Game and film composer Gary Kibler is back from Tuesday’s TENORI-ON launch event with words and images reflecting upon this new instrument. (See comments for lots more discussion, of course!) And for some reason, he’s been playing with his mashed potatoes… -Ed.

See also: Yamaha TENORI-ON Launch: Photos, Videos, Interviews, Demos, Details, and a Music Box

THE TENORI-ON : I know this. This means something …

Literally what TENORI-ON means in Japanese is "sound in your palm" but what I came away feeling after hearing Toshio Iwai‘s story and later experiencing this innovative musical device for myself at Yamaha’s UK Launch event last Tuesday was more akin to the Richard-Dreyfuss-Close-Encounters quote. Never mind that the light-and-audio-synched performances can bring back visions of that film’s alien jam session.* I may not be articulate enough to explain fully why or how I was so affected by my short time with this snazzy gadget (my logical working-musician-self keeps on telling me that, measured by today’s music hardware standards, this is still just mashed potatoes, albeit in a very cool shape) but I do consider myself self-aware enough to appreciate the very real visceral impact it had on me. I’ve a sense the TENORI-ON is important, but not in a way most of us can fully appreciate today or probably anytime soon.

Let me start off by saying what the TENORI-ON is not:

  • It is not a programmable synthesizer or sound module.
  • Although it can hold some limited samples, it is not a sampler.
  • It is not a compositional tool, not in the traditional sense at least.
  • It has a tactile x/y matrix element but is not a Kaoss pad.
  • It is definitely not the type of highly flexible "soup-to-nuts" production workstation device most working musicians would use to compose and produce their next musical opus on.

I find it commendable that Yamaha’s marketing manager, Peter Peck, was very upfront in stating the first two points at the outset, especially in a market where so many new music products attempt to be everything to everybody. It also appears to be the reason, although this wasn’t confirmed, why they have decided to market and sell these in record stores rather than music stores here in the UK.

What the TENORI-ON is:

  • A well-designed piece of interactive art.
  • An innovative and fully-contained musical instrument that allows anyone to easily produce very listenable music.
  • A very tactile feedback-loop experience. The interplay of the lights with sound is incredibly mesmerizing and draws you in immediately.
  • Incredibly immersive.
  • Expensive – approx $1200 USD.

If there is just one particular point I would make in attempting to explain why it is I am so extremely smitten with this slick gizmo, I would have to say this:


I’m coining a term here, so allow me to explain: "Flow" is something most all creative people can easily identify with. That’s when your wife – your partner, your better self, whomever – comes to you at your desk or studio at 4:45 in the morning and says "Do you know what time it is?" and you really don’t. Now while many musicians certainly have established their own paths to get to this place, most find there are typically nowadays more than a few frustrating and time-consuming hurdles that must first be overcome.

Granted, I now live and work in a world made up mostly of DAWS, virtual synths, samples and plug-ins, not to mention hardware interfaces, mixers, outboard gear and more cables than I would prefer. As a result, I often feel several layers detached from dealing with my sounds and music, so it may be only natural that the direct, more tactile experience the TENORI-ON provided may have conjured up for me memories of twiddling knobs on my first hardware synth or working a beatbox in real-time.

Regardless, the real story here may not be about the TENORI-ON itself, but more about its artist/inventor Toshio Iwai (seen above). About how one’s lifelong artistic vision can sometimes, in what would seem to be incredible odds in a corporate environment, manage to manifest itself and make it onto the world stage as an actual retail product, and not just another one-off museum installation. Can you imagine what it must have been like persuading a huge corporate behemoth like Yamaha into investing who-knows-how-many millions on the making of what’s essentially a piece of "interactive music art?" I can’t. I have a hard enough time just shilling my little jingles and tunes for loose change to anyone willing to listen.

When you hear Toshio speak about his life-long passions for interactive music and art you realize this isn’t just another creative guy in touch with his inner-child, he IS his inner child! Toshio spends over half of his lectures focusing on his childhood – how his parents encouraged him to create his own toys and the profound impressions he had upon receiving his first microscope, his first tape recorder, his first synthesizer, his first computer. Apparently it was a much-loved crank music box that could read perforated cards that gave him first inspiration for the TENORI-ON and other interactive music projects. I found it most interesting that somebody instilled with the kind of drive and confidence to push an uphill vision in a corporate world, not to mention to speak openly about his inner childhood development, still shied away from calling himself a musician. This after spending a lifetime literally obsessed with music and providing performances like the one below. Alright, so Toshio’s not a musician in the exact same manner that Brian Eno said he wasn’t a musician while in Roxy Music. Get over it, you’re a musician already!

Perhaps that’s the real juncture here. As the lines between musicians, DJs, performance artists, and just "normal" people who happen to enjoy music continue to blur and even evaporate, this may well be where the real TENORI-ON impact could come into play. Case in point: the current Guitar Hero phenom. I consider myself a fairly shreddingly-adequate guitarist, but I was so intimidated by the virtuosity of some of those who played daily during our lunch-breaks in the office at Sony, I didn’t dare join in for fear of being shown up by one of these non-guitar-playing virtual guitar heroes (oh, the humility, the shame!). To hear these guys talk they were experiencing a "real" music-making experience and without a doubt it probably was a very real tactile experience of making music when you think of it.

Other game companies are suddenly jumping on to clones of Guitar Hero with other interactive music/graphics based games. Yamaha has had a long history of promoting music education and this could have definitely had some play as a basic thrust of that initiative. Even Toshio’s own previous work on his Nintendo DS title, Electroplankton, contains many of his TENORI-ON elements.

As for its immediate future, I would love to see this thing become a commercial success, for Toshio’s hard work if for nothing else. I believe Toshio’s intentions are good, that he envisioned setting out to provide to others something he himself had experienced as a youngster. But there are some real issues, the price point being the most glaring. There is no doubt that if this were a $299 product, and not a $1200 one, I and many others would own one right now. Just because I said the TENORI-ON could be important isn’t the same as saying it will sell. What will likely happen – and it could be happening as we speak – is some kid is going to reverse-engineer a virtual software-based version, which is probably not that difficult a thing to do. Perhaps a Monome coupled with a PC running this kid’s software may even come extremely close to that experience I felt the other night, who knows. At any rate, I still think this is just the beginning – I know this … this is important.. <long awkward pause> and "I guess you’ve all noticed that there’s something strange with dad."

Gary Kibler is a game and film composer who most recently worked for Sony Pictures in their Games Studio in Culver City. He recently relocated to the UK just outside London where he is now working on several new projects.

* Speaking of Close Encounters and alien jam sessions: Did that incredibly insipid effect of Spielberg’s having the synthesizer keys move up-and-down player-piano-style totally ruin that otherwise great movie for anyone else? I’ve always wanted to ask that.