Beginning his career in the early 1960s, Akio Suzuki is renowned as a pioneer of sound art, although his work transcends the medium, using self-made instruments, found objects and his own voice to explore sound and space. Rarely seen without his trusty Walkman, Aki Ona is an electronic music, composer and visual artist. Born in Japan and currently living in New York, Onda is renowned for his Cassette Memories project, a ‘sound diary’ consisting of field recordings he made over two decades.
Rather than play in a conventional venue, for Counterflows the pair will bring their deeply affecting explorations of sound and space to the subterranean setting of Fleming House Car Park. In anticipation of what is sure to be an unforgettable performance, we present Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda in conversation at the Zen House in Bangalore, as they reflect on their past encounters and the process behind their collaboration, ma ta ta bi.
Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda Conversation on ma ta ta bi
Onda: Do you remember how we ended up like this?
Suzuki: In 2005 you invited me to perform with you at the Osaka Harbor Red Brick Warehouse and we played for five straight hours. I think that performance was our first. For that performance I not only used my self-constructed instruments, but also had mounds of empty bottles and a moveable sound machine constructed out of a flatbed with lots of radios stuck onto it. You also had many amps. We spread all of these things about the gigantic space. Aki-san seemed to maintain his composure enough to be able to place lots of candles around the middle of the space but I was feeling like a fish trying desperately to keep on swimming.
Onda: It was such a bare space that things echoed surprisingly well. It was a pretty easy space to work with, wasn’t it? Both you and I play around with sound as well as their echoes and approach sound as a space or an environment. Meaning that what we can create really depends on the acoustics of the space…
Suzuki: The space was so large that I don’t think the audience heard the same sounds that I was hearing. They were all crowding around us but depending on where they were standing, they must have heard completely differently.
Onda: Also, we were both moving around as we were playing so depending on the spot, the reverberations changed and at times it sounded like they were being modulated. It’s so interesting how the sound changes dramatically from moment to moment… It occurred to me to imagine the opposite situation… What would happen if you played ANALAPOS [an instrument invented by Suzuki in 1972, consisting of two single-lidded cylinders attached by a long steel coil. The player can manipulate and strike the coil, or vocalise into the tube] in an anechoic chamber?
Suzuki: What’s interesting about that is that from my experience, when I play in rooms that are surrounded by sliding paper walls… like in a traditional Japanese room, where there are hardly any echoes, I am able to play with more attention to detail. So I think it would work in an anechoic chamber too. Conversely, in a highly echoing space like a cathedral, ANALAPOS would lose its meaning, or rather it would be useless.
Onda: I see. You are saying that ANALAPOS creates an echoing space inside its cylinder. A cathedral-like space is inside of it and results in creating a microcosm.
Suzuki: Speaking of microcosms, here is a story from my childhood: my father was teaching me how to play the shakuhachi but I couldn’t get it to make any sounds. Then he placed the blowhole to my ear and started playing the Japanese flute by putting his fingers against the finger holes. I was so surprised to hear ‘Rokudan No Shirabe’ (a famous shakuhachi song) being played just by the current in the atmosphere. There was a cosmos inside a bamboo cylinder too. Through this kind of childhood experience, I must have learnt to have fun using the mutual vibrations of both myself and of the space. So it’s possible to say that ANALAPOS was born out of the attitude of listening.
Onda: So, moving on to our performance in the early summer of 2013 just outside of Brussels in a vacant lot that used to be a factory… We performed for three straight hours in a building that had parts of the roof missing and in the massive garden next to it.
Suzuki: How were you putting out sound there?
Onda: Most of the sounds I actually found on-site. There was one tape recorder that was constantly pressed on to record and the sounds that both you and I played incorporated the ambient sounds that were there. Like Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room these sounds were in a state of wobbly feedback. There were also two AM/FM radios that were kept on. All of these things were connected to a mixer and were edited by adding and subtracting sound. If good sounds were found, they got looped… The sounds of the environment were important too. I think the old factory space was close to an airport because every ten to fifteen minutes, we heard the echoes of a jet plane at low-flight. Close to the canal, if you listened, you could hear the soft gurgling of the water. I continued to mix all of these sounds… By decreasing the volume of my sounds, these environmental sounds came to the fore. If I raised the volume, you couldn’t hear them anymore… it was a balancing act. During the three-hour performance, I think I only used about three or four cassette tapes. One was a tape that was given to me about a week prior by Silvia Kastel when we were touring together in Italy. The other was a tape of you and I practicing in a hotel room in Brussels. Might as well call them sounds that I acquired in the journey towards creating ma ta ta bi – a bonus of sorts.
Suzuki: We both used empty beer bottles we found at the site as well as tonnes of plastic water bottles we had brought from the hotel. I used pieces of wood that were lying around and played by hammering in nails and created an improvised sculpture out of those. Whether it is ANALAPOS or Stone, both of these instruments are very good at adapting to the environment, so it was very special to be in the crumbling ruins that was on its way to returning to nature. It was very much “site-specific.” There were really so many things that could only be achieved in that specific space. As a result, even three-hours felt like it wasn’t enough time.
Onda: Plus, it’s not just the sound but also the atmosphere of the site which affects our performances immensely. Something like the character or power of the space… Apparently the place used to be a pulp factory and the ground was stained with liquid waste and there was accumulation of asbestos – it was a pretty unhealthy environment to say the least… there were bits of glass and wasted material lying around the space… it was rundown and was in no way a pretty environment. It must have been quite polluted. That kind of ‘energy’ or qi made its way into the performance – this energy that felt like something unfriendly was writhing about. It’s a strange way to put it but I did feel as if we were trying to soothe this malicious qi by performing. I felt this sensation of calming something down.
Suzuki: Yes, I remember that. I wonder how long the space had been abandoned. The faded danger signs that were plastered in places was disquieting and the mounds and mounds of pigeon waste was also disgusting. I’ve heard that bird waste often cultures poisonous bacteria. It was to the point that when we went on a walk-through, I had to tiptoe around and hold my breath to try not to breathe in the dust. But for the performance, we had accepted all of these things about the environment. Maybe our “sound” cleansed the “space” because we stopped feeling these things. There were some people in the audience who laid down on the ground as if it was nothing to them. Somebody’s dog was running around too. I wanted to experience the listening side as well so at the end of the performance, I stood at the impromptu oto-date* mark I had set up and enjoyed the sounds that reverberated.
Onda: It’s kind of like a cleansing ritual isn’t it? (laughs) What if after that, the poison had actually been erased… During the last 30 minutes, watching you stand silently on the oto-date mark has left an impression on me.
* oto-date is Akio Suzuki’s sound project which aims to make one listen to the sounds of the streets. During Tuned City in Brussels, the project was done by marking various listening points around town.
Translation: Aiko Masubuchi
Introduction: Stewart Smith