3.1 Ryoji Ikeda and Sonic Minimalism


Composers and sound artists have long been intrigued by the spatial possibilities made available by electronic recording technology. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his seminal work Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–1956), was among the first to make use of directional sound movement as a musical parameter. Originally conceived as a fixed media work with multiple, individual tracks, it prominently featured loudspeakers placed throughout the auditorium at its premiere. Sounds would then seem to be located at positions in front of and behind the audience as well as to the right and left. 


Yet this use of sound source location as a musical parameter was not the only variety of spatiality being explored by composers. In the 1960s and 70s, experimental composers such as La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier were intrigued by the way in which simple frequencies would result in interference patterns that significantly affected the sounds heard by listeners in different locations within a performance venue. Lucier’s “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas” (1973–1974) uses instrumentalists and sine wave generators to create standing waves that beat at various speeds throughout different parts of the room, even disappearing and reappearing through destructive and constructive interference. The resulting “bumps of sound,” as Lucier called them, are a result of acoustic phenomena and not the simulation of sound source location through multi-track recording (Lucier 1980: 128). Young also worked with sine waves that would “allow the listener’s position and movements in the space to become an integral part of the sound composition” (Young 1996: 215, cited in LaBelle 2006: 75). In Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House (first realized publicly in a Munich art gallery in 1969) electronic oscillators, amplifiers, and loudspeakers produce standing waves and beatings that provide a constantly shifting soundscape as spectator-listeners move through the installation (Grimshaw 2011: 118, 142–43).


A simple and dramatic example of this phenomenon in electroacoustic music is the track “–” [“Minus”] (1996) by Ryoji Ikeda, a somewhat more contemporary composer and installation artist who also works with simple electronic tones.[10] For a listener using headphones, “-” is minimal in the extreme: not much happens. The piece’s full range of expression only becomes apparent when listeners discover how their movements drastically affect the shape of the sounding music played through speakers. A slight shift of the head can result in a dramatic change in the sound perceived by the listener. 

The interference patterns can also make it seem as if certain tones emanate from locations other than the loudspeakers. Thus, the relative position of the listener not only affects the perceived amplitude and rate of beating from interference, but also the apparent location of the source of the sound, which may seem to be emanating from a source directly beside a listener’s head.

In contrast to the experience of listening to a recording while attempting to remain motionless, when playing the track “Minus,” the listener can walk up and encounter a tremolo, for example, at the particular place in the room in which it occurs.[11] With respect to the flow of music, such an action introduces a new textural element that was not there before. In taking a step back, the listener may hear the pulsing slow down and the sound revert back to a sustained tone, or perhaps disappear altogether. It’s as if the beating sound object is simply hanging – suspended – in a certain place in the room, waiting to be approached. Such structures – tones, tremolos, and beats – are therefore presented by the music, but not realized until they are actively engaged with and taken up by the listener.

Ryoji Ikeda, “Minus,” 1:40–2:40