A Canadian in Tokyo Made a Song Out of Japanese Suicide Statistics

"What if we lived in a society where all historical records were converted into a type of music and people in school would sit around and listen to it?""

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Apr 16 2014, 4:10pm

Murder, and suicide seem like appropriately macabre topics for a grindcore band or a particularly morose and nihilistic goth troupe. However, you won’t catch Rory Viner headbanging at a Cattle Decapitation show or moping at home with a clove cigarette and Siouxsie And The Banshees on repeat. A Canadian transplant living in Tokyo “on and off” for the last two years, this experimental composer broached those touchy topics with piano, software, and some publicly available datasets. Viner used the Japan National Police Agency’s 2013 statistics on suicides, organized by prefecture, to make a spare, difficult piece of music entitled “One Year of Suicide in Japan for Piano.”

On his Tumblr, he explains, in the third person:

The latest project by experimental sound composer Rory Viner explores the psychotopology of Japan, decontextualizing dry statistics and weaving them into a sonic map that both excises and reifies the temporo-geographical reality of suicide. Each section of twelve notes encompasses a year of self-killings within a prefecture, each monthly number adumbrated in sound, revealing the metastasis of time and space inherent to statistical study. The fragility of the composition enfolds the listener within a narrative of dichotomies: statistics and selfhood, sound and silence, creator and product, the discontinuity of self and the uninterrupted world.

Rather than attempt to painstakingly dissect such a dry, academic, and kinda pretentious statement, it made more sense to just try and talk to the guy. On the phone, Viner is disarmingly chipper, eager to describe and defend his controversial work, which also includes songs built from American violent crime statistics, in ways we can all understand.

Noisey: What is it about these suicide statistics that made you think they would translate well into a piece of music?
Rory Viner:
To be honest, at the beginning I didn’t know how it would sound. At first I was thinking about how can I experience data in different ways, other than just seeing it with my eyes. I kind of thought about it as like an experiment in synaesthesia, mixing up senses. So I thought, instead of seeing the data with my eyes maybe I could feel it or hear it. A lot of statistics and numbers are really cold and distant, essentially not very human. I thought maybe there’d be more meaning to that data if I could weave it somehow into a song or a music piece. That’s when I got into the technical side of figuring out exactly how to translate this data into notes.

So the purpose then was to humanize this information?
Exactly, to bring it back. The statistics took that away from it. I mean, all these people that had this social trauma, they’re just numbers now. I thought if I could put it into music somehow I could give back that humanity. Whatever that means.

Do you have a background in statistics or some other quantitative field?
[Laughs] No, not at all. I studied anthropology at the University Of Toronto. No math.

So then you’re looking at this data the way most of us would.
Right. Because it doesn’t really mean much to me when I look at it.

Tell us a little bit about the composition process. Why piano, specifically?
I did try a bunch of different sounds but I thought that if I used some kind of synthetic sound it wouldn’t feel right. I don’t know how to explain it. Using the piano was kind of classic and accessible to everybody, a very universal instrument. I thought it would be accessible and not put people off by being overly strange.

Did the nature of the respective suicides, the more personal details, factor into how you played it?
Yeah. The first thing I did was to map it all out onto a keyboard and decide what number would play what note, which was pretty easy. After that, I was thinking about how I was going to play this. Now if I played really really quick, it was wrong. Too violent. I felt like I shouldn’t do that. I actually made a bunch of different versions of the piece. The first was just three minutes long. It was too quick and didn’t give justice to what I was trying to convey. So I slowed it way down and the piece now is like twenty-two minutes. I thought it was a good balance, not being too sparse, with too much empty space that would bore the listener, but still with enough space to keep the aesthetic of suicide still there, the aesthetic of sadness. I’m not really sure what that means but it just felt right to not play it so fast, but not too slow.

Do you see this piece as an elegy to honor those who died?
I can definitely see how people would see that, and that’s totally okay with me to take it that way. I took it more as a different type of historical record. You can have a historical record of simply stats, but what if we lived in a world where statistics were done in musical notes? We would feel these social traumas through listening to each year subsequently. I thought it was a really interesting way of thinking about it. I’m sure it will mean something different to everyone that listens to it.

Was it an emotional process for you to compose and perform this?
In deciding how I was going to respectfully play it? Yes. Another thing I did was I performed it in two different ways. I could play it on the piano manually. I ended up using a program called Pure Data, which is very similar to Max For Live. A lot of multimedia artists use [it]. One of the things you can do in it is program for random triggering of events. That’s one way I wanted to represent the data, putting some randomness into it. Just as the randomness of rape, murder, and suicide happens, I wanted the piece to be performed almost randomly as well. The uploaded piece was output from a random triggering of notes after I set the BPM and all those parameters. But it was in order of each month and each prefecture. That’s why you’ll hear a couple of notes really close together and a couple very far apart, with a lot of silence. To me, that was important.

Now that the piece is out there, have you gone back and listened to it? What do you get out of it as a listener with the context of how and why it was created?
When I listened back to it, especially the suicide one, I thought it sounded distant. And to be honest, that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do with it. I don’t know if I’m reading into it. At the same time, I felt a closer association with these events that happened. Normally we read the newspapers and see the numbers, and it’s just so outside of our realm of experience. So it brought it a bit closer. I know I just said it was distant, but it’s weird, both distant and closer at the same time.

These data points represent real people who lived and died.
Right, right, right.

What considerations did you make in advance, and in ultimately choosing to release this, with regard to moral and ethical issues?
I didn’t want to play it on some tacky or cheesy instrument, which is why I chose the piano. I thought it was the most respectful instrument to play these things instead of some trancey synthesizer. In terms of the moral aspects, yeah, I thought about that. I mean, is any representation of data more moral than another? Is a musical note less moral than just having it written down? I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. It’s kind of a challenge to that. The musical history of these suicides is what it is. If anything, I might say that looking at the statistics is less moral, because it takes away that humanity.

Have you received personal reactions to the piece from the families or from individuals who’ve heard it?
I had a bunch of different reactions all over. I played it to some of my close friends and they were not very happy with it, to be honest with you. They asked questions like, “Why did you do that? What is the point of doing that?” I tried to explain it to them, that it was about experiencing things in a different way, they calmed down a bit. Ironically, I found that the older the person was, the more okay they were with it. It was the younger people that I showed, people in their twenties, that didn’t like it until I explained it. I really didn’t expect that. I thought that the older people would be more pissed off. I can’t explain why that is. The older people thought it was kinda neat.

You also have a piece that about American murder statistics and an American rape statistics one, which I imagine would yield a lot of opinions, given how volatile these subjects are.
The first one I did was the suicide one. After that I was curious what other social traumas would sound like. So I grabbed the datasets on the FBI website for “Violent Crime in America” statistics. The idea was to make a record of any number of social problems that we could collectively feel and experience in a non-numerical way. How we approach data is very cultural, and I don’t think it has to be in one way or another. What if we lived in a society where all historical records were converted into a type of music and people in school would sit around and listen to it? Would that change how we interact with each other? I don’t know, but I was curious to feel these things in a different way.

Gary Suarez is a writer living in Queens. He's on Twitter - @noyokono