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Interview with Seiji Morimoto

img  Tobias Fischer

For many sound artists, the search for a unique voice can not be separated from the search for the right instrument with which to express it. There are ample examples for this – Sachiko M claiming sine waves for herself or Toshimaru Nakamura perfecting the art of the No-Input Mixing-Board come to mind. As unspectacular as these discoveries may seem to the outside observer, they can constitute life-changing events for a creative mind. To Seiji Morimoto, too, the tiniest of objects have taken on a remarkable significance: Buzzers, originally used for door bells, have proven the ideal medium through which to express his sonic ideas and a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration. Cheap and inherently lofi in nature, Morimoto has used them for everything from large-scale installations to raw, physical live performances, from the studio recordings of his current album Short Summer (released on Emitter Micro) to intimate room sound pieces. The seemingly one-dimensional nature and puny sound capacities of the buzzers is amplified and expanded by forcing them into contact with a plethora of materials or continually re-combining them into new constellations subject to chance operations. Already in his fourth year of working with the buzzers, Morimoto continues to extract fresh ideas and noises from them.

To understand the concepts and potentials a little better, I visited Seiji  and Emitter Micro co-head Kris Limbach in their shared Berlin studio. We soon found ourselves caught up in an intense discussion reaching far beyond the buzzers – venturing into the allure of cheapness, the ongoing relevance of Cage and Fluxus, as well as the influence of Rolf Julius.

Seiji Morimoto / [demonstrating one of the buzzers] These here are tiny hammers. They're vibrating at roughly 400 Hz. And by bringing them into contact with various materials, I can create different sounds.

Tobias Fischer / How did you discover the buzzers?
Seiji Morimoto / At the time, the curators of the Grimm Museum in Kreuzberg, Francesco Cavaliere und Marcel Türkowsky, were planning a series of sound art events and invited me for the first installment. There wasn't much time and I didn't have a concrete idea straight away. My initial thoughts were to work with sinewaves and build my own sinewave-generators. Then, I stumbled upon these tiny buzzers used for door bells and was curious to find out what they would sound like. I guess the underlying concept is similar to my initial impulse with sinewaves: Creating insect-like objects with a humming sound. The good thing about them was that I didn't have any budget for the project – and these cost just €1,50 a piece at a local electronics shop (laughs).

Tobias Fischer / So what happens once the batteries run dry?
Seiji Morimoto / I actually bought these three years ago and haven't had to replace the battery once (laughs). It requires just a tiny amount of electricity. Just to make sure, though, I soldered the battery compartment tight to the buzzer. It hasn't always worked, but it did turn me into a sort of an expert craftsman (laughs).

Tobias Fischer / How did you prepare them for the exhibition?
Seiji Morimoto / I wrapped them up in plastic foil, each one slightly different from the next, and placed them in the room. And then, each day, I would change the set-up again using an action plan I'd calculated using chance operations. Some of the buzzers would get turned on, others would get turned off, for some I'd open the foil a little and with others, I'd close it shut. So the sound was always different. I can't remember the exact rules for the chance operations, though (laughs).

Tobias Fischer / Did they involve rolling dice?
Seiji Morimoto / They did. And then, I used the results for the action plan. This allowed me to work swiftly and make constant adjustments.

Tobias Fischer / For the CD version, you used different materials as well.
Seiji Morimoto / Exactly, I used a wooden box like this one [demonstrates] and a plastic box. Then, I placed a Neumann microphone next to them as closely as possible and waited for up to an hour (laughs). In fact, that's all I did.

Tobias Fischer / That's interesting to hear, that you actually didn't do a lot. The sound keeps changing.
Seiji Morimoto / I guess the voltage is variable. It's an unstable situation. Even if you use exactly identical set-ups, they'll sound different each time.

Tobias Fischer / When you're playing with them today, are you approaching them differently than in the beginning?
Seiji Morimoto / If I'm playing them today, for example the way I did in Milan in November, it was more like an installation. There were about 100 people there and I placed all of the devices around them and kept changing things in the moment. I was moving around the room while the audience was sitting on chairs and either listening or observing me. It worked well.
The effect on the listener changes depending on how many buzzers I'm using. In the beginning, I would work with seventy of them ... it was pretty loud! On the other hand, these big numbers would yield intriguing results: If you moved around the room, the soundscape would keep transforming in your ear. In Milan, after the concert, I set up a far smaller installation in the same gallery with only two devices, so you didn't actually hear anything at first, when entering the room. Perhaps if no one had told you that there's an installation, you might not have noticed anything at all. There's the distance from the sound, the quietude ... It's all barely perceptible. There are zones where you can hear them and zones where you can't. 

Tobias Fischer / It must be fascinating to be moving inside this field of delicate sounds. I was reminded of some of Rolf Julius's pieces in that regard.
Seiji Morimoto / Julius is definitely an inspiration. I actually assisted him a bit ten years ago in Tokyo. And after he'd passed away, I helped with setting up some of his installations at galleries. I wasn't an official assistant in any way, we just talked a bit and these conversations definitely influenced me in some form. His work was great and I was able to witness it coming into being from up close.

I want to keep working at the cusp between the audible and silence. I am thinking of a room with two different sounds. When you're standing in the middle, you don't actually hear anything. When you're standing somewhere else you'll hear just one of them. And then, there's also a spot, where both sounds blend. I am tired of using video and I'm tired of all of these loud concepts, the physical pressure of speakers. I am taking an entirely different direction.

Kris Limbach / Surely, working with all of these different materials must change your relationship with them. Even for myself, when I'm entering a supermarket and see a tray of mushrooms, I am thinking of you (laughs). And that gets you thinking. Really, there's an entire structure there, but all that most people see is a container for holding vegetables.
Seiji Morimoto / It all comes together from my perspective ... There's a specific function why the box has this shape and on the other hand, that function feeds back into its sound characteristics. From all of the different materials I've tried, the ones on the CD are the ones that worked best. They're my all-star team, so to speak (laughs).

Tobias Fischer / We're living in a world made up of myriads of materials. But we don't actually know anything about them. I guess your work is about exploring that.
Seiji Morimoto / I am interested in using things you usually wouldn't. So my object is perhaps not to understand things we don't yet understand. But to understand them in a new way, different perhaps from their original purpose.

Tobias Fischer / Do the ideas of John Cage still play a role in your considerations?
Seiji Morimoto / A lot, actually. Cage got me interested in these ideas in the first place. I started out with rock music and classical composition. I played the piano and was even pretty good at it. I performed Beethoven's Waldstein sonata when majoring. Eventually, however, I was tired of notes, tired of not being allowed to make mistakes. I simply wanted to play something different each time (laughs). That's where Cage entered the picture. I was aware of his prepared piano before that, but it was only later that I found out about the importance of chance in his oeuvre and about his cartridge music.
I am not tied to just sound, either. There's a piece by La Monte Young called Compositions 1960, where all he does is release a butterfly. There needs to be an open window in the room and the concept is to observe the butterfly flying outside. The effect of that, to me, is very similar to a minimal musical experience.

Tobias Fischer / The great thing with the fluxus pieces is that they blur categories in general. You'd go to a fluxus performance and they'd put on some theatre.
Kris Limbach / Absolutely! Plus, it was very unacademic, which made it extremely exciting. One of them would be a carpenter, another would play an instrument. These aspects tend to get forgotten once you start canonising everything.
Tobias Fischer / I wonder what a authentic performance practise would look like with regards to fluxus.
Kris Limbach / It means capturing the butterfly and no longer allowing it to fly freely.
Seiji Morimoto / I am precisely interested in the indeterminacies of something like that. For a video installation, I set up a cheap video camera in a corner of my room and recorded the lightplay in changing weather conditions. Sometimes, it would be bright, sometimes, when clouds would move in front of the sun, it'd be dark. The camera's auto focus couldn't deal with that, creating different effects, because it could never properly focus. Between the walls of the room and the ceiling, there'd be this line which would start oscillating. Nothing of that was planned, it came about purely by chance, as a game between mechanics and nature.
It's the same with my album. When you're playing the CD at home, it has a sort of presence. Where I live, there's a bus stop in front of my apartment. And when the bus drives by and I have the music playing, the walls will start to vibrate. It's the opposite to head music, it's very physical.

Tobias Fischer / It certainly doesn't have a 'studio sound' to it.
Seiji Morimoto / It doesn't have to be hifi all the time, you don't always need a good audio system or great headphones. It's generally believed that the more information you have, the higher the quality, but I'm not so sure. Of course, the sound will be sharper, more defined. But is it really better?

Seiji Morimoto Interview by Tobias Fischer
Seiji Morimoto Image by Laura Gianetti

Homepage: Seiji Morimoto
Homepage: Emitter Micro Recordings