LISTS A Guide to Toshimaru Nakamura’s No-Input Mixing Board By Matthew Blackwell · April 11, 2022
Photo by Yuko Zama

You’re not supposed to connect the output of a mixing board to its input. “You might see a caution notice in a manual for a mixer if you buy one, saying ‘This might cause feedback,’” says Toshimaru Nakamura, one of Japan’s leading experimental musicians. “Feedback is probably something sound technicians want to avoid, but it sometimes makes musicians happy and excited. So, I did what the manual says not to do.” Nakamura found that after rerouting the signal back into the mixer, the resulting feedback could be controlled with its knobs and faders. In doing so, Nakamura created the no-input mixing board, an instrument that has been deployed worldwide in experimental circles.

Nakamura began his musical career as a guitarist in more traditional rock bands in the 1990s but was soon drawn wholly to the no-input mixing board. “The guitar was still with me,” he says. “But I found myself playing less and less, and more and more knobs on the mixing board. At one point, I unplugged the guitar from the mixer. Sound remained. Music remained.”

The no-input mixing board can be used to summon gentle tones or waves of noise. In the early 2000s, Nakamura deployed it subtly, almost passively, as a key member of Tokyo’s onkyo movement. Based in the now-defunct Off Site venue in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, the onkyo movement comprised Nakamura, Taku Sugimoto, Sachiko M, Tetuzi Akiyama, and others who were invested in the relationship between sound and space. The most minimal of minimalist music, an onkyo performance would often be so quiet that the footsteps and conversation of passing pedestrians would overwhelm the concert itself. Less interruptions than unwitting collaborations, these outside sounds were welcome illustrations of onkyo’s core tenets of improvisation, spatial dynamics, and careful listening.

Though its effects have been far-reaching, the onkyo movement proper was restricted to the early 2000s. “Nobody uses the term onkyo anymore to describe the style of music I am involved in,” Nakamura says. “Well of course, sometimes people talk about it, but when they do, they talk about it as a part of history. So, I have to speak in the past tense.” The present tense is far more exciting for him, though, as he has developed his approach to the no-input mixing board in the intervening years with collaborators from around the world, including Lebanon’s Mazen Kerbaj, Norway’s Håvard Volden, Germany’s Axel Dörner, and France’s Léo Dupleix.

In this time, Nakamura has become more skillful at the no-input mixing board, though that was never the point. “I wasn’t really trying to learn it, but when you keep working on one thing, you get to know about the thing,” he says. “But the no-input mixing board is not something that should be controlled. I think a virtue of this setup is its uncertainty. What I am doing is being obedient and resigned to this unpredictable setup in front of an audience, discovering and observing the changes of sounds with people.”

Here, Nakamura suggests that the defining feature of the no-input mixing board is philosophical rather than musical. In a sense, it is a machine that plays itself, with the musician as much a spectator as the audience. Anyone can play the no-input mixing board, and this openness may explain its popularity in the experimental underground. “There is no model, there is no paragon, there is no teacher. Everybody has their own goal to achieve,” Nakamura attests. “Or there is not even a goal anyway.”

Toshimaru Nakamura
Culvert (No-Input Mixing Board #10)

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Nakamura’s latest solo album for no-input mixing board is also the best place to start. His pieces for the instrument are published in an ongoing numbered series simply called “NIMB.” “I would like to try not to give listeners too much information before and while listening,” Nakamura explains. “Titles sometimes can explain the music, enhance listening sensations. That is something I would like to avoid.” On Culvert, he presents a variety of his experiments that, without descriptive titles, leave the listener guessing from track to track. “NIMB #63” features repetitive shocks of feedback that increase in pace until they’re frantic. “NIMB #70,” meanwhile, is one of Nakamura’s most song-like compositions, whose steady bass and echoed, percussive top line would belong just as well on a Kompakt release.

No Input Mixing Board #8

In contrast to Culvert, No Input Mixing Board #8 forgoes variety for consistency. Recorded in just one day, this album showcases the harsher side of the no-input mixing board. Sharp, piercing tones alternate with pummeling noise across three 10+ minute tracks. Though this is listed as a solo album, Nakamura got some help from an unexpected source: singer-songwriter David Sylvian. “After David left, the studio looked completely different from when I arrived,” Nakamura writes. Around my no-input mixing board was a mess of cables, microphones, and loudspeakers, a setup suggested by David, and there I was very tempted to stay for another day to do some more recordings by myself. The result of all this is here.”

Toshimaru Nakamura, Sachiko M, & Otomo Yoshihide
Good Morning Good Night

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Good Morning Good Night is perhaps the definitive recorded document of the onkyo movement. Nakamura is grouped with prominent onkyo artist Sachiko M and experimental pioneer Otomo Yoshihide. Together, they barely make a sound. Over the course of the album’s 100 minutes, silence predominates, interrupted at times with sine waves, slight static, and low hums. These minimal sounds encourage the type of careful listening that onkyo adherents relish. The album has become infamous in online music communities like RateYourMusic, where critics and proponents point to the exact same attributes in their attacks and their defenses. “It’s so close to silence that you’d probably gain more by turning it off than leaving it on,” complains one user before giving it 1 ½ stars. “I literally didn’t even notice the album ended when it did because I had grown so accustomed to [its] stretches of silence,” praises another, awarding it 4 ½.

Toshimaru Nakamura & Keith Rowe
Weather Sky

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Nakamura frequently collaborates with electro-acoustic improvisation legend Keith Rowe, who co-founded British free improv group AMM and has gone on to deconstruct the guitar by playing it on a tabletop with a variety of found objects. Weather Sky is the first recording of Nakamura and Rowe, who were fans of one another’s work long before meeting. Erstwhile Records label head Jon Abbey writes, “I was working intensely with Toshi via e-mail on [Erstwhile release] do at this time, and when he heard I was going to Boston to see AMM, he told me to please say hello to Keith from him, as he had seen AMM in Japan and was a big fan. When I repeated this to Keith in Boston, he looked at me intensely and said [paraphrased] ‘Toshi is one of the most important musicians in the world right now.’” Abbey scheduled recording sessions for the duo, and this is the result: only slightly less minimalist than Good Morning Good Night, but far more texturally adventurous. To a novice listener, it’s impossible to distinguish between Nakamura’s no-input mixing board and Rowe’s guitar, but that’s the point: they respond to one another’s slightest movements to create an ever-shifting, but always unified sonic field. Of this recording, Rowe wrote, “in many ways, it’s a kind of music that I’ve waited to make for 30 years.”

Toshimaru Nakamura & Mark Trayle

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A Wave Press’s Casey Anderson relates a story that became infamous at CalArts when he studied there: at a workshop Nakamura held about the no-input mixing board and improvisation, “a grad student asked him how much he practiced, to which he replied ‘I don’t!’ Incredulous, the grad student pressed him on it—surely he practiced; he was a musician. Toshi said something like ‘I play noise because I won’t make a mistake. I prefer to spend my time drinking beer with my friends.’”

Mark Trayle, a professor at CalArts in California who passed away in 2015, collaborated with him on Stationary in 2007 after one such workshop on campus. Trayle respected Nakamura’s approach to his instrument. Rather than evidence of carelessness or aloofness, Anderson says, “To Mark, this was a good representation of a virtuoso instrument designer who had built his own practice around his instrument.” Stationary, recently re-released by Anderson after its initial run on Creative Sources Recordings, is thus an important meeting of the minds between two instrument designers who prize spontaneity and intuition above all else.

Toshimaru Nakamura & Tetuzi Akiyama
Idiomatic Expressionism

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Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama have been collaborating since the early 2000s, but last year’s Idiomatic Expressionism is their first studio recording together. Though the no-input mixing board seems an unlikely pairing with Akiyama’s acoustic guitar, they subtly complement one another across these five tracks. “IE.1” is a more conventional duo piece, with Akiyama plucking single notes over Nakamura’s burbling electronics. By “IE.5,” though, both musicians are pushing the limits of their instruments, as the guitar sounds more like a saxophone and the no-input mixing board sounds more like an underwater cave. Here, Nakamura’s approach to collaboration is made manifest. “It is quite spontaneous. Start with some sound, and my collaborator and myself make something out of it,” he says. “It is a series of decisions. Follow the flow, or cut the flow. Stay with a long slow movement, or play busily by doing many different things.”

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