THROWING A LIFELINE : Frédéric Mathevet, interviewing Dominique Balaÿ

L’Autre Musique Magazine


Dominique Balaÿ tells us how and why he wanted to take part in Project Fukushima!, launched by Yoshihide Otomo. he explains about his creation, « open sounds », a library of sounds collected during his trip to Japan, as well as his proposal to invite artists respond to this material in the form of sound.

Translation Robert Murphy
First published here (in french) :


Can you tell us something about the origin of the collaborative project now under way, called « Meanwhile, in Fukushima »?

The project got going in 2011. In April that year, i.e. a month after the triple catastrophe (earthquake, tsunami and explosion of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility), the American musician John Zorn, with whom I was in the process of preparing a programme for webSYNradio, shared with me his intention to react to what was happening at the nuclear site. We remained in touch, and, some time later, he invited me « officially » to take part in an evening he was expecting to organise at his club in New York. That evening was in tandem with a group of Japanese artists whose origins were in Fukushima and who were themselves planning a kind of « festival » for the month of August in Fukushima City. So I packed my bags for the first time to go and make a direct transmission of this evening of support, and warning, that was bringing together musicians from both Japan and the US. And a very beautiful occasion it was, technically stressful, but full in terms of emotion, and a record of connections for webSYNradio!

Following that evening, I got in touch with the organisers of the « Fukushima Festival! ». I already knew at least one of them, in his capacity as an artist – Yoshihide Ōtomo (1) – and I shared with him my wish to remain available for them to use me, both in their project and also as a participant in their manifesto. In the course of these exchanges, I soon got it into my head to actually head out there to Fukushima to join in the second stage of the « Fukushima Festival! » that they were already thinking about. However, I would have to fulfil a number of conditions, particularly concerning the legitimacy of the step I was taking by involving webSYNradio and the magazine, Droits de Cité, ended up doing what everyone does in cases such as this: I conducted a self-reflection, writing up a collection of notes (on my intentions, budget, etc.), and I went to check things out with everyone in Paris and the region.

People received me more or less well (more rather than less, I have to say), but no-one committed to anything really concrete, and, as I went on, a number of reasons were building up for not being able to take me up on my idea. Nuclear power, that was a risky, shocking topic, on slippery ground, especially in the wake of the 2012 presidential election and the mixed, charged emotions around « ecological » topics, but one of the few to see an interest, both artistic and political, in getting involved with what I was doing was Christian Zanesi (2), who gave his all. This was how the principle of artistic residencies at INA-GRM became a central and a structural factor. All that remained for me to do was to invite artists and get them to think out and to articulate how their contributions might work in together with my own job, which was to undertake « field recording » on the spot.

I sent out initial invitations to 4 artists, the maximum number that INA-GRM was able to handle. For the record, the first artist I invited refused to take part, which indicated that the venture was not sufficiently solid or comprehensible. Fortunately, however, the other artists replied that they would take part: the composer, Bérangère Maximin (who, along the way, invited Colin Johnco), the poet, Joachim Montessuis, the American composer, Carl Stone, and the Japanese composer, Tomoko Momiyama. The project was starting to take shape, to find some kind of design (literally so, with the contribution of the artist Seb Jarnot, who did the artwork on the website).

So, I started gathering material on the project, starting in France, building and expanding the sonic database by phone or via Skype. Then, in May 2012, I took off for 4 weeks in Japan, two of them in Fukushima City, where I succeeded in doing everything I’d planned with the Fukushima Festival team, and also with other people I encountered there, in particular Kōji Nagahata, professor of ‘sound design’ at Fukushima University’s Social Sciences Faculty, who opened the door to a
rich and beneficial partnership with Fukushima University.

The artistic residencies took place during the summer of 2012, based on all this initial material, which already amounted to well over 20 hours of recordings and sounds.

In the meantime, appeals for artistic contributions had been circulating, the first sonic items started arriving, and they were broadcast straight away. This has not only been on the site of the project, but also in radio programmes such as the one by Carine Demange on Radio Campus Brussels, where broadcasts went out virtually every week from the very first contributions onwards. There has also been the broadcast by Thomas Baumgartner on France Culture, which has maintained an interested and a well-disposed audience from the outset – and, in addition to France, there has also been a variety of artistic programmes in Japan, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

Since then, I’ve taken part in the 2013 Fukushima Festival, which remains an essential visit and get-together, and I’m now working on keeping the project and the subject alive, in all possible ways, relying on a variety of supports and friendships. Today we’ve reached a total of some fifty contributors, and over a hundred people from far and near have taken part to some degree in the development of this project. That’s impressive, I find it really beautiful!

How do you choose the artists who take part in the project? Why?

As I said earlier, I only issued formal invitations to the 4 artists who benefited from artistic residence at INA-GRM. The project is open to everyone, and the site offers free downloading to participants without requiring any authorisation! It is not even necessary to be an artist who deals in sound, contributions can be of all kinds, from the moment when they make sense regarding the reality of the situation in Fukushima, and also if they stand a chance of being intelligible to our Japanese friends over there. I haven’t had to reject any propositions, though I might have asked for greater clarification, not in the way a producer might ask, steering the work in one direction rather than another. My role in this project is rather one of bringing and fitting together the constituent elements of a dialogue, a dialogue between artists, between the very items of creative work, bridging one side of the world with the other…

In order to satisfy these conditions and preserve the possibility of dialogue, it is essential for me to ensure that each contribution is signed, entitled, dated and localised geographically. This enables everyone to say who (s)he is, and also how (s)he sees things, and, if need be, answer for them.

I have to say that participation in that dossier, L’Autre musique (Other Music), shared very soon in exchanges I had with contributors, allowed me to obtain from them elements of context and welcome clarifications of their own approaches. Some participants even went so far as to tell me this added effort I was putting them to had allowed them to see their work with somewhat greater clarity and to impose some kind of emotional distance, which, incidentally, was the title of one of the contributions.

With regard to the theme of our present edition, how would you rate this project? Committed? Resistant? Socially beneficial?

« Beneficial », yes, I would hope so. I have had feedback from Japan that would indicate this. Over there, the situation of weariness and near-blackout (especially after the last decree in December 2013 placing considerable limits on freedom of expression so as to preserve the interests of those with a stake in the Olympic Games in 2020) is such that any sign of friendship from overseas is welcome. Yes, « useful », like a sound or a ray of light that gets through under the door, it is definitely of benefit…

As for « resistance », yes, there is no doubt that it is resistant, too, especially now, after 3 years of activity, when it is no longer emotion or anger driving the motor, but something of the order of resistance, a resistance which is both rather organised but also, at the same time, very precarious. If I did not maintain interest, remain attentively in charge of this project, it would disappear. Even though the works have a life of their own, could exist independently of this project, this whole undertaking itself is simultaneously very fragile (and I’m not even referring to the economics of such a project) and « larger than life ». One of the hardest aspects (by which I mean the resistance it attracts) is to do with its long-term nature: it is hard to calculate how long this thing we are involved in will take. This, of course, is due to the nature of the catastrophe, to which no satisfactory solution is possible in a normal time framework, as the harmful effects are said to require thousands of years to be broken down and rendered harmless. So, yes, « resistance » means contending with this temporal aspect of the breakdown of harmful substances. Similarly, we are already being called to resist that insane project which is diluting enormous quantities of contaminated water by releasing them into the Pacific, and this is one of the major tasks in the coming years for all with a stake in life.

In a response you yourself addressed to the Autre musique laboratory, you wrote that your approach was not that of a militant. Can you come back to this position you took and explain just what is your level of « engagement », of commitment, in this project?

What I mean (and what I meant in that very first note outlining my intention) is precisely this: I am not a card-holding member of any party or any organisation of any kind, and neither am I affiliated to any. This allows me to meet and to talk with anybody and everybody, and to avoid theoretical difficulties when adopting critical positions vis-à-vis the themes or the project itself: these are eventual points of departure in dialogues I have succeeded in having with such and such a contributor who asks about the legitimacy of the project, the effectiveness of the project, and so on.
I’ve immediately made this point clearly, but not to point a finger at or to stigmatise any truly militant approach. I’ve encountered many militant people since I’ve been working on this subject, and there are many remarkable and noble aspects in their militancy. However, putting it simply, it does not correspond to reality as I see it, as I live it, the way I do things. It neither corresponds to my initial stance, nor is it a stance that I would want to adopt.

Similarly, if I am seen to be detaching myself, marking myself off from an enterprise that aims to inform, to communicate, it is so that people can clearly focus on the project’s initial field, the thing that gave birth to it, which is more clearly visible as its symbolic terrain. It is very much concerned with art, and with reminding us of the manifesto of the people who organised the « Fukushima Festival! », a manifesto which they are at pains to keep vibrant and supplied with life and energy. Let me emphasise here:
« Fukushima is known world-wide for its stigma. But we have not lost the hope of refinding Fukushima. Even though we fear that we are unable to return to our hometowns, we would like to think of the future of this region so that it can remain connected with the rest of the world, and equally we maintain the hope that we can continue to live in this region. » Then there is this response: « We need music, poetry and art capable of showing us a possible point of view along with a way of approaching reality. » Michirō Endō, Yoshihide Ōtomo, Ryōichi Wagō (May 2011)(3)

Where are the next meeting places, rendezvous, for « Meanwhile, in Fukushima »?

As I’ve said, I’m trying to keep this project alive in several ways. And so I try to respond as much as possible to every invitation, the main limit being lack of time.

Among our next big rendezvous, I’ll be participating in the Monophonic Festival in Brussels next May (from the 22nd to the 25th), where the project has been invited to put on a public performance that I will present.

This summer, from 6th July, the project will be welcomed at the Maison Laurentine in the framework of the performance of L’Oubli, La Trace (Oblivion, Tracks), and it will entail rendering in terms of sound the sculpture by Aurèle, LostDog NoMoreFukushima.

Still more, this summer, on 15th August, the project will take part in the 4th edition of the Fukushima Festival, organised in Fukushima City.

For later in 2015, something is in the making from Venezuela.

And you can find other activities on our website:


Dominique Balaÿ is the founder of webSYNradio.

He is active in a number of projects (editorial, web, sounds) that form the bases of an exploration of the world perceived and grasped at its point of balance.

He favours open and collaborative forms.

Recent works:
NSA: creative magazine (2008–2012)
Et pendant ce temps-là à Fukushima / And meanwhile, in Fukushima… : creation in sound
(2011– )
webSYNradio : web radio (2009– )



(1) Cf. the note written on the occasion of the 2nd edition of the festival :

(2) Composer, assistant manger of the GRM-INA, co-founder of the association Ars Sonora, and initiator / pioneer of outstanding projects in the fields of radio, publications and musical events, notably the Electromania programme on France Musique, the electronic festival, Présences, and the CD box-sets, Archives GRM, Bernard Parmegiani, musical works, and Luc Ferrari, the electronic works.

(3) Cf. the manifesto in English :


Many thanks to Robert Murphy for his translation

Published by
Dominique Balaÿ

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