Sawako: Sounds
In memoriam Sawako Kato (1978-2024)
Text by Kenneth Kirschner

In 2003, my friend Taylor Deupree invited me to contribute to a new compilation he was putting together for 12k, and I had the perhaps overly clever idea of asking each participant to send me a sound file or two – with the intention of building my track entirely out of sounds from the different artists on the record. This became a piece called “June 8, 2003” on the album Two Point Two – but as it turned out, that was far from the most important part of the project for me.

Not long after sending out my request, I received a mysterious package in the mail from Japan. In it was a single golden CD-R, with no notes or explanation beyond three words written in felt-tip pen, on the front of the disc itself, in tiny, neat handwriting:


Expecting to hear a short sound file or two I could use for the compilation, I pressed play – and was transported to another world.

What was I listening to? There were toys, birds, trains. Insects, oscillators, children’s voices. Sudden, abrasive bursts of noise and passages of overwhelming silence. Traffic. A music box. Distant musical instruments playing at the very edge of perception, then people casually, loudly talking. A crow. And throughout it all, a poetry, a magic. 

What was this thing? Was it an album? A bunch of random sounds? Had she created it just for me, or were these just leftover odds and ends she had lying around? Whatever it was, it was like nothing I had ever heard. 

There were 18 short tracks, all untitled, all unexplained, together making up maybe 30 minutes of music. The sounds were disparate, fragmented, disconnected. They had been placed together seemingly at random, in no particular order – or perhaps with the most careful of selection and thought. It was a story, a narrative – yet also seemingly arbitrary, the apparent product of pure chance. Every single sound was perfect, exactly what and where it needed to be, but nothing seemed to have been deliberately put there. There seemed to be a single, overwhelming artistic vision at work, as well as an unavoidable sense that these humble materials had been thrown together essentially at random. It was a paradox, a mystery. A gift.

Fascinated by this mysterious, enthralling object that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, I started playing it for people. I’d say, “I don’t know what this is, but you have to hear it!” We began passing it around like samizdat, like some secret underground zine or illegal bootleg recording. Whatever this thing was, it felt like an album – like a total statement, a complete universe.  

But was it an album? Or was it just a disordered collection of sounds, thrown haphazardly together? Over the following years, I’m sure I asked all these questions and more to the sounds’ elusive author, and to each contradictory question she doubtless replied, “Ha ha ha, yes yes yes!” – smiling and nodding and revealing nothing.

I had heard from Sawako just before she died, so for me the news that we had lost her wasn’t shocking, only devastating. I immediately began casting about for some way to respond, some way to communicate to people what I had always seen as the singular, profound nature of her work. And I found myself thinking back to that golden CD arriving in the mail out of nowhere. Surely the disc was gone – either lost in the fire that had destroyed my old studio or else buried at the bottom of some dusty box in the chaos of a neglected storage unit. 

But slowly it occurred to me that, to create that compilation track, I must have transferred the audio to my computer. I dug deeper and deeper into old hard drives, finally unearthing the original sound files – files so old that my computer’s operating system could no longer read them, interpreting them instead as text files of chaotic, code-like gibberish – digital static. (Taylor’s art for this release is drawn from the ASCII noise of those unreadable files.) I panicked, certain in the terrifying knowledge that this irreplaceable work existed nowhere else in the world except my hard drive. But with a little coaxing, I was soon able to restore the files to playability. And I immediately emailed Taylor with a single thought:  Everyone has to hear this.  

And so we present to you this music exactly as she presented it to me more than 20 years ago:  18 short tracks, laid out exactly as they were on that ancient gold CD, with no explanation, no elaboration, and no justification for being anything other than what they are:  Sounds.  

Perhaps it will be impossible to recreate for others the unexpected, unearned magic of that mysterious collection of sounds appearing for me out of nowhere. But listening to it again, decades later, I was confirmed in my belief that this was my favorite Sawako album ever – precisely because it probably wasn’t an album at all. And that would have made perfect sense to her.

Sawako’s work existed on a knife’s edge between chance and design, randomness and selection, the intentional and the found. She had a perfect, unique, gentle touch – a peaceful, seemingly impossible equilibrium at the precise boundary between order and chaos. I constantly reached for words like “poetry” and “magic” in describing her work, even as those words continually proved inadequate to what she was able to so easily achieve. There was a naturalness in her every gesture, a radical openness to the world around her – an inborn, intuitive grasp of the simple and the complex, the arbitrary and the chosen, the random and the designed that eludes almost every artist. But she had it. Perfectly, comfortably, quietly. She was the only person I ever knew for whom I never for a moment hesitated to use word “genius.”  

In trying to explain her work to others, I always fall back on a story from her New York days. She was playing an outdoor concert in one of the old community gardens in the East Village – amidst traffic, noise, talking, the city’s endless sonic chaos. And never for a second was a single sound out of place. Every car horn, every obnoxious passerby’s loud conversation, every plane flying overhead – it was as if she controlled them all, as if the scattered fragments of the city’s soundscape were her very own instrument, each a seamless, perfect, intentional part of her unfolding composition. With Sawako there was no inside or outside, no nature or artifice, no music or non-music. There was only the world. Her tiny universe.

Like the short, noisy recordings that make up her music, let me add a few more small, disconnected fragments:

• When Sawako came to New York, I became her English teacher – a task at which I utterly failed. (Though, to be fair, I’m sure I’d have done far worse had she tried to teach me Japanese.) Still, we always managed to communicate.

• Setting up to rehearse for a concert, I climbed under my desk to connect our gear to my mixer. I yelled up to her, “OK, hand me the first cable!” She handed me the cable. Then I yelled up, “OK, hand me the second cable!” And she laughed and said, “No no no no!” I was stunned:  she performed in mono. It was the first moment I ever thought I might one day understand her work.

• Sawako fervently believed that every version of the Macintosh operating system had its own unique sound. I seem to recall that System 7 was her favorite.

• Put in charge of recording one of her shows, I was swept away as soon as it began. The concert went on and on, infinite and eternal yet completely engrossing; it seemed like it would never end. When I finally hit stop on the recording, I was stunned to find that only 17 minutes had elapsed.

• She talked me into playing a concert with her inside a limousine as it was driving through the streets of New York City; I have no idea why.

• Wandering the streets of Lisbon, Sawako fell behind. As she raced to catch up to us, Taylor turned and snapped a photo of her running up a flight of stairs. It became our favorite picture of her ever:  she looked like a glamorous spy, a secret agent, a movie star in a big-budget action blockbuster. She always hated that picture! Because of course she didn’t see herself as a glamorous spy or famous movie star. But to us she was always an action hero.

• She told me once of a concert she attended in Tokyo that began, without warning or explanation, with a full 30 minutes of complete silence. She said it was the most natural thing in the world and no one gave it a second thought.

• On hearing that I was going out of town, Sawako asked for the keys to my old apartment in the northernmost reaches of Manhattan. Her plan was to go up and record my piano for a new album, but she mostly ended up recording my cat (who was later credited on the record). Some time later, she emailed asking me to record the room tone of my apartment, which would allow her, she said, to finish the album. I set up the field recorder and sat – silently, completely still – in front of it as it captured the silence-that-is-not-silence that forever surrounds us:  the low rumble of the building, the distant whisper of the street. I sent her the recording, and she soon wrote back to say that she had decided to call the album Room Tone. But on learning that the name was already in use, she came up with a new one:  Hum.

The world without Sawako will be a quieter place. And that’s not something she ever would have objected to:  she was a princess of quiet, the queen of the “tiny tiny,” a sorceress of silence. She taught me, once again, the lesson that we spend our entire lives learning and relearning:  that there is no sound without silence, and no silence without sound. So let us remember her for her sounds, and let us remember her for her silences. But most of all, let us remember her.

Kenneth Kirschner
New York City
April 2024

Album Credits

Sounds by Sawako
Text by Kenneth Kirschner
Cover design & mastering by Taylor Deupree

All proceeds will be donated toward organizations supporting women in the arts & technology




Sawako is a sound sculptor, a timeline-based artist and a signal alchemist in the urban life environment who understands the value of dynamics and the power of silence. Once through the processor named Sawako, subtle fragments in everyday life float in space vividly with a digital yet organic texture. Sawako released her albums from 12k (USA), and/OAR (USA), BASKARU (France) and Anticipate (USA). She had collaborated or improvised with Taylor Deupree, asuna, HYPO, Ryan Francesconi,…

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