Log in to
Email Address
Forgot your password?
Not a member? Sign up now!

Toshi Ichiyanagi and the Art of Indeterminacy

From Juilliard to Fluxus and traditional Japanese music, this essay, which traces the multifaceted music of Toshi Ichiyanagi, is based on a C-MAP workshop led by Yayoi Uno Everett in January 2012.


Yayoi uno everett

Yayoi Uno Everett

Associate Professor of Music Theory Emory University Yayoi Uno Everett is a native of Yokohama, Japan, and an associate professor of Music Theory at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Her research focuses on the analysis of... Read more »
Show Less

Toshi Ichiyanagi and the Art of Indeterminacy

From Juilliard to Fluxus and traditional Japanese music, this essay, which traces the multifaceted music of Toshi Ichiyanagi, is based on a C-MAP workshop led by Yayoi Uno Everett in January 2012.

Show More

From Juilliard to Fluxus and traditional Japanese music, this essay, which traces the multifaceted music of Toshi Ichiyanagi, is based on a C-MAP workshop led by Yayoi Uno Everett in January 2012.

Slide 1

[1] This presentation explores Ichiyanagi Toshi’s philosophy and aesthetics during the years 1961–64, when he was composing indeterminate music and graphic scores, and assesses his contribution to the musical avant-garde in Japan during the 1960s. I think of Ichiyanagi as a polymath who has dedicated his life not only to performing and composing, but also to writing major essays and books on topics that include the role of music in society, silence and between-ness (what the Japanese call ma), and the spatiality of sound from a cross-cultural perspective. As a prolific composer who has ushered in important stylistic trends in postwar Japan, Ichiyanagi occupies a unique position in the art of indeterminacy, which carries even into his later works.

Slide 2

[2] Let us begin with a brief biography. Musicologist Sano Koji has divided Ichiyanagi’s composing career into four periods (Hori 2000, 137). The formative period encompasses his studies with Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard School. Toward the end of the 1950s, he encountered John Cage and married Yoko Ono. During the avant-garde period (1959–70), Ichiyanagi adopted aleatoric and indeterminate methods of composition and participated in concerts, happenings, and events at the Sogetsu Center for the Arts in Tokyo. Following his second visit to the United States (1966–67), he ushered in minimalism with the work Piano Media (1972); this third period also gave rise to postmodern pieces like Paganini Personal (1982), which merges tonal with atonal musical idioms. The period since 1983 is characterized by his turn toward a fusion of traditional Japanese and Western musics. Through various commissions by the National Theater of Japan, Ichiyanagi composed new works for traditional ensembles (gagaku, reigaku, shomyo). Since 1995, he has composed four operas. In hindsight, Ichiyanagi locates the commonality of graphic scores from the 1960s and traditional Japanese music in the structuring of musical sounds through collective listening and real-time interaction (1998, 43). Now, let’s go back and examine the context in which he turned to indeterminacy during the ’60s.

Slide 3

[3] During the height of the Anpo movement (protests and riots waged against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty), the Sogetsu Arts Center (SAC) became a hotbed of avant-garde activity. Under the directorship of Teshigahara Hiroshi, whose father headed the renowned ikebana school at SAC, the basement hall was available for a wide range of avant-garde events. They would be staged there for the duration of its twelve-and-a-half year existence (October 1958 to April 1971). In the photo to the right, we see Jasper Johns and Sam Francis seated on the left in the second and third rows. I would like to focus on Ichiyanagi’s contribution to the radical phase of the avant-garde, which took center stage at SAC in the early 1960s.

Slide 4

[4] In concept and practice, avant-garde (zenei) was initially attributed to the MAVO group of visual artists, who revolutionized artistic practice with a Marxist political agenda during the Taisho period (1912–26). Applying the term zenei to refer broadly to postwar musical trends in Japan is problematic because it conflates several different schools and musical aesthetics. I would argue that modernist avant-garde composers sought new and emerging European trends such as serialism, dodecaphonic music, and musique concrete, with a focus on technology as a means of breaking free from prewar compositional lineages. The contemporary music series by the Sakkyokuka Shudan composers (the eight composers listed here) belongs to this modernist school.1 The second phase of musical events at SAC was led by experimental composers who aimed to break down traditional barriers separating audiences from performers, professionals from amateurs, and music from noise: Ichiyanagi, Cage, Ono, and Tudor belonged to his group. Following Michael Nyman’s lead, I refer to this radical branch of avant-gardists as the experimental avant-garde (datsu-ongaku).2 In the third phase, the New Direction ensemble showcased repertory from both schools in the five concerts it produced between May 1963 and April 1964.

Slide 5

[5] In the program notes that accompanied his solo concert at SAC in November 1961, Ichiyanagi made a bold proclamation:

The result is already in the past. If we make an issue out of the result, the live act has no meaning because reality is infinite. The important thing is what drives it and the process itself. When a composer assigns meaning to each sound and molds them into a fixed form, the product is already objectified through one’s own ego. This attitude is like a wall that stands in the way of getting at the essence of self. Self exists without having to manufacture it. You and the entity, that’s all there is. There is no need to establish an “empty” reality. . . . If art represents the extreme of human cry, then it is good enough just to cry. If we ascribe meaning to that cry, it ceases to be one. (SAC Journal 20, November 1961; translated by the author)

For Ichiyanagi, liberating sounds through spontaneous musical response signified the liberation of the human spirit. Although Ichiyanagi was not part of the Jikken Kobo group (Experimental Workshop), his emphasis on process and spontaneity curiously echoes the poet-critic Takiguchi Shuzo’s avant-garde strategy concerning the “space of the experimental”—artistic expression in a state before it becomes conventionalized.3 Miryam Sas mentions a concurrent ideology prevalent among Butoh artists from this time; in particular, the “space of the experimental” correlates with Shibusawa Tatsuhiko’s notion of the primal encounter (2011, 160).

Slide 6

[6] In his solo concert at SAC, Ichiyanagi created a sensation by displaying his graphic scores as art in the lobby and performing them on stage. The most striking piece at the end of his concert, IBM: event and musique concrète, called for eight musicians to perform different events simultaneously but independently of one another, while the loudspeakers blasted everyday sounds and noises from the streets of Tokyo. The musicians performed their individual acts utterly without expression and according to the number of repetitions designated by IBM punch cards. As they played, they were gradually wrapped in white paper tape to form a gigantic spider’s nest on stage, extending down toward the audience. Although many in the audience questioned the relevance of this work as music, Akiyama Kuniharu defended its significance by stating in a review that the event clearly stood as Ichiyanagi’s critique of alienation in modern Japanese society. 4

Slide 7

[7] While strongly influenced by Cage’s methods of chance and indeterminacy, Ichiyanagi developed his own techniques and aesthetic approach in composing graphic scores. Here is a list of graphic scores Ichiyanagi made between 1959 and ’64, many of them composed while he was still living in New York. Observing the first five graphic scores for solo piano, one notices two trends: a gradual increase in the range of freedom he introduces in realizing graphic scores and the replacement of musical notation with abstract symbols.5 Allow me to trace through development by discussing the graphic scores that are highlighted in red.

Slide 8

[8] Take a look, for example, at Music for Piano No. 1, an unpublished work that dates from September 1959. Two of the five fragments from the score are reproduced here. While the order in which the fragments are to be performed is left to the discretion of the performer, Ichiyanagi offers precise guidelines for executing each fragment. Fragment E, for example, is to be read either clockwise or counterclockwise; the rhythm and/or dynamic indication can be applied to any pitch and the cycle can be repeated as many times as is wished with variations in pitch. Fragment D, by contrast, introduces clusters; K indicates clusters at the keyboard, P indicates pizzicato, and M indicates muting the string while playing the cluster at the keyboard. In Music for Piano No. 2 (1960), Ichiyanagi abandons musical notation altogether and utilizes abstract graphic symbols such as circles (filled and unfilled) and lines. Music for Piano No. 3 provides instructions for preparing the piano in four different ways and has no accompanying score.

Slide 9

[9] The score for Music for Electric Metronome, completed in New York in April 1960, can function as visual art. Anywhere from three to eight players can realize the piece by starting at any large figure enclosed within a red circle. Depending on where one starts, there are multiple paths one can choose. The large numbers refer to the metronome tempo, while the small numbers that appear above or below the lines and curves refer to the number of beats the performer must count (silently). A straight line calls for operating the metronome without any accompanying action; a dotted line indicates performing a single action (clapping or whistling) without moving; an arc indicates performing an action of displacement (walking, jumping); and a zigzag indicates performing a single action using an external object. Once the performer reaches “0,” s/he turns off the metronome. Throughout the performance, Ichiyanagi cautions the performers not to be swayed by the visual layout of the score. You can listen to the recorded performance from a CD called Cosmos of Toshi Ichiyanagi III.

Ichiyanagi Toshi, Music for Electric Metronome (1960).
Slide 10

[10] Ichiyanagi distinguished indeterminacy from jazz improvisation by emphasizing the need to avoid preconceived notions for structuring events in time. In an ensemble context, it was important to sustain spontaneous interaction between performers and to exercise the concept of ma, or between-ness. Luciana Galliano defines ma as the "nature of Japanese artistic subjectivity, which seems to be centered in the space-between, between the individual and the people and the objects the person interacts with” (257). This slide shows the opening score and partial guidelines for Duet for Piano and String Instrument (1962). The score is to be read from left to right, and the type of line on which the symbol rests determines the tempo and loudness of execution (as indicated in the lower half of this slide). In addition, each graphic symbol for piano and string is accompanied by two instructions contingent upon what the other player does (not shown on the slide); that is to say, the pianist chooses an articulation marked a) or b) depending on whether the string player plays with or without the bow, and the string player chooses an articulation marked a) or b) depending on whether or not the pianist uses the keyboard to realize the sound. In this excerpt from the score, I annotate the effects used by the pianist Takahashi Yuji and violinist Kobayashi Kenji in the recording from Cosmos of Toshi Ichiyanagi III.

Ichiyanagi Toshi, Duet for Piano and String Instrument (1962).
Slide 11

[11] Pratiyahara Event (1963) is another graphic score that explores the concept of in-betweeness, or ma. The underlying idea here is to use breath as a basic musical time unit. Anywhere from three to ten performers can perform this work based on their choice of symbols: S = a single sound, C = cluster or chord, P = phrase, and E = event. The italicized numerals indicate the number of breaths a musician takes, followed by the number of breaths to take in between symbols. The single line calls for mimicking another performer; the double line, for harmonizing with another performer; and the bar in the middle, for performing the opposite of what is indicated. The outcome depends entirely on the length and type of breath (normal or deep) that the performer uses. As in so much of Ichiyanagi’s mature, indeterminate music, here the experience of ma is reached by engaging fully with other performers in real time. In the latter half of the 1960s, Ichiyanagi was drawn to electronic music (Up to Date Applause, Tokyo 1969, and Theater Music), yet he continued to experiment with the spatiality of sound involving silence (kukan) in various musical contexts and genres.6

Slide 12

[12] In summary, I invite you to embrace Ichiyanagi’s spirit of experimentation and to perform some of these graphic scores. Music for Electronic Metronome and Pratiyahara Event are especially amenable to group improvisation and for exercising spontaneous interaction and ma. Moreover, by participating, one confronts the apparent paradox: is the score a visual artifact or a creative site for a live experience of sounds and actions? Despite the seemingly radical changes in compositional orientation that Ichiyanagi’s music has undergone since the 1960s, the fundamental tenets of his aesthetic philosophy have not changed. Foremost among these, Ichiyanagi’s approach to indeterminacy ensures the notion of incompleteness in art: the artist deliberately leaves the artwork incomplete so that the musical activities create a path toward discovery by taking us out of our habitual mode of perception. For Ichiyanagi, the art of indeterminacy has been a lifelong journey in exercising awareness of such principles through sound. In his late phase, characterized by an interest in cultural fusion, Ichiyanagi wrote a series of works for traditional instruments, reigaku (reconstructed instruments from the Imperial Repository) and gagaku ensembles. It is in this context that he came full circle to embrace graphic notation and indeterminate procedures.7 While the “avant-garde,” or zenei, ceased to be a catchword for contemporary music after the 1960s, Ichiyanagi embraced the art of indeterminacy as a way of reconnecting with his cultural roots in a manner distinctly his own.


Everett, Yayoi Uno, “‘Scream against the Sky’: Japanese Avant-garde Music in the Sixties.” In Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties, ed. Robert Adlington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 187–210.

Galliano, Luciana. “Toshi Ichiyanagi, Japanese Composer and ‘Fluxus.’” Perspectives of New Music 44/2, 2006. (Sum): 250–261.

Hori, Yasushi, ed. Nihon no Sakkyoku Nijyuseiki (Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomo).

Ichiyanagi Toshi, “John Cage.” Ongaku Geijutsu 1 (February 1961).

______. Ongaku to iu itonami (Music and Contemporary Age) (Tokyo: NTT Publisher, 1998).

______. Cosmos of Toshi Ichiyanagi–1960’s and 1990’s (Tokyo: Camerata CD25CM-552-3,1998).

Kido, Toshiro, ed. Reigaku (Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomo, 1990).

Sas, Miryam. Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2011).

Tezuka, Miwako. “Jikken Kobo: Avant-Garde Experiments in Japanese Art of the 1950s.” PhD diss.: Columbia University, 2005.


Jikken Kobo’s activities began in November 1951 and lasted until late 1957, amounting to eighteen projects that were presented as their collective works.


Michael Nyman distinguishes the experimental music pioneered by John Cage from the European avant-gardists in Experimental Music: John Cage and Beyond (1974). Kosugi Takehisa coined the term _ datsu-ongaku_ to describe this movement in Nihon no Sakkyoku Nijyuseiki, ed. Hori Yasushi (Tokyo: Ongaku no tomo, 2000), 67. The differences in orientation between the modernist and experimental composers created a definitive rift in the artistic community; for example, Mayuzumi Toshiro and Takemitsu Toru expressed dissatisfaction with Cage’s approach after their initial involvement in performing Cage’s music.


Takiguchi played the role of mentor to the new generation of artists. He was a crucial figure in Japan’s modern poetry movements, particularly that of Surrealism during the 1920s and ’30s. Takiguchi claimed that what he called “the space of experimental” had to do with artistic expressions in a state before those languages become conventionalized (Tezuka 2005, 28).


Akiyama comments: “[T]he disconnected sounds of the electric drill, a falling chair, radio, and piano surrounded us, and our eyes simply followed the meaningless sequence of actions. Yet I was tremendously moved by the experience of utter solitude in the sound and action of each moment that passed by” (1961). The taping of musicians is echoed later in Yoko Ono’s concept work called Sky Piece to Jesus Christ, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. In it, Ono and her assistants methodically wrapped each member of the orchestra in white gauze until they were wound into an uninterrupted web. Increasingly disabled, the musicians continued to play their instruments. Kristin Stiles reads in Ono’s piece veiled references to the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.


The graphic scores for Music for Piano Nos. 1 through 5 and for Music for Electronic Metronome are published in Ichiyanagi’s essay on John Cage in Ongaku Geijutsu (February 1961).


In hindsight, Ichiyanagi refers to this period of experimentation (up to and including Crosstalk Intermedia) as a utopian moment in postwar Japanese music. It came to an abrupt halt in the early 1970s (1998, 124).


For example, in Reigaku Symphony No.1 (1987), Ichiyanagi uses staff and graphic notations simultaneously during the progress of the symphony, so that the audience hears timbres of reconstructed instruments that unfold in nonmeasured time against the percussion instruments that proceed in measured time. He conceived the symphony as an exploration of ancient cosmology that governs the universe according to Buddhist philosophy. In Reigaku Symphony No. 2 (1989), composed two years later, he went further to explore the concept of Kokai, traces or residues of sound that we hear internally after being exposed to musical sounds, referring to them as inaudible or imaginary sounds (Kido 1990, 142).

Discuss (1) Print

Latest discussion on:
Toshi Ichiyanagi and the Art of Indeterminacy

Sign in or create your account to participate in the discussion.

Posted on 21 Apr

Interesting article thanks for this. Whilst I really enjoyed his entries in the Obscure Tape Music of Japan series I wish someone would do a deeper examination / compilation of his electronic music - tracks like "Extended Voices" and his music for the Matsumoto film "Metastasis" plus other soundtracks reveal him to be an exceptional electronic music producer. If compiled I am sure people would take an even broader view of this highly under-rated composer.

Show less »
Discuss (1) Print

Interesting article thanks for this. Whilst I really enjoyed his entries in the Obscure Tape Music of Japan series I wish someone would do a deeper examination / compilation of his electronic music - tracks like "Extended Voices" and his music for...

Show more »
This Seminar is part of: Sogetsu Art Center