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Molly Beauchemin

How the Japanese Constructed the World’s Most Incredible Sound Garden

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Ok, here’s an easier question: if you use those trees to make a giant, 50-yard long xylophone, does it make a sound? Yes, yes it does – and what a beautiful sound it is.

Back in 2012, when a Japanese phone company launched its latest touch phone, Morihiro Harano and his team decided to eschew the technological obsessiveness typically associated with such spots and take an organic approach, instead emphasizing the phone’s wooden backplate. A nonfunctional design feature seems like an odd characteristic to emphasize, but it was a necessary tie-in for the project to come.

Working with carpenter Mitsuo Tsuda, sound engineer Kenjiro Matsuo, and on-site carpenter, the team crafted a huge xylophone raised up from the forest floor. This reticular xylophone didn’t take the form of some complicated Rube-Goldberg contraption, but rather a simple, straight line. Next, they placed a small rubber ball at the top of the instrument and let it drop, slowly plunking across the shady groves. Note by note, the ball plunked out Bach’s famous Cantana 147, instrumental subtleties and tempos intact.

Framed within the silence of the forest, the wooden symphony took on a narrative component – which, in turn, fit the linear narrative of the commercial. There was little room for error – one misplaced board could throw the entire Cantana’s tempo off – making the construction of the instrument extra difficult.

The day the commercial was filmed within the Hokkaido forests, a monstrous earthquake hit Japan. When the commercial aired online shortly thereafter, the xylophone’s peaceful melody provided a calming respite from the nationally-felt trauma – and more importantly, a message of hope and rebuilding, of nature’s ability to carry on and stay beautiful. As a result of this universality, the ad went viral, and eventually aired on television (you can check it out below).

Today, the forest xylophone has found a new home at the Daisetsu Mori-no Garden, the primary venue of Japan’s famous Hokkaido Garden Show. Visitors to the forest purchase a rubber ball from a vending machine and become conductors, proceeding one after the other to continue the vernal symphony. Because wet boards are susceptible to rot and deterioration, the xylophone “rests” on rainy days, but at any other time, the forests of Japan are alive with the sound of music – and while the tune may be Bach’s, the music ultimately owes its magic to the spirit of nature.

Below, watch Morihiro Harano’s rubber ball perform Bach’s Cantana 147– simply by falling through the trees.

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