AMN Interviews: Nao Shirawachi (opLo)

Nao Shirawachi, also known as opLo, is a composer and sonic artist from Tokyo.  opLo has an extremely distinct style that incorporates industrial sounds, repetitive melodic elements, and complex, irregular rhythms. His shifting musical textures have a spatial element that reflects his visual art.  While opLo often superimposes two tracks he has created at different tempi, the rhythms in these pieces can rarely be heard as patterns adhering to two perceptible tempi.  Instead, the resulting effect of this technique is a series of interactions between irregular rhythmic impulses with a certain elasticity.  opLo is self-reportedly influenced by diverse composers and musicians ranging from Ryoji Ikeda to Charlie Parker and Bjork. Yet, he says that more than taking influence from other musicians and composers, he is most inspired by the sounds that exist in the various types of environments around him. His music can be found on his Instagram page, oplono.

How did you develop your unique approach to rhythm and texture? 

I used to have a group or unit with my friend who studied percussion music for a while in West Africa.  He’s a jazz drummer and performer.  We used to play and improvise by hitting and tapping on tables and glass bottles, creating beats and rhythms like this together.  I think this had a major influence on how I approach rhythm today.  We also would host events in my apartment at the time, playing music that we were creating.  As my techniques and interests have been getting more specific and refined, however, I’ve moved away from this type of music, and I’ve been focusing on creating these shorter types of sound worlds.

Could you tell me about your musical background and training?

I think it’s incredibly important to be unique as an artist regardless of traditional methodology.  Thinking about “how to make this type of painting or drawing, how to make this kind of music”–I think this could lead me to limit myself into some kind of framework. 

Also, I used to have this complex that I’m uneducated in music theory and history. However, I’ve realized my strength could be related to this lack of traditional knowledge.  Since I don’t know much formal methodology and theory, I feel my own art is less limited in some ways.  So that’s how I currently perceive my artwork and talent. 

What does your musical process look like?  How do you create your signature rhythms that are irregular and unresolved, yet still build tension and sound intuitive?

First of all, I always make my beats to a metronome, but I don’t really strictly follow it. I don’t react to it with my brain, in a conscious way.  Instead, my body just reacts to that universal click.  It’s a very intuitive process, so I don’t think I can necessarily answer your question logically.

In my process I usually start by creating layers of rhythm.  I use a beat pad with a certain number of preset sounds, and I work at a certain tempo.  I go along and make the initial layer at one tempo, and then I often record other tracks at different tempi, while still working with the same percussion and noise sounds.  After I create the beats at different tempi, I can layer the different tracks at the same time. Then, the resulting sound is going to be somewhat like Autechre-this way it sounds very organic, yet cohesive at the same time.  I usually add melodies and other elements last in my process.  Also, I usually add different elements after remaining in a certain sound for a while, or have two or three distinct changes in my tracks.  Combining disparate tracks and seeing which segments I can extract and use from them is what I enjoy most in my process.  

What types of musicians and genres inspire you and influence your work?

I really enjoy rock, techno, and other styles of electronic music.  Maybe instead of listening to other musicians, however, I prefer to listen to the sounds that I hear outside. For example sometimes trains create some sort of interesting rhythmic beat, and then on top of that birds are tweeting at a different pace.  I try to abstract from these experiences and express them in my music.  

On your Instagram account, most of your pieces are about a minute long.  It seems that in each one of these posts, you tend to remain within a specific sonority, and sometimes you juxtapose and contrast two different sonorities. Have you created any longer pieces?

I actually used to create longer pieces.  The average length was around eight minutes.  However, when I began posting on Instagram, I decided to find the shortest minimum length of time that was needed to express what I actually can do.  In recent days, due to too much work, I haven’t been able to work on longer pieces. So, at the moment I purely focus on creating one-minute versions of the music together with the visual art-work.  I enjoy working in that type of time-scale.  

What are some of the types of sounds that you’ve recorded, and what type of equipment do you use?

I used to collect ambient sounds with my partner–we’d take a hand recorder and go to all sorts of places.  Sometimes it would be in airports, which are interesting since they have very high ceilings that reflect the noise people make in a unique way.  Sometimes I would make a hole in the lid of my recorder, and place small motors around the device.  I’ve experimented with many ways of creating sounds and noise to use in musical pieces.

Some of the noise sounds I use are from opening up radio, and manipulating its components.  As of recently, basically all the sounds and resources I use are created purely in software.  However, I’ve found that collecting ambient sounds is generally not worth the time for me, since it takes so much time and the outcome and quality of the sounds is usually not so fantastic.  I do get inspired from those sources, though.  

How would you characterize your process of creating visual art, and how does your visual art relate to your music compositions? 

My approach to visual art is similar to my musical approach.  I began creating visual art long before music, actually. I like to take walks outside and take short videos of scenes I find compelling.  Sometimes I create visuals first and then put music on top, and sometimes it’s the other way around.  I’ll listen to isolated sounds or my music while taking a walk outside, and if I see some sort of synchronicity, I take the visual information and compile it later on.

What do you mean by synchronicity?

It’s all intuitive, and it’s hard to explain, but when I hear sounds, I often visualize the sound information into color.  When I hear musical information, I pair different sound textures and pitches with color: “this sound is blue, this sound is reddish, etc.”  I think this has certainly influenced me to create art in which music and visuals are interdependent.  

Generally, I’m really excited by the idea of merging different types of music.  There is tons of potential to create completely novel sounds by merging and balancing different styles and genres.  I think there are so many different musical elements that can be combined.  I’m interested in combining sounds with visuals, or sounds with smells.  I think considering ways of connecting disparate elements is very interesting.