Naomi Kashiwagi is a sound artist who eschews digital technologies to co-opt obsolete equipment and create unexpected audio outcomes.
She relishes the unpredictability old analogue hardware by incorporating its customised pops, crackles and reverberations into a contemporary audio/visual setting.
Driven by her cultural heritage, she works hard to fuse elements of English and Japanese artistic traditions, adding yet another dimension to her output.
Notable works include Gramaphonica, an installation which involves live ‘gramophone glitching’ – playing 78rpm records that have been re-appropriated with electrical tape on a wind-up gramophone.
In 2013, Naomi was selected to perform Gramophonica at Innsbruck International Festival of Arts and last month she took the installation to Canada’s leading gallery for contemporary art, The Power Plant, Toronto, for the 2014 Power Ball.
She also helped organise the PRS for Music Foundation funded Delia Derbyshire Day 2013, and has written commissions inspired by Delia’s work.
We spent some time with Naomi for our Women & Machines feature to learn more about her extraordinary music and the art of co-opting outmoded technologies…
You immerse yourself in many art forms. How did you arrive at music?
I met the artist Tom Phillips at his studio in London 17 years ago when I was studying A-Level Art. I was fascinated by his work because he amalgamated visual art, music and language. It was the first time I’d come across an artist working across different art forms. He really encouraged me to draw upon on my skills, passions and cultural heritage in my work.
So you have a classical musical background?
Yes, mainly the classical flute but also piano. In my teens, I learned music theory and developed a fascination with John Cage’s work, in particular his graphic scores. I began quite organically looking at the links between visual art and music when I was studying Fine Art at university.
In what medium do you feel you can express yourself the most? Or do you prefer to use a combination of disciplines?
I’m most interested in what happens when you bring together these different disciplines to create something new. In a way, this relates to my cultural heritage, an intrinsic fusion of two cultures, English and Japanese. So I look at the intersections and impacts of visual arts, music and language on one another. I explore the potential of things beyond their prescribed uses by transforming their function and making unorthodox connections between them.
A lot of your sound work incorporates obsolete music technology such as gramophones and 78s – what drew you to that?
It started when I was doing my MA in Fine Art and I bought a gramophone because I wanted to see if I could use it as a drawing instrument to draw out sound. However, I became more interested in the whole ritual of playing music, winding up the gramophone and changing the steel needle every time you play a record.
Then during the opening week of the Venice Biennale in 2005, I encountered Gruff Rhys doing a performance at the Welsh Pavilion and it was the first time I saw a musician doing live looping using found sounds and noises from everyday objects to create electronic music. It was a really pivotal moment for the progression of my work that influenced me to incorporate sound, music and performance in my art practice.
Is it as much about the ritualistic side as it is the sound quality?
Yes it is. I’m almost using the gramophone to draw out the sound so it’s a tactile, physical and intuitive process. I think that relates to my background in drawing and painting, as I studied BA Fine Art (Painting) and also interested in Japanese rituals, ceremonies and philosophies.
Is there much customisation of the old equipment?
Yes there is. I tend to find alternative and unintended uses for the analogue equipment that I work with. I customise the 78rpm records by re-appropriating them with electrical tape. I place radiating strips of electrical tape onto the shellac records to create an additional tactile layer to disrupt the sound. This form of appropriation creates unexpected percussive discordances and harmonies when I play the record on the gramophone.
Are there any other bits of kit you’ve customised?
I’ve composed a piece for typewriters, ||: Repetition :||, Fugue No.1 in QWERTY for 8 Typewriters, which was a synthesised text and music score. I got pianists and percussionists from the Royal Northern College of Music to interpret the score back in 2008 and it was performed at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, as part of the one off event, The Art of Sound: The Sound of Art. The score was based upon the meaning of repetition in both language and music. It was composed of four movements that explore the monotonous, hypnotic and rhythmic characteristics of repetition. Each letter of the words ‘repetition’ and ‘repeat’ were allocated note values that corresponded to their respective time signatures 4/4 and 3/4 time. The layout of the score was influenced by standardised notational structures and formats.
What music do you listen to?
I’m into ambient techno at the moment. I performed at the Heart of Noise festival last year when I was invited to exhibit and perform at Innsbruck International: Festival of the Arts, and was entranced by Elektro Guzzi’s live set. I saw Hauschka play recently and was bedazzled by his prepared piano music. I listen to Rachmaninoff, Kid Koala, Caribou, Satie, Glass, Sun Ra, OMFO, Nisennenmondai… an eclectic range of music.
Do you remember the first electronic sounds and music you heard? What effect did it have on you?
When I was younger I had a Fisher Price tape recorder and was always fascinated by recording sounds around the house and in the garden.
When did you first become aware of Delia Derbyshire?
It was back in 2010 when I was working as a producer on the PRS for Music Foundation project New Music Plus with a Warehouse Project DJ called Krysko. We were looking at how to animate the Whitworth Art Gallery’s exhibitions and collections through new music. It came to my attention that the Delia Derbyshire archive had been acquired by the University of Manchester in 2007. So we used that as a starting point and this has since led to inspire the project I produced, Cultural Wonders in the Mix, animating the University of Manchester’s cultural wonders through new commissioned soundscapes, music and art.
Did you have much chance to go through the archive?
Yes, when I was working as one of the Delia Darlings on the Delia Derbyshire Day 2013 we each worked on one new commission and produced work inspired by spending time with the Delia Derbyshire archive. We saw some of her physical objects like old exercise books and graphic scores at John Rylands Library. We also listened to her work, including music she produced for theatre and watched the first episode of Doctor Who at Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama. It was extraordinary to have intimate and insightful access to her work.
What is it about her work that most appeals?
The tactile, systematic and meticulous processes she used, cutting and splicing tape together to construct music appeals to me the most. Manipulating sounds from everyday objects created something extraordinary and in many cases otherworldly and timeless. It was also interesting to see the impact of her mathematics and music degree from Cambridge University on her work. Often with electronic music you just encounter the sounds so it was fascinating to see how see notated things and her graphic scores.
Did some of her music still sound fresh to you?
It does, yes. There’s one piece called Dance from Noah, it was made for a children’s programme, and it was incredible. It just sounds like techno. You would not believe it was released in 1971.
Can you tell me a little more about the thinking behind Delia Derbyshire Day?
It was a platform for celebrating her work. We did this by showing the documentary film The Delian Mode by Kara Blake, a panel discussion, an archive listening sessions and also premiering the three new commissions that Caro C, Ailís Ní Ríain and myself produced, all to illuminate her work and relevance today. 2013 was also the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who so this event launched the celebrations.
The project was awarded PRS for Music Foundation funding from the Women Make Music strand. What was interesting about the feedback was that people said it was refreshing to see women working together because it often doesn’t happen. It was a good example to show that women can work together and empower and support each other.
Apart from Delia, which female producers or songwriters have really inspired you?
My friend Caro C, who’s an experimental electronic artist and a sound engineer has inspired and continues to inspire me. When we were working together as Delia Darlings, it was great to have someone with digital and acoustic expertise and experience who could support me to develop my work and introduce me to the software I needed to produce one part of my new commission. To have that support and dialogue was fantastic.
Do you think there is a community of women getting together to talk about this stuff?
Yes, I feel there is. In Manchester there are a community of women who make electronic music and sound works and I’ve developed friendships within this network. We go to see concerts and performances together, talk about our work and sometimes collaborate. Caro has a page on her website, Women in…, dedicated to resources and networks for women working in electronic music.
Do you notice any difference in the way the different genders approach electronic music or do you think it’s less gender specific?
I think it depends upon people’s backgrounds. Once you unravel how people got to where they are and how they got into electronic music, it starts to get interesting. I don’t think it is gender specific. I got into electronic music when I started to use wind-up gramophones and re-appropriated 78rpm records and coaxed out sounds and loops that could sound like hip-hop sampling, ambient techno, house music and drum and bass. The catalyst for this was buying an 80 years old wind-up gramophone to use as a mechanical drawing machine when I was at art school!
How accessible do you think music technologies are to women who don’t know about it?
I feel lucky that I’ve encountered resources via Caro C’s Women in… web page. Caro and I did a series of workshops with children as part of the Delia Derbyshire Day programme. We wanted to show young people to the process of making electronic music using simple technologies and recording found sounds to empower them to see the potential that these music technologies are accessible and to show that if they enjoy using them, being an experimental electronic musician or sound engineer is a possibility. For this reason, I personally felt it was important to work with younger generations, for them to have this opportunity to play with sound.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on two new commissions for the exhibition Playtime at Cornerhouse. I’m one of eight international artists that have been commissioned by Cornerhouse, Manchester to respond to Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece Playtime for the closing exhibition.