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Activating Archives

October 10, 2018
Oliver Halstead

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Activating Archives is a small series of projects within which I am attempting to invigorate processes of sound archive collection and dissemination, by applying a range of creative technologies to transmit archived materials to public audiences.

So far, the Activating Archives initiative has seen me to travel to Japan in March 2018, to work with two groups of traditional musicians in Sendai and Tokyo. During my time in Japan, I was able to collect a variety of musical recordings and develop insights about the personal motivations of the musicians who were kind enough to work with me.

Since returning to the UK, I’ve been working with a team of creative technologists, who have been applying their skills to develop intuitive interfaces and creative experiences formulated around the Japanese materials I gathered in the field. Together, we exhibited the materials in a range of public spaces across the Greater Manchester region, after partnering with Wigan Council who have provided us with a number of options through which we can disseminate the work.

It’s my hope that the Activating Archives initiative can provide new ways of thinking about how people interact with culturally significant collections of music and sound, and about who can benefit from interacting with these materials when they’re curated to be both engaging and intuitively educational. The project so far has been both insightful and creatively challenging, whilst providing me with some great cultural experiences through travelling and meeting new people.


I was invited to work with a group of students at Tohoku University in Sendai by Tsubasa, who I initially contacted online when I discovered his traditional music club, which operates on an extra-curricular basis. The club members were very warm and welcoming, and together we recorded a range of traditional and more contemporary Japanese pieces, whilst endeavouring to sample their instruments in detail.

The musicians were unfamiliar with the process of instrument sampling (recording an instrument a single note at a time, at varying velocities), which made it a challenge to communicate what I was seeking to accomplish, especially when considering the significant language barrier. However, we quickly got underway and once we’d sampled an instrument once or twice, it became a fairly simplistic process.

In between sampling instruments, the musicians would split into different groups and play some ensemble pieces, which I was also able to capture. The musicians would then tell me the names of these pieces and some other key bits of information, such as how old they were or what they were originally intended for.

The video below is an example of a piece titled “Twilightseiling” by Keisuke Suna and Tsubasa.

The video below is another example of another piece titled “Illusion” by Tsubasa and Makoto.



After working in Sendai, I was then invited to spend some time recording two grandmaster musicians in Tokyo. I was fortunate enough to have been put in contact with Tamami, a close associate of the musicians, who invited me to her place of work so that I could meet Setsuko and her daughter Yumiko. The pair were both very welcoming, and after we’d made our introductions, they began to play some traditional pieces together. Setsuko and Yumiko are both very skilled Shamisen players, and following a few performances, Yumiko started to display her skill with the Kokyu, a bowed instrument aesthetically similar to the Shamisen but less prominent in contemporary culture.






Following a series of performances, I sat down with Setsuko and Yumiko to talk to them about their personal interests and the music they practice. They spoke to me in detail about how they first began to practice music, and some of the wonderful experiences that music has led them to. They also spoke about their attempts to encourage non-musicians and younger age groups to engage with traditional Japanese music by first introducing them to more familiar, contemporary musical pieces, and slowly advancing them toward a more adept knowledge of their cultural traditions. I have to express a great deal of gratitude to Tamami, who was so very helpful not only with setting up this recording opportunity, but also in communicating with the musicians and translating my questions.

Although my time recording in Toyko was brief, I was thankful to be able to learn so much about Japanese music and methods of performance by observing and speaking with Setsuko and Yumiko. Their enthusiasm toward my work was greatly appreciated, and I’m so grateful to them for taking the time to support my research.

Below is a compilation of a selection of videos that I captured whilst I was exploring Sendai and Toyko. Japan is one of the most visually dynamic and versatile places I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit, and I often found myself not being able to resist trying to capture little moments as I moved from place to place.



After I returned from Japan, I began working on the next phase of the project which focused on introducing the materials I’d collected to members of the general public in a series of workshops, whilst also showcasing a variety of pre-existing interactive musical interfaces. Together with my project partner Jack Davenport, we held several creative workshop events throughout the Greater Manchester area, where we were able to explore how effective certain interfaces were, whilst quizzing members of the public about the features that they found most engaging.

Through this process, and by working with two creative technologists who were providing technical assistance with the project – Ruben Dejaegere and Robin De Neef – we arrived at the idea of making a digitised and musical version of a traditional Japanese board game called “Shogi”, which would combine two different elements of Japanese culture – games and music – into one physical, interactive experience. Our idea was that we could use the framework of the original game and modify it to act as a musical step sequencer, with different Shogi pieces – called “Koma” – representing different musical instruments, and playing back different audio files. We also wanted to have another mode where two users could play a game of Shogi, and have their moves be accompanied by the sounds from the archive, to create a more immersive experience.


Following the workshop and design stages of the project, we then began to exhibit our musical experiences in different institutions across the Greater Manchester region, such as Wigan Library and Leigh Library, where members of the public could come and engage with the materials I’d collected from Japan, through the interfaces developed by Jack, Robin and Ruben. The final exhibition took place at the Cross Street Arts gallery for a period of a few weeks beginning at the end of August 2018, and we were really pleased with the response our designs had from all those who attended the opening event.

It was really a rewarding experience to finally see the work in the hands of other people, and watch as they started to figure out how the interfaces worked. We were really pleased with the playful engagements that the designs offered, and in terms of providing engagement with archived sounds and music, we felt we’d been quite successful in our efforts.


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