Oct 12 2017

Math and Music: Ryoji Ikeda Performs Test Pattern Live in London

by Ned Carter Miles

RYOJI IKEDA, Test Pattern [Live Set], 2008, audiovisual performance. Concept and composition by Ryoji Ikeda. Computer graphics and programming by Tomonaga Tokuyama. Photo by Liz Hingley. Courtesy Ryoji Ikeda Studio, Kyoto.

Old Selfridges Hotel, located directly above the famous central London department store, has all the trappings of a classic techno venue. Entering the cavernous industrial space along with hundreds of other spectators, and finding a spot among its concrete pillars from which to watch Ryoji Ikeda perform Test Pattern, had the air of arriving to a club night.

As a pioneering sound and visual artist, Ikeda makes work that fits as comfortably in such a setting as it does in contemporary galleries around the world, such as in an exhibition mounted earlier this year at London’s Almine Rech Gallery, “π, e, ø.” At the heart of it all is the relationship between music and mathematics, the importance of which doesn’t require more than a rudimentary knowledge of the principles of rhythm, tone and harmony to understand. Whether considered in the ratios of a beat, the number of hertz in a musical interval, or the harmony created when a sound wave is an integer multiple of another, music and math are inseparable, and it is one of the primary concerns of Ikeda’s work to manifest this interdependence visually as well as sonically.

As the first tone of the performance began—extremely low in pitch and exceptionally loud in volume—a screen behind Ikeda lit up, split down the middle with two sets of horizontal stripes visualizing the various constituent frequencies of the note as it steadily rose in pitch and broke into a high screeching. What followed was a progression from something atonal and, if rhythmic, imperceptibly so, to a soundscape that had several members of the audience pumping their fists toward the raw concrete ceiling as if it truly did belong to the kind of techno club it evokes.

The significance of math toward which Ikeda seeks to draw attention in his work was apparent in both the sound and on screen. The piece culminated in a contrapuntal built from roaring bass, glitch beats, industrials beeps in complex rhythms and a microtonal motif that demonstrated just how much of an effect the ratios between different sonic elements can have. At the same time, throughout the performance the screen continued to pulse with black and white barcode-like stripes of various thicknesses, visualizing waveforms to mesmerizing effect. The screen’s split and display, however, did not appear to be always a direct product of the sound. As the number of vertical columns proliferated and diminished in multiples of two—at one point switching to split the screen horizontally and in so many divisions that it evoked television static—it appeared to do so arbitrarily, and not as a direct and constant function of the sound. In a way that was more detrimental to the overall integrity of the work, this once again drew a resemblance to standard electronic dance and ambient music, where partially curated visualizations are by no means rare, and in the context of which thoughtful and complete explorations are nothing new among Ikeda’s contemporaries. In electronic music virtuoso Aphex Twin’s 1999 composition that is commonly known as Equation, the musician embedded an encoded image of his own iconic, unsettling grin five and a half minutes into the track such that it appears when analyzed with a logarithmic spectrogram.

RYOJI IKEDATest Pattern [Live Set], 2008, audiovisual performance. Concept and composition by Ryoji Ikeda. Computer graphics and programming by Tomonaga Tokuyama. Photo by Liz Hingley. Courtesy Ryoji Ikeda Studio, Kyoto.

Despite the apparent lack of completeness in drawing out this connection between sound and vision, in this iteration of Test Pattern Ikeda successfully, if surreptitiously, evoked another relation between mathematics and art, one of which most dance music fans will be aware even if unconsciously. Throughout the performance, the combination of frequency and amplification caused shins and ribs to resonate, the bass and rhythm caused various pleasure receptors among the audience to fire and, when my plus one and I left the venue after the show for a drink around the corner, we walked four blocks before I emerged from the trance-like state in which I had—in an area I know well—completely lost my bearings without realizing. The mathematics of sound, it seems, can manipulate and manifest to more than just the ears and eyes.

Ryoji Ikeda’s performance of Test Pattern took place on September 28, 2017, at Old Selfridges Hotel, London.

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