Improvised Music from Japan / Aki Onda

In Unknown Territory: An Interview with Aki Onda

Tosho Shinbun newspaper, issue #2593, August 10, 2002
Interview by Minoru Hatanaka (ICC)
Compiled and edited by Yui Yoshizumi (Tosho Shinbun)
Translation by Haruna Ito

The rootless cosmopolitan

Hatanaka: In addition to a recorded repertoire of four solo albums, over the past two or three years you have been conducting solo performances as well, using cassette tapes of environmental and found sounds that you've recorded onto cassette tape. You have also pursued photography, which has taken shape in various exhibitions and slide shows. What I feel as the common denominator running through all varied manifestations of your work is the element of the "chance encounter." In your solo cassette tape work, you would put down to tape the sounds that you come across at that time, somewhat like keeping a diary. Could it be that your encounters with other musicians are similar in nature?

Onda: Now that you mention it, yes, I think it might be similar. In the case of my cassette tapes, I encounter sounds by chance, take them in, and record them. Of course, I wouldnŐt press the record button unless a strong connection existed between myself and the recorded object. But I think that sounds that I feel a strong connection to, when I'm walking down the street, are not immediately comprehensible at that very moment. To explain how I go about creating a tape piece is, first, I would randomly record about ten seconds per scene, as I am wandering about. I would then let them lie on the shelf for about one or two years, then, again randomly, I layer more sounds over them. I am left with an accumulation of collages of disjointed experience and memory. At the moment I am recording, the sound may be that of a car or a person's voice speaking, with meaning attached to the sounds. That is, I am present in that moment and I understand their meaning because I can confirm it visually, but when it becomes purely recorded sound, any meaning is stripped away from its context. Then with the repetition of the collage process, by a certain point any meaning that may originally have been there will loose its significance utterly. It may be that in this way, I am trying to bring it closer to my own memory and its architecture. You know how the architecture of human memory is not a logical one, unlike the architecture of language.

Hatanaka: Filmmaker Jonas Mekas too, undertakes an approach to memory by shelving film for decades before applying any cuts to it.

Onda: Artists that I've been influenced by most deeply are Mekas, Robert Frank, Peter Beard, people who take memory as raw material to depict wondrous and mysterious phenomena... they are obsessed with memory. They do not try to solve the question of what memory is. Rather, they attempt to embody the architecture of memory.

Hatanaka: What first got you started in recording environmental sounds?

Onda: It's been close to ten years now. I've been the traveler type of person... simply meaning that I've been wandering like a rootless plant... and I have taken my DAT recorder everywhere I go, recording along the way. The first five years or so, I simply recorded as though obsessed, and I didn't try to explicate to myself where that would lead. And as I continued, I inevitably wound up with an immense pile of tapes. There were so many that I couldn't do anything but start layering over them. That's how I arrived this method. In the case of photography too, I started thinking that it was no fun just walking around every day with a recorder, so perhaps I would try carrying a camera in its place once a week.

Hatanaka: For you, is photography linked to what you are doing with music?

Onda: Basically, I think I am doing the same thing. I am documenting fragments of my personal life, and something is revealed in their accumulation. Looking upon such accumulation, the particulars within them lose significance. Rather, it's what begins to emerge from the glut of the accumulated--the architecture and essence of memory--that I am interested in. It is something from which concrete meaning has been stripped.

In the case of my photography, the sensibility at work is closer to being filmic. They are more like moving image than stills. Although the professional photographer slices out a single moment in time to regard them absolute, my own photographs consist of a moment within a movement, and I shoot them in a state where their context is apparent.

Hatanaka: This calls to mind Mekas' "frozen film frames."

Onda: Mekas himself has said that in his work, one is able to discern everything within just three or four frames. When I met Mekas in New York, it was by chance that he felt something from my photos and organized two exhibitions for me, but perhaps he saw something in common with his own work. In fact, until I met Mekas, I was not consciously pursuing this idea of memory. After spending time with him, I began becoming aware. I found someone similar, much like the way one might view a mirror.

Hatanaka: How did you come to encounter Mekas?

Onda: I can't remember so well, but I do recall that during my teens I saw "Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania" and was extremely moved by it. Mekas and Marguerite Duras both figured largely in my life then. Since the environment in which I grew up in was so utterly un-Japanese, I was forced to formulate my identity as a stranger within society. I was seeking freedom, but this was not needed in Japan. This is why I have lived like a rootless cosmopolitan. It was then, and these people, that taught me the resolution and courage to regard my own sensibilities as absolute, regardless of context.

In America

Hatanaka: So you are now active in America?

Onda: Everywhere I live is temporary. Basically my life currently consists of living half the time in New Hampshire and half the time in New York, a dual rural and urban lifestyle.

Hatanaka: And you have been conducting research on electronic music at Dartmouth College.

Onda: I belong to the electro-acoustic music institute, which is headed by the electronic music composer Jon Appleton. Academic institutions have reached a kind of stagnation, and Jon Appleton himself is feeling disillusioned by that arena. I think perhaps he wanted a person who had a sensibility different from that of the world of academia. I myself originally began creating music using samplers and computers, and although I had an interest in electronic music, I am an outsider, so to speak. That's why I felt I could gain a more clarified definition of where I stand, through the collation of the knowledge gained on my own and the manner of knowledge within academia.

I am moved by an intuitive curiosity towards things beyond my understanding. I can't respond to things that I already know and understand. This is simply because there is no excitement in it. I feel that the sensation of excitement is vital, in the influence it exerts on music and art. In the world of electronic music too, the people who were called its pioneers--they would be about 60 to 70 years old today--although it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that they did things without understanding it, still, it is a fact that they were propelled by impulse. They lived, consumed by the sensation that, together with the progress of technology, they stood witness to the occurrence of something enormous. For example, Xenakis, with all his theoretical armor, what he was doing in fact was plunging himself into a profound obsession with his primal experiences during the war. This is probably why people sense an uncanny power in his works.

Such individuals, who pressed on into the unknown cultural territories of the age, were the ones that opened doors to it, deepening and furthering music. This force, though, even when restricting discussion to the field of electronic music alone, disappears by the eighties. Through supplanting it with intellect and systemization, an academic environment is created. Though today, there may exist discourse concerning the academism of electronic music, it consists of no more than what was ordered and organized in the eighties. Even if there is something that can be called the history of electronic music, if one ceases to regard it as a single solitary current and instead perceive the links connecting different people, one knows that there were an astounding number of people doing the same thing at the same time. There were many people doing similar things to Stockhausen, but of them all, Stockhausen was the one to gain societal recognition. I am convinced that it was not Stockhausen alone who was magnificent and singular.

Hatanaka: At the dawn of the age of electronic music, it was a music based on theory. A music meant to arrive at a certain goal, such as the layering of particular frequencies in order to create a given sound. But since it was not organized, the strange and uncanny could also emerge from it. That sort of capaciousness seems to have been responsible for the richness of electronic music.

Onda: Of course, I'm sure that structuring it according to intellect and reason probably did contribute to a further deepen the music. It's just that I think there must have been several vectors overlapping to generate a powerful force.

Hatanaka: Are you aware that you are a part of the genealogy of electronic music?

Onda: I do now, clearly. I mean this in the context of what I mentioned earlier about the connections between people, rather than a system within history. My two years with Jon Appleton is part of that. I plow through mountains of documents and recordings at the institute, and if there is anything I don't understand, I talk to Jon. I feel very keenly that I exist within the links connecting individual and individual, and that I am in touch with something big.

Artistic work as mirror

Hatanaka: I heard that your album "don't say anything" was inspired by a photograph.

Onda: There was a well-known poet in Paris in the late 19th century named Pierre Louÿs, roughly of the same generation as Alfred Jarry. He was a writer of unorthodox literature, like S & M and scatology. And meanwhile, unbeknownst to anyone, he had secretly amassed a collection of pornographic photographs he had taken himself. They were photos of all of the vast number of women with whom he had relations, collected in a scrapbook with commentary.

Hatanaka: How did you come upon these photographs?

Onda: I was in Paris, where I just happened to come across a shop specializing in art pornographic photography, and for a while, I found myself spending much time there. There were photos of that sort piled up high, like a huge garbage dump heaped with an enormous volumes of past memory. I spent day after day in there. Most of it was trash, but there was the occasional gem among them, and in a French magazine, I found a feature on his photography. When I saw it, I must have felt something. I bought it and took it home.

From the photographs, one can sense Pierre Louÿs' passion, teetering on a fine line with insanity. When one sees a tremendous piece of work, the viewer is compelled to see through the author's perspective, as though the work momentarily acts as a mirror. His photographs became a mirror for me, and I think I caught a glimpse of the passion and the fine line with insanity within my own self. And propelled by it, I began working on something without understanding where I was headed, and eventually arrived at "don't say anything."

Hatanaka: How did you arrive at this title?

Onda: Pierre Louÿs' attitude itself seemed to say "don't say anything." Attempting to affix his obsessions as they were onto the photograph without expressing it in words. In the erotic moment, one is obsessed, unexplainable by reason. This elation in my chest when touching something extraordinary--I wanted to create something as I held this sensation close. And I think that is what I did. My hope is that my work can act as a mirror for those who listen to it, so that they may imagine something else, in the way Pierre Louÿs' work created a mirror for my implanting something of my own. In the way that a mirror does not reflect itself, the moment my work is done, the existence of my self ceases to mean anything. In my solo cassette work, too; the constructing of collages and reordering of material for which I willfully walked and collected, creates a space open to others, and the autonomy of the recording is renounced. I want to create something that, while being a personal expression, passes through individualness forming something that can be shared with others.

Onda: It's most comfortable for me in New York City. There are people living there today who connect to varieties of cultures in a manner unchanged since the sixties, pursuing creative work. The memory of each of these generations remain scattered across the city like geological stratums laid bare. This is the difference with Tokyo. Post-war, Toyko transformed its lifestyles on the surface level, intent on erasing memories of the past. Particularly having lived there during the eighties, I have felt the presence of some basic incompatibility that this culture carries on its shoulders. For me, the idea of a culture that undergoes renewal in such a post-modern manner is far more abnormal.

Hatanaka: You've mentioned that you have an interest in small communities.

Onda: Well, it sounds fishy when you use words like "global" and "international."

Hatanaka: Were you in New York on September 11? The regular column that you and the editor Mr. Matsumura put together in the magazine STUDIO VOICE exhibited the effects of September 11 in quite sharp relief.

Onda: I was in New Hampshire at the time. When it occurred, I felt that I needed to act. It is necessary during such times to put into words, to grasp the situation. I acted on instinct, and so did those who wrote. We received a strong response.

Hatanaka: Has there been any effect on your life since?

Onda: Concerning post-September 11, the people living in New York are far more composed. New York has always had a majority of liberals, and they are able to react to the situation with calmness. But New Hampshire is a conservative region, even in America, so it was more frightening to be there. The sensibility of the general American public is exposed there.

After that incident occurred, everyone was forced to clarify their thoughts and their positions. The only ones that gained from it were the extreme right and the extreme left. Still, I think that perhaps it may have created a more productive environment for artists truly dedicated to their work. The U.S. was in the midst of a bubble-like situation, and the incident erased that aspect. Concretely speaking, money ceased to flow, and people ceased to seek things other than what they needed. There was a pruning of artists too. It became difficult for those who lacked commitment to continue their activities. New York has originally had a strong sense of community, but this sense of alliance was lost in the face of that bubble. But since, the severe situation has necessitated mutual help. The incident brought about the return of that sense of community, making it easier for artists to work. So it was not only bad that came of it.

July 23, 2002 at Hatsudai INTER COMMUNICATION CENTER

Last updated: May 19, 2003