A Conversation with Ryoji Ikeda

Ryoji Ikeda is globally renowned as a contemporary artist, celebrated for his monumental installations and pioneering electronic compositions. In a notable shift in his artistic trajectory, he has recently ventured into the realm of purely acoustic compositions. Three such works have been comissioned by Ensemble Modern with world premieres to take place at Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ in Amsterdam on February 8, 2024. Their German premiere will take place in Frankfurt at the cresc… – Biennial for Contemporary Music Frankfurt Rhine Main on February 23, 2024. Prior to the highly-anticipated premiere of ›Saitenspiele‹, Ikeda spoke to the dance and theatre scholar David Rittershaus. Their dialogue explored his early days as a performance artist, his unique perspective on the role of technology, and his latest creations, in which movement takes on a crucial role.

David Rittershaus: Your work often involves the intersection of art and technology, and many of your compositions and installations explore concepts of data, mathematics, and the relationship between electronic sound and computer visuals. Could you elaborate a little bit on your approach? What interests you most about working with these mathematical principles, working with scientific data, and turning it into so-called »monumental minimalism« as art critics used to say?

Ryoji Ikeda: First of all, I’ve never been trained as a composer or artist. Everything is self-taught. I don’t exist in the academic context. I never went to art school or conservatoire. I started from scratch, with DJing and underground culture. Therefore, I cannot really read a score. I lack knowledge about classical music, even contemporary dance, or visual art, contemporary art. I remain a kind of amateur, but I do a lot of stuff. It’s important for me to think of myself as a composer; a composer who will never be able to read a score. But I love to compose. For example, I compose sound into music. I compose light, pixels, or data into art works. And when I create an exhibition, I compose space and time. I’m a musician as well. Music has been brother or sister to mathematics for many, many years, since Plato’s era, and I just follow this. Sounds are sounds. Just vibration of air. It’s a physical phenomenon and a kind of property of physics. So, that’s sound, but what makes music music? Actually, it’s a structure. Mathematical structure gives sound a life. This is my point of view. Data is also a little bit like sound, because you can’t see it. You can write it down, you can convert data into alphanumeric lists or text. It exists, but you cannot touch it. That makes it very interesting for me to use data as a material for composing. That’s my basic approach.

DR: So, is it primarily an interest in composition, a materialistic notion of composition, that motivates your work?

RI: Data or light and sound are materials for my composition, but they are not really material, not matter. Kind of immaterial. You cannot touch them. And technology is just a tool for me. Of course, computers and AI, those things are exciting, but I use computers or technologies as everybody does. Actually, without an iPhone or iPad or laptop computer, no student or banker or businessman could work nowadays. For me, it is the same. I just use all these technologies for art. However, the art world is very conservative. Curators are very afraid to take it on. But artists have always tried to use new technologies, new methods or new tools. I don’t really do anything special.

DR: You mentioned that data is not really tangible. However, for me, your installations that make use of such data always offered a bodily experience of visuals and sound. Is it part of your approach to bring back something tangible, in that sense, or to turn abstract mathematics, abstract principles, data into something that involves a physical experience?

RI: I’m an artist. So my job is to create an experience. Sometimes through two-dimensional works on the wall, sometimes through music, sometimes through a video or installations or whatever. Mathematical notions are abstract. They are in your head and not tangible. They’re really platonic; it’s a very idealistic thing. But physics, physical matter is real for our body, for our brain. I really like to combine mathematical, very abstract notions of a structure, and also physical experiences. If I make music, I need a listener. Music is also a vibration of air. It exists in this world as a phenomenon. So, physical experience is really important. Without that I could simply write a book or, I don’t know, just create a concept, explain things with words. But that’s not what interests me. I have to make music, installations, stage art, all those things linked to experience.

DR: You are famous for your electronic compositions, and so far you have only created a few acoustic compositions. The compositions for Ensemble Modern, however, will be purely for acoustic instruments. Does that mark a shift in your work?

RI: It’s not really shifting, it’s addition. On top of all my activities, I try to expand the things I’m dealing with. Of course, I use a lot of technologies and these digital things. I’m originally from a kind of performing arts world. I was a member of a Japanese collective called ›Dumb Type‹. They started in the mid-80s, I joined them in the mid-90s, and then we toured everywhere for decades. We were seven to ten performers on stage, plus the lighting designer, the scenographers, composers, computer programmers, architects, designers, graphic designers. We had roughly 15 to 30 members. It was completely horizontal, no leader, totally democratic – which actually sucks. But there, I learned everything. I started from music, but then I learned about lighting design, and video, and even choreography. Of course, I’m not a choreographer, but we had exchanges about all these things. After I left this group, I decided on one solid direction, which was purely about this electronic or digital thing. I did that for 30 years. Then, after using hundreds of computers, I came back to more human aspects. Today, I have a different perspective. I hated working with dancers, but now I appreciate working with humans. Because we cannot control humans. Instead, we have to engage, we have to trust. Even on a very conceptual level, in terms of information theory, dancers, humans, they always give me tremendous information. Just one gesture, which I cannot simulate in the computer. I can, but it’s boring. To use AI is boring. But with just a human in front of me, just speaking to each other, not on screen, but face-to-face, I realize that this is such a rich experience, after using so many technologies. So, I began working with human beings again.

DR: You will present three new compositions. Can you tell us a bit more about these works, and what the collaboration with Ensemble Modern is like?

RI: I cannot tell you anything about the concept. There is no concept. Nothing to be explained. As I told you, my background is partially in performing arts, and my previous acoustic compositions can be understood against that background. In my work, I consider how the musicians behave. The gesture. Not only how they play their instruments, how they generate the sound. I consider what they look like and how they move. Their movement is so important for me. One of my previous works, for example, a duet, does not use instruments, just hand clapping and footsteps of two people, and a very precise counterpoint. What you see and what you hear is completely disconnected, because it’s so fast and so detailed. People would say that is a bit like a Thierry De Mey or Steve Reich. But I think it’s very different. It’s very far from any kind of academic contemporary music, for example. There’s no story. There’s no mood. It’s like a machine. It’s crystal clear and beautiful, without using any instruments, just the body. But, in the end, it’s not really a machinery. It’s about subtle nuances, and the performers have a certain freedom within a very strict composition. That’s what I like. One of the new compositions for Ensemble Modern will be a bit like that, partially including choreographic, visual elements. In total, there will be three pieces. One of them consists of three duos. Two of them with two violins, one with two violas. For the piece we will use a long, narrow table with a sheet of paper on top of it, which is the score. The players have to move along the table to read the score, one of them on each side of the table. One of them can play the score from left to right, but the other player has to play it in the inverted direction, because there are only five lines. They share a single notation, crossing at some point.

DR: The score and the way the musicians have to read it also provokes a certain choreography and shapes their movement.

RI: Yes, they have to walk from two starting points. At some point they intersect and cross over. This is kind of a climax. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s very difficult to achieve. It took me ten years to compose this, musically and as a choreography. It’s not like a piece where you have to walk from point A to B without any reason. It’s part of the composition, one essential parameter. Sonically, it’s very harmonious, which is very important because you should really be able to feel it. I’m still trying to extend this setting, to compose it for six people on three tables, but maybe I will fail. The other two compositions are for nine strings. In classical music they call it a nonet. Purposefully, I decided on nine people, because I wanted to work with symmetry. In the centre is the double bass, with a quartet on either side – cellos, then violas, and then two violins. Usually, ensembles line up in a semi-circle because they want to see each other. I do it differently and line them up in a straight line, because it is about showing the gestures to the audience. The composition itself is microscopic and gets very complex, but it still remains harmonious. I don’t want to create anything too alien and strange. It’s not like »typical« contemporary music.

DR: In your work, the use of light and video often plays a crucial role in creating immersive spaces. Do you make use of it for these new pieces? What will the staging look like?

RI: The stage is simple. I restricted myself to not using any cutting-edge technology for this project. There will be fixed light. No change, no fancy lighting. It’s just very conventional classical music [with a smile]. Most importantly, I don’t use any microphone. Today, it’s so rare not to use microphones, and I’m wondering why. The premiere will be in Amsterdam, with maybe around 700 people in the audience. However, I tried it in the same venue with very subtle sound and it worked perfectly. It’s all based on physics. I analysed the frequencies and they can be diffused very beautifully. You just bring your precious violins and then you just play. So, it’s a very eco-conscious piece [laughing]. My motivation is to challenge conventions. It’s about that challenge: to see something unusual that should be a little bit beautiful at the same time. It’s not just about an unusual concept, we are so tired of that. It’s about good music, and also about the players. They have to enjoy it.

DR: You’ve mentioned that human aspect frequently. I am wondering what kind of non-human or more-than-human quality you may still bring from your previous work, and your interest in using technology for such kinds of work and collaboration.

RI: Humans have a tendency to make things completely rigid. Some people love routines. You don’t need to think about something consciously anymore, but still have a certain freedom. If people mix up emotions, feelings and the composition, it gets really messed up for me. I try to eliminate unnecessary emotions. One by one. I try to make it clear, so the players can focus and practice until they have it in their body. When I see this kind of performance, for example a Beethoven string quartet, it’s amazing, because they do it a thousand times, the Beethoven score. It’s in their blood, they don’t have to rehearse so much anymore. At the same time, there is only a small space to be free in the interpretation. I hope to see something like this for ›Saitenspiele‹ as well. Maybe not yet at the premiere, but maybe during or at the end of the tour. And I hope that the ensemble will be able to enjoy it.