Sunday, July 3, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Group Ongaku

Looking back through history, one can find numerous cultural and art movements which consciously reacted against the status quo. All anti-art is also anti-culture, at least to some degree: these are movements have developed in reaction to perceived limits or inconsistencies within art or culture. Such limits are addressed or overcome with freewheeling satire (the French Incoherents), reactionary rhetoric (the Italian Futurists), and even social action (the Situationists).

Group Ongaku

Post-World War II Japanese music was dominated by the influence of American music (rock n' roll, jazz) on one hand, and a fusion of modern Euro-American composition and traditional Japanese music on the other. Group Ongaku can be seen as either a fusion of, or a reaction against both of these approaches.
This group first played together in 1958, as the duo of Takehisa Kosugi and Shuko Mizuno, two musicology students at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was not named until 1960 when other members, such as Meiko Shiomi and Yasunao Tone had joined. Only three tracks are known to have been recorded; all are available on UbuWeb Sound and were recently reissued by Seer Sound Archive. The recordings speak for themselves: completely improvised, action-oriented rather than product-oriented (in keeping with the general anti-art aesthetic of the period) and highly experimental.

Takehisa Kosugi, photo by Kiyotoshi Takashima, from The Japan Foundation, London.

To understand what I mean by "action-oriented", we should take a look at what was happening in the visual arts. Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Association) was formed in 1954; their 1956 manifesto (written by Jiro Yoshihara) declares that gutai art "does not change the material but brings it to life". They "pursue the possibilities of pure and creative activity with great energy." Some examples are described:

"Kazuo Shirago placed a lump of paint on a huge piece of paper, and started to spread it around violently with his feet."

Atsuko Tanaka's "Clothing". Photo from I like boring things.

"Shozo Shimamoto ... [fired] a small, hand-made cannon filled with paint by means of an acetylene gas explosion."

Murakami Saburo, a Gutai artist, creating "Lacerating Paper", 1955. Image from Outside Japan.

Gutai was a predecessor to and influence on Fluxus, an international and interdisciplinary movement which brought all arts even closer to "life", often with guerilla tactics. The most famous Fluxus artist is probably Yoko Ono; her early work is very interesting. Central to the Gutai concept is the idea of "psychic automatism", the process of "[uniting] abilities of the individual ... with the chosen material." It's worth noting that Group Ongaku named one of their recorded pieces "Automatism", suggesting a direct ideological link to Gutai. Group Ongaku is most well-known for their improvised pieces, but this was just one part of their overall activities. They often accompanied puppet shows, dance pieces, and sometimes even performed compositions. Julian Cope's book "Japrocksampler" tells the story better than I ever could.

"In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other."


Cope, Julian. "Japrocksampler: how the post-war Japanese blew their minds on rock'n'roll." Available online, accessed June 13, 2011.

Stuart, Caleb. "
Yasunao Tone's Wounded and Skipping Compact Discs: From Improvisation and Indeterminate Composition to Glitching CDs." Available online, accessed June 13, 2011.
Yoshihara, Jori. "The Gutai Manifesto." Available online, accessed July 2, 2011.

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