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YASUNAO TONE AND MP3 DEVIATION

Thom Blake, Mark Fell, Tony Myatt, Peter Worth


Music Research Centre, University of York, UK
mrc-nacm@york.ac.uk
ABSTRACT

performance into their work, the group sought to present


musical performances in terms of actions and events rather
than purely sonic experiences [4].
Following the experiments of Gurpu Ongaku, Tone
became one of the founding members of the Neo-Dada and
Fluxus movements in Japan: organising and participating
in a number of Fluxus events and working with the
installation and performance art group Hi-Red Centre [11].
George Brecht, one of the leading theorists of Fluxus, had
drawn on quantum physics and the principle of entropy in
proposing not only the use of indeterminacy in
performance but also an exploration of the processes
through which a determined set of variables could lead to
indeterminate results [2]. Brecht suggested establishing
mechanical processes with progression beyond the artists
control [4]. Tone experimented with this idea as early as
1961 in his piece Number. For this piece, Tone recorded a
series of spoken numbers. This recording was played back
and re-recorded a number of times, increasing the volume
each time leading to compound distortion [8]. Embracing
digital technology, Tone founded the computer art group
Team Random in 1965 and shortly after organised the
Biogode Process Music Festivalthe first computer art
festival to be held in Japan [9].
Whilst no longer describing himself as a Fluxus artist,
these approaches to indeterminacy and technology
continue to inform Tones work, as do the aesthetic
qualities of the work that he produced during this period.

This paper describes collaborative research by Yasunao


Tone and the New Aesthetics in Computer Music (NACM)
research group 1. The aim was to develop new composition
and performance software based on the disruption of MP3
data. This approach follows from Tones former work such
as the Wounded CD series, in which audio is generated by
CD player error correction algorithms in response to
modified CDs. The paper presents discussion of Tones
compositional strategies, and also discusses his
interactions with the research group and the software
interfaces developed. It describes his original approach to
the use and subversion of digital audio systems within a
complex system of interaction between authorial intention,
indeterminate systems and compositional aesthetics.
1. INTRODUCTION
1.1. Yasunao Tone
Yasunao Tone is a Japanese musician and artist currently
based in New York. Since coming to prominence in the
1960s as a leading exponent of the Japanese Fluxus
movement, Tone has continued to develop a distinctive
compositional approach and aesthetic style. Working as an
independent artist, Tone performs internationally at
galleries, events and festivals and has released work on
experimental record labels including Asphodel, Mego,
Tzadik and Lovely Music. Tones works have exhibited a
strong emphasis on live performance and address central
themes of indeterminacy, language, and media.
As a student of Surrealist literature at Japans Chiba
National University in the 1950s, Tone joined fellow
students in forming an experimental improvisation group,
that later became Gurpu Ongaku (literally Music
Group). Influenced by Andre Bretons technique of
automatismusing free improvisation as a method for
emphasising subconscious expression over conscious
decision-makingand using graphic scores [3], the group
sought to explore the boundary between determinate and
indeterminate performances. Often creating sound using
non-musical objects and introducing theatrical
1

1.2. Approaches to Language and Media


Much of Tones work from the 1970s onwards has formed
an ongoing project based on the conversion between text,
image and sound. His 1976 piece Voice and Phenomenon
used recorded excerpts of 8th Century Chinese poetry
accompanied by a slideshow of found images showing the
pictographic origins of the written characters [3]. The piece
was re-conceived in 1982 as Molecular Music, in which
the vocal recordings were replaced by a series of
oscillators controlled by light sensors positioned on the
projector screen. For Musica Iconologos, recorded in 1992,
the screen and sensors were replaced by a digital system
generating sound from pixel data obtained by scanning the
images [1]. This approach to language has also been
incorporated into Tones live performances. In 495,63,
characters are drawn onto a graphics tablet and the drawn
images projected in real-time onto a screen. The tablet data

The New Aesthetics in Computer Music research group is based in


the Music Research Centre at the University of York, UK and is
supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. For
more details see http://music.york.ac.uk/mrc/nacm.

234

also controls a series of sound synthesis algorithms.


Recordings of these text-based works are often used as the
sound material for the later Wounded CD pieces and the
current MP3 project.
Central to these works are what Tone describes as a
disavowal of representation 2. Influenced by Claude
Shannons work on information entropy and redundancy in
communication [13,14]and reminiscent of George
Brechts indeterminate processesTones interest is not in
presenting audio without representation, but in the
processes by which representational information is
distorted and erased as it is transposed from one medium to
another. Drawing from both Dick Higgins' idea of
'intermedia' [7] and Grard Genettes writing on literary
paratexts [5], Tone describes these approaches as
paramedia. The use of communication technologies is
central to these approaches, involving what Tone refers to
as a deviation of technology. Tone describes each
medium as having a telos, an original purpose for which
the medium is designed; his aim is to deviate from this
purpose to create a new field of work [10].

1.4. Materials

1.3. Wounded CD

The project was implemented during a two week residency


by the artist and a team of five researchers 3. The
researchers collaborated with Tone in the design and
implementation of MP3 corruption audio software and a
performance interface, through a series of regular
meetings, demonstrations and interactions during the
residency. Members of the research group also had a remit
to document artistic practice through observation,
interviews and recording.

Tones work is typical of a number of artists who are


exploring sounds and audio behaviours resulting from new
technologies. This incorporates an approach that reveals
audio traits related to software and hardware systems
themselves and their use. It is a strategy concerned with
creating new aesthetics, rather than imposing existing
musical forms.
Whilst utilising a diverse range of such techniques, the
sonic results of Tones work display clear aesthetic
preferences. Forgoing conventional harmonic, rhythmic
and time-based structures, his works tend to focus on short,
non-harmonic, often high-pitched sounds with rapid
repetitions, wide and narrow-band noise bursts and
frequency sweeps. This can be seen not only in his digital
works but also in earlier acoustic pieces, such as Gurpu
Ongaku's Metaplasm 9-15 (1961) [6].
2. SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT
2.1. Implementation

The outlined approaches to indeterminate processes,


disruption of representation, and deviation of consumer
technologies can all be seen in Tones Wounded CD works:
of particular interest here. First performed in 1985, these
pieces involve the preparation of CDs by making pinholes
in small pieces of adhesive tape that are then applied to the
disc, deflecting the CD reading laser and causing sections
of data to be unreadable. These CDs are played using a
specific model of CD player and rely upon the
characteristics of the device's error-correction software.
Tone describes this process as being distinct from simple
CD skipping since the player is reading the altered data
rather than treating it as corrupt [10]. This distinction is
important to Tonehe is not interested in breaking the
technology or revealing its limitations but rather in finding
new ways that the technology can be made to function.
During performances of the Wounded CD pieces, Tone
uses the track controls of the players and physical
manipulation of the machines themselves to maintain the
performance of the piece. However, he does not want a
high level of direct control over the players operation. In
describing his preference for CDs over vinyl records he
explains that whereas vinyl can be manipulated with
relatively predictable results, digital technology is
basically unpredictable; he cannot know what type of
information is being altered or what section of the CD is
being played. Tone refers to this use of indeterminacy as a
de-controlling of the sound-producing process [10].

2.2. MP3 Disruption


MP3 is a robust audio format, designed to survive
corruption and be efficiently transported over networks
without significantly modifying the audio. Tones software
specifications encouraged the group to discover a method
by which the mechanisms of MP3 encoding and decoding
algorithms might be made audible. The resulting software
was designed to support the composition of new works and
live performances from a laptop computer.
2.3. Software Development Process
The project initially explored Tones original idea to
transfer the Wounded CD concept to the MP3 format using
data corruption in software. To this end, a Max/MSP
external was written to read an MP3 file into a buffer,
decode it as a stream (using the MAD library [15]) frame
by frame, and output the resulting audio. Data corruption
was applied by sporadically offsetting individual bytes.
3

During a recorded interview between Yasunao Tone and the


NACM project, available at http://www.music.york.ac.uk/mrc/nacm/index.php?n=Main.YasunaoTone.

235

NACM has implemented nine research residencies over the last


two years to document and describe computer music practice by
artists operating largely outside institutional economies and support
mechanisms.

This was done before decoding, such that the decoder's


attempts to play the corrupted data would be heard.

software development.
2.3.2. Phase 2

2.3.1. Phase 1

Following experimentation with the initial system, a new


approach was investigated.
The MAD MP3 decoder reports twenty-two different
error types (e.g. loss of synchronization, reserved
header layer value, forbidden bitrate value etc.) A
parallel sound processing chain was established to process
sound files separate from the corrupt MP3. Each error
triggered changes in the parameters of this process,
guiding a temporal fragmentation of the sound-file data.
This system is summarised in figure 2.

Control parameters were implemented to adjust the amount


and type of corruption in the MP3 data stream. Streaming
the data allowed corruption parameters to be dynamic and
audible in real-time. The corruption process and
parameters are shown in figure 1.
MP3 file

Data (frames+headers)

Amount and type


of corruption

Decoder

Audio

Corruption
Skip bad frames

Corruption

Figure 1. First phase of development

MP3 file

Audio
(discarded)
Decoder
Error
codes

This system was initially presented to Tone as a


graphical user interface consisting of switches and
numerical input boxes. The group observed Tone
experimenting with combinations of parameters presented
in and relating to the interface. He tried very small and
very large changes in numeric data input and investigated
elements of the interface not defined by the group as part
of the GUI, but which were part of the larger software
environment. Tone described his interactions as a process
to find the correct amount of activity in the resultant
sound4. With minimal corruption, too much of the source
material was present, but too much corruption led to a
result that Tone described as boring, since all errors
produced similar audio.
Initial experimentation showedas expectedthat
poor MP3 data resulted in a 'siney' sound, familiar to all
those who have experienced Fast Fourier Transform resynthesis artifacts; frequency domain errors which affect
the amplitude or phase of individual bins decorrelate signal
components and make the additive synthesis nature of the
process more apparent perceptually. This type of audio is
very different from the wide-band noise of Tone's previous
work, such as Wounded CD.
When the corruption was more extreme (particularly
within the MP3 frame headers) occasional sharp, loud
bursts, close to white noise occurred. If the decoder was
not set to skip bad frames, frame repetition was also
producedsimilar to a CD skipping sound but always one
frame in length.
Through observation of Tone's interaction and
experimentation with the software, it became clear that
skipping or looping sounds were closer to his preferred
aesthetic outcome, similar to both the Wounded CD series
and Metaplasm 9-15.
This aesthetic preference guided phase two of the
4

Data

Audio
input

Skipping/looping
process

Audio
output

Figure 2. Second phase of development


The new system was developed through regular
dialogue with Tone. This revealed that strict adherence to
the 'concept' of the work was less important than the
resulting audio. For example, the most common error
produced in the corruption process was a data overrun in
the Huffman decoding, resulting in a loop length that
occurred regularly. In consultation with the artist this error
was simply discarded. The software was then tailored to
select what Tone considered 'good' loop lengths for the
next most common errors.
The sound resulting from this process is not a direct
representation of the corrupt MP3the process is not
revealed somehow in the music. This raises questions
about the categorisation by some commentators of pieces
such as Wounded CD as 'glitch' music [14,12]; the point is
not to observe or appreciate the errors as such, nor is it
entirely a conceptual exploration of digital formats.
Despite this apparently pragmatic approach, elements
within the original concept were clearly important to Tone;
a similar result could not have been found using pseudorandom number generation. Indeed, discussions revealed
this as an anathema. In his words he was interested in
indeterminacy, not randomness5.
Towards the end of the development process, it became
apparent that audio would occasionally drop out due to
CPU overload. Tone refused to have this fixed, seeing the
performance machine (and software which would overload
the CPU) as an integral part of the complete performance
5

In discussion with researchers on 02/03/09.

236

In discussion with researchers on 03/03/09.

system, i.e. providing other characteristics and attributes


which would be eliminated if it were substituted for a
faster, more powerful machine.

4. REFERENCES
[1]

2.3.3. Interactive interface


A tablet interface similar to that used in 495,63 was
investigated as a control for the MP3 corruption software
system, but was rejected. Tone's views were that it made
no conceptual sense; there were no gestural elements
within the MP3 audio corruption system. He clearly
expressed no desire to have an 'instrument'a passive tool
to enable expression. He explicitly stated that he did not
want a too direct a relationship between his interactions
and the resulting sound. This prompted a return to the
original interface style (consisting of switches and numeric
input).
The most successful parts of this interface appeared to
be those with an unclear function offering some kind of
resistance to understanding. He instructed the group not to
remove elements in the interface that were unintuitive, e.g.
switches which arbitrarily linked several input parameters.
This appeared to be related to the concept of 'decontrolling' used in previous CD based works. These
unintuitive interfaces were preferred over an intuitive
system of slider controls.

[2]
[3]
[4]

[5]

[6]
[7]
[8]

3. CONCLUSION
The software developed during this project allows Tone to
use MP3 corruption processes for sound generation in the
studio and in live performance. It implements a series of
indeterminate means beyond his control, however it is
important to note that he expressed no interest in
'removing' himself from the works created by the use of
such systems or processes. His interactions with semiautonomous processes are central to the performance and
creation of new works.
While the concept of data corruption is central to the
MP3 project, the 'realisation' of the concept is not its end
goal. Rather, the concept is a starting point for work which
emerges from interactions between conceptual, aesthetic
and technical concerns. The development was not
primarily driven by a desire to reveal or interpret the
concept directly, nor to develop an instrument for intuitive
musical expression. For Tone, the software is part of a
process that allows him to realise performance and studio
works incorporating indeterminacy, decontrol, automatism
and the idea of paramedia. It was clear that an intuitive
design that allowed direct access to audio parameters
would have been counterproductive in this context;
unintuitive and unpredictable controls enabled the creative
potential of the system. This approach could be productive
in other interface design contexts to encourage creative
exploration.

[9]
[10]

[11]

[12]
[13]
[14]

[15]

237

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