‘Emerging Artist Series’ with Koki Tanaka

“The Piano Played By Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt)” is the latest chapter in Koki Tanaka’s string of works.

Currently housed in UC Irvine’s Room Gallery, the artwork consists of a singular screen with long, wooden benches provided for viewers to sit on. A single paper lamp hangs in the doorway. Pale and poised, the orb of light beckons to visitors while another fluorescent fixture awkwardly hangs to the bottom half of the wall on the right.

The projector switches on and upon the screen are UC Irvine students, both film and music majors, undergoing a project of collaboration. The five performers sit around a table that holds a neatly-centered arrangement of cookies, oranges and water bottles. The mechanical setup, along with the formality of the beginning, add uniformity and tension to the work.

Set upon a motion capture studio, Tanaka stages the students to follow two rules: “a soundtrack for collective engagement” and “to play one piano with all the pianists playing together.”

One might think of it as a challenge of sorts. Five pianists equal five crammed bodies on a bench utilizing 10 hands. Of course, there exists no rule which states that all ten hands must be playing. Such exceptions to the rules provide creative leeway for the students.

When they begin playing, the subjects’ nervousness is nearly palpable. The viewers can sense their heightened awareness of being in front of the camera. Under harsh, artificial lighting, the students uneasily shift in the plastic chairs.

At times, the notes can be characterized as glaringly discordant. Jarring noises provoke the audience to flinch at the students’ somewhat worthy attempts to harmonize. In certain moments, randomness rises to the surface and tonality falls out the window.

The subjects then go back to the drawing board.

A subject clad in a royal purple sweater suggests taking a “kind of minimalistic approach … like the person already there subtracts what he already does.” Another adds to not “be afraid to use more black keys.”

Just shooting out random ideas, they experiment and mold themselves to adjust to a particular format.

Yet, while the students engage and interact, the viewer sees the camera crew capturing each other’s movements. One sees the mirrored images of cameras and equipment upon the glossy body of the piano. Noticing the filmmakers’ obvious presence draws the work slightly backward and stimulates the question of whether Tanaka’s project can be classified as just an artwork. Nevertheless, the obvious, reflective qualities and the breaking of the fourth wall make a statement.

Whether he zooms in on the subjects or does a revolving shot, Tanaka has the audience personally engaged to peer into the step-by-step process of discussion and experience the trial and error procedure. The blurring effects also create the simulated, surreal mood and heighten the dizzying illusion.

The title of the work alone evokes reluctance. “First Attempt” elicits insecurity as an excuse of the lack of clarity or unsure beginnings of the project’s capability to be carried out. Or even, perhaps, it lightheartedly makes fun of itself.

As an experimentation not only on a collaborative level of getting the music right, but also on a social level of what interactions are needed and compromised, the artwork emphasizes collective engagement.

Finally, it appears: a moment when all the music flows. The notes align and the audience actually witnesses the melody working in balance amongst the many fingers as they move almost effortlessly over the keys. Ebbing in and out of the beat, they pick up the tempo. Haunting baritones and easy Sinatra one-liners blend well.

A short encounter with the artist himself can be an evident reflection of the work. Slightly stout and wearing a casual black jacket, Tanaka looks, well, just normal. Born and raised in Japan, he majored in art at Tokyo Zokei University and went on to receive his master’s degree at Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music. Despite his ordinary appearance, Tanaka gives an impression of humble eagerness, flat-out seriousness and an aptitude for details.

Having asked if he had always created “new media,” Tanaka corrects the labeling of his work, saying, “[This is] a film, a creation and I am the producer.”

Tanaka has the viewer realize that perceptions and critiques play a huge role in reaching progression and cohesion. Although the performers do not reach a perfect melodious composition, understanding the possibility of the goal and ascertaining collaboration along the way demonstrate the importance placed on the film’s capturing of the process of attempt. That way, the students enjoy the rising satisfaction of progression.