Barbara Held and Yasunao Tone, 1985–1990: Can the Flautist Speak? / Godfre Leung

Yasunao Tone, score for Trio for a Flute Player, 1985. Courtesy of the artist

I’m just the flute player and keep my mouth shut.1

—Barbara Held

Setting aside the flautist’s self-deprecation, we encounter in this joke a great deal of sedimented baggage from the classical music tradition that Barbara Held and Yasunao Tone sought to sidestep in their collaborations of the second half of the 1980s. These collaborations, with Tone nominally in the role of composer and Held in that of performer, challenged what Held, as a shorthand, calls “the old hierarchy of composer–performer–audience member.”2 That formulation, with the performer in the middle, suggests that the performer is merely a functionary between the composer and his—yes, his—audience. The musician here would be a medium in several senses of the word.

Held describes the flute as “transparently breath-like.”3 As a medium between the breathing performer and the music she realizes as sound, the instrument barely intercedes; it merely splits the breath. This would be in contrast to a reed or brass instrument, both of which add vibration to the performer’s breath stream. However, if, as described by flute historian Nancy Toff, the flute repertoire evolved in the late nineteenth century “from imitating birds to imitating the human voice,” that voice would belong to the composer, not the performer whose breath the instrument so directly shapes.4 Another conventional characteristic of the flute is the “purity” of its tone. Among analog instruments, the flute comes closest to approximating a single sine wave, meaning that it can produce tones with fewer harmonic frequencies or overtones than, say, an oboe, trombone, violin, or piano. The flute, we might say, “purifies” the human breath. As it passes through the instrument, the human breath is shaped by the tube to become a pure tone—purer, for instance, than the human singing voice. A third purity thus emerges: that of the idealized music conceived by the composer, executed by the purified “voice” of the performer. The classical composer’s intention is not distorted, neither by the performer, who emits a purified transcendental “voice,” nor by the instrument, which purifies rather than “contaminating” that voice. The chain through which music travels, from composer to performer to audience, is clean as it passes from score, via the performer, to the realized sound that the audience hears.

By contrast, Held and Tone’s collaborations took part in a tradition of new music that curator Joan Rothfuss, in her recent study on Charlotte Moorman, characterized as “[bringing] into question the very process of composition, the role of the composer, and the definition of what is and is not music.”5 Held states of the flute: “I love the breathiness and imperfection of the instrument. That’s also why I was so happy when Yasunao Tone was the first to make me a noisy flute piece!”6 That piece is Trio for a Flute Player (1985), once described in the New York Times as containing “acidly unpleasant synthesized pitches.”7 On its subsequent recording, for her 1992 CD Upper Air Observation on Mimi Johnson’s record label Lovely Music, Held admits: “I was actually a bit disappointed with the CD version of the piece because I played too melodically; it’s a lot more interesting when it’s strict and the sounds are more noisy.”8

Yasunao Tone, score for Trio for a Flute Player, 1985. Courtesy of the artist

Tone’s Trio for a Flute Player score features calligraphic renderings of poems from the eighth-century Japanese anthology Man’yoshu, the earliest surviving literary text in that language, on top of which are superimposed musical staves printed on transparencies. Held performs the score in a one-woman call-and-response, first reading the poems, as translated into English by the poet Cid Corman, through the mouthpiece of the flute, then playing the calligraphically-rendered poems-turned-sheet music. Beyond the usual controlling of sounds emanating from the flute, Held’s fingering performed a second function, thus completing the “trio” with a “duet”: the keys of her prepared flute—the “hacked Tone flute,” as she calls it—were outfitted with foam pads, which when depressed altered the strength of an electric current connected to an oscillator, changing the pitch and intensity of the sound emanating from the mechanical device. In his liner notes to the piece, Tone writes that “the poems are not interpreted but transformed into sound.”9 In all, Trio features three transformations of those poems via Held’s instrument: spoken (which is also to say, breathed—but, importantly, also converted into a second language), keyed (through the oscillator), and in Held’s “normal” flute performance a combination of breathing and keywork.

Barbara Held, performance of Trio for a Flute Player (excerpt), Performing Arts Center, St. Cloud State University, March 22, 2017

Tone gave Held a written score and the prepared instrument with which to execute it. He also equipped her with a way of reading the score, which there is no obvious way to do on the flute. Instead of treating the Japanese characters on the musical staves as notes, Trio calls for Held to read the notations as tablature, the five lines and four white spaces of the musical staff corresponding to the flute’s nine finger positions. The open-endedness of Trio, as well as of the other three pieces Tone composed for Held (more on these below), lies in the illegibility of the score as previously-composed music and the contrivance of converting found notations into performance instructions that she could then execute. Here, the role of the performer differs from her conventional one to interpret a musical score; in Tone’s scores there is no intended music to read for.

The impulse behind Trio, which sustained Held and Tone’s collaborations up to 1990, was impurity. Tone, a dedicated reader of Jacques Derrida since the first translation of the philosopher’s work into Japanese in 1969, was motivated by the remainders of language. In converting written texts to musical notation, the semantic meanings of those poems are lost, but something of them nonetheless remains in the iterative linguistic sign. Likewise, the audibility of Held’s fingering, as transfigured by the oscillator, isolates from the complete, realized flute performance a supporting action that Derrida might have considered a parergon. The addition of the further conversion of one system of musical notation—the musical staff—into another—tablature—reveals Trio’s stake: to “subvert the finger patterns that produce Western musical scales on the instrument” and thus produce sounds outside of that musical language. In both cases, the conventional mediumship of the performer to the composer’s intentions in classical music, via the notated score, is eroded in the score itself.

Though Tone’s score derails the semantic meanings of the poems, here metonymic of his own compositional intentionality, Held’s performance of those scores does resemble a mediumship, just not one beholden to a composer’s intentions. Held describes her process of non-interpretive playing as “channeling”: “I try to focus on the task I have set for myself . . . it’s a sort of state that you enter. As your eyes scan the score, the thinking and analyzing mind goes into hibernation, and the music flows through.”10 The resulting sounds are perhaps not entirely unpredictable, but they are the product of Held’s diminished capacity to control the sounds she is playing. She executes, as “literally” as possible, what the score instructs, and furthermore those instructions force her fingers to do things outside the habitual lexicon of her formal training, requiring a level of concentration that impedes the “intrusion” of her impulses to play musically. If in the classical ideal the performer’s intention should match up identically with that of the composer, channeling his proverbial authorial voice through the score, in Trio that intention is displaced onto the score itself and its forcibly converted poetic texts, now devoid of any of the meanings their original authors had intended.

Comprised of visual linguistic signs, the musicality of written poetry is implied rather than notated.11 To read poetry, then, is partially to retrieve the musicality that is written poetry’s unnotated shadow. Held’s agency in Trio is to respond to the call—Corman’s Man’yoshu translations, a form of interpretive conversion that privileges semantic meaning—in a way that abstains from giving voice to previously-authored words. She reads Tone’s score against the grain, in doing so producing another kind of music “hidden” in written poetry, here motivated by the materiality of the original poems’ signs. Who is speaking thus?12


In addition to Trio for a Flute Player, Tone composed three other pieces for Held. Like Trio, the score of each was based on a found text whose sonic execution was open-ended. Aletheia (1987) used an ancient Chinese dance score, excavated in 1907, as its urtext, converting it, via spoken Mandarin Chinese’s four-tone pinyin system, into musical directions. Held’s breath, through her flute, manipulates an electromagnetic solenoid that triggers hammers to hit the strings of a grand piano. Lyrictron (1988) is based on modern transcriptions of Tang dynasty flute tablatures into musical staff form. When played, a computer program detects the pitches of the flute sounds and converts them into words recited by a computerized voice, which together comprise impromptu haikus. Zen and Music (1990) used a series of ancient Japanese shakuhachi flute scores, written in a form of tablature that Held learned how to read. She played those notated directions as faithfully as possible on the incompatible modern, Western flute. Accompanying this, Tone read tales of Fuke, an eccentric monk who was the philosophical forefather of a school of Japanese Zen Buddhism that practiced shakuhachi playing as a form of meditation. Over the course of Held and Tone’s period of collaboration, these compositions, as well as several that Tone composed for his own performance, including Molecular Music (1982–’85), Piano for Taoists (1984), and Music for 2 CD Players (1985), were combined as modular pieces to larger works such as Iconologos (1986), which along with Aletheia also involved dancer–choreographer Nancy Zendora; What is Left of a Rembrandt that is Torn in Small Rectangular Squares and Thrown in the Toilet? (1988); and Spectalum Lyrictronica (1990). To contextualize this body of work, which throughout features the triangulation of found score, flute, and conversion across media, technologies, and writing systems initiated in Trio for a Flute Player, I’d like to sketch out the larger arc of Tone’s career and its productive collision with Held’s intervention into the epistemology of flute and breath.

Tone was a co-founder of Group Ongaku, a postwar Japanese music collective whose members included Takehisa Kosugi and Mieko Shiomi. He was also an original member of Fluxus. Tone’s earliest works were open-ended scores, such as Smooth Event of 1963. That score simply gave the instructions: “Smooth any form of cloth.” Tone explains:

The first performance of the piece was done as a duo performance with Takehisa Kosugi at Tokyo Gallery in 1963. I covered him with a big white sheet of cloth and smoothed the wrinkles of the cloth with my hands. The second performance was in a room in Nikkatsu Kokusai Hotel, where I ironed a radio inside my shirt. Kosugi then crept inside a big white cloth bag and I ironed him.13

Solo performances of this piece usually involve an electric guitar wrapped in the shirt off Tone’s back.

Beginning with the 1976 piece Voice and Phenomenon, Tone has consistently used ancient Chinese and Japanese poems to instigate his pieces. Those poems, from the Shijing, Toshisen, and Man’yoshu anthologies, are converted from their written forms “back” into sound by way of a series of conversions. Molecular Music, initiated in 1982, took the written characters from Shijing and Man’yoshu poems and matched them with found photographs from National Geographic magazines that corresponded to the etymological meanings of the pictographic characters. The photographs were collected into a slideshow that was projected in the rhythm of how the poems would be read. Light sensitive oscillators on the projection screen converted the projected light into electronic sounds. 1992’s Musica Iconologos features scans of photographs that correspond to the characters of two poems from the Shijing; the pixels of the scans are electronically tabulated as histograms and then converted into 20 millisecond bursts of sound that were then expanded to a length corresponding to the etymological complexity of the original written character. In Wounded Soutai Man’yo (2002), Tone wrote lines from Man’yoshu poems on a tablet device with a stylus; as soon as he lifted his stylus from the tablet, the calligraphy turned into a wave form. Over the last eight years, Tone has been creating MP3 Deviations, which take MP3 sound files derived from ancient poems and transform them using a program that corrupts the files.

Yasunao Tone, execution of Wounded Soutai Man’yo, visualization in computer interface, 2002. Courtesy of the artist

 What all of these pieces have in common is a conversion of notation to sound. The sound that results at the end of the series of conversions, in each case, is unpredictable to the composer–performer who instigated it—Tone’s term for this methodology is “de-control.” The early 1960s event scores, a compositional strategy also used by Fluxus associates of Tone’s such as Alison Knowles, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Dick Higgins, are perhaps the germ of Tone’s eventual work with conversion. Art historian Liz Kotz writes: “. . . [in an event score] the relationship between a notational system and a realization is not one of representation or reproduction but of specification: the template, the schema, or score is usually not considered the locus of the ‘work,’ but merely a tool to produce it; and while the ‘work’ must conform to certain specifications and configurations, its production necessarily differs in each realization.”14 In Tone’s work with prepared CDs beginning in 1985 and in his current work with MP3s, which are of a piece with the poem-based works, we observe the corruption of a supposedly stable signal. The audio medium is altered so that the resulting sounds that are played back are different in each instance, as opposed to being identical, which is what audio playback media (especially digital audio media) are supposed to enable.

I’ve never asked Held or Tone, but my sense of what brought them together in their fruitful collaboration of the second half of the 1980s is breathing—specifically a shared interest in transforming the breath. The majority of Tone’s work since 1976 has been instigated by ancient Chinese or Japanese poems. But before those poems were collected in anthologies and formalized as written texts, they were songs. Before they were converted to systems of writing, these songs were instigated by the human breath. In 1984, Held organized a series of flute concerts in New York called Shaping the Breath. The flute, she explains, is a device that shapes the breath—in fact, as stated earlier, purifying it.

In Pausa (2017–), a recently initiated and ongoing collaboration between Held and video artist Benton C Bainbridge, Held’s flute playing instigates an audio-visual installation on four speakers and a variable number of video monitors. Held plays, freezes a pixel of flute sound on her laptop, then modulates its limited harmonic frequencies, splitting them across the four audio channels. In effect, she highlights the supposedly “pure” instrument’s impurities. Like many of the other works Held performs, including the collaborations with Tone, the flute initiates a series. Small microphones in Bainbridge’s modular analog video synthesizer record the already-modulated flute sounds; the modular synth divides that audio information into its constituent frequencies and translates it into changes in the horizontal, vertical, and brightness components of the work’s video output.

Barbara Held and Benton C Bainbridge, Pausa opening performance, Kiehle Gallery, St. Cloud State University, March 20, 2017

An exhibition of Pausa that I organized at Kiehle Gallery at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota extends Held’s breath not only through an electronic chain, but also through another analog device that shapes it: architecture. The modulated flute sounds that emanate from the installation’s four speaker channels interact with each other through the unique spatial dimensions and sonorities of the gallery space, which contains an obstacle—an obtrusive pillar—right in the center of the gallery space. In different parts of the gallery, the harmonic frequencies reconverge to create different tones. One such tone reenters the electronic chain, via the microphones in Bainbridge’s video synthesizer, to take new form as a component of modulated video. If the flute purifies the breath-as-voice, here the gallery space enriches the impurities of Held’s breathed notes. What matter who’s speaking?15

Barbara Held and Benton C Bainbridge, Pausa opening performance, Kiehle Gallery, St. Cloud State University, March 20, 2017.


  1. Barbara Held, email correspondence with the author, August 26, 2015.
  2. Alexandra Alisauskas and Godfre Leung, “Interview with Barbara Held,” in The Third Rail 10 (2017): 29.
  3. Alisauskas and Leung, 31.
  4. Nancy Toff, The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 256.
  5. Joan Rothfuss, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 46-48.
  6. Alisauskas and Leung, 30.
  7. Bernard Holland, “Barbara Held, flutist, Merkin Concert Hall,” in New York Times (December 14, 1991): sec. 1, 16.
  8. Alisauskas and Leung, 33.
  9. Yasunao Tone, “Trio for a Flute Player and Lyrictron,” in liner notes to Barbara Held, Upper Air Observation (Lovely Music, 1991).
  10. Alisauskas and Leung, 33.
  11. The most common exception is the line break, which is a kind of musical notation.
  12. Roland Barthes reading Honoré de Balzac, “The Death of the Author,” in Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142.
  13. Yasunao Tone, email correspondence with the author, November 17, 2013.
  14. Liz Kotz, “Language Between Performance and Photography,” in October 111 (Winter, 2005): 14–15.
  15. Michel Foucault quoting Samuel Beckett, “What is an Author?”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 115.