OFF SITE, ON SITE: Reflecting on the Early 2000s Alternative Scene through the Venue OFF SITE

by Kazue Yokoi

English translation by Haruna Ito

This text is journalist Kazue Yokoi’s contribution to a series of essays, commissioned by REMAIIN (Radical European Music and its Intercultural Nature) , a project that investigates non-European cultural influences on the experimental, avant-garde and innovative music of the present and the past. It is co-funded by the „Creative Europe” programme of the European Union. 

1. A venue called Off Site

A few minutes on foot from Yoyogi Station in Tokyo, one corner of the neighborhood was seemingly left behind by modern development. Most of the Showa era (1926-1989) houses had fallen prey to real estate sharks and disappeared in the bubble economy, but here a few remained, lining side streets that only pedestrians and bicycles could penetrate. In a weird juxtaposition, overhead, the so-called Docomo Tower (NTT Yoyogi Building) loomed like an idolatrous vision of the bubble which had recently burst.

The Off Site venue opened in an old house in that forgotten quarter just as the Docomo Tower neared completion. The first floor was a gallery and free space, while the second floor was a CD/book store and café. It was the year 2000. In addition to being used as a gallery, the twelve tatami mat space (approximately 19.8 m2)on the first floor also served as a space for musicians to perform improvised and alternative music of the kind that did not fit well with established live venues. From the mid-1990s, exchanges thrived between Japanese and overseas musicians, and many a foreign musician visited there. A major write-up in the British music magazine The Wire (Issue #233) is believed to have brought greater attention to Off Site and the Japanese alternative scene.

The term “Onkyô-ha” (literally, “acoustic school”) emerged in the music scene and came to be known overseas as “ONKYO” when David Novak published his 2010 paper in Asian Music titled “Playing Off Site: The Untranslation of Onkyo” (1), perhaps the most widely read academic article on “Onkyô-ha“. In another paper “Sound(s), Silence(s), and the Global Value of Improvisation,” Novak refers to Off Site as “the birthplace of ‘Onkyô’ (2).  Clive Bell, in his piece “Off Site: Improvised Music From Japan” writes, “At the turn of the millennium, improvised music from Japan became incredibly quiet,” and continues, “This scene was brewing in a little old house in Shinjuku named Off Site (3). ”  This soon became an established notion abroad.  Certainly the term “birthplace” evokes a sense of romance.  Was Off Site comparable then, to Minton’s Playhouse for bebop or CBGBs for punk in New York City? As one who was familiar with Off Site, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.  Yet we would also do well not to disregard the interrelation between the venue and the music scene.

2. Laying the foundation: Atsuhiro Ito and Yukari Fujimoto

The two individuals who founded and operated Off Site were Atsuhiro Ito and his partner at the time, Yukari Ito (now Yukari Fujimoto). Ito was in charge of music and sound, while Fujimoto was in charge of the gallery. 

Atsuhiro Ito is an artist, who created the sonic device “Optron” using a fluorescent light tube for his installation pieces, and in 1998, began conducting sound performances at exhibitions. He continues to approach sound not only from the perspective of contemporary art, but through sessions and collaborative projects with musicians. Yukari Fujimoto, still active as a curator and gallerist, formerly worked at the Saito Kinen Kawaguchi Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ito states that it was Fujimoto who first expressed the desire to start a gallery.  It was sometime in the late 1990s that “she mentioned how she’d like to do something interesting, and as we pondered this, we began talking about how we should try things that others couldn’t manage, like sound.”

Where did this idea come from?  It appears the inspiration may have come from a gallery formerly located in the Komaba Dormitory at the University of Tokyo.

The university announced the closure of Komaba Dormitory in 1996, and had stopped accepting admissions to the dormitory a year earlier, during which time the residents’ association recruited extra-mural clubs to occupy its vacant rooms. Several galleries operated in the Komaba Dormitory, and Yuichi Higashionna, already well-known in contemporary art at the time, rented a studio in one of them.  Ito also had an exhibition at one of the galleries.  To prompt occupants to move out voluntarily, the university shut off electricity; a starvation tactic, as it were. It was then that Ito had his exhibition, which used electricity. As Fujimoto recalls, “He went and acquired a generator, purchased gasoline daily at the gas station, and ran that buzzing generator so that his installation was the one room in the whole compound that was brightly lit.” Working at the Kawaguchi Museum of Contemporary Art at the time, she recalls being made “keenly aware of how art was generally conducted in protected environments.” 

In addition to that gallery where Ito exhibited, there was another called Obscure, run by Koki Hasei, who later became a film artist and director.  Hasei documented the Komaba Dormitory on film (W/O, 2000). Although the Obscure gallery operated only for about a year, it was a “dynamic place, with people like graphic designer Fumio Tachibana, and newer artists, who were getting noticed, and Tadanobu Asano frequenting the place.” After being evicted from the Komaba Dormitory, Obsure began publishing Fluxus-style art books, to which Ito also contributed (3).  While in book form, these were also objet, one featured an iron cover, and were interesting as material artefacts; these were also sold at Off Site.  Exhibitions of artists featured in Obscure were also held at Off Site.

The Komaba Dormitory had become a squat of sorts, a place that attracted young people, aspiring artists, poets and even junkies who had nowhere to go. While working at the art museum, Fujimoto sensed the disparity between this kind of place and the typical gallery people visited to view artworks hanging on pristine walls. Fujimoto recalls,

I keenly felt how art was conducted within institutions. Yet seeing this ultimate place of DIY, if you asked me which was more real, it was the DIY.  This was when I realized that we could do it ourselves too.

Thus Off Site was born in a DIY-restored house. The name OFF SITE was constructed from a hybrid of “offside” (as in foul territory in sport) and “site.”

Ito has stated that the collapse of the bubble economy was a factor in establishing Off Site. One after another, galleries they had been involved with were going out of business. Between 1997 and 1998, coinciding with the Asian currency crisis, “Galleries that had been the beneficiaries of corporate backing were closing in droves.”  The torrent of closures was such that “Regardless if you had a full calendar, the money dried up and word came down unilaterally from the top that they had to close after the next two shows. They would suddenly close.”  Surely this was a bolt out of the blue for artists preparing their exhibitions. On the other hand, the bubble collapse also brought plummeting real estate prices, which in turn led to the opening of new small galleries. The end of the 1990s to the beginning of the 2000s saw small contemporary art galleries springing up in various locations. Apart from Gendai Heights which had already existed, Off Site was one of the first of these. Over a period of three to four years in the early 2000s, the number of small spaces combining cafes and galleries grew, along with bars offering live music, and by the time Off Site closed its doors in 2005, the scene was considerably transformed. And perhaps influenced by Ito’s personal experiences, Off Site chose not to seek grants or corporate support, nor did it rent out its space.    

The ideal was for Off Site to be “principally a gallery which could also operate as a free space.”  Ito elaborates further;

It wound up becoming a discussion about genres, the question of where something belonged, and how it should be treated; this sort of ambiguity has become quite common since, I think, the end of the 90’s.  Globally too, there seemed to be a similar trend. In Japan and in Tokyo, particularly when it came to galleries, the scene was completely unaccustomed to dealing with sound. So, if we were going to do something, we wanted to try to cover that aspect as well.

We can see the basis for his statements, with Ito beginning to conduct sound performances using fluorescent light tubes even prior to Off Site, and in his work with Fujimoto at the Kawaguchi Museum of Contemporary Art Studio (1999-2001) in an experimental sound and moving image program entitled “Zettai Antenna (Absolute Antenna)” Vol. 1, on February 11, 2000.  That lineup featured Otomo Yoshihide, Taku Sugimoto, Brent Gutzeit, SUKORA, Atsuhiro Ito, metamict, Toshiaki Takayasu and Erehwon).

Ito was already acquainted with SUKORA, metamict, Erehwon and the art noise artist Raita Ishikawa, but not with Sugimoto or Otomo. He and Sugimoto were introduced by another artist from Tama Art University, Masae Tanabe, and this expanded his network. Although promotion for “Absolute Antenna Vol.1” was limited to flyers and word of mouth, the event attracted about a hundred people.  A homespun project, the two must have felt it was worthwhile regardless, for the program would continue at Off Site on a regular basis.  Tanabe’s subsequent Off Site show, themed “Birds,” featured an improvised music performance by Sugimoto treating the exhibited works as musical “scores,” later releasing an artbook/CD of its recording on the Off Site label.

So how, then, did musicians feel about being brought onboard at events in the visual arts realm? Otomo comments, “For me it was novel, to work together with someone from the art world on an art and music project. Generally when you’re invited to do something with artists, it’s been uninteresting. The music was there like an adjunct. But this was an event where the two could genuinely coexist.”  Off Site’s inaugural performance featuring Filament (Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M) grew out of that encounter.

3.By the mid-90s, the music scene was already evolving

The name Off Site is often mentioned in conjunction with the words “Onkyô-ha (school)” or “Onkyô style.”  It has since been repeated in various outlets that this designation originated from a divider tab on a record bin at Paris-Peking, a record shop that stood not far from the Tower Records flagship store in Shibuya in the mid-90s. The store carried a motley range of products and genres, works not found elsewhere as well as a large number of cassette tapes by fledgling and semi-professional musicians on consignment. Among the musicians who placed their cassettes there were Ami Yoshida (howling voice), Utah Kawasaki (analog synthesizer, laptop), Tamaru (g), Masahiko Okura (sax), and the field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda. Although Paris-Peking was short-lived, it was in business only about two years (1993-95), owner Taro Nijikama would go on to start a number of labels, including 360°records.

The ambiguous and sensuous title of “Onkyô-ha,” then, served as an artful descriptor of the content of those recordings, including some unknown or unclassifiable genres placed under that divider.  You were almost led to believe you had some idea of the sound of those works. But what did it signify specifically? Critic Atsushi Sasaki explains in Technoise Materialism (Seidosha, 2001) that this was “a stance that prioritized ‘sound’ over the ‘music’ itself,” and that it “emphasized texture rather than construction.” As Sasaki also wrote, the process of the act of listening itself was contained there.  One might even say that the term was born of the listener’s own sensory perception.

So how then did the word “ONKYO” come to circulate overseas? Music Unlimited, a festival held in Wels, Austria, which selects a different musician as its curator each year, called upon Otomo Yoshihide to be its curator for 1999. One of its small sub-venues was named the Onkyo Room, so this appears to be its inception. Incidentally, Sachiko M made her first foray into solo sine wave performance there.

Thus, the term “Onkyô-ha,” perhaps due to its sensual nuance and lack of clear musical definition, became a convenient one to use.  Before long, musicians associated with the group Tortoise came to be called the “Chicago onkyô-ha,” while Juana Molina, Alejandro Flanov, and Fernando Kabusacki were known as the “Argentinian onkyô-ha” in Japan.

Young musicians like those who frequented Paris-Peking soon began playing at venues different from traditional live venues, such as Theater Poo in Shinjuku, Uplink Factory in Shibuya, and Kid Ailack Art Hall in Meidaimae. Around this time Ami Yoshida began to organize a series of events under the name REM.  Uplink Factory became a place for young musicians to perform, with Taketo Nakazato, who had done several projects under the name “Dub Sonic” at its helm as general manager. Projects included participants like Masahiko Okura (sax), Tomohide Midori (sax), and Masaaki Kikuchi (b).

Meanwhile, the regular series “Meeting at Off Site” with Tetsuji Akiyama (g), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board, g), and Taku Sugimoto (g) was already under way, getting its initial start at Bar Aoyama. The series dates back to 1998, when Jason Kahn (ds, sampler) visited Japan. Nakamura, who was looking for a place to play with Jason, consulted Akiyama and Sugimoto, and booked the three of them and Kahn at Bar Aoyama, where Akiyama had already been playing. Nakamura had musical contacts in Berlin and other European cities, while Akiyama and Sugimoto had connections in Chicago and New York. Having toured overseas on their own, they did their own networking and were already performing in Europe and the United States. This led to the monthly Improvised Meeting at Bar Aoyama with Akiyama, Nakamura, and Sugimoto plus guests (the name was changed to Experimental Music at Bar Aoyama from November 1999).   Among its performers were Sean Meehan, Masahiko Okura, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Utah Kawasaki, Tamaru, Ami Yoshida, and Brent Gutzeit. With the opening of Off Site, the group relocated and continued there from July 2000.

Now let us take a look at what else was going on at the time. In the field of criticism, Atsushi Sasaki founded HEADZ with Masaaki Hara in 1995, and launched the magazine Fader in 1997. Critic and saxophonist Yoshio Otani published EsPresso in 1996 with Yohei Owada, Hiroo Akasaka, and Kinya Usuda, which continued, albeit irregularly, until 2002.  In 1996, Tower Records began issuing Musee (changing its name to Intoxicate in August 2004), actively covering music not widely introduced in traditional magazine media. Here too, forums that focused on music outside of conventional frameworks were emerging.

On another front, in 1997 the ICC (NTT InterCommunication Center) opened with the aim of promoting discourse between science, technology, art and culture, through exhibitions, speaking events and sound installations. In 1999, a program titled “Mego@ICC: The Future of Techno Music” featured Christian Fennesz and Peter Rehberg from the Viennese independent label Mego, with concerts by Ryoji Ikeda and Otomo Yoshihide and a symposium. The 2000 exhibition “Sound Art: Sound as Media” featured Max Eastley and David Toop, Christophe Charles, Carsten Nicolai, Minoru Sato (m/s), Toshiya Tsunoda, and others. In 2001, a concert and lecture featuring “METAMKINE” (Christophe Auger, Xavier Querel, Jérôme Noetinger) took place. Against this backdrop, musicians were increasingly employing electronics and computers in improvised music.  One response to these trends was the publication of Post-Technological Music (Omura Shoten, 2001) an examination from the perspective of music and technology, compiled under the editorship of Akihiro Kubota.

The mid-90s saw the release of Windows 95 and use of the Internet was gradually becoming more widespread. In 1996, Yoshiyuki Suzuki launched the English portal site “Japanese Free Improvisors” with the purpose of introducing Japanese improvising musicians. He eventually also created a Japanese version of the site, renaming it “Improvised Music from Japan” (IMJ). While the site started with webpages for musicians of his own generation, such as Otomo Yoshihide and Kazuhisa Uchihashi, Suzuki soon took notice of the younger generation of improvisors, with ideas divergent from jazz, free jazz or conventional improvised music. These were the aforementioned musicians. Suzuki also set up a bilingual online CD shop, releasing a 10 CD box set for its fifth anniversary in 2001, and continued to produce CDs and advertise in The Wire. The publication of reviews in that magazine certainly helped to introduce Japan’s music scene elsewhere.  The following year, in 2002, Improvised Music from Japan started publishing a bilingual annual magazine.  Off Site did not have its own website, but its live calendar was listed on IMJ as an associated page, as so many of its performers were featured on that site.

4.Off Site and the international improvised music scene

“Meeting at Off Site” was a project invariably mentioned in discussions about the venue. Although Sugimoto left while the series was ongoing due to a shift in his musical focus, the event continued until October of 2002, each time with a guest performer.  It was then changed to a live solo performance for which Akiyama and Nakamura selected the musician, until December 2003. The lineup featured more foreign musicians at Off Site than during its tenure at Bar Aoyama.  These included Annette Krebs (g) invited by Taku Sugimoto, Burkhard Stangl (g), a surprise show by Alvin Lucier who was visiting Japan for an ICC project, and even Richard Teitelbaum casually dropped by.  Off Site grew into an intersection of international improvised music. Visiting musicians brought its name back to their communities and the venue was incorporated into their networks. For some musicians, as Taku Unami remarked, “Meeting people at Off Site was the catalyst that enabled me to go abroad.”  For musicians of improvised and alternative music, this type of interchange has been an unbroken tradition for many decades dating back to the free music scene. Yet it was not until twenty years ago that these exchanges became as active as they are today, with Japanese musicians routinely inviting and booking visitors from overseas, or foreign musicians coming to Japan relying purely on personal connections.

Interestingly, there were also changes stirring in the international improvised music scene. Musicians such as Berlin’s Bukhard Beins, Axel Dörner, Robin Hayward, Ignaz Schick, and in Vienna, Werner Dafeldecker, Christof Kurzmann and Dieb 13, as well as those dubbed the New London Silence by The Wire– Mark Wastell, Rhodri Davies, Matt Davis and others, were experimenting with new approaches. In 2002, HEADZ held an event entitled “Erstwhile Records presents AMPLIFY 2002: Balance.”  True to its title, the event invited and introduced several of these musicians, including Thomas Lehn, Günter Müller, Christof Kurzmann, Keith Rowe, Marcus Schmickler and Burkhard Stangl. John Abbey of Erstwhile Records has said that the project was a tribute to the 1999 Wels Music Unlimited festival ”Mottomo Otomo” curated by Otomo, which formed his introduction to many of the label’s artists.

What, then, was the reception toward this new improvised music?  German musicologist Peter Niklas Wilson, in his lecture “Neue Paradigmen in der improvisierten Musik (New Paradigms for Improvised Music)” at the 8th Darmstadt Jazzforum in 2003, gives an overview of the improvised music scenes in various locations, including Tokyo and New York.

Hasn’t improvised music always been the music of greatest ego, the pure subjectivity of sound?  Can we truly say that this new kind [of improvisation] is de-subjectivized? And for the sake of exploring this loss further, what then becomes of the dialogue between musicians, the mutual understanding, the heated debate, that archetypal model of discourse in the improvised music ensemble? Instead we have a collectively woven fabric of sound, where the language of call-and-response or the exchange of opinion and counter-opinion no longer holds currency. What, then, becomes of the heritage of free performance in jazz, traditions such as motifs and solos? (5)

Such uncertainty would be expected not only from Wilson but across generations of free music afficionados from the 1960s and 1970s, whether in Europe, the United States or Japan. But some of these performers of the “new kind of improvisation,” including Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M, have inherited very little from jazz, having arrived at their sound without going the route of the older models of improvised music, while others may have strong influences from psychedelic, noise, or techno. Many of them do not play notes on their instruments in the conventional manner, but prepare their instruments instead or utilize specific or extended techniques, while others perform on original instruments, including electronic devices. Musicians such as Andrea Neumann modified the piano and played only the internal strings. Preconceived notions of musical instruments were increasingly cast aside.  It is quite unsurprising therefore that the audience (age group) is different. According to Taku Unami, “At that time, there was a coolness about Berlin. Annette (Krebs) and Andrea (Neumann) were there, Axel (Dörner) was there. I had such admiration for them.” As such their performances were openly embraced, more so by these younger generations than established, seasoned free music fans.

Wilson himself concludes thus;

The new improvised music will liberate noise from gestures of “passion,” and rather than being the converse of the shout, the deformity, the ugliness of sound, will take on instead the positive aspect of perceiving it as pure sound.  It also recognizes the surface of noise as a parameter.  This is what the new improvised music strains its ears to hear; the luminosity, viscosity, granularity, the internal weighting of noise on a structural scale, the homogeneity and heterogeneity against a baseline noise, the “polyphony” or “homophony” of noise considered vertically, its static or evolving state as recorded horizontally over time. Paradoxically speaking, it is a new phenomenology (6 ).

5.What was being played there?

The musicians reject the idea that they belong to “Onkyô-ha,” often expressing their distaste at being labelled so.  We cannot deny that the term “onkyô” was generally employed strategically by writers regardless of the musical intent of each musician.   The same applies to terms like “microtonal” and “muted sound.”  Taku Sugimoto comments,

As if Off Site was the beginning of the small sound scene. That’s utter fiction. You change the music to fit the place where you are. In a big place you can play your records at top volume, but at home, you’ll listen to them softly. That’s all.  It’s what we had been doing long before.

Of course performances at low volume didn’t start there. Still, inside a space of twelve tatami mats (approximately 19.8 m2), in a private house with no soundproofing, it was certainly impossible to play at the volume of a live venue or jazz club with a PA system.  Ito asked the three members of Meeting at Off Site to come for a consultation while the space was undergoing construction and told them, “I’d like for you to play what you can here.” It was site-specific music. A musician might have installed soundproofing to prepare the space, but Ito’s conception was in keeping with that of a visual artist.  Live performance at Off Site was not just about volume, it also needed to address the character of that twelve mat space with white walls, including restrictions on loud levels. No matter what the term “Onkyô-ha” may or may not denote, that music would not have materialized in any other space.

Unlike at louder volumes, one needs to focus on smaller sounds in order to hear them.  Perhaps it is in that effort to listen that detailed intricacies come across.  Nakamura reflects, “We tried it, and it was interesting. You could still hear even with the sound turned down so low. The audience too, was so quiet. There was fun and pleasure in knowing that we could go so low and it still worked, and guided by that, we brought it down.” As a kind of experiment, they “gave it a go, and it was interesting.”

Hiromichi Hosoma, a.k.a. Kaerusan, after seeing the last Off Site performance by Filament, wrote;

You often hear Off Site performances being characterized by their “low volume” but in fact, that tingling sensation at the top of your head is not just due to the lowness, but also due to an altered sense of time and scale. The world swells in the direction of time as it anticipates the sine wave (6).

Not confined to Filament, a great many live performances at Off Site seemed to share this effect on one’s relative sense of time, as Hosoma described; “the perception of our ears seemed to extend into the millisecond realm, which ordinarily would barely register in our senses, and into that spaciousness of time, the sound would rise(7).” This is an essential point that appears to be surprisingly overlooked.

Incidentally, people have sweepingly referred to the musicians who performed there as “Off Site-types,” but in reality, the lineup of performers was quite varied. Musicians including Kazuo Imai and Kazuhisa Uchihashi who viewed the “new kind of improvisation” in the local scene critically would also perform there, as would dubstep artist Nentegaine (DJ 100mado). On the art side there were installations by WrK (Minoru Sato, Toshiya Tsunoda, Jio Shimizu, Hiroyuki Iida, Atsushi Tominaga) while Minoru Sato and Toshiya Tsunoda also participated in live performances. Tetsuya Umeda (live installation) and Akira Sanematsu too, performed as well as exhibited. Later, younger musicians such as Toshihiro Koike (tb), Masafumi Ezaki (tp), and Daisuke Takaoka (tuba) from the Kansai region, former regulars in the “New Music Action” workshop Kazuhisa Uchihashi that started in Osaka in 1995, began performing there. Taku Unami, although born in Tokyo, was also a participant in Uchihashi’s workshop, and he made his professional debut with HOSE at “Festival Beyond Innocence” in Kobe, organized by Uchihashi. Events also took place in Off Site’s upstairs cafe, and included DJ Peaky (turntable, etc.), an SP listening party by Kanji Nakao, and the idiosyncratic “Hattori Festival” with Reiji Hattori single-mindedly focusing on being the listener rather than the subject. Clearly, offerings at Off Site were extremely varied. Although of course, the volume was indeed lower than when playing elsewhere…

6.The interstices between sound and music

One project in particular could not have been realized anywhere other than Off Site.

This was Sachiko M’s installation I’m Here (2004).  She had been a member of Otomo Yoshihide’s Ground Zero and other projects as a sampler player, but around 1998, she deleted the memory banks of her sampler and began using solely the internal sine wave test tone.  Surely she could take such a drastic step because she was not originally an instrumentalist and had no ties to academia. Although she had been active in Filament and I.S.O. (with Yoshimitsu Ichiraku, Sachiko M, and Otomo), she felt discomfort in the musician community. Her first solo CD “Sine Wave Solo” (AMOEBIC), recorded in 1998, was the ultimate, jolting work made with only one sound. She has said that she even considered abandoning her musical career if this album was not accepted. However, it is impossible to evaluate her music in conventional terms, and while some have praised the album, others have been fairly critical.

It was the two proprietors of Off Site who approached Sachiko M about doing a sound installation. According to Fujimoto, “Sachiko’s sound itself is spatial,” which led them to consider that “developing it into an installation piece would be different from hearing a live performance, and could present a different aspect of Sachiko’s sonic work while remaining her own sound.”  Ito continues, “We thought it could be interesting; there is Sachiko M, the solo performer and then there is Sachiko M doing I’m Here with this exhibit.”  Although reluctant at first, the resulting installation became a turning point in Sachiko M’s career. What were her thoughts at the time?

The difference between a live performance and an installation is the timeline, which you can choose freely in an installation. It could be five minutes, one minute, or the whole day that you are there, which is what I had in mind when I created this piece, and for me, this would become my most proper compositional work.

For Sachiko M, Off Site was a singular place that truly fit her expressivity.  Thinking back to that time she remarks, “It felt like a belated experience of being a student, or maybe adolescence.”

On April 30, 2005, operations at Off Site came to a close. Their final show the previous day, was Filament (Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M), as was the inaugural show at Off Site’s opening.

7.What was Off Site?

What sort of venue, then, was Off Site? At the risk of ruining the fantasy, I would put it like this.  It is not that something new began there. One would be myopic to characterize the music performed there under the blanket designation “Onkyô style.” It was an extension or progression of the alternative movement that had been evolving in the local music scenes of the 1990s.  Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge the particular aspects that Off Site’s situation gave rise to. Naturally it is the musicians who make the sounds and perform the music. Yet external factors are involved also in the creation of music.  Of course there had been various venues for live performances at the time, but as with its restrictions on volume, Off Site diverged considerably from the usual live venues and event spaces.  Partly due of course to Ito’s own leanings, the place came to represent the musical and sonic currents of the moment, also serving as a dynamic forum for exchange among local and overseas musicians.

It has been a long time since the term “site-specific” emerged in contemporary art.  From this perspective, while Off Site was indeed a place for musicians to experiment with music and sonic expression, if we reflect on Ito’s concept of the venue, their bookings and curation, as well as its span of five years being stipulated from the outset, we might view Off Site itself to be a site-specific work by the former husband and wife team of Atsuhiro and Yukari Ito. Certainly this may have given rise to the misconception of it being the “birthplace of Onkyô,” but this was also precisely why the venue and its musical activities linked together so organically. More than fifteen years since its closure, this is what I have come to understand.


(1) Novak, David. “Playing Off Site: The Untranslation of Onkyo,” Asian Music 41(1): 36-59, 2010.

(2) Novak, David. “Sound(s),Silence(s), and the Global Value of Improvisation,” New Jazz Studies, Altes Publishing, 2010.

(3) Off Site: Improvised Music From Japan

(4) Eight issues of the magazine OBSCURE were published, with contributions by Atsuhiro Ito.  Other members included Yasuhiro Yamane, Koki Hasei, Itohisa Takano, Tadanobu Asano. Although not confirmed at the time of this writing, it is said that a CD-ROM containing music was included.

(5) NEWS OMBAROQUE VOL.64, Ombasha Tsushin No.64 (April 2004) A Japanese translation of a lecture at the 8th Darmstadt Jazzforum, published in Music Texte No.99 (December 2003), translated by Yoshiyuki Kitazato and supplemented by Eiko Yamada.

(6) ibid.


(8) ibid.


Jazz Critique Magazine No. 90, Jazz Hihyo Publishing, 1996
Jazz Critique Magazine No. 99, Jazz Hihyo Publishing, 1999
Jazz Critique Magazine No. 101, Jazz Hihyo Publishing, 1999
Improvised Music from Japan 2002-2003, Improvised Music from Japan, 2002
The Wire, Issue #233, July 2003


I would like to thank the following individuals who agreed to be interviewed for this paper: Tetsuji Akiyama, Atsuhiro Ito, Kazuo Imai, Kazuhisa Uchihashi, Taku Unami, Otomo Yoshihide, Yoshiyuki Suzuki, Daisuke Takaoka, Toshiya Tsunoda, Toshimaru Nakamura, Yukari Fujimoto, Hiromichi Hosoma, Sachiko M., Taku Sugimoto, and Ami Yoshida.

This article was originally published (with slight modification) in Shuhei Hosokawa, ed. “Oto to Mimi wo Kangaeru” (Reflection on an Ear for Sound), Artes Publishing Press, Tokyo, 2021.

Kazue Yokoi is a music journalist writing articles and providing photographs for magazines, web media, CDs, and others since the late 1980s. She also coordinated projects such as “Yokohama – Kyôzô (Mirrored Image)” featured Aki Takase, Loius Sclavis, with a novelist/poet Yoko Tawada, and a dancer Yui Kawaguchi for an event of the 150th anniversary of the Yokohama Port in 2009, and organized tours e.g. [Alexader von Schlippenbach Trio + Aki Takase “Winterreise in Japan 2018”]. Lecturer (part-time) at Ferris University College of Music (2002-2004). She is the author of “Avant-Garde Jazz: Europe Free no Kiseki (The Footsteps of European Free Improvisation)” Michitani, 2011, and the deputy editor-in-chief of web magazine JazzTokyo.