The urgency of being way behind a single dominant player can make electronics makers do some odd stuff to promote their products. iPod, once an icon of digital cool, has achieved such ubiquity that it doesn’t even try to be hip any more. The thing is being promoted with American Idol, for crying out loud — not exactly indie cred. We saw Microsoft enlisting indie musicians and animators to sell Zune, of course.

But here’s where things get surprisingly amazing: Sony is using weird and wonderful Japanese experimental music to promote Walkman.

Now we’re talking.

And whether or not Walkman is cool again, this is for sure: Japanese experimental musicians? Mind-blowingly cool. And, apparently, in love with using light as a controller for sound.

Atsuhiro Ito uses contact mics on a fluorescent bulb he dubs the Optron. Instead of just being stage eye candy, the bulbs are really making the sounds here; coupled with guitar effects, he can solo on the bulbs. It’s what the Knitting Factory will be like after the nuclear winter. I can’t wait.

Taeji Sawai uses a light pen to draw melodic lines and rhythmic onto a screen. The basic effect – track light from a single source – is old. Yet he’s clearly got a brilliant aesthetic mind that makes it all work; the elements are strikingly simple but never fail to be engaging. And there’s a strong connection to work by his fellow sonic inventor Toshio Iwai.

Thanks to our friend Donald Bell of cnet, aka very talented and (cool) musician Chachi Jones, who has a great write-up:

Sony Walkman promos are awesome, confusing

Confusing? No, I’d say Sony is confusing; the real question is why their Walkman can’t be more like these ads. Plus, since neither Don nor I can read Japanese, how do we know those characters don’t say something like “Hey, guys, sorry for that bit with the lousy boring electronics – we’re coming back from the dark side to make awesome things again”? Okay, maybe not. (Do let me know if the next one says “Fine, you damned snarky blogger, I’d like to see you run a giant multinational corporation.”)

Admittedly, the problem here is this makes me want to toss my iPod touch out the window and build my own open source MP3 player with Popsicle sticks and wire, or, at best, mod an original Walkman so I can play circuit-bent OGG files using power from a bicycle. At the very least, I’m ready to add to my Atsuhiro Ito and Taeji Sawai collection. And I don’t think their full body of work is on iTunes. That’s just as well.

So, Sony, thanks. Now, will you let us run homebrew music apps on your PSP? Please?

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  • Weird, I've been having major problems with the commenting system at this site for the last couple of days.

    Just wanted to see if anyone had any more info on what, if anything, he was doing to control the sounds with his hands. Is it just the guitar pedals doing the modulation of the sound?

  • Cool ads, but does this make my Walkman ensemble works from the '80s relevant now? It's OK if it doesn't. I've never been interested in single, steady pulses (in sound or light).

  • YES!!! i had the opportunity to see Optron live here in Portland a year and a half ago. it was awesome and pretty intense. i hope he comes stateside again.

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  • I think what he's doing with his hands is flicking the lights on and off, and then the modulation is in fact just the pedals. But that's just a guess.

    If anyone has major trouble with commenting, you can contact us — ie, we can clear out comments stuck in moderation / spam filters. Eventually we should have a straight login system for CDM — optional, but for those who are logged in, will mean easier commenting.

  • That work by Taeji Sawai with the light pens is amazing. Great job! What I don't understand though is what the X axis does for the instrument. It seems the Y axis controls pitch. Is time the length along the path made by the pens?

  • I haven't seen Taeji Sawai's work before. It's kind of funny to see — in December I did an installation with Blair Neal where we projected onto opposite sides of a screen with two light-based interactive pieces. One was Blair's lightpainting patch and the other was my I See Beats. Taeji has beautifully combined what we projected separately.

  • Thanks for the feedback on commenting, Peter. I just changed some of my info and it's fine again so no big deal 🙂

  • Both are cool, but Taeji Sawai's work blew my mind. Screw watching Zepplin laser light shows at the local planetarium, this is the future!