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  • Jun 08, 2021

Obituary: Yoshi Wada (1943–2021)

Photo of YOSHI WADA practicing at the K

On May 18, Japanese sound artist Yoshi Wada, a member of New York’s experimental Fluxus movement, died of an unknown cause at the age of 77 in his Manhattan home. The news was announced on Twitter by Tashi Wada, the artist’s son and musical collaborator. 

Born Yoshimasa Wada in Kyoto in 1943, the artist began his musical journey as a teenager, learning to play the saxophone. He became attracted to jazz in particular for the improvisational freedom the genre afforded. After studying sculpture at the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, he moved to New York City in 1967, where he met George Maciunas, a founding member of the Fluxus movement. Wada helped Maciunas with the construction of artist spaces in revamped buildings in SoHo and fell in with the Fluxus group, which included the likes of Yoko Ono and Shigeko Kubota. As part of Manhattan’s flourishing arts community in the 1970s, Wada studied electronic music with American minimalist composer La Monte Young and Indian master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. He also learned to play bagpipes from Nancy Crutcher, which later became a signature instrument in his experimental sound works. 

Drawing on various musical traditions, Wada incorporated drones, resonances, and overtone singing in his “interart,” a term referring to his combination of music, performance, and sculpture. During his plumbing work in construction, which he carried on to support himself and his family, he came up with the idea to invent his own instruments. He created a series of large-scale instruments named “pipe horns,” composed of over three-meter-long pipes and fittings, for his 1974 live album Earth Horns and Electronic Drone. He released two important albums in the ’80s, titled Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile (1982) and Off the Wall (1985)The former was recorded over a three-day session in an empty swimming pool, capturing echoes of Wada’s unique singing and bagpipe music to “hallucinatory” effect. This combination of instrumentation and voice was accompanied by the sounds of Wada’s handcrafted organ in the improvisational Off the Wall. In 1987, Wada was invited to exhibit The Appointed Cloud—a monumental installation of organ pipes, sirens, and a push-button booth enabling the audience to play different sequences of sounds—at the New York Hall of Science. Wada was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 1991.

His acclaimed and innovative works have endured through the decades. His major albums were reissued by Japanese labels EM Records and Editions Omega Point in the early 2000s, while his 1990 performance Lament for the Rise and Fall of Handy-Horn, featuring “auditory flare” signals of the kind used in maritime emergencies, was restaged in 2019 at London’s Café OTO as part of the curated live-music program Kammer Klang.

Wada is survived by his son, Yoshi; his daughter, Manon Bogerd Wada; and his granddaughter. 

Judy Chiu is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.