There was once a reclusive yet gifted piano player and composer from Arkansas named Conlon Nancarrow. He was a demanding composer, and continually struggled to find musicians capable of performing his overly technical compositions. Probably out of eventual frustration, Nancarrow decided to discard his peers and purchase a self-playing piano and a custom-built manual punching machine to automate his own compositions. This allowed Nancarrow to craft piano rolls that were highly complex and transcendent of his musicians’ abilities. The kind of music he longed for but could never craft with human hands, including his own. Then there was, of course, Frank Zappa, who distanced himself from anything that appeared remotely palatable. Zappa’s famously difficult scores like, say, ‘Manx Meets Women’ or ‘The Black Page’ were physically demanding as compositions. Eventually Zappa employed a synclavier, an early polyphonic digital sampling system, to realise his bizarre visions for rhythm and musical form. The synth tones were sonorous and reverberating, typical of the early prog-rock greats, and the overall compositions were chaotic, muddled, and defined by some esoteric mathematical formula. This type of musical tomfoolery is evident in songs like ‘One Man – One Vote’; the rhythms are so irregular and complicated, it is superfluous to suppose any form of human integration. And then there was EXPO, a bizarro Japanese techno outfit with a penchant for deliberately programming ‘errors’ into analogue synthesisers to make video game music from Hell. Then there was Mark Fell, the computer-based experimental techno musician out of Sheffield. The list of visionaries twisting technology to find the ‘forbidden rhythm’ goes on and on…

How do I know all this? Kyoju Murakami from Japan’s te_ri told me. I’ve been talking with Kyoju ever since they got involved with our Japan compilation. He’s made it his goal as a musician to exploit current technologies in his search beyond the conventional scope of rhythm to find something new and potentially uncomfortable. You could say he is the most recent amongst those in pursuit of the wily and elusive forbidden rhythm.

At what point does a rhythm stop becoming a regulated and repetitive succession of pulses, and instead become just, well, noise? What is the tipping point between periodicity and chaos? There must be some structure to allow the listener to perceive and anticipate a beat. We can sit in front of corns popping in a pot but we’ll be struggling to find a repetitive element to sustain the rhythm. Kyoju, like the rest of the subjects in his stories, is finding that frontier. “From each of the melody and chords and rhythm, I aspire to find the midpoint between comfortable and uncomfortable,” says Kyoju. To give us all an insight into how he goes about doing this, I asked him to take us through the music making process step by step.

  1. I compose a conventional guitar part and write the score. I intentionally use a lot of key modulation here.
  2. I enter my scores into a musical composition software package called Finale Notepad. I then use a bug to distort the score and create a strange rhythm.
  3. I press the play button in Finale Notepad, and I listen to the distorted score part by ear. In addition, I send an email to the drummer with this data. The drummer then makes drum parts to fit into this.
  4. We rehearse.

So, in a sense, Kyoju is his own renegade when it comes to writing the music. He ‘hacks’ his own compositions with software bugs to create a new distorted sound. Having no idea what these ‘bugs’ were, I asked Kyoju to elaborate: “Well, for example, you understand that you can only have four quarter notes in 4:4 time. In Finale Notepad it is possible to add an extra quarter-note. I place a deliberate error in the music, a ‘bug’.” To be honest, I still wasn’t getting it. So Kyoju sent me this excerpt from his own recorded Finale Notepad session as an example…

What is happening here is Kyoju is forcibly inserting a semiquaver into a bar containing four quarter notes. Despite being non-compliant with traditional notation, the rogue semiquaver is accommodated by the software and is played out as a deformed composition. The overall tweak, which Kyoju dubs ‘overflow’, shifts the whole composition out of place. This is one of many bugs Kyoju uses in his methods. He admits to taking a lot of inspiration from the Japanese video game Beatmania and remembers being attracted to the irregular rhythms, which were merely arbitrary elements of the gameplay. “Beatmania was a video game by KONAMI. When I was a junior high school student, I was addicted to it. I actually think that Beatmania and Conlon Nancarrow are very similar.”

te_ri – “Fish Increases” (raw MIDI version)

te_ri – “Fish Increases” (‘bugged’ final version)

te_ri (which in Japanese translates as ‘the theory’) is one of Kyoju’s many musical projects, but arguably the one that truly encapsulates his vision. Kyoju formed te_ri with Takashi Katayama, a jazz drummer in Okayama about 850km away from Kyoju’s hometown of Iwate. Rather than exchanging and combining pre-recorded sections, a process most notably executed by the US band Invalids, te_ri chose to rehearse everything live using the software Netduetto. “When using Netduetto, there is a sound delay, because our houses are so far apart,” reflects Kyoju, “to solve this problem, I play guitar parts 0.5 seconds prior to the percussion during the rehearsal”.

The final products are something rather out of this world. Kyoju was kind enough to provide me with both the bugged and unbugged versions of an unreleased song, ‘Fish Increases’, which exemplifies the jagged and structure of te_ri’s songs once they have been effectively ‘bugged’. The unbugged MIDI version of the song has a basic structure around a 3/4 time signature. The bugged version is much more complex; the staccato-style guitar strums feel erratic and impetuous. The drums appear to run away and reunite with the Kyoju’s guitar, the whole affair feels jazzy but also feels underpinned by a sense of uncertainty.

The advent of advanced automated machines allows musicians to make seemingly unfathomable music a reality. We are allowed to put our aspirations through careful (or uncareful) programming of machines. How long will it be before we witness some sort of deus ex machina like event that redefines the dogma of rhythm. I cheekily asked Kyoju if he will ever find the ‘forbidden rhythm’: “I get a lot of inspiration from music of the past. I studied rhythm extensively. I really think that I can pursue and find a new rhythm, especially through what I compose in Finale Notepad.”

I’ll keep you informed.