The Oto of Music: Librarian Kiku Hibino writes the songs the whole world hears

Truly great commercials are those that make a lasting impression on us, whether it’s a jingle that sticks with us or it features a funny skit. Particularly effective commercials also feature catchy tunes. Kiku Hibino’s award-winning electronic music has been featured in advertisements for everything from Heinz Ketchup to Microsoft to Mercedes–and as of late, I have been (legally) downloading his latest work for Sony Vaio laptops. It seemed odd that Kiku, whose artist name, “oto,” means “sound” in Japanese, produces music for big name companies yet spends his days working in Acquisitions for the East Asian Collection at the beloved Regenstein Library.

Sitting with him in Hutch Commons and talking about his beginnings and aspirations, Kiku is laid back yet passionate about his work. Casually dressed for the warm weather, he explains that when he started making music, he only wanted to create “abstract, metaphysical music.” As time went on, Kiku adopted a different view on what his work would come to represent. Kiku cited his “Dear Bruno and Ken” project as a major turning point in his musical career. When his friend at DePaul University first asked him to perform at the university’s “Cultural Expressions: Exploration of Japanese Culture” event, Kiku declined. “I was not sure how people would perceive my opinion of Japanese nationalism. I was afraid that it would be too different of a view to take.” However, his friend persisted and asked him to perform again, and Kiku gave in. His “Dear Bruno and Ken” project was greatly inspired by the Japanese radical Ango Sakaguchi’s work, “A Personal View on Japanese Culture” as well as “From My Grandmother’s Bedside,” a book by Norma Field a professor in the University of Chicago’s East Asian Languages and Civilizations department. This multimedia performance was an exploration of Ango Sakaguchi’s work criticizing German architect Bruno Taut’s admiration for traditional Japanese culture, combined with Norma Field’s response about her own conflict at grasping her feelings towards Japanese culture after viewing a series of pictures taken by Japanese photographer Ken Domon on Japanese traditional Buddhist art. Kiku mentioned that he had titled this project “Dear Bruno and Ken” because he felt as if Sakaguchi and Field’s process of self-reflection on Japanese culture was like his own. Just as Sakaguchi and Field both examined their role in Japanese culture by referring to other artists like Taut and Domon, Kiku referred to Sakaguchi and Field in order to understand his own feelings about it.

Performing this piece with trumpeter Hiroyuki Takami at DePaul University’s celebration was a great departure from any of Kiku’s previous performances. “Ango is a very radical writer who writes a lot of things that are against Japanese tradition,” Kiku explained. “The combination of Ango’s ‘punkish’ words projected onto the screen with the skeptical attitude I posed towards Japanese nationalism in my music, I felt like I was presenting a very different opinion on Japanese culture.” Field’s writing contributed to the contemplative nature of the show. Kiku described his somewhat “rebellious” performance as a great success. “After the concert, my friend who organized the entire event was crying,” Kiku mused. “[She] was deeply moved by my performance while almost everyone around her, students and diplomats alike, were kind of surprised. I was happy to have moved at least one person in attendance.”

Kiku expressed his concern regarding the representation of Japanese nationalism and culture in modern times. Kiku also emphasized that it was very easy to use music as a political device, but he believes that there really is no connection between his nationality and his music. It upset him when he signed his first record contract with a Belgium record label and they put him under the category of “Japanese Techno/Japanese Electronic music.” As “oto,” he feels like he should be able to produce music without any labels limiting his creativity. But it would be wrong to think that Kiku only makes music for corporations. “It’s fun to make music, but it’s not enough,” Kiku admitted. “You complete a song, you promote it, sell it, and then make more music. This isn’t really satisfying.” Kiku’s dedication to creating influential, positive work unrelated to this commercial cycle is evident in his contribution to the “Stop-Rokkasho” project, a collaborative effort between artists of many different genres to spread awareness of the dangers of the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant.

In tune with his desire to create music with meaning, Kiku’s latest multimedia project is an exhibit that explains the devastating effects of radiation. If approved, this exhibit would be in conjunction with Hyde Park’s own “Experimental Station,” a non-profit organization that rents art space and doubles as a bicycle shop, and would be ready within this year. When asked why he has decided to focus on such a serious topic, he was quick to reply, “I never thought about culture and environmental issues when I was making music when I was younger. I only wanted my music to be abstract” but working at the Regenstein Library lead him to consider tackling his current radiation project. “It’s hard not to think about the devastating effects of nuclear radiation when you work in a building that is built over where the first nuclear reaction was held.” In addition to wanting to spread the word about the harmful results of radiation, Kiku wants to focus on the future of environmental issues rather than simply focusing on past events, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Quickly stealing a glance at Kiku’s watch, I noticed that an hour had already passed since we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I had been drawn into Kiku’s world as a musician, a husband, and a librarian. When I asked about his fan base, Kiku threw back his head and laughed. “What fan base?” he asked, smiling. Passing Kiku on the street, you would probably think he is a graduate student. Perhaps that is his part of his appeal. But Kiku is a “normal” guy who just happens to produce music for multimillion dollar corporations while working for the Reg.