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Denshi-Ongaku is Japanese for electronic music. The sub title, Denshi-Onkyo-Ongaku is the music concrete variation. The third stream is more recent and is simply named ‘noise’ or maybe even better known as "Japanoise".

The development of electronic music in Japan started after the second world war with classic composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). From 1948 on Takemitsu was looking for a device “to bring noise into tempered music”. It is important to know that ‘common’ instruments like the Theremin and Ondes Martenot were at that point unknown in Japan.

In the early 50s engineer Masaru Ibuka and physicist Akio Morita started their company and named it Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo KK (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation). They developed the first Japanese tape recorder, the G-type. The apparatus was used for government and courtroom purposes only. The H-type was the ‘home’ model. In 1954 the company changed its name into Sony.
In the same period the tape recorders were developed Takemitsu hadn’t been sitting still either. As member of Jikken Kobo (experimental workshop 1951-1958) he and companions like Hiroyoshi Suzuki, Joji Yuasa, Keijiro Sato, Takahiro Sonoda and others had been working on multimedia projects. Both Ibuka and Morita from TTK KK asked Takemitsu to compose a new musical work using the G-type recorder, but the compositions weren't finished. So the honor to have created the first Japanese electronic compositions: Toraware no Onna (Imprisoned Woman) and Piece B (both 1951) goes to Kuniharu Akiyama (1929-1996).

In 1957 (!) the first European electronic music compositions became available on the Japanese market. Composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997 - left) who studied in Paris had heard the concrete music made by Pierre Schaeffer and brought it home. His French influence was evident: Les Oeuvres pour Musique Concrète X, Y, Z (1953) was the first electronic composition broadcasted (JOQR - Nippon Cultural Broadcasting) on November 27, 1953. It was a shock to other composers like Takemitsu since they all had neglected the used possibilities.

Although Mayuzumi followed his studies in France, the German model for Elektronische Musik soon became the basics for the new music in Japan. Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK – the Japanese Broadcasting System) even translated the handbook from NDWR studio (Cologne). Composer Makoto Moroi (1930-  - left) visited Cologne in 1955 to view the studio and together with Mayuzumi and under guidance of NHK built their own NHK-studio. Mayuzumi composed new works based on the principles used by Stockhausen and Minao Shibata (1916-1996 - small pic left) composed Musique Concrète for Stereophinc Broadcast (1955), the first stereo piece in NHK-studio.

By now NHK-studio was one of the most important facilities for electronic music. It resulted in Variation (1956) by Moroi and Mayuzumi, which is by some seen as the best work in early Japanese electronic music.
The development of electronics and electronic music became a sort of starting point for Japan and its electronics economy. In 1966 Stockhausen visited NHK-studio to work for four months on Telemusik because it was the only studio worldwide which had a six-track tape deck.
Until 1970 Japanese electronic music lived a life in the lee but during Expo ’70, World Fair in Osaka many composers delivered electronic compositions to highlight the venue (maybe it was their reprise of Edgard Varèse’s work – Poème Electroniqe - for the Philips Pavilion in 1958).

Takehisa Kosugi (1938- ) was the composer who brought the studio to the public. But not without a new point of view. Kosugi (violinist) not only broke with the ‘German-tradition’ but focussed more on the influence of John Cage. He also used the Japanese culture as basics for his outings. Kosugi co-founded Group Ongaku with Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yasunao Tone and Yuji Takahashi. The group which existed for only two years started to give live performances in 1961. Kosugi and Tone teamed up with Yoko Ono (yes, she) in a Japanese version of the Fluxus movement. Their happenings could go in any direction, multimedia and/or improvisatory. In 1969 Kosugi composed Catch Wave, a play with two sine wave generators. The piece was recorded on tape in 1971 at NHK. In 1977 Kosugi moved to New York and started to work with Merce Cunningham and his Dance Company. From 1995 on he became their Musical Director.

Enter a misty period. The people mentioned above went on with their electronics or – as many others- tried – and sometimes succeeded – in the movie industry, making soundtracks. Early 70s Isao Tomita (1932 - ) let his Snowflakes Dancing. Influenced by Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, Tomita created an ethereal Claude Debussy recording using his Moog and Mellotron. Snowflakes are Dancing (1974) was his first album which was released outside Japan. Before that he had released Jungle Taitai Symphonic Poem (1966) and Switched-On Rock (Electric Samurai) (1972). He releases lots of classical influenced records which were all executed on various synthesizers. His shows were sometimes extraordinarily. During Ars electronica, 1984, he performed Mind of the Universe playing his instruments hanging above the public (80.000 people!) in a huge, glass pyramid.

The opposite direction came from the Japanese Beatles, Yellow Magic Orchestra. Starting of as a one-off Fuji cassette promotion project Haruami Hosono (bass), Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards - left) and Yukihiro Takahashi (drums, vocals) created commercial yet uncompromising music which fitted exactly in the moments of time. The sometimes symphonic, disco based Technopop created a true YMO-mania in the late 70s. Their first record, Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978) became a huge success and not in Japan only. Sakamoto is now the most known now of the three, he made lots of compositions in various directions, composing movie scores, music for solo piano and giving experimental duo performances with Christian Fennesz. YMO influenced lots of other Japanese bands, but also producers who started to use electronics for their arrangements.

Another stream, Japanoise or Japanoizu (comes from Japanese and noise) had its roots in the 70s, but is still going strong. The Japanoise scene is known for its freedom and recordings in very limited quantities. The stream went through various changes, using Punk as basics, but now also using laptops to create their ‘noise’. Important names in this area are Hijokaidan (emergency stairway - picture left), Incapacitants and Merzbow. Hijokaidan is a group - from two to fourteen people - with as only vast member Yoshiyuki "Jojo" Hiroshige. The performance like group grew from threwing garbage and urinating on stage in the beginning to creating a wall of sound recently. They produced lots of noise according to their 30cd box set (!) ‘The Noise’(2009). Incapacitants (Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosakai) make: "pure noise, uninfluenced by musical ideas or even human intention, using primarily feedback, vocals, and various electronics“. Because of their profession they never toured abroad. Just as Hijokaidan Merzbow produces lots of noise. Masami Akita (1956 - ), who is Merzbow released more than 300 recordings since his start in 1979. Merzbow (comes from Dadaist Kurt Schwitters) uses anything in his outings, from animal rights to Japanese bondage. In 2000 Extreme Records released a 50CD box set ,the Merzbox. Noise takes over indeed.
Amongst other Japanese noise artists you could find: Boredoms, C.C.C.C., KK Null, Yamazaki Maso’s Masonna, Solmania, K2, The Gerogerigegege and Hanatarash.

Making the next logical step, Toshimaru Nakamura uses the mixing console as his instrument. He names it: 'no-input mixing board'. Connecting the input to the output, its feedback is the music itself. It goes from shrieking high tones to soft crackling noises. Nakamura has recorded and collaborated with lots of people, amongst Yoshihide Otomo and Keith Rowe, but also with David Sylvian. His album Egrets was released on Sylvian’s Samadhisound label.

Going in another opposite direction is Tetsu Inoue (left) Tetsu creates an ambient like music with minimalist influences. He worked with musicians as Pete Namlook, Taylor Deupree and bassist/producer Bill Laswell. Tetsu’s first album, Ambiant Otaku, is regarded by some as a classic of minimalist ambient techno.

The G-type recorders at TTK KK

Jikken Kobo (1953) l-r: Hiroyoshi Suzuki,
Toru Takemitsu, Keijiro Sato and Joji Yuasa

Denshi Ongaku NHK-studio 1966

Takehisa Kosugi performing Catch Wave

Fluxus Japan, Mieko Shiomi performing Water Music

Isao Tomita

Yellow Magic Orchestra


Masami Akita aka Merzbow

Toshimaru Nakamura