November 19, 2009  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions, Design
Musical MoMA: The TENORI-ON by Toshio Iwai and Yamaha

Toshio Iwai. TENORI-ON. 2004

Toshio Iwai. TENORI-ON. 2004

One of the greatest parts of my job is getting to geek out over the many brilliant examples of design that are considered for the Museum’s collection. Among the most exciting (and drop-dead gorgeous) works we acquired last year is the TENORI-ON, by the Japanese artist Toshio Iwai, manufactured by Yamaha. Promoted by Yamaha as “a digital musical instrument for the twenty-first century,” the TENORI-ON’s “visible music” interface is suitable for both serious musicians and beginners to electronic music.

“In days gone by, a musical instrument had to have a beauty, of shape as well as of sound, and had to fit the player almost organically…. Modern electronic instruments don’t have this inevitable relationship between the shape, the sound, and the player. What I have done is to try to bring back these…elements and build them in to a true musical instrument for the digital age.” —Toshio Iwai

Iwai is an established multimedia artist, musician, and inventor, who seeks “the feeling of childhood in the digital world.” He has worked in television and created a number of computer and video games, including the acclaimed (and addictive) Electroplankton (2005) for the Nintendo DS, in which players generate atmospheric music by manipulating sea creatures.

With a 256-LED matrix screen and multiple settings for great versatility, the TENORI-ON operates as a basic step sequencer (a tool for making beats, triggering samples, and programming bass lines). The LED buttons, which light when pressed, are each assigned to a different sound. During use, an illuminated line repeatedly crosses the screen, activating these sounds along with bursts of light. An excellent example of contemporary design that begs to be touched, the TENORI-ON fuses a concern for the sensual experience of the user with a radical approach to creating a visual and musical experience for the audience. And while it is a beautiful object to look at, the TENORI-ON truly shines during use. As none of us in the Department of Architecture and Design is a musician, we turned to the hundreds of videos on YouTube to demonstrate the TENORI-ON in action. For our acquisition committee meeting we showed a fun video of Little Boots performing a cover of Hot Chip’s Ready for the Floor.