Improvised Music from Japan / Aki Onda

Back in Analogue Land: An Interview with Aki Onda

By Rui Eduardo Paes

The world traveler born in Japan is recovering the audio cassette as a means of musical creation. After all, in present times digital technology isn't the only way. Let's have some noisy, dirty sound surfaces again.

He could be one of the greatest studio producers working in New York right now, both in the fields of pop music and electroacoustics, but Aki Onda choose another way: he's in love with portable cassette tape recorders and cheap audio cassettes and uses them to make good, experimental, democratic electronic/concrete music. Myself a devotee of the cassette format, which I used in the beginning of the Nineties with my plunderphonic industrial-punk-noise project Astronauta Desaparecido, I had to interview him and ask everything there is to ask about his use and abuse of those tools. Welcome back to analogland...

Rui Eduardo Paes -- You used to work with samplers and computers, you have a long experience as a producer and a studio technician and you're specialized in sound synthesis. With this digital background, what really made you turn to audio cassettes? You said already that your cassette option doesn't mean anything. It's hard to believe... Maybe you don't have grand philosophic explanations, but something justify certainly your decision to work with lo-fi technology. What? The portability? You have DAT recorders...

Aki Onda -- They are just tools for making music. Digital and analogue equipment have different sound characters. I use both of them to bring out the best they have, and to combine them together. It's impossible to get the warmness of cassette sound by using laptop. But when I do serious and tedious editing, I prefer using a computer and Pro-Tools. It depends on what kind of music you make, and your music determines the method. The reverse is not true.

However, I love the texture and timbre of the cassette sound. It's obscure, not clear enough for the reproduction purpose. Sound wouldn't be the same as the sound you listen to, it would be changed in a characteristic way. It's interesting that it gets richer because of its fault. Also, when I play cassettes, I plug them into an old guitar or bass amp, such as Fender, Vox, or Ampeg, instead of using loudspeakers. I can get the perfect sound for me from this combination. Although the amps should be vintage tube ones. I have a problem with the sound of new amps, even re-issued ones. It's too clear, and not punchy and cranky enough. As you know, I only play field recordings I have been collecting for more than a decade, and I consider them as memories of my personal life. They are not just sound, I could say... I also play memories. So, in a sense, I make the determination of sound quality by mimicking the human memory system. We don't remember things clearly and mathematically, like digital media does. Rather, the details of our memories are distorted and compressed, like fuzzy images wedging themselves into the realm of oblivion. My sound should be closer to those memorial images I have in my mind.

R.E.P. -- Are you aware of the work of other musicians/sound artists that use cassette recorders/players as instruments, like, for instance, the swiss Andres Bosshard and his "cassetten-machinen", several portable cassette recorders connected to a computer? And did you know about the cassette chains through the world in the Eighties, with musicians using the mail to receive and send cassettes of collective, added, work, with the results also comercialized in cassette format ("The Cassette Mythos Audio Alchemy" series coordinated by Robin James for What Next/Nonsequitur Foundation was one example of this "cassette culture")?

A.O. -- I don't know those musicians and artists you mentioned. But I know there was a worldwide community of musicians who used cassette medium for mailing their work to each other in the Eighties... In my case, picking up a cassette recorder was purely by chance. I bought the first Sony cassette Walkman at the market in Brixton, London, in 1988, just before visiting Morocco. When I was in that country, I was quite impressed by the exotic soundscape of the cities, and wanted to record them since I had just bought the brand new cassette recorder. My ears were also attracted by Moroccan traditional and modern pop music, which you could hear through radios, and purchase them by cassette tapes at cassette stores (not record stores!). I actually bought many of them at that time. The cassette format was still very popular in many Asian and African countries, and I guess it still is, even in the 21st century.

I wasn't aware of what I was doing in the beginning. I was young and inexperienced, and looking for what I could do. It was actually before I started making music. So, the first seven or eight years, I was collecting these sounds recklessly, innocently, just for fun, without knowing what to do with them. Although, after I started making music, I was playing sampler and computer, using cassette sound as a sampling source sometimes. Then, much later, I started performing with cassette Walkmans and my collection of field recording tapes around the year 2000, after I moved to the US from Japan. Eventually, it would lead me to start making the albums of the Cassette Memories series. The first one was released in 2003. Actually, it took fifteen years or so to reach the point where this project was ready to appear in public. I could say that it had automatically developed very slowly by itself.

R.E.P. -- In a text distributed with the CD Ancient & Modern you say that the "compositions" you make with your "cassette diaries" are only memories of sound, "dreamscapes," freed from all meaning, and even from your own subjectivity. You also told about these sounds that they're concrete (as you know, in concrete music the sound is separated from it's source and identity). Knowing this, there is something that puzzles me. The fact that you name some of your pieces with descritive titles, like "The Little Girl in Tangier" or "Rain." In other words, you're telling what it is, you're conducting the attention to the origin of the sounds. But there's more: you don't simply press the rec key and stay with it - you walk and you choose the sounds you like, you record and you stop recording at will, in such a way that each recording is a choice made by you. There's really no random, no chance, factor in here, but your conscious choices. We hear your sound choices, not only your memories but the decisions you make to memorize. Even if you layer and mix it with other sounds, they're still choices. There's no contradiction in all this?

A.O. -- Well, it's a bit difficult to answer to this question. There is much logic in what you say. But you're trying to analyze my music from the "outside" by using the logic of language. But when I play music, I'm "inside." Music has another type of logic that you can't explain in words. It's much more intuitive, abstract, and momentary (how do you describe fluid movements of a dancer by using words? Can you catch them?). Also, when I write a text, I try to use words musically, or metaphorically. There is no contradiction if you are in it.

R.E.P. -- I feel there's a distance between the way you present your proceedings and what we hear in your work. Knowing that you mix different field recordings from different time-spaces, it's with some surprise that I hear very musical pieces, with what seems to be instrumental sounds, sometimes more present, even, than the field recordings recognisible as such. And you use loops very often, even to structure the pieces with a repetitive rhythm. So, in your records you don't give us only the sounds you collect in your travels. Not only you mix them, but you also process them (at least, it seems), you loop them, but you make us, listeners, not to focus in that side of your work. When you play live, yes, it's easy to understand that you're manipulating your cassettes, but listening to the records can be a bit puzzling if we follow your words about it. You insist in a "I found it" approach, forgetting the "I made it" part of the thing. Why?

A.O. -- When I play cassettes, so to speak my memories, I try to open up my unconsciousness, it's like automatic-writing, leave it wherever it goes. Sometimes, it takes me to a place where I wanted to go, sometimes it leads me to a place I didn't expected. I try not to control music, just control sound, the music itself does the work for me, as if the music made itself, and I just welcome it as it were. That means; I'd like to take off any intention at that very moment. And now, I'm talking about musicality, which is an abstract idea, but you are talking about the process of making music, or music production, which is the concrete idea. They are different, right?

R.E.P. -- Not necessarily. Another question: You're a radical experimentalist, you worked as a pop producer, you already told that encountering hip-hop and house music changed your life, and you worked until recently right in the middle of the electronics "establishment," in the Electro-Acoustic Music Studio at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, with a maverick in what concerns electronic music, Jon Appleton. How do you deal with all this? Are you the product of those "transversalities"? Do you feel divided in some way? I suppose we can't point you as an "experimental academic" or a "popular electro-acoustician" (laugh)...

A.O. -- You'd better stop giving a definition! It's a sickness (laugh)! I'm not a strange animal like "experimental academic" or "popular electro-acoustician," not even a radical experimentalist. I make music, and music tells you everything, period. Why don't you leave it as it is? I think it's quite normal to have this kind of mixed background nowadays. If I had studied, and developed music in a specifically established world like contemporary music, jazz, techno, or whatever, I would have taken a different path. But I was self-taught, and I still am. I always learn something from my own experience. Also, I've been exposed to many different types of music, and curious to all of them, like many other musicians in our generation. It's the natural consequence of circumstances.

I was staying as a visiting composer in the Electro-Acoustic Music Studio at Dartmouth College, which Jon Appleton serves as the director. But my term, which was three years, was over. I don't think I've been a part of the academia. The reason Jon Appleton hired me was, I had another type of experience, outside academic world, and he expected me to bring those experiences into the academic institution. More than that, it is all about the friendship between Jon and I. Our relationship wasn't like master and pupil. We understood each other, exchanged our ideas and experiences on music. We actually had a wonderful time there. Jon is an open-minded person, and has a huge appetite for open forms of music. He has been inviting many composers from different fields, for instance Don Cherry was there, and Jon and Don made an amazing duo album, Human Music, together for Bob Thiele's Flying Duchman. Someone should re-issue the album. It's so brilliant... Anyway, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, two years ago, where I've been working as a free-lance. New York is my hometown now.

R.E.P. -- I notice you have many references in free jazz and that you played with some free-improvisers, like Otomo Yoshihide, Ikue Mori, Alan Licht, Loren Connors, Noël Akchoté, Un Drame Musical Instantané, Jac Berrocal... How do you position yourself in relation to jazz and to improvisation, since it's evident you're not a jazz player?

A.O. -- Those musicians you mentioned have different backgrounds. Of course, they improvise, that's true, but they also compose. Besides, their ways of improvising (and composing) are rather different. However, they all have adventurous personalities. Their inquiring mind has inspired me so much. Anyhow, each of them has their own musical world, extremely strong ones. Probably, that's the biggest reason I've been collaborating with them.

Also, another notable reason is... I'm not sure if you selected those names intentionally or not... Anyway, all of them are somehow connected to a visual mode of expression. Otomo Yoshihide has been making many soundtracks for Asian films (including Japanese ones). Ikue Mori also makes visual works. She has been one of my favorite musicians for the last fifteen years. I learned a lot about improvisation from her playing. Alan Licht founded Text of Light with Lee Ranaldo, which plays imaginary soundtracks for Brakhage's films. Loren Connors takes photos, draws paintings, and writes poems. I admire him, and his work, a lot. Noël Akchoté; has been strongly connected to film and photography. He has a vast knowledge about them and applies techniques of those media to music. Un Drame Musical Instantané; was the first group that played live music for a silent film, as I remember, in the Seventies. They made many theatrical pieces as well. Jac Berrocal is an amazing actor in his life (laugh). He's a devastating character who dreams the rock'n roll swindle! He's been making albums that would work as imaginary soundtracks as well. His music is full of visual images for me.

Have I been associating with jazz? I don't think so... However, the first record I liked in my life was Art Ensemble of Chicago's People in Sorrow. I was fourteen years old, I guess. I also listened to other jazz musicians' albums, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor. It was because of my family environment. My father taught in a university, and my mother was a painter. So there was many scholars, artists, so called intellectuals, around us. And listening to avant-garde jazz was a sort of fashion among those people, although my parents were not interested in music at all. Those people introduced free jazz to me, and told me how radical and progressive this sort of music was. However, I mostly cared about the emotional impact of music since I didn't have any musical knowledge at that time. Because of that, I preferred Art Ensemble of Chicago and John Coltrane to Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. Actually, Braxton and Taylor gave me headaches (laugh), because I couldn't understand the complexity of the musical structure. I'm listening to Cecil Taylor quite often now, and I like it very much though. Anyway, jazz, specially free jazz, was the first music that I was interested in, that's true, but it was only the beginning, and my curiosity to music expanded after that. It didn't take time to find Brigitte Fontaine's "Comme A La Radio" which was an epiphany for me, and other Saravah stuff like Nana Vasconcelos, Pierre Akendenge that led me to some other French groups like Un Drame Musical Instantané;, Jac Berrocal's Catalogue several years later, also some American composers who had the same kind of taste, narrative and visual oriented, with funny mixtures of styles, like Annette Peacock, Michael Mantler, Kip Hanrahan, John Zorn... Then, I started listening to hip-hop, which gave me a fresh surprise. It was amazing that they could make music just by playing turntables! That was one of the reasons that I bought a sampler and a computer. I thought I could make some kind of beats by using them although I didn't have any musical education... Another big influence I had was the French electro-acoustic music originated by Pierre Schaeffer. I was strongly inspired by early GRM records, especially Schaeffer, Francois Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani, and Luc Ferrari. The idea of musique concrete was naturally acceptable for someone who started making music with a sampler and a computer, like me, and their ideas opened up my mind, which was a bit captured by hip-hop beats. I started associating with an abstract way of composing, and thinking as well in terms of sound.

But I should stop talking about my listening background here otherwise it would last forever. This is just a little part of it. It's so amazing that when you start exploring the whole universe of music, even if it's just underground music, it's endless. You could enjoy the adventure for the rest of your life.

R.E.P. -- I know that the most part of your references aren't from the music field. Even if you point out Phill Niblock or Luc Ferrari, there's Jonas Mekas, an experimental cinema icon, Peter Beard, Robert Frank, Stan Brakhage (not Chris Marker?). Why does that happen? And you have also some literary influences, like Marguerite Duras (who directed films too, by the way), and I read a review somewhere in which the critic speaks about the philosopher Walter Benjamin to explain your music. And at what point are important for you the extra-musical references, and namely the ones coming from films and books? Are you going to tell me again that, since you make "soundscapes", you deal necessarily with cinematic qualities?

A.O. -- As far as I remember, I wasn't listening to any music before I encountered free jazz, not even ordinary pop music. I decided to be a painter, or a so-called artist, when I was four or five years old. I was familiar with painting, textile, and photography from an early age. Visual art had been my main concern until I really got into music. In school, from the beginning until I dropped out, I didn't understand why everybody had to do the same thing in a class, and I didn't obey their rules at all. I was a terrible troublemaker there. I skipped so many classes. Even if I attended classes, I built a wall around me, ignored the other students and teachers, and just read books silently. I could say that I learnt most of the things through my reading experience. When I was around fifteen, I started watching films, and some dance or theater pieces, instead of going to school. There were several nice underground film theaters in Osaka and Kyoto. I saw films by Marguerite Duras, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and some others, like Syuji Terayama (who was a Japanese theater director, filmmaker, and poet). I was immensely astonished by them, and concluded that this is the true reality, and that the reality I saw in the fucking boring Japanese society was a fake! Sounds very naive, but that's what I honestly felt. Since the environment in which I grew up in was so utterly un-Japanese, I had to develop my identity as a stranger within society. I needed freedom, but this was not needed in Japan. The visions of visionary filmmakers gave me courage and strength to live through in society as a stranger, and planted seeds inside me, which would eventually grow into my own vision much later. If you discover something that strikes you deeply when you are young, it can work as a kind of revelation, opening a new door and remaining in your mind for good until you die.

Last year, I had a few days off when I was touring in France. I visited a town called Trouville, in Normandy, where Marguerite Duras had an apartment in an old villa by the beach. This town is well known as the closest summer resort from Paris, but it was at the beginning of winter. No visitors were there. I walked around the empty streets alone, came to the villa, and went down the stairway by the building, which led down to the sandy white beach. I was amazed how much details of the town I began to recall. I strongly felt like I had been there before. It happened because of my intensive reading experience of Duras' novels when I was a teenager. Almost everything I saw was described in her books. It was a strong déjà vu, or a flashback of memories. I even felt that she was there in the scenes. More precisely, I heard the tone of her voice, the same voice I could hear in her writings, ghosts everywhere... After that experience, I wondered how much one's memory belongs to their own life. Was it my memory, her memory, or our memory? I think one has memory, a place has memory, and any kind of art form also has memory. They all have been connected somehow together, somewhere in the far greater void.

R.E.P. -- You're also a photographer, and you use in your visual work the layering procedures we can find in your music. So, here is the question: why the layers? (Niblock would tell me, as he did, that, when those layers are in phasing, he can obtain some shocks of frequencies and "phantom" sounds/crazy harmonics, but that's not your case...) Is it to achieve density? Intensity? What?

A.O. -- In a sense, I don't recognize so much difference between audio and visual. I'm not talking about the nature of the media, just talking about my sensitivity. They were raised together like twins inside myself. It's not easy to separate one from the other. That's probably why I'm still engaged in both. It seems like my music suggests some kind of visual images. It's funny that many concert organizers who asked me to perform, believed that I'd like to use visual images in my concert (laugh). But I prefer not to use any visual images when I play music, and I want to leave the visual side open for listeners. They can imagine whatever they want in my music. Then, the "phantom" effect happens by the collision between my sound and the visual images in their mind. Also, if there are one hundred people there, there are one hundred different images there, in the space. They would cause another "phantom" effect as well. If you want to create a strong energy, it's better to hit with something different. I suppose the idea is basically the same as Phill's, just our approaches to the effect are different.

I'm now working on audio-visual pieces. They are basically a series of still photo images which are shown by slide projection, and it would work as a film (The style is like Chris Marker's La Jetée, I eventually would like to transfer them to 16 mm film). Then, I ask other musicians, mostly a solo guitarist, to improvise on the slide projection = film. So each time would be different because of the different music. I call it Cinemage, which means homage to cinema, or images of cinema. In this case, I'd like to avoid making both music and picture myself. I guess, my sensitivity towards both media is too close, so that if I do both, it wouldn't cause strong "phantom" effects. Maybe, maybe not... I have to try more before finding it out.

R.E.P. -- Reading in the Internet one interview you gave sometime ago, I find the use of the word "obsession" several times, and also the word "passion" and, very important, the term "insanity." Are you specially interested in the way madness, the dark side of the human mind and spirit, can be reflected in an art creation, be it photography or music?

A.O. -- Some of my music might be intense and obsessive, for instance one of my Cassette Memories' albums, Ancient & Modern, but not all of them. It's just one side of my music. Those states of mind you picked up come from one's unconscious level. If you saw them in my music, probably they were there, but I didn't try to create them myself. They appeared naturally. So... I don't know.

Anyhow, your question reminded me one of my childhood experiences. My family was living in a small city in Nara prefecture, which is next to Osaka and Kyoto, in a small apartment in an old crusty building which was a dormitory for university professors' families. The building was surrounded by a big Buraku, which was a ghetto where discriminated-against people reside. They are like an outcast minority, not a racial or national minority, but their life was still separated from general public. I really liked playing with children there, and actually spending much time there. Luckily, my parents didn't care if I was there (In the first place, our family also had a sort of minority sensitivity. My father had the Korean background. We even didn't have clear identity as Japanese). The kids of Buraku and I had so much fun. We shoplifted many things, like cheap sweets, whatever goods, from stores, collected them in our fastness. We broke vending machines, and stole drinks, porno magazines. We often did a ritual that we burnt things we stole. We often peeked into a shack where couples were having sex... There was an anarchic mood in Buraku people's life since they all hid a feeling of "We are abandoned from the society" in their mind. In their poverty, there was sharp knife gloomy mood as well... One day, I remember, a car hit a girl of the Buraku accidentally, and she was hurt. Her father ran out of their house in anger, pulled the driver out from the car, and gave him violent blows. It was bloody... Many things I remember there are quite intense and impulsive, although the details are faded now. They are all pulled together in a foggy image, sound is erased, like a silent film, but there was a faintly phlegmatic sweet smell, like blood, sweat semen, all permeated into the sandy black ground... The whole image became one of my primal visions... My parents bought a nice house in a nice residential area, and my family moved out from the apartment when I was ten or eleven years old. I was sad that I had to leave there. And in the Seventies and Eighties, many Buraku people moved out from their communities, and started living in the other areas, mostly in the big cities, partly because of the Braku Liberation Movement which was supported by the government. They hid where they came from, and started a new life in a new place. So the ghetto was taken down, went up in smoke with all its memories.

For the last several years, especially after I moved to New York, I've been suspecting that I've been probably looking for similar sort of visions which I saw in my childhood and when I was a teen. It's strange that I had never looked back on my past when I was in my twenties. I was actually avoiding it. And, in the music world, I was trying to learn about producing, composing, engineering, even marketing as much as possible, to expand my knowledge about them and to develop my skills. But at some point, the importance and the achievement of the purposes ceased. My interest has shifted to the music itself, and to my own self. I rediscovered the experiences that I had in the past. Memories came back, and they were much richer than I thought... I'm recording my new album now, which will be released as Cassette Memories Vol.3. The title is Come Home. It's about where I came from...

Rui Eduardo Paes, 2005

Last updated: January 28, 2005