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Ryoji Ikeda’s A [for 100 cars]

Building a synth orchestra out of one hundred cars

Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda talks us through his ambitious installation piece for Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles, which transformed an open-air car park into an automobile symphony

One hundred cars – from souped-up Chevy lowriders to sleek sports cars to reliable people carriers – are arranged atop a multi-storey car park opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, revving in unison. Soon the noise of the fired-up engines gives way to an unusual but calming ambient tone that emanates out of the vehicles, fluctuating seamlessly from a visceral, rib-shaking sensation to an ethereal hum against the eardrums. It continues for 27 minutes as the afternoon sun gives way to a pink sunset and, eventually, a gentle evening sky.

The installation – titled A [for 100 cars], and performed as part of the first Los Angeles edition of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival – was devised by Ryoji Ikeda, a Japanese sound artist whose work explores the raw qualities of sound, mathematics-as-music, and human sensation. As a DJ, electronic composer, and visual artist, Ikeda has taken his ideas not only to art galleries around the world but also into more unconventional spaces – his 2014 piece “spectra” beamed a monumental column of light above London’s skyline to mark the centenary of World War I. A has already been taken to an art gallery in Rome and a grain silo in Auckland, but this is the first time that cars have been involved.

“In the States, in American culture, many teenagers and young people customise their cars and pickup trucks with a big sound system,” Ikeda explains the afternoon before the installation. “This car culture is very specific to America... LA is kind of the mecca for this.”

explores the nature of the musical note ‘A’ and its tuning. Today, A notes are tuned to 440Hz as standard in the West, but in the past its frequency varied from between 376.3Hz to 506.9Hz. Every car emits a different historical frequency, ranging from 1361 right up to the 20th century, with the vehicle’s owner playing this frequency using a specially-commissioned tone generator (designed by RBMA engineer Tatsuya Takahashi) and following Ikeda’s score. “Just imagine one hundred (of these frequencies),” he says. “It’s very complicated. We call it the ‘largest synthesiser’ – one hundred oscillators! No synthesiser has one hundred oscillators.”

While this idea might seem quite cerebral on paper, the idea to use cars came from a significantly less intellectual place – “drinking talk,” as Ikeda puts it. Having been boozing with RBMA co-founder Torsten Schmidt one night, talk turned to cars, and the idea to expand into an automobile orchestra took root. “It’s kind of silly to use one hundred cars to make an experimental orchestra,” Ikeda laughs. “Anyone can have this kind of idea – but to actually realise this, it’s kind of extreme.”

Ikeda and Schmidt pitched the idea after plans to take RBMA festival to Los Angeles were first drawn up. “If we do a festival in LA, you can’t not talk about cars,” Schmidt explains. “It’s the common denominator. If you’re in a traffic jam, whether you’re in a Maserati or a Prius, you’re all sitting there.” LA’s vast sprawl and its notorious freeways can often be isolating places for drivers – think of Gary Numan’s idea of the car as a solitary, inward-looking place, where you can lock all the doors and only receive – but this installation subverts that, asking car owners to work together in harmony.

It’s these car owners who form an important part of the story. They are, after all, the ones playing the A note using the pocket synthesiser (designed by engineer Tatsuya Takahashi)  and working their engines, horns, and headlights as part of the score. They were found by RBMA’s team in LA’s underground car modification community – chosen because they’d custom-fitted their vehicles with sound systems that were big enough to broadcast to a large outdoor crowd. They’re all non-professional musicians, too, giving the performance a rawer edge. “If I made it really pure, I could do it with a computer or a really beautiful museum,” Ikeda says. “I could realise this composition with a professional orchestra, but it’s interesting to work with people who are, really, just local people.”

Despite Ikeda’s obsession with numbers, there isn’t too much significance to the one hundred figure. “A thousand could be interesting; ten is too small,” he laughs. “One hundred is like an orchestra.” And although the vehicles all look amazing, Ikeda says that aesthetics weren’t a priority in choosing the cars. “The look is not really really important to me – it’s the sound system,” he says. “The main purpose is to play back the music as loud as possible.”

These sound systems can reach incredible volumes and are really a sight to behold. “The sound is really really loud, the bass is crazy,” Ikeda says. “There is serious competition about sound systems. The loudest decibel is 160, which can break the front glass! You cannot sit down inside because it’s so loud. It’s like a sonic weapon.” After the performance is finished, the car owners all start to blare their own music from their systems, with a cacophony of new rap hits, EDM, Latin freestyle, and old school new jack swing filling the scene, each trying to go louder than the other. The audience moves between the cars, with one vehicle in particular gathering a small crowd. A young woman sits in the passenger seat as “Despacito” starts to play over the system; the bass drops and an invisible force comes out of the subwoofer, blowing her hair upwards as if she’s in a wind tunnel.

“A car is like a room, it’s very personal,” Ikeda says. “These guys are different. They just love to put the music through really good sound as loud as possible.”

Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles continues until October 30