Japanese Sound-Art Unit NU/NC Talk Influences & Debut Song Based on Graphic Notation: Interview

Akihiro Kawauchi/Courtesy of Billboard Japan


Sound-art unit NU/NC, made up of Japanese guitarist Yoshito Tanaka and art director Seitaro Yamazaki, has released its first single, "Recollection / Aru Fuukei No Kioku" ("Memories of a Scene," in English), on streaming services.

"Recollection" was put to music by Tanaka based on Yamazaki's graphic notation, which differs from staff notation in its use of visual symbols. Yamazaki then drew inspiration from that music and conducted field recordings. The resulting production, a simple and abstract minimalist piece, came together as a sort of correspondence between the two artists.

The group -- whose name comes from "nunc," meaning "now" in Latin -- says its soundscapes are meant to express the memory of a scene yet to be perceived "at this very moment." These soundscapes, it says, are given meaning through listeners freely projecting their imaginations onto "an incomplete, blank space."

Tanaka has birthed numerous hits together with Shinichi Osawa (MONDO GROSSO) and many other artists, while Yamazaki has authored wide-ranging designs, dividing his time between commercials and fine art. Here, they talk about how this unconventional collaboration formed and what they have in store.

First, could you talk about how the two of you came to form NU/NC?

Yamazaki: I was working as the host of FM Yokohama's Bunka Hyakkaten program when Yoshito came on as a guest. We just hit it off.

Tanaka: We were talking, and I realized that we thought the same way about a lot of things. Especially the music he'd play on the radio -- it really resonated with me.

Yamazaki: I'm a fan of post-classical and minimal music, like the work of The Cinematic Orchestra, Peter Broderick, or Jóhann Jóhannsson. I especially like piano-based poetic music, and when Yoshito learned that, he turned me onto guitar-based music with a similar feel.

Tanaka: I told him about Papa M's "Live from a Shark Cage" and Daniel Lanois' work. And also Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert. That's one of the five most influential albums for me -- another thing Seitaro and I have in common.

Which artists would you say influenced you the most?

Tanaka: The list would be tough to narrow down, but as a creator, rather than as a guitarist, I'd say Jimi Hendrix was a major influence. In his songs, while of course his guitar playing is amazing, he does stuff like working in sounds played backwards. He really expanded the definition of music through experiments like that in musical engineering. It's close to what you hear in mid- to late-era Beatles' music.

Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles both truly were innovators in how they used the guitar not as a guitar, per se, but as one element of their acoustic approach.

Tanaka: Absolutely. Jimi Hendrix would get up onstage with his guitar and just affect this sort of depth. But I think, for him, the guitar was just a tool he happened to use to express himself. I really relate to that. And it’s something that greatly influences NU/NC.

Seitaro, you said you began working as an artist in 2018. What was the path that led you to design?

Yamazaki: My experiences onstage from when I was just 3 years old through college taught me how to express myself. I would put together performances, and my own style of expression emerged through acting and performing in them. I majored in photography in college and then decided I wanted to make the pictures move. So I studied abroad in New York and shot a movie there.

After coming back to Japan, I joined a movie distributor where I did things like strategy planning for creatives. Maybe I was just young, but I got the feeling then that I'd lose my "center" as an artist if all I did was cater to the desires of my clients and the world. I decided I wanted to learn from creatives who made things that the average person would pay money for. That led me to architecture.

I actually started going to graduate school but left midway through to found Seitaro Design, Inc. I wanted to continue making use of my experiences both as a performer and someone behind the scenes.

I became passionate about bringing Japan's creations to the rest of the world and developing a "center" informed by my identity that I would bring to bear against the world. So at about age 30, I began an apprenticeship under a master of ink painting. I also started flower arrangement. Those experiences helped me to assimilate and develop a measure of appreciation for forms, at which point I began working as an artist.

I heard that "Recollection / Aru Fuukei No Kioku," your debut song, was made as a sort of correspondence between you and Yoshito based on your graphic notation.

Yamazaki: I absolutely love graphic notation as a concept used in modern music. It's a kind of experiment, a way for a graphic artist to step into music production. Audio-Technica put out a new pair of headphones one time, and I made a commercial for them that used graphic notation to portray communication. That notation was a simple thing for use in commercials. But for this project, I tried going all in.

Tanaka: The project began with the idea of having Seitaro create graphic notation and then I react to it. What profundity would I find in a page of graphics, and how would I turn that into music? That was my objective for this undertaking, which was very meaningful and a lot of fun. At any rate, Seitaro makes some amazing notation.

The recurring piano loop in "Recollection / Aru Fuukei No Kioku" really stays with you.

Tanaka: I had a pianist just come up with the melody, then I edited and looped it. To me, sometimes the most appealing parts of songs are the looped parts, even with artists like Keith Jarrett. The loop continues while changes happen little by little. I tried to bring the influence of music like that into this song.

Yamazaki: I let that piano loop create an image in my mind, then went out and did some field recordings. The resulting material I gave to Yoshito, who did his thing with the editing, and the track slowly came together through that process. I took the field recordings wherever I went -- in the airports in Nagasaki and Amsterdam, in the mountains, in the ocean.

When making this kind of abstract music, isn't it difficult to decide when a track is done?

Tanaka: Several songs came out of one sheet of graphics, so it wasn't so much about packing everything into one song. Our focus was more on presenting the form that came together from those graphics.

Streaming as a platform seems capable of allowing artists to explore new means of expression by remixing songs they've already uploaded, for example, or releasing tracks still in production.

Tanaka: For sure. We've actually talked about how cool it might be to show people our production process.

Yamazaki: For example, music released today and next year will be different even though it might be inspired by the same graphic notation. That's a big difference from staff notation: here we set out to avoid "ossification" as much as possible, to the point that we even thought about putting production dates in our track titles from now on.

Why do you think even listeners yearn for the incomplete -- for music with blank space, so to speak?

Yamazaki: There's this Bulgarian herb perfume called Alqvimia that smells fantastic when it combines with a person's body odor. I think the "blank space" in music is like that. You can say, "A new song's done. Here you go." But the true shape of a song isn't revealed until people get into it.

Conversely, music that has no exoskeleton, that has only a nebulous feel to it -- that's the kind of music that I think can be heard differently depending on the listener's mood or physical condition. In my mind, that's the kind of music that NU/NC aspires to be.

Tanaka: It's the kind of music that sounds different depending on the scenery outside the window when you're on a train. Music that can reflect how you feel at the moment. Complete music and music full of information is great as is. But we wanted to make a different kind of music with NU/NC, and I actually think that kind of music is on the rise.

Lastly, could you talk a little about NU/NC's prospects for the future?

Yamazaki: With NU/NC, we want to do something that's also in the visual-arts vein, using a "one song per page of graphics" format. We want to see how the world will respond to that. Or maybe Yoshito could create the first part of the graphic notation and I do the rest based on my reaction to that. I think we could make something even more interesting if we blurred the lines a little more between our currently well-defined roles.