The Sound Poetry of Planets & Pink Shirts

Interview with Tomomi Adachi

“my body itself can become the instrument” (Tomomi Adachi)

“sound poetry is an intermediary between music and literature” (Tomomi Adachi)


Tomomi Adachi is Japan’s (and possibly the world’s) greatest sound poet, and an incredible composer and theatre maker.

I first met Tomomi at a small festival in Poland, and he performed a strange and haunting vocal piece that was something like a translation of a code interpreted by a satellite and transmitted back to earth. This website about the project says:

Look up at the sky. Imagine the 10 cm cubed small satellite that is moving at an altitude of about 340km with a speed of 7.7km per a Second, and the voice which is synthesized in outer space. Try to listen to the sounds with your imagination. To face toward the satellite is effective.

Then we met again at the Bucharest International Poetry Festival, performing at ‘Dada 100’ (100 years since Dada) alongside renowned sound poets Jaap Blonk, Mugur Grosu, Jöel Hubaut, Claudiu Komartin, Angelika Meyer and Enzo Minarelli.

In Bucharest we performed a tiny duet together, exploring the palindromic nature of our names (this is why we like the lower case at the beginning of our names). But we had no time to rehearse, and so I started to plot a way for us to work together on a project.

I invited Tomomi to work with me to create a short duet ‘Pluto is a Planet!’ using infra-red sensor shirts – an instrument Tomomi designed and built. I’m honoured to be the first collaborator that Tomomi has agreed to make a second shirt for. We’re presenting our short duet as part of a few performances this May, in which I also launch my debut record ‘Talk in a bit’.

I interviewed Tomomi via Skype.

hannah: There’s a big community of poets in the UK but very few sound poets, and there’s not much knowledge about sound poetry

tomomi: okay so you want to ask some general things

hannah: yes, general things, but also from you particularly, how did you first encounter sound poetry…?

tomomi: Oh it’s a real interview!

hannah: Is that okay? Well, casual

tomomi: Yeah, fine!

hannah: That’s my first question then, for me, I started playing around with voice before I found out about sound poetry, and then I found out about Kurt Schwitters, Bob Cobbing… I’m curious for you – were you making strange noises on your own…? How did you encounter it?

tomomi: I came from music… music was the first…. I tried many instruments, actually the first step was to get into voice, I tried instruments and I went to electronics, and to use electronics, I thought live processing was the most interesting thing. That was the beginning of the story, when I was eighteen years old… in university but this was nothing to do with university, just my personal thing… I’m talking about 1990. I bought some effectors. I thought the voice was the most interesting thing for live processing. It’s very simple. I started to use voice and at the same time I saw some interesting voice performers in Tokyo, and somehow I started to develop my voice, the music, electronics, and I moved into voice.

I was thinking – how can I describe my voice practice? I can say ‘voice performance’ but what is the tradition? My voice performance was nothing to do with singing –I felt it was speaking, like extended speaking, extended speech. I thought what was the possible tradition of my practice, and then I figured out it’s probably sound poetry, and I don’t know when exactly I knew about Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, probably when I was 21 or 22. I was interested in avant-garde art, I had known Kurt Schwitters, at a certain point – we didn’t have a recording of Ursonate. We didn’t know what it was in Japan. I only read Japanese texts, I read something about it and sound poetry but I didn’t know what exactly it is and I think then the recording came and also I listened to the CD of Jaap Blonk and I got the original text of Ursonate…

– Jaap Blonk is probably the best performer of the seminal work of sound poetry by Kurt Schwitters in the 1930s – Ursonate.


Schwitters - Ursonate

– Extract from Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate

(tomomi) …That was my first entry to the sound poetry, in 1994. I decided to practise Ursonate. I learnt very basic pronunciation of German and I studied and I performed the Ursonate in Japan, actually the first live performance in Japan, probably it was quite wrong! That was the beginning. I learnt a lot about sound poetry and I found many people doing it still.

hannah: How would you describe the difference between sound poetry and music?

tomomi: It’s more connected with language – I cannot say music is language.

hannah: Even when you’re not using recognisable words? How is sound poetry still language?

tomomi: You listen to a lot of language you don’t recognise, I think it’s the same thing. I was convinced for example by the poetry by Tristan Tzara, he was so inspired by an African language which he didn’t understand at all, he just caught the sound, it’s a totally different thing. I think a comfortable description is that sound poetry is an intermediary between music and literature. What I wanted to say was, I wanted to distinguish between singing and sound poetry – it’s really clear for me, because I don’t like any kind of song.

hannah: Any kind of song?!

tomomi: I don’t understand how people use words and music at the same time.

hannah: Why? Explain why…

tomomi: It’s double meaning – for me it’s really too much. Music itself has totally another level of meaning and then to put another meaning on that – I’m always really confused, vocally it’s okay but why does music need words? I think it’s not necessary at all. Sound poetry is at a good point… one material at the same time… language and music at the same time.

hannah: So do you see language and music as being the same thing, the same material? When you sing you have words and music… Sound poetry has language and sound…

tomomi: I didn’t make a clear definition of word and language… Okay… I thought it was strange… to use words… To make music carry linguistic meanings, but why? Music has its own musical meaning… it’s too much for me.

hannah: So sound poetry takes words out of language and sound out of music…

tomomi: What I wanted to say exactly – with a song you can separate the linguistic and musical parts and put them together and okay I’m a Modernist if I confess so I always like really simple fundamental existence of art… and I felt that song is not fundamental and this is why is was not so comfortable with it. Sound poetry is an interesting way to connect, you cannot distinguish ‘this is language’ and ‘this is music’ – it’s something in between – I was fascinated by this idea.

hannah: Beautiful

tomomi: Actually I’m talking about the past. I’m more tolerant now about meanings and sound, more flexible now.

hannah: Why?

tomomi: I think I changed a lot, now I’m not interested in sticking to the position of Modernist anymore.

hannah: But you’re still working with sound and with this in-between language and song use of voice….So can you talk about why you made your infra-red sensor shirt? (which works with MAX MSP) And what that enables you to do…?

tomomi: I can explain two ways – practical and theoretical, which you like? You want both.

I was working with a dancer and we made some interesting experiments with physical sensors and movement and sound. We worked three or four years then stopped. I thought – how can I integrate movement and sound by myself? I bought infra red light distance sensors, at that time I was in Dortmund… a German town…. a football place… I was resident artist… had nothing there just the studio and I bought ten sensors and thought I’d do something with them. I was thinking what can I do? At that time there wasn’t much work with sensors and sound music, experimental sound. Normally people put sensors on some object and had to activate the sensors with their bodies. The relationship is the sensor is there and body is here and a very practical problem is you have to carry that sensor, maybe you need a stand, I thought it’s not a good idea. The easiest way is to put sensors on your body. It is the opposite way of thinking about subjectivity and objectivity of the instrument…. So my body itself can be an instrument… I felt it was practical so I put sensors… This was the story in 2004, long time ago. I made the first version and also, generally I’m interested in live processing, not generating sound from scratch… Now I move to the theoretical part of that instrument.

When I’m talking, always my hand is moving. When I perform I move a lot. Why? What is the reason? I was curious about how other voice performers use their bodies. Some people never move, some people move a lot. I really needed to move during my voice performance and also when I’m speaking… My hand is moving like that… Somehow I wanted to use it. I’m a big fan of Stephen Mallarme and what he thought about dance, was really interesting to me. He wrote that he regarded all the world as one book… He liked dance, the ballet, he described a ballet dancer as writing letters in the air. I thought it totally makes sense to me as my hand is writing text and I make some utterance, some pronunciation of the voice of the text. I felt theoretically it made sense for me, and I could make that happen with the sensor shirt.

hannah: And you designed it so that the way you move works with the sensors

tomomi: Yes and I designed it in response to which movement is the most interesting. In the beginning I didn’t have a clear idea of where is the best place to put the sensors but also important to me is I built that system and programmed it and then I try to assimilate my body to the instrument. It’s this kind of self-made instrument. The interaction is important…. I put sensors where they should be but then I also change my body, I change how I should use my body, it’s an interaction.

hannah: When we were talking about working together you said that other people have asked for you to make the instrument for them, and you were telling me you don’t want a dancer to use it…

tomomi: Yes – it’s for a voice performer. People asked me but they’re not voice performers they’re dancers. I feel it’s not for dancers because it’s connected with the idea of live processing and the idea of language and I feel it’s even not for musicians, so I particularly designed it for someone thinking about language and sound and I have not met so many people who are working on that and you said okay you can…

hannah: Even though it’s using the body and using sound in a musical way, I like to think about all of that as writing… so it’s writing with the body, it’s writing with sound even when there’s no actual words that it’s still applying writing to those elements…

tomomi: Exactly yes, so for example it’s possible to work with a dancer and the shirt, for instance I am here and dancer can make something in front of me and the shirt reacts to the movements – it’s okay it makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense for the dancers themselves to put the sensors on. I feel it’s very particular for myself, the original idea is for myself, it’s not really a product – now you know it’s not really a good product!

hannah: Yeah in some ways! It’s interested as when I started using it with you and watching our first videos, my movements weren’t fitting with you and for the shirt, I had to look at the way you were moving and use a different kind of rhythm of movement to make it work.

tomomi: Also you can find your way, I think it is possible, I’m not sure.

hannah: As soon as I can make it work on my own maybe I can discover…! [having some technical hitches right now]

Maybe you could say something about ‘Pluto is a Planet!’ just to finish and I can put the trailer up… Can you say something about our process, when we were working with the shirts and what started to work?

tomomi: I’m working with you it’s a ridiculous question you can answer by yourself!

hannah: I can! I will!

tomomi: Can you make a more concrete question?

hannah: I tell you what – so – we’re making a short piece together called ‘Pluto is a Planet!’ In the first few days we did research, watched Ted talks, learned about Pluto and the arguments around it when they realised it wasn’t a planet and we took words from that. But what was particularly interesting for me over the week, apart from learning about the technical things, was the way you were struggling with sleeping and it felt like Pluto was invading your dreams and coming together with your personal experiences. I think writing about a planet is difficult, it’s so impossible to imagine, so outside of our experience but at the same time maybe close to the experience we have at night, in dreams, when the world feels very empty in the middle of the nights, that’s the time we can connect to the idea of a planet, a feeling of loneliness…

tomomi: Yes I totally agree about it, it’s quite an interesting experience, Pluto really invaded me, maybe in the wrong way… maybe he shouldn’t! Yeah, I think so, because we could connect in a scientific way but we can’t get the sense of … For example the distance to Pluto – we cannot imagine how far it is, just the numbers, but it starts to connect it to us in a psychological way… It’s also probably the limitation of our imagination, somehow it extended our imagination too.

hannah: Somehow it gets into the subconscious

tomomi: I feel it’s very strange…. Why didn’t we really watch Pluto?

hannah: You’re right!

tomomi: How is it possible I’m not sure!

hannah: We need to start again!

tomomi: Maybe it’s not really a sphere!

hannah: I think we also started to see each of ourselves as planets with orbits that can move and interrupt the other person’s orbit, move close and create sound, and that’s when it started to make sense to have two people using the shirts, that’s when we could compose together in that way.

tomomi: The sensor shirts, the interface is also about invisibility – you cannot see the infra red light – there’s really light there but you cannot see it… we don’t know exactly what is happening there… but we can interact and use it still.

hannah: A bit like a planet you mean? Like gravity? All the things that are invisible?


See tomomi and hannah performing ‘Pluto is a Planet!’ this May as part of the Talk in a bit record launch. (All performances include ‘Pluto is a Planet!’ and poetry and sound poetry by Hannah Silva in collaboration with international musicians.

9th May: Cafe OTO, London

10th May: Canada Water theatre (The Albany), London and workshop on sound poetry and technology with Hannah Silva and Tomomi Adachi – email me for details: silva_danca@yahoodotcom. 

11th May: Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich and Norfolk Festival

15th May: The Basement, York. 


‘Pluto is a Planet’ is commissioned by Alan Alpenfelt and funded by The Arts Council England as part of ‘Talk in a bit’