Atom Heart uses Tenori-On from Yamaha's Toshio Iwai

Atom Heart, looking in this shot a bit baffled by Iwai’s new Tenori-On.

Can you create a new electronic musical instrument and make it succeed, without relying on the models of the past? That’s the ongoing challenge of instrument design, and it’s one that’s been largely ignored by the incremental revisions of most large music instrument manufacturers. Little wonder, then, that people are paying attention to the Tenori-on: it’s nothing if not different. The creation of Japanese innovator Toshio Iwai (famous for his art installations and the Nintendo game ElectroPlankton), the instrument has to be one of the few experimental devices to receive mass-production in recent years.

Via the ever-vigilent Matrixsynth, it seems Yamaha has started ramping up for the launch of its unusual new piece of gear with official sites. Here’s what’s available from Yamaha so far:

  • Official Tenori-on UK site, though there’s actually less information there now than when the device was in prototype stage
  • Tenori-On minisite with another video on the bottom right, links to sample MP3s composed by artists, and more promised info for the September 4 launch date
  • Tenori-on Artist videos, featuring Jim O’rourke, Atom Heart, and Robert Lippok. See, you knew you should have returned that mysterious voice mail from Yamaha in Japan. Look what an opportunity you missed.

No, I don’t know how much it costs or when it’s shipping in various parts of the world. Expect answers to these and other questions September 4.

And Yamaha has a scoop on what lucky artists have gotten their grubby hands on the prototypes, as well as details on the event:

[Tenori-on has been] road tested by cutting edge electronic music artists: Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Matthew Herbert, Mouse On Mars, Cornelius, To Rococo Rot, Jim O’ Rourke, Rei Harakami, Tortoise and Atom Heart…

The launch event will see inventor Toshio Iwai talk and answer questions on the TENORI-ON plus live performances from a selection of artists lucky enough to be asked to road test this exciting new instrument.

Flying in from Berlin To Rococo Rot’s Robert Lippok will perform an exclusive UK set alongside cutting edge disco edit maestro Secondo (Dreck Records) and the man dubbed ‘the savior of acid house’ Capracara (Soul Jazz Records)

(Note that the global site seems a little unstable as I publish this.)

Experimental rocker Jim O’Rourke is a natural for experimenting with the Tenori-on, as a ground-breaking musician himself, a Sonic Youth vet (to say nothing of Merce Cunningham), and a producer for the likes of Wilco, Stereolab, and Beth Orton. So far, though, while the Tenori-on is innovative, we’ve yet to see it prove its versatility. The music keeps coming out like Steve Reich on acid crossed with the TB-303. (Help! Crazy xylophonists have landed from Mars!) One of the criticisms of Iwai’s ElectroPlankton was that it was musically limiting. Theoretically, though, the Tenori-on could be bent to different musical intentions, so I suspect we may just need to wait a while as people discover what to do with this thing — such is always the way as an instrument one person designed has to become second nature to someone else.

Background on the Inventor

Toshio Iwai at work

Toshio Iwai performs with his creation — among other toys — live onstage. Via his Tenori-on blog, which curiously has only one entry on this live performance at the moment.

To fully understand the Tenori-on, it’s worth a look at Iwai’s past, and the development of his distinctive musical aesthetic:

Iwai’s own older site covers early installation work and inventions like SimTunes
Wikipedia has an exhaustive timeline and links
Pixelsumo features a Futuresonic keynote by Iwai himself, along with an insightful look at his earlier work

For the best first look at the Tenori-on itself, head over to Sonic State, who are lucky enough to be in the UK for the Tenori-on premiere:
Bonkers or Total Genius? The ‘Tenori-on’ Unveiled [Video interview with Yamaha]

Want to go to the launch/UK tour?


If you go to the launch event, you must resist the temptation to start singing the Lite-Brite song.

Okay, UK readers, want an inside pass to the Tenori-on launch event? Seeing as it’s in London (and then touring the rest of England) and I’ll be in — oddly enough — Pittsburgh on tour with a dance company, I can’t go. What I can do is find someone willing to photograph and write about the event for CDM, and I’ll pass along an official assignment to my contacts at Yamaha.

In the meantime, I’d better keep working on my custom Monome. Let me know, Brits, who’s up for it?

  • Oh my god I want one so bad. I was skeptical about this box until I watched the artist vids on their website. That ambient piece Robert Lippok started out with was wild, not the sort of sounds I expected to hear coming out of it… here's hoping it comes out in the states!

  • Adrian Anders

    Based on my experience with Electroplankton, I know this baby is going to be fantastic for stand-alone live performance. I can't wait to take this to an open mic, and be able to whip up a cool little live performance on the fly.


  • endekks

    Kind of sucks that this thing is developed in Japan by a Japanese guy via a Japanese company – and yet not so much information on the release in Japan. Take a guess where I live and why I care so much.


  • a wiser musician than me once said that a great instrument has properties that the body can learn but the mind cannot.

    on this count, the tenori-on (like the monome) strikes me as a very weak instrument. its completely cognitive. useful, absolutely. great instrument … i suspect not.

  • Of course, not all instruments have to stand up to that … an orchestra includes the violin, but it also includes the xylophone. (Not a bad instrument, but wouldn't do well on your test!)

    I share your skepticism. Ultimately, it seems personal, and it seems that with both hardware design and software design, the user can sometimes make something greater.

  • Thomas

    actually I live in London and will be at the launch, so If no one else is doing it I'd be up for the coverage

  • Another Londoner here who'd be more than happy to go along and cover this πŸ™‚

  • Okay, I think we're going to need CDM Team Coverage! πŸ˜‰

    Event details are here:

    … and entry is public. Let's just hope those lines aren't too long! (See note at the end of the press release: "Please arrive early to avoid disappointment!" I don't think it'll be as big as the iPhone launch, somehow, but we'll have to see.)

  • Howdy

    I'm going to japan in the next 2 weeks. Can I get one there and how much will it be?(apprropriately enough, I'm going to the world science fiction convention in Yokohama, with a week in tokyo beforehand.)

  • @Rock: My understanding is that this release is UK only. No US, no Japan. Suffice to say, we expect further details September 4 and I assume that will include information on worldwide release. Yamaha had indicated some time ago that they would launch in the UK first. (Why? No idea.)

  • dead_red_eyes

    Oh hell yes. Jim O'Rourke speaks Japanese really well! I never knew that … how cool!

    I can not wait for Tenori-On! And the fact that the prototypes were in the hands of the great "Cornelius" … oh man … I just can't stop getting goosebumps while thinking about this.

    Such a wonderful instrument. I'm sooo jealous of you UK types!!!

  • bliss

    I can understand why it's not being released in the States first, but no idea why such a thing wouldn't be launched in Japan simultaneously. Sounds cliché but Japan loves novelty of almost any kind, so it really is a mystery. Maybe something to do with the proximity of Aphex Twin and the clone wars? πŸ˜‰

  • Peter, the xylophone very much meets that test. Issues of how hard to strike the bars, where to strike them, and more, all fit into the category of "body learning" not "cogitation". I think you'd better hang out with a few more excellent percussionists πŸ˜‰

  • "I suspect we may just need to wait a while as people discover what to do with this thing — such is always the way as an instrument one person designed has to become second nature to someone else."

    Maybe once everyone gets bored of it and they all end up selling for $50 used … a few guys from Detroit will re-invent music with them.

    I think this is THE NEW ABACCUS! Shoes of the future, trousers of the past! In search of The New Sound!

  • dead_red_eyes

    Hell yeah, I'm all excited for this thing! I can't freaking wait!!!

  • @Paul: I do hang out with percussionists. They tend to prefer marimbas. Okay, I should have picked a different example — like a glock. πŸ˜‰

    Seriously, though, mastering any instrument can involve muscle memory. Does the xylophone really defy mental understanding? What you're talking about is not the result of a great instrument design; it's the natural properties of bars and mallets.(The metallophone turns out to be a pretty great instrument design, but nothing about the xylophone per se.) Those physical properties are indeed missing here because they're abstracted from the instrumental interface. On the other hand, a lot of what you're describing is endemic to the player, not the instrument.

    You've got me thinking, though. I think the really fundamental issue here is that things like the Tenori-on are better understood as a kind of compositional device, somewhere between an instrument as it's traditionally understood and an interactive score. And the ability to reach a level of physical interaction beyond the cognitive level of the instrument may simply be a matter of finding someone who can develop virtuosity on it, who in a way defies the essential design of the thing.

    None of this means "go run out and buy a Tenori-on." But at least seeing various instrument designs can help us reflect back upon what's essential in the player.

  • bliss

    First, the bit about a a great instrument having properties that the body can learn but the mind cannot is a naive statement to make at the announcement of a new physical instrument. No one yet knows much about it or what a musician who uses it might be capable of to make a well considered statement. Second, wise man or not, the statement is only an opinion formed through someone's perspective and experiences. It's not the discovery of a law that anyone can independently observe. Basically, one should just take the words of that wise man, those particular words, with a grain of salt.

    The violin and the piano represent technological advances, their functions just happen not to be located within the code of software that's embedded in a sliver of silicon. Tenori-On as compared to, for example, fxPansion's GURU, meets the criteria for that wise musician's statement quite well, in my opinion.

  • Damon

    The difficulty of designing new controllers, is you have the ergonomic mythology of keyboards, string things, drums, and brass to find your way through. I think the struggle is to create something that is more a visceral instrument than what appears to be an exaggerated cell phone.

    Thing about keyboards, string things, drums, and brass is that you can seem actual body parts moving and pushing and pulling in a very physical way, which is most important in the area of performance.

    Also, it is a bit hard to relate to obscure controllers if you are most familiar with traditional instruments. Having banged on a keyboard and strummed a guitar, I know what a performer has over come in order to play that instrument. Traditional instruments have a context, that is not easy to approach without developing controllers that in some fashion retain some of that traditional instrument energy.

    It is just not all that exciting to watch even a virtuoso player exorcizing the same muscle groups I use to operate my microwave oven. So, for the most part, I think until folks can create rather unique hybrids of more traditional instruments, many of these greatly revolutionary controller concepts will just not connect with most audiences.

  • GaryG

    i think the first CDM caption compo is in order with that photo of the atomheart chappie.

    and no entries regarding where the leads going…

  • @GaryG: Great idea!

    @Damon: Yes, to say nothing of the mythology of the glockenspiel. Actually, if I had to use one word to describe most traditional music instruments, ergonomic would most certainly not be one of them. Well, unless you rolled a La-Z-Boy up to your Steinway, which is a very nice way to spend an afternoon!



    Phonica Records / Vinyl Factory, London


    Robert Lippok (Domino/To Rococo Rot), Toshio Iwai (Media Artist), Secondo (Dreck Records), Capracara (Soul Jazz) +More …

    Admission Free

    Please arrive early to avoid disappointment!



    Carbon – a Futuresonic and Sequence event

    Mint Lounge, Oldham Street, Manchester


    Robert Lippok (Domino/To Rococo Rot), Secondo (Dreck Records), Graham Massey (808 State / Toolshed)

    Admission Free

    Please arrive early to avoid disappointment!