Radcliffe Institute Fellow Reiko Yamada created “Reflective” based on the aesthetic concept of imperfection in human life. The unique interaction of movement and music can be experienced next week in Radcliffe’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery.

Photos by Kevin Grady

Arts & Culture

Striving for imperfection

6 min read

Radcliffe exhibit creates unique listening experiences in composer Reiko Yamada and pianist Vijay Iyer’s collaboration

Step into Japanese-born composer and sound artist Reiko Yamada’s black box and you become a performer, creating a most perfect imperfect piece in modern music.

Yamada’s interactive sound installation, “Reflective,” invites visitors to walk into an intimate, dark, circular space in the Radcliffe Institute’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery. As you step in one direction, you may find yourself distorting the pre-composed piano music of the acclaimed jazz pianist, composer, and Harvard Professor Vijay Iyer, the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. Take a step in another direction, and the motion sensor detects it, further altering the sound quality of the piano, making your listening experience more disturbing or pleasant.                 

Each person who comes into the space will create a new, unique version of the piece. No two visitor experiences will be the same.

Yamada, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, created “Reflective” based on the aesthetic concept of imperfection in human life. This digital music installation in Cambridge draws from an improvisation session Iyer recorded for the occasion. The sound material, created and recorded in collaboration with Yamada, has been digitally processed and programmed specifically for the exhibition.

Radcliffe spoke with Yamada about her work and the exhibition, which runs Jan. 25-30. The show will be on view in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery of Byerly Hall at 8 Garden St., Radcliffe Yard, Monday through Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m.

RADCLIFFE: You describe your compositions as imperfect. Tell us why.

YAMADA: As a composer, I have spent the past few years exploring the aesthetic concept of imperfection in music. However, the abstract nature of imperfection has made it a very difficult one to tackle in composition and sound art.

Imperfection, or falling short of an ideal state, is a human experience that many people, including myself, share. Since imperfection is something almost everybody can relate to, creating imperfection in the timbre, colors of sound, “spacialization,” or the balance — or imbalance — of sound distribution gives me a way to connect with people who might not be modern music concert-goers.

My most recent work, “Reflective,” is an interactive sound art installation and musical composition that takes a different angle on imperfection in human life by emphasizing the relationship between decisions, actions, and their results.

RADCLIFFE: “Reflective” is a site-based installation that you have created in Argentina, France, and Mississippi. What makes this installation unique?

YAMADA: “Reflective” is an interactive exhibition series that is a cross between musical composition and sound installation. In this series, I collect sounds from the area. In France, the focus was on the countryside environment with birds singing, insect sounds, and church bells. In Buenos Aires, it was all about trains and subways. In Mississippi, I worked with sounds from a broken accordion. When I arrived in Cambridge, it was very difficult to find the appropriate sound to represent this town. I came up with the idea of collaborating with Professor Iyer, and we started working together in November. Vijay is such a diverse musician, and he improvised based on the parameters that I gave him.

Reflective, Aveyron (sample performance, mixed down to stereo)

Reflective, BA (sample performance 1, mixed down to stereo)

Radcliffe is a very unusual place for me to work, because I usually work in isolated settings. At Radcliffe, I come into my office and am surrounded by these different people who are not only artists but also scholars. For that reason, this exhibition is unique — it has been influenced by my interactions with other fellows.

As part of the fellowship, I gave a presentation about my work to my colleagues. I talked about all the challenges I had with my past installations. The biggest challenge is always encouraging people to slow down and reflect on the experience. In the past, I have put obstacles on the floor to slow down visitors. It has been very challenging to solve this issue, but other Radcliffe fellows gave me some ideas. For this exhibition, I adopted the idea of making the entire space dark and using people’s fear in the darkness to slow them down. The space will be much, much smaller in comparison to other installations that I have done. People may only be able to take five steps.

The second Radcliffe influence has been working with my Radcliffe research partners, Phil Golub ’16 and Ben Wetherfield ’17, who are undergraduate students at Harvard. For this installation, we have used a Kinect, which is a camera system built for Xbox consoles to detect movement. Mathematics concentrator Ben helped with programming MaxMSP, the visual programming software we use to build the digital music. English concentrator Phil is helping me with notation, since movements and improvised elements in music cannot be written down using only traditional methods.

This installation is an experiment. And I very much appreciate that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute has this gallery so that I can experiment to see how this particular version works.

Ben Wetherfield ’17, one of Yamada’s Radcliffe research partners, helps her with the installation.

Photos by Kevin Grady

RADCLIFFE: What is the experience you want the visitor to take away?

YAMADA: For a lot of people, listening to new music is a challenging task — especially in a society in which things are moving very, very fast.

I am constantly trying to figure out ways for people to perceive their time in a different way. I want those who interact with my installations to have a very intimate experience of time, sound, and space. I want them to enter a meditative state where they become aware that every action they make creates some kind of effect. This mirrors what we deal with in everyday life.

I am interested in expanding the range of performing environments for contemporary music in order to increase the engagement of the audience.

RADCLIFFE: This spring, in April, you have an upcoming concert, “flaws.” Are there connections between that concert and this installation?

YAMADA: One thing that is consistent throughout my work is the “spacialization” of the sound. This concert, “flaws,” is an acoustic experimental opera that features eight singers and four percussionists. Audience members will be able to move around during the performance and will become part of the storytelling, because the location of the person affects the sound and the sonic story that they experience.