Data-Inspired Spectacle Engulfs Your Sense of Reality

But something else made Ryoji Ikeda’s Barbican Hall performance particularly exciting for sound art.

A minimalist assemblage of sound stripped down to bare sine tones, pops and glitches combines with a data-inspired, black and white digital video—this is the type of audiovisual art for which Ryoji Ikeda, a Japanese artist who lives in Paris, has gathered a kind of cult following. To visit one of his installations or performances is to experience a real spectacle, which is why Barbican made an instant sale upon me seeing a cleverly targeted advert for “Ryoji Ikeda Music for percussion + Datamatics [ver. 2.0] in my Facebook Newsfeed, some months ago.

It’s pretty easy to see how Ikeda has gained himself his cult status. It comes down to a combination of things. If he’s been a pioneer at the digital end of sound art, he’s been the kind who quietly does their thing and doesn’t mean to create a huge fuss.* Ikeda religiously turns down interviews and communicates only with gallerists. His works are often huge and ambitious, like the column of light shot into the sky from London’s Houses of Parliament. His works are also often informed by a mathematical sequencing of something incomprehensibly large, take the universe, for example. He creates such works with authority, having been the artist in resident at CERN from 2014–5.

‘Datamatics’ is an extreme audiovisual experience

Ikeda pretty much always performs on stage. So I must admit, it was a bit disappointing to find out that for this concert he wouldn’t be. And when Datamatics [ver. 2.0] began, it did at first feel a little bit like video time because Mr Ikeda is absent today.

All disappointment evaporated within the first two minutes of Datamatics. Seen in the image at the top of this article, the Datamatics performance consisted of a video projected onto a screen some four metres high and seven wide, accompanied by Ikeda’s signature brand of electronic music glaring through the Barbican Hall’s surround sound speakers.

The mesmerising quality of the Ikeda spectacle took hold over my sense of reality. I wasn’t just watching and listening to the audiovisual work; I was inside it. And so, it seemed, were the other 1,900 or so people in the hall. Experiencing the work from start to end in its linear, concert format is like falling into the internet in some kind of Halloween special that turns out to be too overly conceptual to actually be scary. I was glued to the screen for the next 53 minutes.

If you went to Ikeda’s exhibition at Almine Rech in 2017, you’ll have seen much of the same sound and visual material from Datamatics in a different format. There, nine 24-inch LED screens laid out in 3×3 played different clips from Datamatics simultaneously. Dig a little further and you’ll see that Ikeda has in fact been performing and putting on installations of Datamatics for over ten years (it was originally created in 2016), making incremental changes to the work over time.

So you might wonder why Ikeda performed a twelve-year-old digital artwork, especially since he has been relatively prolific throughout that time. You could argue the answer is that he is a very well respected international artist whose performances are both extremely rare and highly popular, and therefore people will always go to them regardless of the programme. I think the real reason is that the concert wasn’t about Ryoji Ikeda performing Datamatics [ver. 2.0]: it was about Ryoji Ikeda having composed Music for Percussion.

Datamatics followed the interval. Before the interval, there was another work performed — a new Ikeda work called Music for Percussion for which Ikeda collaborated with Swiss percussion group Eklekto. The work consists of two pieces, Body Music and Metal Music.

Four overhead spotlights glare directly down onto the stage. It starts:

Eklekto performers Alexandre Babel and Stéphane Garin sit side by side on stools and play Body Music. They begin clapping. At first, you hear Steve Reich. Then you begin to hear Ikeda in the isolated, powerful claps that jump out of the texture like radicalised atoms and in the electronic exactitude of the performers. You also see Ikeda in the visual aspect of the work: Ikeda makes it clear that each performer is working through a sequence and this way creates visual symmetry. It’s mesmerising, a bit like watching data visualisations on a screen. The piece is unfolding according to a process in the same way as Ikeda’s data works appear to involve process, only in this case the relationship between sound and visual is explicit (they’re clapping). There’s more coughing during the performance than at any art music performance I’ve ever been to — only a handful of people actually seem engaged. The piece finishes with rhythmic cycles that diminish in beats until the loud, powerful claps dominate the metronomic leg taps, almost as though a certain mathematical condition has to be met in order for the piece to end.

Metal Music. Alexandre Babel and Stéphane Garin begin by playing straight semi-quavers on triangles as fast as the human hand allows, muting the triangles by resting them on their legs. Alexandre Babel and Stéphane Garin return with crotales (tiny little symbols lined up along a T-shaped metal stand), and each uses a violin bow to produce dissonant, combination tones out of the sum of sine-tone pure, high-pitched frequencies.

Lucas Genas and Dorian Fretto join the performance for the last movement of Metal Music, the apparatus for which is an assembly of 12 cymbals lay flat on stands in a matrix reminiscent of the Almine Rech Datamatics installation I mentioned. Each of the four performers applies pressure with a soft percussion mallet onto a cymbal with one hand and spins the cymbal with the other. The resulting sound is like hearing a pod of whales call and it’s so quiet I begin to get self-conscious about the sound of my pen as I take notes.

My paranoia is soon resolved by the unintended attention grab of a man with black curly hair letting out an “I’ve been sleeping” snort, two seats left. The performers build up the texture to the point where each performer playing a roll across two cymbals. A cycle begins in which each performer playing sudden, loud swells before rejoining the texture. The piece ends with all four swelling simultaneously. Rapturous applause follows, unexpectedly — I enjoyed it, but somehow didn’t seem like others were.

Why ‘Music for Percussion’ is significant

For many, this is a digital guru and electronic music artist’s first non-electronic music piece. Music for Percussion uses hands, legs, feet, triangles, bows, crotales, percussion mallets, cymbals, nothing else. Nothing electronic comes into the production of the piece. Ikeda scored the piece for four of the twenty performers who make up Eklekto, and two years after its conception, here those performers are on the same stage that both the London Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra use, and facing a packed hall at the biggest multi-disciplinary performing arts centre in Europe.

Music for Percussion is a feat if you’re willing to go down Ikeda’s conceptual rabbit hole. Ikeda points out something obvious, that electronic music has its basis in the non-digital, physical world. Samples are that can be produced digitally can also be produced acoustically. Ikeda is showing us how his aesthetic attraction to infinitesimal physics and raw minimalism can go beyond fast-moving, attention grabbing, black and white visuals. He is also showing us that he’s not just an audiovisual artist, digital artist, electronic music artist; he doesn’t need software to make his art. It would be wrong to label Music for Percussion as simply a work of minimalism because it contains so much of the language of glitch music. Ikeda is positioning glitch within art music.

I’ve been to art music concerts in the same venue and the attendance is obviously quite different. This time around the Barbican is filled with a kind of young, international art world crowd and people wearing clothes your grandmother would comment on. I somehow doubt this crowd is as interested in Music for Percussion as they were in Datamatics.

But if, with this performance at the Barbican, Ikeda is positioning himself as an artist-among-other-things-including-composer type of artist, we could well be in for some more compositions without electronics — a prospect which is, at least for the few of us who came to know him through sound art, something we can get very excited about indeed.

*Without huge fuss. Well, except for, maybe, the administrative chaos which no doubt unfolded following his decision to perform Datamatics [ver. 2.0] not on stage but from the sound technician’s desk (hidden from most of the audience), a decision which he made a little after the concert had sold out.