This Japanese Band Makes Music With E-Waste
Reel-to-reel tape recorders, cathode ray tube TVs, and ventilator fans are all instruments for Open Reel Ensemble.
Ei Wada playing a series of ventilation fans rigged up to overhead projectors and solar panels. Image: Mao Yamamoto
Open Reel Ensemble love producing weird sounds from obsolete tech—the more warped the better. The Japanese musicians connect old tape recorders, television sets, and ventilation fans with modern-day computers to make music.
Their aim? To give renewed relevance to old tech, and make people realize how fun the retro gizmos they discard can be. Some of the band's music using reel-to-reel tape recorders sounds a bit like bagpipes mashed up with echoing electro influences.
"The important thing is to remind people of how comic it is to make noise out of these machines," band brainchild Ei Wada told me.
Wada, a programmer-turned-composer who graduated from Tama Art University in Tokyo, said he first became interested in music when he attended a Gamelan music performance (a traditional style of ensemble music) as a four-year-old during a family holiday in Indonesia.
"It's an indigenous music where many people dressed in masks beat percussive instruments," recalled Wada. "I was impressed by the echo the sounds made. I felt like I'd been transported out of this world."
The memory stuck, and several years later, when Wada started tinkering with old cassette tapes, he discovered that the off-key sounds they produced reminded him of the music he'd heard back in Indonesia. "It was the same strange alien sound that I didn't understand," he said.
Since then, Wada has been on a quest to reproduce otherworldly sounds with tech that nobody wants. As a teenager, for instance, Wada was given a batch of reel-to-reel tape recorders made in the 70s by a friend of his father who worked in radio.
"These machines felt like the bigger relatives to the cassettes that I'd been playing with," he told me. "I'd move the tapes by hand and the machine would make really spacey sounds. I really felt like this machine was linking me up to a world that I didn't know."
Wada continued tinkering with the tech all the way up until university where he founded Open Reel Ensemble—a band specializing in giving musical meaning to vintage gadgets—with three of his friends.
"We like it when our recordings bug and blip. Only tape recorders can make those sounds."
The group learned to program and produce their own sounds on the old tape recorders through trial and error. The process of syncing up the old tech with new computer technology, said Wada, was a bit like doing experimental surgery. The group fumbled with the wiring—not quite knowing if attaching switches or clipping wires would produce or kill sound, and whether they could get the computer's commands to translate into music on their aging machinery.
Often at gigs, the group will use the tape recording machines to capture sounds from the audience first. They then mash that up with music that they produce in real-time.
"We like it when our recordings bug and blip. Only tape recorders can make those sounds. [...] It's really a magnetic and exotic sound—like 'magnetic exoticism,'" theorized Wada.
The group acquire tape for their recorders from internet auctions, and are aware that one day the stock will run out. So in recent years, they've expanded their gamut of music-making e-waste instruments.
In 2010, the group started using bulky old cathode ray tube (CRT)-dependent television sets. Wada connected guitar amps to his feet, then started touching the television screens with his hand to produce a buzzing noise, which he said turned him into a "connected instrument." In performances, he can be seen moving between numerous television screens, pounding them like a frenzied drum player. In 2011, the group also added ventilation fans and other unwanted e-waste into the mix in a project dubbed "Electronicos Fantasticos."
The band placed ventilation fans onto overhead projectors and attached tiny solar panels that connected to speakers. They programmed the circuit so that when the ventilators were switched on, they'd power the projectors, feeding light into the solar panels, which in turn produced sound from the speakers.
"We used laser cutters and 3D printers to design the ventilation fans to make a kankisenthizer—a mashup between a kankisen and a synthesizer," said Wada. Kankisen means ventilation fan in Japanese. The group dubbed their invention "Exhaust Fancillator" in English.
Ultimately, the group want to reinvigorate old tech and reveal some of the hidden value in our e-waste.
"All these tech objects are a symbol of Japan's economic growth, but they also get thrown away in great numbers," said Wada. "It's good to not just say bye to things that are thrown away but to instill old things with new meaning, and celebrate their unique points."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.