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Takehisa Kosugi (1938–2018)

Takehisa Kosugi, the Japanese Fluxist composer, sonic installation artist, and avant-garde violinist who reimagined the boundaries of music for five decades, died last Friday at the age of eighty. In 1960, Kosugi cofounded Group Ongaku, a Tokyo-based collective widely considered the first improvisational music ensemble formed in both the country and the world. In the 1970s, he helped create the Taj Mahal Travelers octet. Between 1995 and 2011, Kosugi was the musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His collaborators included John Cage, David Tudor, Peter Kowald, saxophonist Steve Lacy, and Sonic Youth.

Born in Tokyo in 1938, Kosugi earned a degree in musicology at the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1962. A year later, he assisted on the soundtrack for the Japanese proto-anime television series Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), and after allying himself with the Fluxus movement and participating in Happenings, he toured in a Volkswagen van from Rotterdam to the Taj Mahal as part of the Taj Mahal Travelers. With the group, he sketched out hallucinogenic, highly processed jams with an electric violin, radio oscillators, and his voice. He released his debut solo album, Catch-Wave, in 1975 and joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a composer two years later. There, he formed a mentorship with Cage and Tudor.

In addition to using his violin, often warped through echo chambers and delays, Kosugi also turned to quotidian objects, as well as silence—in one performance he played an amplified cactus with a feather—to unearth his idiosyncratic, absorbing sounds. In 1964, Fluxus founder George Maciunas published Kosugi’s Events, a kit of eighteen instructional cards that embraced everyday actions as music. The work is now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which staged a performance retrospective of Kosugi’s work spanning five decades in September 2015. The show’s title, “Takehisa Kosugi: Music Expanded,” alludes to a 1967 concert at New York’s Town Hall that also featured Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman. In addition, Kosugi worked extensively with sound installation, beginning in 1965 with his involvement in Cross Talk Intermedia, a massive festival that coincided with the Tokyo Olympiad.