of multitask platform technology for computers, which enables anyone to program their own software. This is a breakthrough for me, since programming requires us to learn very sophisticated computer languages. I myself don’t do programming, but to see a new way of thinking among a generation is interesting — as if to witness a major new wave or trend like with DJ kids a decade ago. To me, a drastic shift in people’s way of thinking like this is always more exciting than its trigger.

What are your expectations for the next generation of digital artists?

When young programmers grow up and become mature, I believe they get very close to a border between pure math and what they are doing. In the age of (the Greek philosopher) Plato, music was a science (and part of math), and some of the genuine programmers may well come to accept this great concept in the future, even if they are not conscious of what they are doing for art. And then, at some stage, perhaps the music industry will disappear.

“datamatics [ver. 2.0]” is showing on March 13 at AI Hall in Itami and twice on March 16 (4 p.m. and 7 p.m. starts) at The Garden Hall Yebisu in Tokyo ; ¥6,000 in advance, ¥6,500 at the door. For more information call (03) 5280-9996 or visit www.conversation.co.jp