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?