Aki Onda “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.”

So when do you decide to press record?

Whenever I ears catch an interesting sound. I just carry my Walkman either in my pocket or in my bag wherever I go. It became so automatic after doing this for 20-something years and I don’t have to decide anything. It’s instinctive response.

OK, so you are not thinking “this will sound interesting later on,” it’s just instinctual?

No no… I don’t think how to use the sound at that very moment… If you do it everyday, it’s a lot about banality. But, later on, I have to extract something special from the accumulation. Sometimes, it’s like finding a diamond in a mountain of garbage.

Anyway, I feel that the meaning of the act of recording has changed since the beginning. It was an obsession back then, really strong one. But, it’s not any more after 20-odd years. You can’t keep an obsession forever, and I don’t think it’s healthy to keep obsessions forever. Whether it’s good or bad, it became as my art practice.

I started a project last year and decided to make one field recording tape everyday for three years. Because… before I started this project, I realized that I hadn’t made any effort to make field recordings for at last several years. It became a way too automatic. So I wanted to reverse my habit 180 degree and made all conscious decisions first - OK, let’s use 30 minutes tape and record at least one side,15 minutes, per day. Let’s use six different color cassettes and make color patterns for each year. Let’s set a theme or strategy for what to record for each year etc. Then, after the three years, I will have more than one thousand tapes which will be an artwork itself… Before starting this project, I was making field recordings at a subconscious level without making any decision. What I am doing for this project is 100 percent conscious decisions. It’s a sort of study project, and I still don’t know what I get from this experience. Just try and see what happens…

Does recording so frequently make it difficult to get hold of the cassettes?

Yeah, It’s getting difficult for sure. And, the audio quality has been getting worse and worse, as well as the tape itself has been getting thinner and thinner. When you look back to the different times - the 80s, 90s, 2000s — cassette sounds are rather different. I can’t use most of commercially distributed cassettes after being produced 2000. The sound of those tapes is almost like the MP3, no top and bottom ends. But, that makes sense since the most of audio equipments got compatible to the digital sound. After Philips first produced a cassettes recorder in 1963, the cassette format had been improving during the 60s and 70s, until the 80s. If you play back cassettes using speakers and amplifier that were produced around the same period, that would sound best since the frequency spectrum of the cassette is compatible to audio equipments produced around that time. That’s why I always use old vintage tube amps for playing cassettes.

These days, somehow, many people give me tapes they don’t use anymore. They know I use cassettes (laugh). Those were probably forgotten in their attic and they had to clean up there, or they don’t have a cassette player anymore. A couple of years ago, a radio station in NY gave me hundreds of tapes in their archives after they cleaned up there. That was nice as I got many high quality chrome and metal tapes from the 80s. I still buy tapes, but directly from a manufacturer and make a bulk order - several hundreds at once.

[Aki examines one of the cassettes and looks at the label — he slots it into his Walkman and starts recording. He shows me another cassette which has the word “Rain” scrawled over it.]

This brand was produced in Russia, and I found this cassette at a store in Paris and bought all copies they had — about seventy. I have been using this tape for recording sounds from a radio — wherever I travel, I turn on the radio and make recordings. This one was taped in Berlin. I have a lot of recordings from a radio, and I will release a cassette album, which I just used those radio sounds, from My Dance The Skull in this coming autumn.

What about your distribution format? A lot of your work is on your website as well.

Music is free these days.

So how does it feel to present these sounds on a free, online format?

Well, I think online material is pretty good for getting to know something, as an introduction. But if you want to go deeper, you can get the original.

It isn’t enough to just listen on the SoundCloud account?

For me, not. But, I think MP3 has an advantage — it’s easier to spread the information online. That’s also changing the style of listening — it’s an interesting phenomena, which I am not so pessimistic about. The only thing I don’t like about online listening is: there are so many advertisements, which are really distracting. I think people are getting to used to it. But, I can’t… When people were listening to vinyl records, cassettes or CD, it wasn’t like that.

That might have changed with the Walkman, when people could easily fast-forward and rewind on a portable device. That’s also a technique you employ live. How has that been received in your recent shows?

Well, I like playing in Poland or Eastern European countries because this kind of music is kind of new and fresh to the people there. If you play in a big city like London or Paris, the audience think they already know the music — many of them just come to the concert to confirm something, not exploring something.

So I am not against [new] media at all, it’s just using it in the right method to get quality and texture; I need to have an analogue sound source. There are many filmmakers who are using Super 8, but when they are editing, many of them will use Final Cut Pro. Some of them then transfer back to film after they have finished editing — it’s the same process.

And you played the WRO festival in Poland this year?

The festival is for local people, its a pretty big biennial — the people are really curious about the new kinds of media art, which are not really new…

How did you fit in to the bill?

They had a music section, mostly audio-visual stuff, this year. They used a department store for an exhibition, which has lots of fashion boutiques inside. There were four or five empty spaces in the building, and they set installations there, which were pretty cool. One of the other buildings they used was an abandoned building, which Wioletta, one of the founders discovered, and she got permission to use it. The biennial has DIY spirit.

I used to live in that city — Wroclaw is great for those kind of art spaces, they have a lot of abandoned factories and breweries around the outskirts of the town.

Yeah, it’s very nice. I was supposed to do a site specific performance in a passage there, but it was raining, so I could not do it — it could have been a completely different kind of performance.

So how does that differ then, where you are playing outside, to playing in a venue?

Well, four or five years ago, I started to get a weird feeling when I go to a concert, and I stopped going. If you go to a music venue, let’s say a rock club or some sort, you hear the sound from the PA system, and there is no so much resonance in the room since those venues are designed for dead acoustics. The sound from the speakers is aggressive, direct, and one-dimensional. I use field recordings which were environmental sounds before captured, and I’d like to play back those in a three-dimensional space, like re-creating same sort of soundscape, but that doesn’t work so well in those venues. Also, classic concert halls are believed to have good acoustics. But, it’s only for Western classic instruments. I play cassettes, and the frequency spectrum of the sound is a bit closer to African or Asian traditional instruments, because it contains a lot of noise and overtones. It’s not refined at all. I realized that when I play in that concert hall situation, some frequencies and overtones tend to disappear because of the particular acoustic response in those concert halls have. So I started questioning what the fuck I’m doing in that situation, and that lead me more about exploring the possibilities of site-specific performances outside conventional venues. More than that, most of music venues tend to ignore visual elements. Those are not aesthetically appealing and its functions are limited to playing instruments or singing on stage, and listening to the sound in the separated seating area. It’s so passive experience for both performers and audience. If you think about the lighting system installed in those venues, the effect is so stereotyped and it’s the same shit everywhere. Well, I don’t think it’s a problem for them since those music venues are essentially places for “listening to sounds.” I’m aware that it’s actually “my problem” and not “their problem.” But, it’s unbelievable that people don’t question the situation they are given and limit what they can do. It’s almost like slavery. I personally think questioning your practice sometimes would be very healthy since that could possibly open up new possibilities for you.

I’ve been going to see more of visual art exhibitions or dance performances. I feel more of excitements in those fields and a sense of “anything can happen” which is almost died out in the current music field. And, those experiences are more beautiful and profound visually, which feed me as sources of inspiration even though for making sound or music.

Anyway, going back to “site-specific performance,” what I want to do is dealing with acoustics, architecture and psyche of the location. It’s a direct conversation with the location, and that experience, and the result, could be completely different each time.

Photo: Fridolin Schopper

What kind of environments are you interested in? I saw you were using a water fountain on the video you sent — there was a contrast between recorded water and natural water.

Yeah, I was playing back a recording of a stream or some running water. The performance was in a garden which has an old beautiful fountain in the middle of the space, and it was surrounded by a corridor - so the audience was listening to the recordings of the stream and the sound of the fountain mixed. The people were getting confused because they couldn’t separate my sound and the sound of fountain as I was playing my sound with a very low volume, almost not audible. Then, at some point, I stopped playing the sound but continued the performance for another several minutes. They were only listening to the sound of the natural fountain — the tiny dripping which they didn’t realize it was there - it really changed their perception.

Akio Suzuki has been experimenting in this realm for a long time now, what can we expect to see at your upcoming shows with him?

Akio Suzuki is a 72-year-old Japanese sound artist who has been doing studies about “echoes” for several decades — he is mostly interested in echoes and not original sounds. He invented many hand made instruments and developed a unique performance style, and has been presenting his work mainly in the sound art context. He lives in the far remote countryside, Tango in Kyoto prefecture — and he doesn’t have any distinction between his sound and the environment. We share lots of interests on relationship between the sound and space, the acoustics and architecture etc,. So, when we perform together, we prefer at site-specific [locations]. We are going to perform at Cafe Oto next week. It’s a music venue, but Cafe Oto could be good - we won’t use the stage area, we perform in the middle space and use the whole space, surrounded by the audience. We’ll be performing in five cities in Europe this time, and planning to do a longer duration performance, two to three hours non-stop, each time.

Do you find it is tiring to play for so long?

Not really… when Akio and I first performed in Osaka in 2005, it was five straight hours. So, two or three is easy. I think it’s nice to do something harder at the beginning. Then, things will be easier afterwards… The idea is extending the compositional or improvisational form. Make it slower and less sounds, but try to keep the tension. Also, playing with the space itself and bringing performative aspect are in our agendas. Akio actually started performing in a gallery space in Tokyo back in the 70s. When he had an exhibition there, he wanted to demonstrated how to play his well known instrument ANALAPOS. That was the beginning of his career as a performer, and he never considered himself as a musician. I like playing in the art context. Because it’s just different from the music context. The audience pays attention intermittently, as long as they want, and then they move to another artwork. So in a sense, the audience can control the time frame. This means, performers don’t have to follow the attention span or the fixed duration which is 40 - 60 minutes. It could be much shooter or much longer — just 3 minutes is OK, or could be hours, or even days!

But that means you must have a very strong connection with the person you are playing alongside — so when you do a show with Akio, you have to know his pallet, his style, but you also have to be focused on what he is doing and what his focus is…

Yeah, but with Akio, it’s pretty easy and things happen naturally. We don’t even discuss much to do.

What about a new album from you?

I am going to do a recording for Cassette Memories Vol.4 this summer in New York. All pieces are already composed, so I just need to tape it, then edit and mix. This time all sound materials were recorded in Morocco. Some from my first visit there in 1988, and the others were from 2010 when I visit there again. I’d like to mix two different sound sources recorded in different times. It will be a travelogue across both time and space.

I use a Walkman in the same way that I would use a camera. So, in a sense, what I am doing is wrong, completely wrong! But, I am applying a technique across different mediums. I wasn’t conscious about this before — but now, after 20-something years, now I am conscious.

Where did you go?

Back in 1988, starting from Marrakesh, I traveled to Fez and Tangier, but the second time I took the opposite route — I started from Tangier, then to Fez and Marrakesh.

I actually made three cassettes on my first visit, then I lost one of those and another one broke a long time ago. I only have one tape left, which I released as it is as a cassette from Important Record a few years ago. Have you seen James Benning’s film “One Way Boogie Woogie”? He shot locations in his home town Milwaukee in 1977. Then, he returned to Milwaukee and shot exactly the same locations and made another film called “One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later” in 2005. I actually wanted to do the same and visited the same cities. Well, because… I didn’t remember many details of the first trip, and thought maybe I could recall something if I visit again. It was a bit like searching for lost memories after 22 years… However, it didn’t work as I imagined… not at all! I couldn’t recall not much and got so confused. Then, I realized that I was trying hard to hold memories for many years by the sounds left in my hand. If those were visual images, it could have worked. But, the sounds tend to be abstract and alienated from realities I experienced. Well, we can remember songs or music and hold them in our memory easily. But, ambient sounds, noise etc tend to slip away… So what I trying to do this time is, although I still don’t understand clearly, using that sort of function in our brain and create fucked up something with sounds… something haunts me… And, I’d like to figure out what is it.

It’s curious that you chose so many different locations to record your projects. Are you interested in some of the other Japanese artists?

Yeah, there are many unique artists in Japan. I admire Gozo Yoshimasu’s work - text, video, photography, performance… whatever he makes. He used to perform with Masayuki Takayanagi, Kaoru Abe or that sort of free jazz legends in the 60s and 70s. Keiji Haino is wonderful. There are some talented artists in the younger generation, like Tetsuya Umeda, Kanta Horio, Fuyuki Yamakawa…

I grew up in Osaka and Kyoto in the 80s. The Kansai’s noise and punk scene, and a lot of Boredoms related projects were very exciting. That was a pretty interesting period. They had a hyper active scene — and there was sense of violence in the air since it was so normal to take a risk at any level. I assume that was close to what was happening in New York around the same time - No Wave or related movements. They just had ideas, picked up their instruments and played. I also had many jaw-dropping experiences - Einstürzende Neubauten, John Zorn’s Naked City, Arto Lindsay and many others when I was working as a photographer. I was also staying in London from time to time and witnessed Public Enemy playing in the Brixton Academy, which was like a riot, or György Ligeti’s retrospective at the South Bank, he was there, or… Those experiences were great epiphanies and certainly changed my life, along with many other experiences in other fields like visual art, film, photography… To be honest, I don’t feel that level of excitement in the current music field anymore, and I guess many other people don’t too. Music was much more emotional and physical back then. The thrill has gone. But, I feel like if you look into other fields or around boundaries between fields, there is still so much exciting stuff. I’m messing around and finding many possibilities in “outside” these days.

Do you feel there is more of a distance now then, between the performer and the audience?

I think the intimacy between the performer and the audience is quite disengaged. But that’s what I really want to change. Let’s see how it goes with Akio Suzuki.

[It wasn’t until after I stopped recording that Aki began to speak about his childhood and his life growing up in urban Japan. He told me about where he was raised, and how he spent a great deal of his life being unable to communicate — we talked about the influence his father had on him, as well as his mother, and how that played into his ideas with Cassette Memories. Of course it was a moving experience, and I felt very grateful to Aki for opening up and discussing it, but no matter what he had encountered in the past, the most influential component to his work, at least regarding Cassette Memories, proved to be his love for film — it’s something we kept coming back to, wherein beautifully shot vignettes are spun and displayed for their visual worth, where short loops and subtle jump cuts creating a lasting impression in their brevity; this is where Aki’s interest lies — it isn’t about a grand, genre-defying plot, it’s about the wilderness of the moving image, which is reflected in his recordings. This is, after all, cinema for the ears.]

[Top photo: Maki Kaoru]

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