The Japanese ensemble making music from old tape reels

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Credit: Mao Yamamoto

Open Reel Ensemble doesn’t play conventional instruments, like guitars, drums and keyboards. Instead, the Japanese band uses reel-to-reel tape recorders built by Pioneer and TEAC in the 1970s and ’80s. They weren’t designed, of course, with musical creation and manipulation in mind. Ei Wada, the leader of Open Reel Ensemble, discovered their performative qualities by accident. More than 15 years ago, he was given a couple of tape recorders by a friend of his father who worked at a radio station. He tripped over them one day and, in a mixture of panic and sadness, tried to rotate the broken reels with his hands. To his surprise, the sound changed.

“I felt exoticism,” Wada said through a translator. “And [realized] this was a kind of musical instrument.” The technically-minded musician started modifying reel-to-reel recorders and, later, founded Open Reel Ensemble at university with a small group of friends. Today, the band is a trio. They learned to perform by recording a mixture of sounds and then, in real-time, stopping and turning the reels by hand. It creates a DJ-like scratching effect that’s hard to replicate with digital tools alone. “Depending on what you record and how you touch and rotate the reels,” Wada explained, “the playback sound will vary in many ways with different expressions.”