009: Chiho Oka

Our reflections on the sonic artifacts of Chiho Oka's "computer games"

Welcome to the ninth issue of Organ Grinder—if warmer weather’s perchance arrived where you are, we hope you’ve been able to enjoy it. For this issue, we have reviews of Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation, the new album by Tokyo-based multimedia artist and musician Chiho Oka, released February 28 by Japanese label Ftarri via their Hitorri imprint.

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Round Table

Our writers’ thoughts on a new release. This section is the core of each issue.

Chiho Oka, Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation (Hitorri, 2021)

From the artist’s website: “Chiho Oka is an artist based in Tokyo. She plays a game exploring algorithmic variability or regularities for manipulating human behaviors, conceived from her experience in computer + experimental music. She works mainly in performance, music, mixed media installation, and video.”

From the liner notes (via Bandcamp): “Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation is a recorded document of games that I (Chiho Oka) devised around the act of ‘using a computer.’ The recording contains three types of games.

The first type is the ‘Dancing Cursor Game’ (2, 4), performed by activating a code that automatically moves the cursor on the desktop. In an extension of that system, through the automatic movement of the keyboard and mouse, a live performance system was created in which desktop folders are beautifully arranged, sounds are played through selection of sound effects in the system preferences, Minesweeper is activated, poems appear on the screen, the computer shuts down, and so on (tracks 10 - 13)… The second type of game is to assign the computer a task that it just manages to accomplish right before the live coding environment stops functioning properly or terminates abnormally (tracks 6 - 8)… The third type of game is playing with toys. Tracks 1 and 3 were recorded when I was playing with a SuperNoteClub EX, an educational toy computer released in 1996… Track 5 is a pseudo-Bach recording. Track 9 was recorded when I was playing with a Korg Volca Drum, a physical modeling rhythm machine.”

Purchase Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation on Bandcamp.

Zachariah Cook: When I was a kid, my grandfather bought me my first PC. This clunky desktop was handmade by his work friend, a young guy who was super into technology. My mom, who was not super into technology, refused to pay for internet. So for years, I did nothing but play Minesweeper, write stories on the built-in word processor, and repeatedly check Internet Explorer to see if I could will YouTube into existence. I even had a pair of hand-me-down speakers that Windows’ start-up sounds invigorated with new life. Those years were more dull than fun, but I kept out of trouble. I learned to make the most out of what I had—squeeze water out of stone. Who knew? Someday, I could have pressed a button and been thrust back in awe, thinking, “I’ve done this a million times and that never happened.”

It never sounds as if Chiho Oka is bored. At least, I imagine she enjoys hearing her creations unfold. Of the three compositional games she describes, the one most reliant on automated processes yields the most impressive results. “The Dancing Cursor” follows an icy, yet freewheeling computer logic. While the stream of electronic flotsam and jetsam is somehow always cogent, it’s only sometimes compelling. Because of a few humanlike flukes in the code, I felt that the piece might spontaneously break into something more, well… musical. Instead, I mostly pictured the composer sitting back and observing, her staid expression as oblique as the sounds on this record.

I guess I don’t like listening from this vantage point much. It's too much like watching someone else play video games—ones a little too unwieldy and cerebral for my taste (there’s a reason Tetris and Solitaire are the most complex games I can handle). If anything, Oka may inspire me to play a game of Minesweeper for old time’s sake—though that just might remind me of the days I wished I was playing at the houses of friends who had internet.

Kevin McKinney: I don’t know if anyone else used to “play computer” as a kid, or, I guess, if anyone used to use that particular phrase. It was the only term my brothers and I would say: whether you were actually playing a game, or talking to friends on AIM, or surfing the internet, you were “playing computer,” the same way you “play Nintendo.” Well, I never “play computer” anymore. I sometimes enjoy whatever it is I’m using the computer for, but I don’t enjoy using the computer for its own sake. Mostly, I think this is because I’m never really playing anymore. I guess before I hit puberty I was invested in the device itself. I dual booted Linux on my family PC, learned (very, very rudimentary) C++ and HTML, delighted in the command line and Vim and BitTorrent. I cared deeply about open source software, believed that piracy could change the world. Looking back, I think I got into music through illegal downloads, not the other way around.

Some of the pieces on this album feel like they’d make more sense with the visual components that are part of Oka’s live performances, but overall, Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation is a joy to hear. The three pieces titled “Writing Code that Produces Latency in TidalCycles” feel like Nuno Canavarro on Mountain Dew, which is, of course, a good thing. And the final part of the album, taken from a live performance at Ftarri, with synths like revving engines and doors creaking makes me laugh every time—who expects slapstick comedy in such a place!

Almost exactly a year ago, I went to MoMA with my friend Peter, among others. At some point, we lost the rest and ended up together in front of JODI’s My%Desktop. COVID-19 was in the news, sure, but my life was in shambles in various ways, so I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the news, and anyways I guess we couldn’t have predicted all its implications, like the fact that this year lots of us would live way more of our lives through our phones and computers than ever before. Before all My%Desktop’s joyful chaos, the folders and files cascading, it’s sounds, the clickers and pings, we found ourselves in fits of laughter. Oka says in her liner notes that the goal for these pieces is “intervention” in a computer’s processes—to play with and against the creator’s intentions. Like My%Desktop, Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation is funny, but it takes on a different weight, like maybe tomorrow we’ll find something we didn't mean to through the screen.


Jinhyung Kim: Deviating from something deeply conditioned or ingrained tends to comprise more reactions to outward phenomena and simple inversions than actual reconceptualizations of the matter at hand or rejections of the basic definitions that underlie it. Order in classical music of the common practice period isn’t simply a material quality of symmetry, proportion, and structure; it’s consistency with respect to reproducibility: the point of practice is to reliably be able to do something a certain way over and over. Traditionally, the notation of any given piece delineates relatively narrow boundaries of interpretation so as to ensure a stable correspondence between the music in a composer’s head, its representation on paper, and the sounds generated in its live performance. One performance of a Beethoven piano sonata shouldn’t sound exactly the same as another, but they shouldn’t sound too different. The piece ought to be played “as written”—i.e. the way Ludwig meant it, with room for the various ways you can take his meaning, feeling, etc.

Chiho Oka, who had a classical music education, opposes its attendant principles from the ground up. The aleatoric nature of Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation is transparent: synthetic, almost cartoonish drum and sound effects follow one after another in erratic sequence, whether in isolation, successive interruption, or as part of a larger, ever-shifting propulsive mass, rhythmic or otherwise. Sometimes the music gets caught on a loop, or whirs cyclically. It’s easy to imagine that if Oka were to set these pieces into motion again with similar or identical parameters, the results could be very different. But surface-level asymmetries, disproportions, or indeterminate organization aren’t what make her musical practice a genuine antithesis to the conservatory mindset. Whether pre-written or live, Oka’s code is a form of intralinguistic play, independent of a specific relationship between intentive input and sonic output—it’s no notational vector for whatever ideas are in her head. What’s there is unimportant; the emphasis is on teasing out the manifold interconnections and paths that are latent in existing systems. Even the live-coded stuff here involves latency, delays which diminish real-time reactivity and further ambiguate the space between intention and sound. Listening to this album is a bit like watching dominoes fall—dominoes whose course, in all of its twists, turns, and vacillant lulls, reveals itself moment by moment to all present.

Maxie Younger: Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation is like water, sticking to itself, spreading to fill the shape of any container it’s placed in; Chiho Oka’s algorave dance derivations bubble up from simple beginnings to become sprawls of wobbling drones and IDM-adjacent grooves. The tracks don’t relate to one another much beyond their starting point of indeterminacy: this release feels more like an audio diary than a fleshed-out compilation, with songs lasting anywhere from eight seconds (“The Bach”) to sixteen minutes (“The Dancing Cursor”). The haphazard sequencing, with pieces alternately grouped by specific themes (tracks six through eight, for example, were all performed by writing live code in the algorithmic TidalCycles performance software) and scattered about (the aforementioned “Dancing Cursor,” of which there are two different versions, finds itself split apart at tracks two and four) only adds to this effect. Most of the longer songs could stand to be trimmed down, as well: there’s just no great reason for the closer, “Manipulating Automated Manipulated Minesweeper,” which anchors itself around a seasick, discordant warble that randomly increases and decreases in oscillation, to drag on for twelve excruciating minutes.

Something may have been lost in these songs’ translation from their unpredictable recording environments to the sterile, freeze-frame interface of streaming; when I can’t invest in these pieces from the context of physically performing or observing them, it’s all too easy to walk away. Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation seems to hold a lot of value for Oka as a representation of her breaking away from her rigid classical music training, and in that sense, it has the potential to fascinate: one can practically feel those shackles coming loose with each new display of raw, generative agency. Even with that in mind, however, it’s a tall ask to devote a whole hour of time to this album. The work doesn’t quite hold up to the potential of the fascinating processes under the hood.


Shy Thompson: I went to school for computer science. It seemed like the most sensible thing for me to major in, because I was “good” with computers and I didn’t have a passion for doing much else. I started learning web development programming languages when I was 14, by necessity, because I spent all my time on internet forums and somebody needed to fix them when bugs cropped up. None of the other forum-goers knew how to properly troubleshoot the issues that would cause the board index to crash or prevent avatars from showing up, so I lied and said I knew how to do it. My ability to bullshit computer jargon got me access to the admin panel, which was all I really wanted, but I didn’t want to make a liar out of myself—so I learned how to do it, by good old-fashioned trial and error. Eventually I did become competent enough to be a proper site administrator, but it wasn’t particularly satisfying to fix things after I already knew how to. It was far more fun to break things. So I started breaking the sites on purpose, partially to see what would happen, but also just to have a laugh at everyone being confused about it.

The most fun things to mess with are scripts. You can tweak a few variables, and weird things just happen automatically. It was fun enough to mess with the scripts already present that hold a site together, but I started getting into making my own. My favorite script I made was a JavaScript operation I stuck into the header that made an image appear and float around in circles. It would also multiply every couple of seconds. I stuck an image of a bee in there, and after a while you’d end up with a swarm of bees on your screen that made all the text unreadable and links unclickable. You don’t get to do much stuff like this when you go to school for web development, so I was miserable; I didn’t finish out my degree. “One thing I like about computer music is its effortless nature,” Chiho Oka says of her music-making process. “Simply put, it’s like, ‘If you push this, the performance starts by itself.’” Manipulating Automated Manipulated Automation reminds me a lot of my own relationship with computers. The spontaneous, silly stuff is fun; the “skilled” tasks are boring.

The album is structured around a series of operations that, once activated, simply play themselves out. Oka refers to them as “games,” which speaks to the playful nature of the composition. A lot of computer music is very self-serious and up its own ass, cloaked in images of mystique and evoking a database of wisdom stored in some far-off mainframe. My favorite are the live tracks at the end of the album, making use of the automated movement of folders, mucking around in the system settings, and a game of Minesweeper as the base to build from. These are deliberately low-level, unsophisticated computer functions. Despite Oka’s background in classical music education, she’s doing stuff like this instead. That’s not too far off from having a background in web development, but spending your time writing annoying scripts for your own amusement. I bet Chiho Oka would get a kick out of bees.js.

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