Takehisa Kosugi (1938–2018)

Takehisa Kosugi performing in “Takehisa Kosugi: Music Expanded,” Whitney Museum of American Art, Sept. 12-13, 2015. Photo: Taketo Shimada

IN HIS FORMATIVE YEARS as an ethnomusicology student in the Tokyo of the late 1950s, Takehisa Kosugi’s artistic field of reference included Luigi Russolo, Michel Leiris, and Pierre Schaeffer. If the first and the last are not surprising as musical models—the Futurist’s “noise” instrumentation, and the founder of musique concrète’s concern with the “variation of matter” to be derived from alternative sound sources—looking to Leiris and the Collège de Sociologie as a model for research set Kosugi’s circle apart from their artist peers and the late Surrealism that held sway in the 1950s.1 Also critical was the teaching of Fumio Koizumi, a pioneer in the field of “World Music” (as it was then called) and Kosugi’s professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, whose extensive collection of global instruments fueled his students’ experimentation.2 In this context, and through the extracurricular work with Shuku Mizuno, his first improvisation partner, Kosugi broke away from his classical training. The two teamed up with other musicology students to form the Group Ongaku (1958–62).3 In weekly sessions they focused the device of the objet sonore—conceived both as “sound object” or sound source and, more interestingly, sound as an object—to explore the anticipatory acuity that Schaeffer had defined as “acousmatic listening.”4

Informing the conception of the music and the improvisatory moment was the term “action,” used across the Tokyo art scene and as key to the Ongaku musicians as it was for Nam June Paik.5 Given the basic tenets of improvisation, it is striking that Kosugi and his collaborators diverged from the form in at least one respect: They agreed not to react to one another. This suggests that their interests ran deeper than merely echoing the existing model, that the form served them in atypical ways. The Ongaku members were concerned more with expanding music’s boundaries than performing for an audience, and the opportunity to present work at Tokyo’s Sōgetsu Art Center came somewhat out of the blue. Their “Concert of Improvisational Music and Sound Objects” in September 1961 would mark the beginning of a new chapter for all involved. Composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, just back from New York—his tutelage under John Cage there deeply implicating him in the advanced artistic scene at the most crucial moment—witnessed the Sōgetsu performance and invited the Ongaku Group to participate in a concert at the same venue two months later. Ichiyanagi introduced the Tokyo musicians to work he had been exposed to in New York (specifically the short textual “event scores” he had requested from George Brecht), and, reciprocally, a year before the founding of Fluxus, he sent George Maciunas recordings of Kosugi and his Ongaku peers, along with the scores. If they were not yet written down, they soon would be.

IN DECEMBER 1963, Maciunas announced the “complete works of Kosugi” was ready for mail order for the bargain price of two dollars. From then on, Kosugi was part of Fluxus, notwithstanding the fact that he would not relocate to New York until 1965. The work held up, at a distance. In 1964, Maciunas included Kosugi in the first compendium of the group’s works, Fluxus I, and included his pieces on Fluxus performance programs.6 Kosugi’s works—numbering eighteen—were packaged as “Events” under the banner of Fluxus. His pieces, developed as series, however, were not conceived as events—they may not have even been written down, a practice fairly foreign to an improviser—and their actual titles, such as Anima, South, and Micro, if one “hears” them, reveal more of Kosugi’s originality. Anima I, 1961, with the prompt “Roll up a long cord,” had its US debut in 1964 in the cramped, unrenovated loft at 359 Canal Street, which Maciunas had made the Fluxus headquarters. One performer (Alison Knowles) sat in a blue chair at the front of the space, her hands in her lap. A second (Ben Vautier) enmeshed her in a web of string, which was then pulled through the audience. As the activity moved off the stage, the fragile premise of the threading implicated all present in being strung, Kosugi’s all-over tune-up of the intangible supplying the “anima” announced.

Takehisa Kosugi, Mano Dharma concert, 1974. Photo: ANZAI.

The “South” series, started in 1962 and unique in its reference to geographic location, crops up somewhat anomalously but significantly in the run of Kosugi’s scores—like On Kawara’s latitude/longitude works amid the date paintings—and despite seeming to promise a positioning of the subject it turns one purely to the signifier. As Michael Nyman noted in the 1970s: In the three compositions Kosugi titled South, the whole word south, or parts of the word, are subjected to extension or slow-motion procedures; in South No. 2, the word is pronounced “during a duration of fifteen minutes.”7 In Kosugi’s performances, it was not just slowness, but also distance and proximity that became extraordinary tools; South was executed by placing performers in four corners of a room. Kosugi was interested in space, whether the microcosmic one of individual sounds whose boundaries and sources he challenges the astute listener to discern, or the more macro and incommensurable by way of an intensely concrete event.

The most generically titled of his Fluxus scores, Theater Music, is deceptive in its indeterminacy and formulation. Patently without object, and strikingly unmusical, it simply instructs: “Keep walking intently.” It is worth pausing to consider this. The piece brings focus, even determination to a daily action. Calling on the impetus of the individual or the collective, there is the fundamental element of endurance, an intensity in commonality, compressed within the borders of its time; space is thickened by a threat of the interminable. The otherwise quotidian activity of walking is framed as out of the ordinary by the “theater” of its execution. And through its accessibility, like the simplest Fluxus works, including others by Kosugi, it has continued to take on meaning through unlikely executions.8

Beyond Fluxus, the 1960s saw Kosugi collaborating with Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik at the New York Avant-Garde Festivals and beyond—including enduring the drama of being on lighting for Paik’s 1967 performance Opera Sextronique, when Moorman and Paik were arrested. Moorman also performed Kosugi’s work solo many times.9 All the while, he was working intently on his own more complex experimentation. A set of recordings from this period (1967) using “improvised violin drones and voice with various oscillators, echo delays and layered tape experiments” was put out this November under his title Mano-Dharma 74.10


Kosugi thought of this proposition as a kind of event score. In fact, it set the itinerary for the Taj Mahal Travellers, a music group he formed at the turn of the 1970s whose personae and psychedelic sound earned them the name of “Japanese hippies.” Their odyssey comprised outdoor concerts throughout Europe and all the way to the eponymous monument in India. Who saw and heard them may still be an open question. Fortuitously for musicians of the future, and almost unimaginable from today’s perspective, the group recorded an album at Nippon Columbia studios, whose state-of-the-art equipment captured the improvisations that have since drawn cultish admiration.11

Kosugi seems never to have doubted the value of community/communality, the productivity of collectivist creativity that formed the blueprint of his musical project. Never settling, he had the courage to look for it over and over again. When he returned to Japan in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, he rejuvenated his experimentation in two ways: He conducted a workshop whose efforts were recorded, and he showed up anonymously at bars and cafes with his violin, ready to improvise with strangers if the right moment presented itself. If it didn’t, he did not.

Album cover for Catch-Wave, 1975, CBS/Sony.

Almost every biographical snippet on Kosugi cites Fluxus and the Cunningham Dance Company, as if these monikers lend something to their underknown subject—both a perceived radicality and a kind of establishment. It may be best to consider these as two as “communities” that allowed Kosugi to be Kosugi. Rather than concluding with the known—or easily locatable—“career” details, it would seem a more worthwhile tribute to put on the record the perception of knowledgeable fellow travelers, members of Kosugi’s “community” through the medium of the work.

In 2008, there was a solo concert by the musician at Cunningham’s space. There were a few competing events that night, and this might not have been the obvious choice. Artist/musician Taketo Shimada, himself a brilliantly inventive researcher with an encyclopedic knowledge of radical experimental music and an ability to invent or remake instruments with Kosugi-like ease and focus, knew he had to attend this performance. He would witness the 2015 Whitney concerts as well and sensed that Kosugi was still “fishing for sounds,” still “trying to get something out of his equipment.” He shot an image of the artist armed with a radio in one hand and an oscillator in the other and pondered a “career-long pursuit of heterodyne and mutual interference of wave forms.” But that night in 2008, his impression12 was more striking. It stands for itself:

“The second half of the concert after the intermission was unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. . . . He had about fifty Boss guitar pedals neatly laid out in a grid formation on a large table . . . [a] combination of Sampler/Delays, Harmonizers, Tremolos, Pitch Shifters and Overdrives. He proceeded to create this massive Catch Wave type noise workout through the studio’s eight-speaker setup. I remember thinking, he’s the only one alive who can play this music convincingly.”

Julia E. Robinson is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of Art History at New York University.


1. Painters of Kosugi’s generation who went through this Surrealist phase include Yayoi Kusama, On Kawara, and Ay-O.

2. This parallels the situation in the John Cage class at the same moment, where Kosugi’s future peers were arranging pieces that made use of the rich supply of non-Western instruments Henry Cowell had left in the classroom closet at the New School. Another point of comparison (and difference) is that amid the improvisation occurring in New York among the new generation of composers and artists—meeting up informally to work together—there was not the same emphasis on collectives as in the Tokyo scene, which already in the 1950s could count many groups (in art, dance, poetry, and music) of which the Gutai is only the best known. On Koizumi’s instrument collection, see Miki Kaneda’s interview with Yasunao Tone, “The ‘John Cage Shock’ is a Fiction!” March 8, 2013. Accessed Nov. 6, 2018.

3. In addition to Kosugi and Mizuno, the Group Ongaku (meaning “music”) included Chieko (Mieko) Shiomi, Mikio Tojima and Gen’ichi Tsuge, and soon thereafter, Yasunao Tone (a literature student at Chiba University). See Midori Yoshimoto, “Music, Art, Poetry and Beyond: The Intermedia Art of Mieko Shiomi” in Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

4. This point is clarified by Midori Yoshimoto, op. cit.

5. After graduating from Tokyo University in 1956, Paik went to Germany to continue his music studies, and developed his own model of “Action Music” (ca. 1960). The latter became a kind of subgenre in Fluxus due to the integral role Paik played in the first year (as George Maciunas’s point person in Germany). As it played out in Fluxus, “Action Music” became something like the opposite pole to the event. Ironically, though the (pre-Paik) model of “action music” in Tokyo was key for Kosugi and Shiomi (who also applied it to poetry), their Fluxus work was published as “events.”

6. Shiomi’s collected scores were also packaged by Maciunas as events (that same year). This was Maciunas’s idea, in the wake of his publication of Brecht’s event scores—the artist’s term—as the very first Fluxus publication, Water Yam, 1963).

7. Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 81.

8. Pondering Kosugi’s work since his passing, Larry Miller mused on the force of its relevance: “Theatre Music (Keep walking intently) is one [of those] . . . pieces that gets “performed” daily, unconsciously because of the nature of art/life congruities in much of Fluxus. In this similar sense I would say that a current, high profile equivalent of this would be the “caravan” coming up from Central America—they are performing Kosugi’s Theatre Music (Keep walking intently) and do not know it. That’s Fluxus. RIP Kosugi.” Email to the author, November 6, 2018.

9. She made the prop for Anima 2—her version of the zippered bag (“chamber piece”) Kubota made for Kosugi in Tokyo.

10. This work stands at a distance from the more basic relationships enacted under the guise of music in Fluxus, thrilling as its technical description is even to the nonexpert: “Kosugi’s continuously changing spectrum of sound shifts gradually (almost imperceptibly), [as] photocell synthesizers create ultra-low frequencies to disturb the crestless sound waves.” And yet, it is as if he is still reaching back to the Russolo/Futurist reference that fascinated him in Japan, when he explains that the voice part is based on onomatopoeia.

11. As artist/musician Taketo Shimada commented: “The Taj Mahal Travellers records were required listening for experimental musicians in the 1990s. Many of us got together in our small apartments with friends and listened to those LPs in silence, not wanting to miss any nuances of the group improvisation.” Email to the author November 7, 2018. I thank Taketo Shimada for discussing Kosugi’s work with me.

12. Taketo Shimada, phone and email interview with the author, November 7-8, 2018.