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.