Yoshi Wada (1943–2021)

June 9th, 2021

Experimental sound artist and multi-instrumentalist Yoshi Wada died at his home in New York on May 18 at the age of seventy-seven. The news was announced on Twitter by composer Tashi Wada, his son and frequent collaborator. Best known for his work with the Fluxus collective, Yoshi Wada is renowned for his use of the bagpipe drone and other sustained resonances produced via homemade instruments in compositions—termed “interart” for their embrace of music, performance, and sculpture—that were typically performed at earsplitting volumes.

Yoshi Wada was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1943. His father, an architect, died in World War II, and Wada’s childhood was characterized by hardship. He began playing saxophone as a teen, inspired by jazz musicians of the era including Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. In 1967, after earning his BA from at the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, where he studied sculpture, he moved to New York—and, by happenstance, into an apartment building occupied by George Maciunas. The Fluxus founder introduced Wada to compatriots, including Yoko Ono and Shigeko Kubota, and hired him to help remake disused SoHo lofts into artist spaces.

Over the ensuing decade, which saw the rise of a vibrant experimental music scene in downtown New York, Wada studied electronic music with minimalist composer LaMonte Young and sustained vocal stylings with North Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. He learned to play the bagpipes from Nancy Crutcher and began composing pieces that allowed for a great deal of improvisation, and that incorporated a variety of resonances linked to different cultures, including those of Scotland, India, and Macedonia. Continuing to support himself and his family as a carpenter and plumber, Wada began building instruments that could produce the type of tones he was after, notably creating the “pipe horn,” a monstrously long instrument created from lengths of plumbing pipe and fittings. Also known as the earth horn, this instrument was the focus of 1974’s live Earth Horns and Electric Drone. He additionally invented the “alligator” and the “elephantine crocodile”: Each of these large reed instruments consisted of multiple bagpipe-like reeds connected to an air compressor and resembled its namesake. The latter was featured in 1982’s Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile, recorded over the course of three days in a swimming pool in which Wada also slept, to fully immerse himself in the experience. For 1985’s Off the Wall, Wada built an organ, on which he accompanied himself singing and playing bagpipes.

Though Wada often performed his compositions himself, he frequently created works and installations that could be performed or utilized by members of the general public. An exemplary work of this nature would be the 1991–92 work What’s the Matter with Your Ear?. Writing in Artforum about the work displayed at a group show at New York’s Thread Waxing Space, Keith Seward characterized it thus:

“[Wada’s work] allowed you to conduct a mechanical orchestra by pushing various buttons that activated such ‘instruments’ as a coffee grinder, a windshield wiper, a chintzy drum kit, and a suspended steel barrel hit by hammers. The idea was that there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable in any given sound: its affective value depends on the conjunction of sound-producing mechanism, listener, and context.”

Wada often incorporated sculpture—many of these mechanical or robotic—into his work, and created compositions using unusual “materials” ranging from sneezes to compressed-air “auditory flare” signals of the type used in nautical emergencies. The latter, specifically the brand “Handy Horn,” featured in his composition Lament for the Rise and Fall of Handy Horn, in which the horns were sounded for the duration of their usefulness. Undeterred by the resulting unbearable auditory atmosphere, Wada in the mid-1990s ended a lecture at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon by enlisting six student volunteers to perform the piece, which lasted a deafening ten minutes and required them to wear gloves, to keep their hands from going numb. That same decade, he created a series of customized trash cans for a New England strip mall that startlingly emitted loud alarm bells and acoustic sirens when their lids were opened.

Despite the typical lack of funding for experimental music works outside of grants—Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile, for example, netted the composer just $3.90 in royalties a few years after its release—Wada continued to innovate and compose to the end of his life, often collaborating with his son in his later years. “Basically, I’m freewheeling,” he told The Wire’s Jim Haynes in 2008. “I try to make interesting things for myself. I am not like Marcel Duchamp, who stopped art to make chess.”