kimono panel, front and back detail

Kimono panel, front and back detail.

The LED KIMONO PROJECT is a new light/sound instrument designed and fabricated by composer Miya Masaoka. This prototype consists of a single handmade sleeve, embroidered with 444 LED’s (light emitting diodes that respond to musical and physical conditions and act at times as a low-resolution monitor interpreting live video.

The images and motifs represented on the sleeve, derived from traditional kimono patterns, are responsive to and mapped to specified parameters of sound. For example, at times, there is a relationship between the movement of the sleeve and the harmonic spectrum. Depending on the angle and rate of motion of the sleeve by dancer Mariko Masaoka-Drew, the upper or lower partials of the harmonic spectrum of the sound be played are depicted. The current version of the piece consists of several sections, where each section has a slightly different version of interaction with the four elements: the sound, the LED’s, the movement of the dancer and the sleeve. Special thanks for the technical hardware and software and hardware expertise of Bob Bielecki and Damon Holzborn, and the support and commissioning of this project by Harvestworks, Inc., and Circuit Network.

Currently, the Kimono Sleeve Prototype of 444 individually controlled LED’s (Light Emitting Diodes) and the sounds utilize harmonic spectral analysis of the sounds being played, and filters that respond to the behaviour of LED’s. Realtime video image pixelization can also be interpreted to the LEDS on the LED KIMONO. The Kimono sleeve is hand sewn with conductive thread and is using Arduino as a micro-processor. The LED Kimono functions as a kind of low-resolution 3 dimensional video screen and expressive interface. This kimono will eventually have the ability to listen, make informed decisions, improvise and respond to its environment. In this way, a musician can perform with this kimono, and the kimono will respond by displaying changing and evolving patterns, designs and images. Thus, the kimono is a kind of “instrument” that, while not generating music itself, will respond to music, sound and motion of people walking in the vicinity. The kimono could be worn onstage, and could “perform” with a single musician or larger ensemble. The design of the traditional Japanese kimono, with its long, flat panels, lends itself perfectly to an adaptation of LED display images. The LED Kimono is conceived as an interactive instrument that responds to sound and music. More than five thousand red LEDs are sewn onto the kimono using conductor thread, and traditional wiring.

In progress: This one side of kimono sleeve has 444 LED’s that are individually controlled.

In progress: This one side of kimono sleeve has 444 LED’s that are individually controlled.

The LEDs are stitched one inch apart. Electrical current will run through the thread from a 9-volt battery concealed underneath the kimono. At least 8 batteries will be used. The LEDs will be driven by small Arduino processors sewn into pockets on the inside of the kimono cloth. These Arduinos will then be connected to a computer via Blue Tooth and USB. As a new kind of interactive, unique hand built instrument, the kimono will be ground breaking, both in its ability to communicate and display complex light information with the one thousand or more pixels, and in its ability to respond to complex musical parameters. Inexpensive “domed” LED’s are utilized in keeping with a vintage analog look of the kimono.

The LED Kimono Project represents an extension of and an expansion upon the large body of work that I have developed in the last decade addressing interactivity with insects, plants, and the human brain. My past performances have often incorporated some aspect of “thinking improvisation” in the software. I envision the kimono as an embodied mind and creature. With this creation, rather than harvesting data from the biological world, the kimono will be the embodiment of particular characteristics of living things, cultural icons, and memories.

For the past several decades, I have been a musician, composer and developer of unique koto-based instruments, the Monster Koto (1994) and the Laser Koto (1998) as well as the use of electronics to process and sample the koto, expanding its sonic and gestural components. For traditional koto performances, wearing the kimono is required, and the manner of wearing the garment is as technically and aesthetically precise as the performance. In this way, the kimono can be viewed as an integral and natural part of the instrument.

I have been developing the LED KIMONO for the past five years, extending and expanding the idea of the kimono from historical times into an embodied hybridized light and sound instrument. In pre-WWII Japan, kimonos were encoded with information about gender, caste, age, class and social ranking. As certain plants producing particular colors only grow in certain regions, geographical location was a factor that defined the kimono’s colors. Regional plants produce certain colors and silk fabrication techniques are similarly regional, as well as the differentiation of fine and rough silk or fiber was a code of wealth.

In LED KIMONO, sleeves are animated by moving lights and patterns that act independently and also interactively with sound and the movement of the wearer, acting at times as a low-resolution monitor interpreting live video.

I have been driven to connect these elements of light, sound and movement, all wave-related in their composition.

Additionally, I have a strong interest in the Gutai group, and the Electric Dress created by Atsuko Tanaka.


These handmade components are smaller than a grain of rice (middle of photo)

These handmade components are smaller than a grain of rice (middle of photo)

These surface mount components are smaller than the grain of rice shown in the middle of the photo. I have temporarily abandoned surface mount in favor of the more vintage and economical domed LED’s. This technique was done following the directions of Leah Buechley (at least trying to) on her amazing website on wearable LED’s.

Atsuko Tanaka — The Electric Dress 1959

Atsuko Tanaka: Electric Dress, 1959

Atsuko Tanaka: Electric Dress, 1959

The avant-garde of the Gutai Group, and in particular Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress offers an historical precedent and influence on the thinking and development of the LED KIMONO. While I was not aware of her work at the onset of the project, I later learned of this pioneering electronic dress and historical lineage of Post World War II to the present. The Electric Dress was used in both performative and gallery settings. Sadly, Atsuko Tanaka passed away in 2003, and I was not able to interview her. However, I hope to interview those who remember the dress as it was presented in 1959, and publish those accounts here on this site.

Childhood and family

Great GrandmaMom and DadI remember as a child growing up in San Mateo, California, wearing a kimono as a child for special occasions — Japanese festivals at the local church, Christmas time and even Halloween, and my grandmother and mother also had kimonos that they wore, especially my grandmother who wore her kimono in springtime and sometimes for going to Church, weddings and funerals. Small children (girls) had had special Japanese “geta” shoes with orange kimono cloth, and with little metal bells embedded in the shoes. So we would make little jingle sounds when we walked.

My mother, grandmother, grandfather and all my aunts and uncles were interned during World War II, in 1942, initially at Tanforan Race Track in Burlingame, California. I pass this often (now it is a shopping center) when driving from where I grew up (and where my mother still lives) in San Mateo. They lived in horse stalls at the racetrack, while the permanent camps were being built in other locations, and they eventually moved to the prison cam in Topaz, Utah. I know that things Japanese objects were burned in the three days immediately before the evacuation, including many beautiful kimonos.

Later, in college, I wore formal kimonos playing traditional koto for Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco. And during my studies with Gagaku master Suenobu Togi Sensei, I learned that in gagaku music, one wears kimonos as they did in the Heian Dynasty ”“ loosely flowing and without the restrictive wide Obi belt around the waste. I thought it was interesting how the style of kimono was reflected in the musical attitudes of the performers of traditional Japanese music over the last few hundred years. In Heian times, there was a more relaxed approach, and musicians sat cross-legged on the floor playing music. During our gagaku recitals, it was a relief to wear a kimono without an obi. Hundreds of years later, the kimono from the Meiji era was more “boxy” and rigid, and the musicians sat on with knees bents in a very uncomfortable pose, mirroring the equally restricting obi belt that sometimes make breathing a bit difficult. So I prefer the kimono without the obi, such as the design of the LED Kimono. In the photo is my great grandmother, (she was born circa 1840-1855) and my aunt (born in the 1930’s) wearing a kimono.