Creator Toshio Iwai strikes a "mad scientist" pose for photographer watchlooksee in London.

Peter Dines, known for his work with Reaktor (don’t miss his fantastic Reaktor Tutorial Project blog) got a first-hand look at the Yamaha Tenori-On’s first North American stop on its launch tour. He brings us some impressions of the launch, and introduces the phrase "switchboard acrobatics" to the lexicon, which I think will have to find a home in these discussions from now on.

I’ll be at the Brooklyn event tonight, so if you’re there, do say hi! We’ll have coverage of the artists and event soon. (Yeah, I cheated — these are London launch event photos.)

Here’s Peter — and yes, it’s interesting to know that those buttons aren’t necessarily immediately intuitive when you’re under the gun!

Since I am an extremely lazy person I had only a cursory knowledge of the Yamaha Tenori-On when I arrived at SAT for its gala Montreal launch. A number of the little blinking beauties were set up at kiosks separated from the loud music of Pheek by the flimsiest of curtains. I waited in line for my turn to have a poke at it, and when I got it I was baffled.

Yes, there were instructions. Step four required the user to hold down a function key while pressing an LED in row nine. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t immediately recognize groups of nine out of an array of sixteen by sixteen identical, evenly spaced das blinkenlights, especially when there’s a queue of impatient people behind me. There was also no obvious way to turn up the volume to a level that would be audible in the venue. Disheartened, I passed the headphones to the guy breathing down my neck, got a beer and settled in to watch musicians who evidently knew the ins and outs of the thing as they worked it on stage.

Best part of the Tenori-On: getting some distance between you and your laptop, as Secondo does here. Photo: watchlooksee.

Pheek was just finishing his set and I Am Robot And Proud followed with fun music that reminded me of a funkier take on Sign by Nobuzaku Takemura. The man clearly knows his way around a traditional keyboard as well as the tetris-like interface of the Tenori. He alternated between them and at times played one with each hand, a feat something like typing with one hand while writing cursively with the other.

Nathan Michel played a set that, I first thought, demonstrated exactly how not to perform with the Tenori-On, standing motionless like a kid with a Nintendo DS. Then I slowly became aware of how well he knew the interface and what he was doing with it – switching effortlessly between patterns and modifying them on the fly. It was geekily hypnotic; an impressive demonstration of switchboard acrobatics.

By this time the crowds around the Tenori-On kiosks had thinned out so I took another stab at it, read the instructions at my leisure, figured out how to turn up the volume and got a few sounds working in bounce mode. Though the interface was not as intuitive as I expected, it was a relief to find that the instrument was also deeper – not at all the cookie cutter sequencer with a tic-tac-toe interface I had feared it might be. It’s a good piece of finger, ear and mind candy. Each musician who performed, including the Tenori-On’s creator Toshio Iwai, had his own way of using the device expressively, which is exciting. It is by no means a one trick pony or toy that corrals creativity into strict bounds. I can imagine a lot of potential for its abilities to import samples and to control external gear.

Toshio himself took the stage and gave us a history lesson on the Tenori-On’s roots. One of its early inspirations was the Scots-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, who painted shapes directly on the sound and image tracks of film, creating images that were sound and sounds that were images. Toshio, if you want to butter up a Canadian audience, complimenting McLaren and our National Film Board is the way to do it. We were putty in his hands from that point. Highlights of his spiel included playing a punch-roll of the song Happy Birthday backwards through a hand cranked music box – it turned the music pleasantly melancholic – and a video of Ryuichi Sakamoto playing a piano linked to a Toshio-designed audiovisual device that bounced the sounds as colorful images on a screen to a second piano that translated them back into sound.

Robert Lippok played the Tenori-On accompanied by percussionist Debashi Sinha in a performance that started out rhythmically off-the-grid before settling into a giant swirling groove accompanied by similar motion on the Tenori and VJ projections on the screens behind. Lippok had the Tenori clamped upright to show the sound and light patterns as he created them. I enjoyed seeing a performance that demonstrated the Tenori in a free-flowing, improvisational and partly non-quantized context.

Sutekh made dark music in a dark room. Like Lippok and Sinha, he used the Tenori-On in a non-obvious way, creating drones and cascades of threatening sound over a throbbing bass. As with Lippok, I can’t say precisely what he was doing even though I watched him do it. Chinstroker nirvana!

The evening’s final performer was Stefan Betke, a big, avuncular seeming guy who, as Pole, creates some of the most brutally ass shaking grooves you will hear. Like the last time I’d seen him, he rattled my organs loose. There are technologies and there are musicians who transcend those technologies. I think Stefan could create bone shattering sub bass with a kazoo and sheer force of will if the situation called for it. He engages the music with his full body, cobra-swaying nonstop behind his equipment in a way that makes him difficult to photograph in low light. The groove was infectious and everyone near the stage including myself broke into dance. Stefan’s music that night was utterly, idiosyncratically his own, another indicator of the Tenori-On’s versatility.

If the event was meant to stoke desire for the Tenori and surely it was – then it succeeded. I certainly want one, though I understand they aren’t cheap. When they hit the shelves I’ll be annoying the employees at my favorite music store by playing with the thing for as long as I can before they boot me out.

The creator demonstrates, hands-on. Photo by Chris O’Shea of Pixelsumo.
  • Well, having made more eloquent arguments, here are the *really* simple ones:

    1. It's got lots of lights/buttons. LOTS of them. That's actually quite an expensive proposition (hardware costs in that regard tend to increase geometrically in complexity) — and you get feedback on both sides.

    2. It integrates a sampler — a real sampler, internal, making it function as a standalone device.

    I'm personally very disappointed that the most innovative aspect of the prototype, the promised networking/collaboration capabilities, didn't make it to production.

    But I think the other way to look at this is beyond immediately, concretely at what's there, and at what the design means to people … it's become a kind of banner object for the transformation of musical instruments and controllers. That's what excites it about me: that I think it could be the first of many in a category of new objects, and not simply one of a kind.

  • dead_red_eyes

    "I’m personally very disappointed that the most innovative aspect of the prototype, the promised networking/collaboration capabilities, didn’t make it to production."

    I feel the same way Peter. I still want to get one tho.

  • Peter Dines

    I agree with Peter K. about the transformative aspect – it's awesome that something like this is being mass produced by a major company.

    My favorite use for the thing (don't have one yet – I'm daydreaming here), apart from its own sonic capabilities, is as a controller and sequencer for modular software or other hardware. It's potentially a handheld Ableton Live for other gear, giving the same kinds of nonlinear, phase-shifting sequencing possibilities.

    BTW, I cleaned up some of the photos I took at the launch and posted them on Flickr. Sorry for the mediocre picture quality – my little pocket size Canon doesn't work well in low light.

    Have fun tonight in Brooklyn, Mr. K.

  • maybe that's the part that floats over me – that it's kind of a hybrid controller/instrument, and i keep looking at it for controller uses. i don't care for sampling at all, so that's a strike for me.

    let me ask – do the 'dots' serve just as buttons and/or more of a visual thing, or does it offer continuous touch, rather than 'stepping' as you drag around them? i do admit the both-sides thing is cool, but i still like actually playing my keyboards.

    i do understand the innovative aspects, but maybe it just boils down to that it's not for me. i think a lemur-type thing is still my ideal… multi-touch continuous control, completely configurable, visually appealing. but of course prohibitively expensive (to me).

    i dunno. i mean i'm not trying to knock anyone for liking or wanting this, it just strikes me as an expensive toy with some fairly cool features. once it's gets on MTV or wherever videos are played these days, or shows up on stage in too many performances, the novelty will wear off and they will be on ebay for $200.

    but again, once i actually touch one that could all change. but for now, it looks to me about a half-notch more exciting than watching the guy on stage check his email – now he's playing a speak&spell with lots of neat lights. mebbe you gotta jump around and steer it thru the air too?

  • > Most about it is the fact, that you can use all the features for MIDI, too, which will be the key feature in my opinion.

    The review by Nick on SonicState had me understanding that the MIDI capabilities were not that extensive. It would still make an interesting but very pricey controller.

  • @richard lawler

    ya, i guess i have to stop looking at it that way… i keep thinking "pre-configured monome with japanese aesthetics".

    and no USB.

  • ah – you know what… POLE is playing here next weekend (very excited!). hopefully he'll have one with him. if anyone can convince me to change my mind, it might be him.

  • The event here in Berlin last week was also really fun. I was glad that I had the chance to lay my hands on the Tenori-On and to discover it myself. Most about it is the fact, that you can use all the features for MIDI, too, which will be the key feature in my opinion. Also the presentation of the creator was highly interesting, some of the art he did in the last years left a strong impression on me. I know people who would KILL for his SNES music software (which was never released unfortunately… it’s like a tenori-on, but with bugs and fairies).
    In Europe it will be something around 900€ but i’m sure that it is worth the money.


  • hmmm. i (kinda) want to like this thing. i’ve read everything i can about it. i admit it – i’m a controller geek. but this thing just doesn’t excite me at all. mebbe i have to play with it a bit myself, but i just don’t see it doing anything that can’t already be done with greater control and at a fraction of the cost. is it the blinky lights that has folks so jazzed? i just don’t get it, but i’m *still* trying.
    is there just some simple, fundamental thing i’m missing that makes everyone think this is > sliced bread?

  • Little Pig

    In the UK these cost around 600gbp. They have them on demo in some of the big music shops in central London.

    I had a play, it's interesting and different but IMO way over priced.

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