Name: Aki Onda
Occupation: Composer, performer, visual artist
Current release: Aki Onda's Brisbane September 25 2004 is available via Room 40. Also, this year, Akio Suzuki & Aki Onda's live ateliers claus 10 was released via Les Ateliers Claus.
If you enjoyed this interview with Aki Onda, visit his official homepage for a deeper look into his work. He is also on Facebook, and bandcamp.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
My main instruments are portable cassette tape recorders. I began recording fragments of everyday life as a sonic diary in 1988 and have amassed thousands of cassette tapes since then. Those diary entries aren’t just sounds; I consider them memories as well.
When I started this practice, I was living in Brixton in South London. I was twenty years old, and my main interest up to that point had been photography. One day, my Nikon FA camera broke, and I didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. So, instead, I bought a cheap Sony Walkman, as a substitute. I think that context affected the way I captured my field recordings, as I was using a tape recorder as if it were a camera.
It might sound strange, but it made sense to me since field recordings contain visual memory, something which impels you to imagine visuals as you listen along. It also made sense to me as a way to sustain my interests in film and visual art alongside music.
Some recordings would run the full length of a tape. Those were documents of deep listening—carving my experience of that moment onto magnetic tape. Others are hundreds of sound fragments all compiled on one tape—a messy and dense collage. All of my experiences are recorded in a decontextualized manner. I orchestrate them as if I were editing a film; it’s cinema for the ears.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
When I start composing, I usually toy around with the concept of the project until I get a certain vision—a sort of brainstorming that generates a composite image of sound, language, visuals, or whatever comes to my mind. Then, I would mess around playing cassettes from my collection at random and find sounds to match with the vision. From that point, it’s a matter of structuring the sounds until it takes a form. There is a sense of improvisation all through the process, with a good portion of serendipity. I always need a surprise to propel the production forward.
What’s the relationship between two? Maybe ‘improvisation’ means experimenting with the medium and ‘composition’ means editing those experiments within a timeline. Or, ‘improvisation’ means energy and ‘composition’ means a form. I think the terms look in opposition, but they’re really complements, either side can be a part of the other.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
The first music I really got into was American free jazz—Art Ensemble of Chicago, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane—this was when I was eleven or twelve.
In Japan, I grew up in an artistic and intellectual environment because of my family background, and some people around me already listened to that kind of music. Then, later, I discovered Derek Bailey from the late Japanese critic Aquirax Aida’s writings. Aida invited Bailey to Japan for the first time and organized a tour all over the country. This gave Bailey the opportunity to meet and play with many Japanese improvisors. I loved Bailey’s music since it had such a strong personality and a sense of exploration, even though I wasn’t generally into European and UK improv music, feeling that it placed too much emphasis on style and less on personality or spirituality.
The way Bailey worked had a hint of gambling or recklessness. Rather than just the usual suspects of improvisors, Bailey performed with people like David Sylvian, a Drum ‘n’ Bass DJ and the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka respectfully. This attitude gelled with his idea of ‘improvisation’ I believe.
Bailey’s idea of the “transformable” sounds interesting. I think it doesn’t just apply to materials though, ideas can be transformable. I’m a so-called “non-musician” and not a type who trained in a specific field. I was a self-taught kid who skipped formal education and had diverse interests, not just in music, but also visual art, photography, film, dance, and literature.
Even now, the ideas I incorporate into my work move back and forth among those genres. Rather than having a fixed way of working, I like shifting and modifying what I do.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
Well, John Stevens’ remarks probably apply for most improv situations.
One of my regular collaborators is the Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki. Our first duo performance, which lasted five hours non-stop on the first day we met, was in 2005.
Since 2013, we have been performing together frequently. He has masterly technique when it comes to playing his self-made acoustic instruments, such as his signature Analapos (which amplifies echoes of the original sound), glass harmonica De Koolmees (you can rub the glass tubes with your fingers or hit them with a mallet), stone flutes et cetera. When we perform, it’s important that I hear his sounds carefully and attentively, as they have this ethereal and delicate timbre and texture, some of them operate at a super low volume. I play electronics with a 4 x 10 Fender guitar amp and 8 x 10 bass amp or 1500 watts subwoofer and control a much wider range of sound volume and even wider frequency spectrum.
I have certain strategies and specific techniques in order to not to overwhelm his sounds—decisively avoid his frequencies, make space for him by changing the directions of speakers, generate long-sustained notes versus his melodious or percussive sounds et cetera. There are many ways to make a contrast, and we design the situation such that those two completely different types of sounds can co-exist.
Having said that, the opposite can also be true. I just remembered the concert I attended in an auditorium at MoMA in New York in 2013—Yasunao Tone was playing his laptop with Kevin Shea and Matt Motel of Talibam!, Sam Kulik on electronics, and a NY downtown legend Lary Seven was bowing double bass.
[Read our Kevin Shea of Talibam! interview]
Tone’s sounds were extremely loud and hit sharply and fiercely that mid frequency which catches our ears’ attention most. The audience couldn’t hear the sounds from the other players at all. It was cartoonish how we saw Kevin playing the drums so hard but his actions were muffled by the loud noise and his sounds muted. Was it a failure? Maybe. But an interesting one. This would sometimes happen when Tone played with other musicians as well. He is volume-deaf. [laughter]
Too often we just follow the playbook we are given and get lazy. Maybe it’s good to question the familiar paradigms of “improvisation” and try something different at times to open up new possibilities.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Just empty my mind and feel the surroundings and figure out what to do in real time. It’s usually there. But, at times, not. What to do in that case? Just wait and see what comes up.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
When I perform with Akio Suzuki, we use an open space where the audience can surround us or position themselves throughout the space. We play self-made instruments made of various materials, analogue equipment such as tape recorders, radios, and other found objects, and the placement of all these materials is carefully arranged as if it were an installation. This visual arrangement also works as a sort of score too, and suggests different combinations of the instruments and objects Akio and I use.
As we’ve performed together so many times already, there are certain combinations we use, but either of us can change course at any moment. So, there is a structure, but we keep it as elastic and fluid as possible. We usually do not discuss anything in advance, and it’s a sort of ‘improvisation,’ although we consider it more like ‘expanded music.’
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
Akio and I have a tendency to perceive sound as a space, or to consider sound spatially. We usually don't hear the sound sources as they actually are, since they are always modified by the acoustics of the space and its reflections, absorptions, and attenuations. Only if you perform in an anechoic chamber, you can catch sound sources clearly and nearly unaffected. Otherwise, it is affected by the spatial conditions and characteristics of a particular setting.
So, while we are playing, we have to carefully listen to and deal with the extra acoustics of those phenomena. Our ears have to be wide open and constantly adjusting to these ever-changing details. Nothing is fixed for us.
That’s one of the reasons why we love performing at site-specific locations, either indoor or outdoor. Sometimes I think of it as a conversation with space in a real time.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
I think there are many ways to combine those practices or incorporate them into each other if you’re willing to break the norms.
A few weeks ago, I was in a recording studio working with Keiji Haino to make a soundtrack for a Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s installation Night March of Hundred Monsters, themed around the supernatural of Japanese folklore and the ghosts of imperial history. Haino’s role was to summon those ghosts with his voice.
As he hates using headphones, he requested to set a pair of loud speakers close to his ears to monitor the basic track I made. Then, as if making an altar, the instruments were placed around him and the lights were turned off to focus his attention on Ho’s video in the dark. He performed in this arrangement as if it were a live show. It was quite an unusual set up, considering the standard practice of studio recording, and there was a strong sense of “ritual” from the setting he created. No audience but ghosts hovered around.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
In 2018, I had my Cassette Memories performances at Festival Sanatorium Dzwieku, which took place in the small Polish village of Sokolowsko. It’s close to the Czech border, and it was known for the world’s first sanatoriums built for the treatment of tuberculosis; they opened in the 19th century. Although most of the facilities are deserted now, some are still in use. I have been performing this Cassette Memories project since 2004—always using it as a site-specific and archaeological dig for the memory, psyche, and energy of a place.
In Sokolowsko, the organizers did a great job contextualizing this performance properly, and the locations were inspiring considering its history and the feelings preserved in the walls there. It’s quite a spooky setting with an air of death, as those were the last places many patients spent their lives, and there was an ironic history of having an entertaining arts event there for wealthy aristocrats, since only the rich could receive treatments and the poor were just left to die back then. Those were invisible but still tangible feelings.
Combining all of this together, I felt the performances finally fully worked for the first time, after trying for about fifteen years. There were some good ones along the way, but none of them were perfect. It was just difficult to deal with issues such as getting permission to use a public space and legal limitations, the understanding of organizers for site-specific events, the choice of right equipment et cetera.
Now in the post-pandemic art and music scene, performances outside or in unusual location is getting popular. But it wasn’t before … When I did a three-hour performance in 2012 at Cour Carrée—the huge square of the Louvre which has amazing acoustics, many legal conditions were not clear since the space belonged to both the museum and the city of Paris. For preservation purposes of those historic sites, the government doesn’t allow renovations, and there was only one electric outlet in the building. To just open a door, we needed a five-man security team.
The experience of performing was gorgeous, but it was just too much in terms of logistics. If you would like to do something outside the frame of standard practice, you need to keep trying and pushing hard for it …
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
This question reminds me of our collective dismay with the coronavirus pandemic since last year. We learnt that we can’t rely on anything we take for granted, and always need to improvise in situations that befall us in order to survive. Something has fundamentally changed because of that, along with Black Lives Matter and many other once-marginalized movements erupting. It’s been chaos all over the place.
Nice music isn’t enough anymore. Who needs it? If the pandemic taught us anything, it raised the bar on the music in which we live, and the level at which it needs to connect to life and death, as both of those are so visible now.