Aki Onda: Interview
“After I do a field recording, I will normally leave the tapes for some years. I need some kind of detachment from the sounds I collected.”
When I arranged to meet with New York-based sound artist Aki Onda for coffee somewhere on London’s South Bank, there were so many points I felt needed to be addressed. Sure, I had already filled half a notebook with questions I wanted to ask regarding the appropriation of his incredible soundscapes, the editing process behind his heartfelt field-recordings, and his methods for archiving material, but listening to Cassette Memories Vol. 3: South of the Border once again on my way to the meeting, there were so many other things I felt curious about. When an artist as well-traveled and knowledgeable as Aki releases an album, it cuts so much more deeply than any generic field recording, and I wanted to get behind that, find out how it all came together; I wanted to see the bigger picture.
Aki is more open and eloquent about his art than I could have possibly imagined, and though he shared a great deal, I’ve stopped the transcript at the point I turned my recorder off — for inside the hustle and bustle of a busy coffee house, Aki divulged a great deal about his artistic processes, his technique, his influences, and his live performance, all in a manner that was warm, friendly, and sincere. This is a man who is passionate about his recordings, and it’s a privilege to present this interview for all that it is — a conversation about art.
You recently sent me a link to a short film that was set in France, where you were recently on tour. Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind it?
I did a site-specific performance at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which is a French art school, at the beginning of last month. It’s the highest level French art school, like the Royal Academy in London. The location was great — it was made in the 16th Century and it is a historical landmark — they have to preserve their buildings as they are, which can really make the setting special. There were many interesting buildings inside the campus, which are so rustic since many buildings have not been renovated. I was especially amazed by La chapel des Petits-Augustins, that looks like a chapel but without any religious connotation. Instead of religious icons, they put many artworks inside, so it is like a church of art. It is interesting because they installed a number of Italian renaissance artworks there, which were all copies from original pieces that had been made in Italy.
How did you find that your music was responded to within that context?
There is particular kind of strangeness since all artworks there are imitations and not originals. I wanted to create a soundscape that matches to that atmosphere. For a Cassette Memories performance, I play a selection of field recordings, which I recorded myself. They are from my past memories, and the spaces that I play in have their own memories. I also do location hunting in advance — normally I select intuitively, and then do some historical research, but the historical facts are not the main factor of deciding where I play — its more intuitive. If you go to a historic place or an old building, you feel something from its presence. This is obvious, and anybody can feel it. If you are standing inside a building which was built centuries ago. But what is that feeling? It’s aura or psyche of the building. And what is that aura you feel? It’s an energy! So, in a sense, I try to directly touch and feel the energy of the space, by looking at Eastern philosophy and Eastern medicine. It’s really about energy control. But that’s why, if you think about what I do in a linguistic way, or in a logical way, it doesn’t make sense. But if you take this as the energy — it begins to make sense.
Photos: Aure´lien Mole
The whole concept of collecting these sonic diaries is that you must feel some sort of personal attachment with the recordings you get. You must feel something — you’ll record a fragment of time, and you’ll go back and listen to it later on and that will trigger some memory of the place where you were, which seems very personal. And then you are finding a place to project these memories for an audience — what does it feel like when you are sharing these?
After I do a field recording, I normally leave the tapes for some years. I need some kind of detachment from the sounds I collected. Sound is abstract, much more than visual images, and if I listen to the tapes, I remember where and how I recorded for some of them, but many tapes, I often don’t remember.
Does that help with the process of playing back, if you have forgotten where or how you have recorded something?
It’s actually more about forgetting something. During that process of archiving my cassettes, I try to throwing them into the void. I have to cut the bond with the original meanings first. Then, I’ll be able to use them for re-creating the other meanings. So it’s not like telling you about my personal history, which I’m not interested in at all. I’d like to make it abstract and open to the others.
Why did you start doing this? I understand it was when your camera broke that you first thought about recording sounds.
Yeah, that was in London in 1988. I was living in Brixton and bought a Sony Walkman from a black guy selling junk on a street. It was just before I was leaving for Morocco and I thought it might be a good way to somehow record my trip. The camera that I had been using for some years had just broken and I did not have enough money for a new one. So I settled for a cheap cassette Walkman. I just wanted to document my trip as a diary, and didn’t think I would use it for more than two decades later.
Dance performances are really inspiring to me, because the performers use their body and space as a composition. So, I started thinking about the relationship between the sound and the space and that pushed me more to do site specific performances. If I perform in a special situation, I have to think about my sound and the natural environment itself. So I started questioning something, and that gave me new possibilities.
A ha, this is interesting: when you first started documenting your surroundings, you started with photography. Do you find that you can still archive in the same way when you are using purely sound as opposed to imagery?
I use a Walkman in the same way that I would use a camera, or a film camera. So, in a sense, what I am doing is wrong, completely wrong! But, that’s how I found a way to make my own art, and I am applying techniques across different mediums. I wasn’t conscious about that before — but now, after 20-something years, I know what I’m doing.
How do you archive this material?
Well, it’s easy to record, but it takes considerable time to play back. So, usually after I make field recording, I don’t listen to those for a few years or more. I put them in a cardboard box and leave them. I have many cardboard boxes, and many tapes are not even labelled. Sometimes I pick up those and start to play back, and look for interesting sounds. If I don’t find anything, then I will recycle those tapes. Basically there are two different kinds of tapes. [Aki pulls out a box of multicolored tapes and fumbles one into his Walkman, presses play and a loud siren blares from the speaker, the waitress looks over.] This one, I recorded hundreds of fragmented sounds on one tape, then when I finished until the end, I left it for a couple of years and then went back to it, again layered randomly on top. This process makes messy and dense sound collage — all of my experiences are recorded in a decontextualised manner — it’s not really music — It’s more like outsider art. When I compose or perform, I use those tapes, do live editing and transform the raw materials into music.
Another kind is… [Aki inserts another tape, which is color coded and has doodles on it — various conversations play back at volume.] This was recorded in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris… I don’t remember which year, but a long time ago. So, this kind of tape, I record one field recording sound from beginning to end of the tape. It’s like an act of deep listening, and documenting that experience.
When you are playing live and you have a box of different cassettes — how do you chose what to play?
It depends on an occasion as I sometimes improvise and sometimes play a meticulously composed piece. Both cases, I have certain way to make an order of my tapes, and it works as a sort of graphic score. Or, I often draw a graphic score including information of how I set the time line, order of the cassettes I play and how to play those.
But when you have an album release, like South of the Border, it’s all from a specific time, from a specific country?
It also depends. It could be from a specific time or a specific city or country, or I could juxtapose different times and places.
All sounds I used for South of the Border were recorded in Mexico in 2005. I was staying in Mexico city and traveling around in the country side for more than one month and made so many field recordings. That’s was a fantastic experience to just be there and it inspired me a lot. So I wanted to make my own… almost fantasy like portrait of the country, and it was a bit like Alejandro Jodorowsky described that country in his films. It’s really interesting that there is no borderline between the reality and imagination there. Do you remember the first scene of Jodorowsky’s film “Santa Sangre”? A lot of prostitutes are marching and seducing horny men in a market for food or daily goods. It’s like selling sex as if selling vegetable or meat, and looks so surreal and unreal. But, it’s a real place, and if you go there, you can see it as it is. Something is twisted in that country, and Mexican people are so conscious about it. Jodorowsky is a Chilean, and that’s why he could observe Mexican life and myth clearly. I wanted to adopt that sort of a foreigner’s point of view when I was making this album. Also, I had a long term relationship with that country since I was a little child. My father joined Mexico Olympics, as a member of the Japanese national hockey team, and in our house, there were photos and super 8 films he shot during his stay. I was too little and didn’t understand what Mexico is. But, those images looked so different from Japan where I grew up, and I started dreaming about another world. When you wrote a review of the album for Tiny Mix Tape several months ago, you said that South of the Border is an attempt to make a soundtrack to memories of watching those images my father shot. Well, I wasn’t conscious about it until you pointed out. But, I have to admit that is true. There are many things you don’t know when you are making. I think that’s why we keep making something…
Through the exploration of captured sound?
Yeah, that what always clicks my imagination and motivation.
It seems very personal, so how does that react when you are collaborating with someone else, like a filmmaker or another musician, such as Alan Licht or Michael Snow?
Alan is a walking dictionary of New York avant-garde and underground culture, and beyond. He knows a lot about film too. So we share many interests together, along with Michael Snow. We connect the past and the present at the same time. Unless I feel those kinds of similar interests with someone, I don’t usually collaborate. I tend to avoid playing as an improviser, or just as a musician — I’m not interested in that kind of style. I just want a kind of similar interest or perspective to art in general.
I am recording a 30-minute tape every day. But I also have these color buttons, so that I code the music — for every three weeks I have a different color button — which is also kind of like an art form. I changed the way to record a sound 180 degrees: Before, it was automatic, I was recording at a subconscious level without any decisions. What I am doing now is all 100 percent conscious decisions.
What about when you are working with a filmmaker?
Visual images trigger my imagination, more than sounds. So it’s natural to work with filmmakers. I think it’s because of my background. I was familiar with visual arts, photography and films since when I was a child, and I started working as a photographer when I was fifteen much before I became a musician. I was watching many avant-garde films back in the 80s in Japan too. Then, after I started visiting in New York around 1995, I spent so much time at film theaters like Anthology Film Archives and MoMA.
Was that for study?
Yeah, those were really good places to absorb the essence of New York avant-garde, and through that, I discovered artists like Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Joseph Cornell, Harry Smith, Andy Warhol, Tony Conrad and so on. I’m in the lineage of those artists, and my cassette work is deeply influenced by that tradition — junk alchemy occultism that was very unique to New York. If I didn’t move to that city, I could have developed my cassette work completely in a different way, or maybe.. I simply couldn’t make it. In Anthology Film Archives, there is a collection of cassettes Harry Smith made. Those are the ambient sounds of Manhattan and other places - he wondered a street to street and made field recordings. It’s like re-mapping the city in his hermetic way. What I do is close to that sort of practice.
What about your workshops, then? You said you did a workshop in Paris…
Yeah, I did it when I was doing that performance at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts.
So what happens at an Aki Onda workshop?
I did it with a Paris based curator Daniele Balit, who is more like a theoretician and I was more like a practitioner. We talked about site-specific art projects and cassette medium and… what else? I forgot…
But I imagine those workshops are quite popular, particularly with the cassette format digging its heels and remaining a popular medium…
I’m not sure if it’s popular, because cassette labels or artists only make 50 or 100 at a time. Also, many people do not have a cassette recorder any more. It’s a bit like a limited fashion, and I don’t take the hype so serious.
Sure, but smaller labels put out a number of cassette editions when the demand is there. I’m a big fan of the medium. I enjoy listening to cassettes — I enjoy the feel of the tape and the quality of the sounds that come from that, which comes with a past inclination for making mixtapes for mates.
Of course, I love the aesthetic. But I like more about the materiality — the quality or texture of cassette sound, as well as Super 8, or could be grainy black and white photos, that kind of rough and coarse feel. So for me it doesn’t have to be cassette. I just like things that are damaged, destroyed, scratched, ruined, wrecked, and not perfect.
There are a lot of interesting artists who are working with degradation…
That was one of the reasons I became interested in the New York avant-garde, from the 60s and 70s, also a bit from the 80s. Many of their artworks were roughy made. The ideas were more important than what actually materialized. For instance, the soundtracks Tony Conrad made for Jack Smith’s films. Those sounds are pretty much fucked up, the similar to the visual images.
Yeah, it’s haggard. But appealing!
Somehow I like the roughness. That’s beautiful and brutal.
Do you think this feeling is possible to achieve through digital recordings?
I wouldn’t say that it’s not possible. But by using cassette medium, I can easily make that kind of audio quality. If it’s digital, I have to manipulate with plug-ins a lot, and it gets closer but not enough. I use Pro Tools when I do recordings, and it’s really convenient. But, I prefer analog sound sources. Usually I play cassettes through vintage tube amps and record the sounds through high quality condenser microphones with real tube amplifier, sometime though real tape echo. So it’s 100 percent analogue. However, when I do editing, it’s 100 percent digital. I am not against [new] media at all, I just need to use both analogue and digital in the right method. Many filmmakers shoot by Super 8 or 16 mm, but when they edit, they use Final Cut Pro. Some of them then transfer back to film after they have finished editing — it’s the same process.
What can you tell me about the transportation of these sounds, apart from severing personal bonds with them? Take Morocco, where you went to a foreign country to record — what was it like to transport and play your recordings in a different context?
If you transfer sounds, or visuals, or any kind of materials, to another context, the original meanings tend to change or shift. That’s what I like playing with. I tend to listen to sounds like watching visuals. Field recordings contain visual memory or information. So, if you listen to those, it’s easier to imagine visuals in your mind. In a sense, I edit sounds almost like editing visuals.
But with the images, there remains comparatively less doubt in the mind of the viewer about what they are experiencing. Whereas, with your Cassette Memories, that is a completely different case. I listen to your albums, and I feel I hear something very different from what the next person would hear.
It’s open to the imagination. It’s cinema for the ears.