Yoshi Wada’s heav(enl)y drones

In the late '90s, indie-rock composer and writer Alan Licht wrote an influential list of his favorite minimalist music, recontextualizing the genre's small, repetitive gestures and earthly-care–dissolving drones for a new generation. He name-checked the genre's big guns such as Terry Riley, Phill Niblock, and La Monte Young, while also casting light on more obscure artists. One such unknown on Licht's radar was New York Fluxus member and current San Francisco denizen Yoshi Wada. Talking about Wada's 1982 album, Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile — featuring on one side acoustically manipulated vocal echoes in an emptied swimming pool, and wheezing homemade bagpipes on the other — Licht deemed it "the bagpipe drone record I've always wanted to hear."

Wada's work deploys glacial drones to devastating corporeal effect. As critic Tom Johnston once wrote, Wada is more a "sculptor than a composer, because his music seems to be a physical reality, like wood or stone." In an age where minimalism informs artists as varied as Sunn O))), Sufjan Stevens, and Jim O'Rourke, it's fitting that Wada's music has been given a second life. The Em Records imprint recently released four of his major works, Elephantine Crocodile, Off the Wall, The Appointed Cloud, and Earth Horns with Electronic Drone, the last of which had been commercially unavailable for three decades.

Yoshi Wada and his "adapted bagpipe with sympathy II." Resonating Off the Wall
Phil Niblock
Yoshi Wada and his "adapted bagpipe with sympathy II." Resonating Off the Wall

Wada believes he was able to carve out a unique niche in the minimalist world because he never had formal music schooling. Raised in Kyoto, his earliest memories of sustained sound came from Zen monks. "I would follow my mother to our family's Zen temple and listen to chanting," he explains, "[which] was hypnotic and lasted fairly long." Studying sculpture at Kyoto University, he encountered the Fluxus art movement courtesy of Yoko Ono's 1964 event "Evening till Dawn" at Nanzenji Temple. Fluxus, an outgrowth of the '60s, blurred the boundaries between art and life, often negating the artist's role while engaging the public in the piece's existence. It was exemplified by Ono's Nanzenji performance, which invited the audience to gaze at a full moon throughout the night. Exhilarated by such vibrant work, Wada relocated to New York City in 1968.

Wada recalls of late-'60s Manhattan, "It was in the midst of the counterculture: big Vietnam War protests, hippie culture, East Village, New Age, etc. It was a turbulent time, but it felt real. I would never have experienced anything like that in Japan." Falling in with Fluxus – he realized that founder George Maciunas lived in the same building — Wada began to imagine sound distinct from its Western compositional aspects. Inspired by iconoclastic composer Harry Partch's handmade instruments, Wada crafted "earth horns," didgeridoolike contraptions built from plumbing pipes and fittings that stretched the length of a gymnasium (such horns can be heard in all their skull-melting majesty on Earth Horns, the recording of a 1974 concert).

From there, Wada began experimenting with Scottish bagpipes and air machines, creating body-levitating drones. "I didn't know what I was getting into, but I managed to build my first bagpipe and reed instrument and compose for it," he says. A string of visceral compositions followed: the aforementioned Crocodile; a composition deploying bagpipes, adapted pipe organ, and percussion for 1985's Off the Wall; and The Appointed Cloud, an installation of an immense pipe organ, sheet-metal percussion, and gongs performed at the New York Hall of Science in 1987.

But by the late '90s, Wada admits he was fed up with the Manhattan art scene and left New York for the Bay Area. These days, he is hard at work on a DVD project, Art & Non-Art, an installation piece involving words and objects. So while the powerful drones of his '70s heyday may have diminished for the time being, with these reissued discs, Wada's work continues to resonate.

 
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