Chatori Shimizu on his piece Sakana Satellite

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
10 min readApr 10, 2024


Read my interview with Japanese composer Chatori Shimizu on his music piece Sakana Satellite. The composer says that the piece is his personal reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. It took place simultaneously in a stadium and a concert hall and Zoom was an integral part of the audio transmission, emphasising it as a staple piece of experience during the times of restrictions. Text version of this interview is created by Armands Stefans Sargsuns.

What was the background of the piece?

This piece was commissioned by Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in 2021 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, like many other parts of Europe, Dresden had strict regulations on how schools and businesses could operate. The commission of the piece was fully supported by the Hochschule, the festival Dresdner Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften, as well as the municipal government of the city of Dresden. With their support, we could have daily Covid testings before the rehearsals, had rehearsal spaces outdoors, and we could also use the city’s open air rugby stadium — the Heinz-Steyer Stadium.

This piece is a site-specific piece, taking place in two locations; one is the concert hall of the Hochschule and that’s where the conductor and the audience are. Another location where all of the singers are is the Heinz-Steyer Stadium. Both locations were about one kilometre apart from each other. In the stadium each singer was standing, I think, about 1.5 metres apart from each other in a circle. Everyone was holding a smartphone in front of them with their hands connected to a video conference meeting. In the Music Hall the audience looked at a realtime projection of a video conference meeting. In this case it was Zoom. They heard the real time singing of the singers as well as mixed and pre-recorded electronics.

Watch full interview:

What was the concept of the piece?

For Sakana Satellite, it actually stems from my own experience in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m sure that in the beginning of the crisis there was a lot of fear of this unknown virus which was on the news 24/7. During the course of things I think that fear of the virus led to anger towards East Asians like me. At that time I was living in Dresden and as an East Asian person I really felt the shift in how people in Dresden viewed me when I was walking on the street or doing groceries in a supermarket. For me any confrontation was a verbal one, but I know several people, several of my acquaintances, who were physically confronted because of their ethnicity.

That’s about the time where the German government issued a rule that everyone had to wear a face mask indoors. I know that there was a lot of dissatisfaction from the citizens for many reasons, one being that it’s difficult to breathe — which I do agree with to a certain extent. Yes, of course, it’s difficult to breathe under a mask. But at the same time I know that some people who feared confrontation because of their ethnicity were mentally and emotionally suffocating by trying to suppress their ethnicity and trying to be invisible in society to avoid needless confrontation.

Going back to Sakana Satellite, this work paints a picture of the sensation of breathing, conversing, singing while submerged underwater. The sound, including the live audio for the singers as well as the pre-recorded electronic tracks, are all designed to be as if the sound is travelling through water.

Watch Sakana Satellite:

Was there a central message for the piece?

I usually don’t put a central message in my compositions. I think musical expressions should invoke a question, and not give a simple answer. For me most of my compositions stem from my own experience, and I view my compositions, including Sakana Satellite, as an equivalent of a historical painting. There are many paintings depicting historical events, I think, like the French Revolution by Eugene Delacroix. I’m hoping that Sakana Satellite is viewed as sort of a historical painting for the year of 2021 which is a reflection of a lived experience by myself.

What kind of media did you use?

For the audience sitting in the concert hall, of course, there was a giant screen on the stage. The conductor was facing a small smartphone connected to Zoom and he was conducting the singers in the outdoor stadium, about a kilometre apart from him, through Zoom. It uses spatial audio as well, so each channel was amplifying a track different from another.

How many channels were there?

I believe there were 6.1.

How long was the piece?

The piece was about 10 minutes long.

How many sections does the piece have?

It’s a one-section piece and while I’ve said that the piece is about 10 minutes long, this piece can go longer or shorter, depending on the singers. Although the conductor is conducting some parts of the piece in metronomic time, many of the motifs are not notated in the metronomic method. This means that the conductor did not conduct for those motifs, and was just giving cues with his hand gestures, or by shoing numbers with his fingers. Usually a vocal motif was to last until the end of each singer’s breath — so until they ran out of breath. Depending on the singer’s lung capacity, so to speak, the piece could have been, for example, 8 minutes; but also it could have been, for example, 12 minutes.

What kind of sensors or hardware did you use to create and play the piece?

There were no sensors used in the piece. For the electronics most of the sounds were recorded sounds of the instruments from the conventional orchestral instruments, or a field recording of nature sounds. The sound of the underwater is actually from a hydrophone I had access to over 10 years ago in Japan, so the most of the sounds used in Sakana Satellite actually weren’t recorded for this specific piece. I have a whole load of recorded sounds in my hard drive, many of them field recordings and of instrumental sounds, so I’ve mixed and edited the electronics part to paint Sakana Satellite’s underwater image.

What technology did you use for the performance?

In the performance everyone had a smartphone with the Zoom app installed. As there were 80 singers — that’s quite a lot of smartphone users in one area to be connected to the internet at the same time in one place — I believe that the Hochschule as well as the city of Dresden installed a 5G router in the stadium for all of the smartphones to be seamlessly connected to the internet. We also had a drone for the footage from a birds-eye-view, which is actually not something that I noted on my score like I usually do for the camerawork — it was the Hochschule which thought it would be nice to have a view from above, and prepared the drone, which I’m very happy about.

What was the setting where the singers were performing?

The 80 singers were standing in a large circle on the rugby field in the Heinz-Steyer Stadium. There were also two runners with a snorkel on their face running around the tracks surrounding the field. The artistic connotation here is very simple — I just wanted the sound effects of gasping and trying to breathe, and also a visual representation of two people with snorkels — indicating that this work is set underwater.

How did you transmit the sound?

The sound of the singers travelled through Zoom, which was actually very effective as it imitated how sound travels underwater. The voices were not processed with external plug-ins or mixers at all other than the fact that it went through the smartphone microphones and the Zoom app. The sound data was then transmitted to a computer in the concert hall, then mixed with several electronic tracks, then redistributed to several channels of speakers.

Can you imagine this piece without using Zoom?

I view my works as historical paintings, as I’ve mentioned, and because during the pandemic, the community I was a part of heavily used Zoom for communication and for meetings, so I think Zoom has an extremely strong conceptual importance in Sakana Satellite.

Can you imagine all the parts of the piece happening in one place?

If the singers were in the same space as the conductor and the audience, the raw voice of the singers would inevitably reach the audiences’ ears too. While I had different reasons for using two different spaces for Sakana Satellite — an important one being having to adhere to the health regulations of the city — the reason I used the sounds through Zoom was to morph the raw voices as if they were underwater. So, the quick answer is no — it’s difficult for me to imagine a concert which happens in one place with the singers and the audience, as the sound experience will be completely different from what I want.

How did you collaborate with the singers to create the piece?

We had several workshop sessions to try out some ideas that I had, for example, a technique called “plosive consonants” — making a pop sound with our lips. This needed some practice from the singers, as we needed the right amount of moisture as well as pressure on the lips in order to execute a perfect one. In the workshop we’ve practised that together. We’ve also explored several vocal techniques, for example, humming a pitch while lightly tapping the throat. We had half a year together, and through these workshops and rehearsals, I was able to listen to each of the voices from the singers and understand their uniqueness.

How did the collaboration shape the piece?

When the score was finished, I must acknowledge and thank the conductor, Herr Olaf Katzer, who has really tried his best to realise the piece as much as possible. In the beginning I imagined the conductor to have coloured hands — maybe his right hand would be blue and his left hand would be red, so that the singer seeing the conductor on Zoom could instantly notice when the blue hand is up it’s the right hand when the red hand is up it’s the left hand. This is because sometimes, when we use film ourselves, the right and the left switch — it can be mirrored — which will be confusing for sending cues. While having coloured hands was my initial idea, the conductor actually gave me more conventional ideas, for example, using fingers and showing the numbers: one, two, three, four. Obviously, these can also be cues, and without the need to colour the hands. Musically I don’t think it has vastly changed during the course of the rehearsals, but the implementation aspect definitely has changed for a more conventional one. Furthermore, regarding the technologies we used — what’s possible and what’s not possible — we had to go step by step, fixing error by error, with Olaf, the Hochschule, as well as the city of Dresden. Each rehearsal was a learning experience, solving one problem after another.

What were the ideas that couldn’t come to life?

For the running part perhaps I was imagining not only two people to do the job, but maybe everyone (80 people) running together on the tracks. This was my initial idea at the very beginning stages of the compositional process. I don’t really remember the specific reason, but it didn’t come to reality — most likely due to the connections issues as well as visual preferences of the projection.

What were the main stages of the creation of the piece?

I believe it took about two or three months to complete the piece. The most difficult phase of this composition — the most challenging phase — was the initial phase; to know what is possible and what is not possible amidst the harsh regulations implemented by the city of Dresden. Without this information of the boundaries of our actions, it is extremely difficult to move to the next step, which is composition and spatial design. Just to add, the boundaries of actions does not necessarily bind our creativity, rather, I believe that having boundaries put in place in the initial stages of composition allows us to creatively “use” the regulations and create works which are unique to the situation.

After I had the information of the space as well as the regulations put in place, there was the process of composing the music as well as designing the space and the choreography of the singers. Upon composition, we solidified the sounds with countless meetings, workshops, and rehearsals with the conductor, singers, as well as technical staff.

What would you suggest to composers who would like to try to create a piece using networks?

I believe that when incorporating technologies in our works, unforeseen problems are inevitable. I believe that it is crucial to have a Plan B and in some cases Plan C, and a budget that backs up the emergency plans. I must say that I was very fortunate to have the city of Dresden, as well as the Hochschule, as my sponsor. As composers, we are usually expected to do everything, but my suggestion to any composer trying to create a piece using networks is to have technicians in place to help out with the piece, so composers can concentrate on the necessary directions within rehearsals and performances.


Source: screenshot from youtube video of Sakana Satellite

Chatori Shimizu is a composer, sound artist, and shō performer, who constructs his works for a wide range of mediums concerning space and movement. He plays with the theme of “perspective”, often incorporating thoroughly choreographed live camerawork in his instrumental compositions to present non-conventional viewpoints in his music.