Reeling in The Years
The Wire, UK, 2009
Text by Clive Bell
There’s a feline quality about Aki Onda in performance. He’s one of the big cats, maybe: the stage his lair, as he prowls from a table full of cassette tapes and guitar pedals over to tweak the controls on a glowing bass stack, hair falling across his face and loose shirt cuffs flopping about. He’s constantly moving and manipulating, grasping a cassette player and swinging it away from him, the fingering of the machine’s tiny controls expressed through his whole body. The cassettes contain years of accumulated memories. Like some dilapidated temple in an oriental horror movie, the stage is full of ghosts, and Onda waves his arms like the swordsman who knows his weapons are useless against this invisible onslaught.
This spring I watched Onda twice in London, both times in appropriately crumbling environments: in duo with guitarist Alan Licht amidst the grimy bohemian splendour of State 51’s rescued industrial space (a Sotto Voce event), and a solo performance at the Cut & Splice festival, held in the fading East End glamour of Wilton’s Music Hall. Onda filled Wilton’s with a chorus of dolphins and seals. Then came a Chinese voice, chewed by distortion, and a Chinese flute solo dropped into an urban environment, all of it jogged out of focus by that strange audio quality peculiar to cassettes. Later a fragment of a bagpiping wind instrument is lowered a couple of octaves, to grind around as the millstone foundation for a collaged symphony of drones.
Between these two shows I meet Onda to talk for a few hours in a more thrustingly modern part of London, the ‘recession-what-recession?’ consumer playground of Spitalfields Market. It becomes clear that his attachment to the audio cassette player is just one part of his position in the analogue versus digital wars. A photographer and film maker as much as musician, he always carries an old non-digital Nikon camera. And in company with The White Stripes’ Jack White, the Today programme’s John Humphrys and my mum, Onda doesn’t have a mobile phone.
He is flying back home to New York that same day, where his out tray has a stack of projects almost ready to leave. A second duo album with Alan Licht, a trio with Licht and film maker/pianist Michael Snow, a vinyl LP of Cinémage (live recordings of Licht and Loren Connors playing guitars to Onda’s slide projections), a collaboration with Portuguese trumpeter Sei Miguel, and a trio featuring eccentric French trumpeter Jac Berrocal plus violinist Dan Warburton. Onda enthuses: “Jac is an amazing actor in his own life – he’s a devastating character who dreams the rock ’n’ roll swindle! His music is full of visual images for me.” Another striking bunch of live recordings are with singer Shelley Hirsch: “It’s amazing to perform with her. Whatever I play, Noise or whatever, she immediately finds the perfect pitch. What we do is really close, it’s all about her memories. And I love her eccentricity, she’s hilarious. That could drive you crazy, but I’m good at working with eccentric people – it calms me down and just makes me happy! I was always surrounded by eccentric people, it vibrates with something in my own mind.”
But mainly we talk about the core of Onda’s work: his Cassette Memories series of shows and albums. Onda has given a lot of thought to that cassette sound: “When I play cassettes, I always use vintage tube guitar and bass amps to amplify the sound. I love the warmth and depth of tube sound. It gives a beautiful, velvet-like texture to the cassettes. This combination of cassettes and tube amps makes my sound. If they match perfectly, the sound becomes so rich and organic. These 60s and 70s amps cut the hissy, high-end and the muddy low end, since the sound of vintage amps is naturally compressed and has bandwidth limitations, frequency-wise. The sound of a vintage tube amp is always changing. When it warms up, it gets vibrant and colourful. Sometimes they start humming and buzzing themselves, even musically. I have to listen attentively and deal with their mood shifts. It’s like having a conversation with them.”
More than just a solo gig, Onda views Cassette Memories shows as site-specific performances, and gives a similar level of attention to his lighting: “I always imagine the space. Some musicians, when they play, they imagine the notes, but I’m the opposite, I imagine the soundscape. For a Cassette Memories performance, I burn numerous beeswax candles in the performing space. The light and scent of candles set the atmosphere of the performance. It’s also a symbol of remembrance, as people have been using candles for centuries. Candles have a practical purpose – they change and improve the acoustics since they make a certain airflow in the space. If I place candles around the centre of the floor, the air goes up to the ceiling directly and runs down along the walls, making a dome-shaped airflow. Then, if I send my sound from vintage amps to the candle area, the sound follows the airflow and creates very spacious acoustics. Listeners sometimes don't realise where the sound source is. Or if they stand by the walls, they feel like the sound is falling down from above them.”
Cassette Memories performances are the culmination of two decades of continual cassette recording, an audio diary that began with the impulse purchase of a recording Sony Walkman in a Brixton fleamarket in 1988, the day before a trip to Morocco. It was many years before Onda worked out what to do with his ever-expanding tape library. Intuitively, with no clear purpose, he was accumulating recordings and photographs. Later he was inspired by discovering that experimental film makers like Jonas Mekas were letting film lie on their shelves for years before doing anything with it.
But recently Onda feels that Cassette Memories has become part of a vital re-examination of his own past. “This was actually before I started making music. For the first seven or eight years, I was collecting these sounds recklessly, innocently, without knowing what to do with them. Cassette Memories is not an arty project or an intellectual game. Rather, it's more like my obsession with keeping memories. I’d like to transform my music or visual work into something beyond my control and imagination, to the point where I feel, ‘What the hell is going on?’ However, after two decades I'm now a bit more conscious about what I have been doing and the reason I started these investigations. After having a childhood and adolescence in Japan which was very screwed up, I started blocking my traumatic memories of this period. In fact, I never looked back on my past when I was in my twenties. I was actually avoiding it. I slowly lost my sense of balance – memories would haunt me, and I got panic attacks. So, in a sense, my investigation of memory was also a rehabilitation of my suffering. I honestly don’t know exactly how this worked. At least I can say that Cassette Memories was born from necessity – to examine my past and free myself from there.”
Aki Onda’s childhood is certainly an unusual story, and his encounter with the rigorously streamlined Japanese education system was a bit of a car crash. “My family was kind of liberal, and much too busy at work, so I had zero parental supervision. My father was a genius field hockey player; he started at 13 and within a year was at the top level in the country. Later he taught hockey at university. He never ever believed in common sense; he believed if you want to do something special, just do something different. My mother was a painter and we were surrounded by artists and scholars.” In an interview elsewhere, Onda describes how his parents’ crowd listened to avant garde jazz, while not having any deep interest in music. So the first record to really impress him, age 14, was The Art Ensemble Of Chicago's People In Sorrow.
Another factor distancing Onda’s family from the Japanese mainstream was his father’s Korean origin. There are over half a million “Resident Koreans” in Japan, many of them children of indentured labourers brought over as part of Japan’s Asian colonising adventures before the war. These Koreans are in a tricky position, unable to fully participate in public life unless they legally renounce their Korean identity. However, Mr Onda’s hockey talent was so outstanding that the Japanese national team helped to fast-track his switch of nationality, stealing him out of the Resident Korean team in time for the Mexican Olympics.
Onda grew up in the small city of Nara, near Osaka, playing with the local Buraku kids, whose status was something like Gypsies. In a 2005 interview with French magazine Revue & Corrigée, he recalled: “Our building was surrounded by a big Buraku, 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 the general public. I really liked playing with those children, and actually spent a lot of time there. Luckily, my parents didn't care… The Buraku kids and I had so much fun. We shoplifted stuff from stores, like cheap sweets. We broke vending machines, and stole drinks and porno magazines. We often performed a ritual of burning the things we had stolen. We peeked into a shack where couples were having sex... There was an anarchic mood in the Buraku people's lives, since they all had a feeling of ‘We are abandoned by society’ in their minds.”
Nara (capital of Japan from 710–784) is pockmarked with sacred places, a hotbed of animism. Like Björk and her Iceland-dwelling elves, Onda finds inspiration in the haunted landscape of his childhood: “Nara is full of historic temples, shrines and ancient tombs for emperors or aristocrats. Some are preserved, but others were ruined and hidden in the ground. If you walk around the area where my family lived, you find those kind of sacred places every ten minutes or so. Of course spirits and ghosts are invisible, but clearly tangible through my senses, and I feel them as strong energy. When I conceived Cassette Memories, I had images of rituals in my mind. I saw candomblé ceremonies in Bahia in 2000, and that made me think more about animism or shamanism.”
Right from the start, Japanese school and Onda didn’t get on: “I quit kindergarten within four days – every morning I cried and refused to go, and my parents gave up. On the first day we had to take a nap and I didn’t want to obey. In elementary school all I did was drawing, I didn’t listen to what the teachers said at all. People just ignored me. But later, Japanese junior high school is really conservative and the rules are strict. I had long hair and I completely ignored them, so they called my parents, who didn’t take it seriously. They told me I should do whatever I believed. So I became famous as the only student who completely ignored the system. I skipped classes. And then I shut my mouth for five years. I didn’t say a word. I was just obsessively reading books. And sometimes I went to university classes. My father was teaching there, so I knew the professors.”
Onda’s parents travelled a lot, and when he was small they took him along; at an early age he realised Japan was not the only place in the world. However, from the age of ten he was pretty much on his own. “When I was a child I didn’t have much communication with my father, he wasn’t at home at all, even Sundays. My mother was busy with work, sometimes she was away for half a year. So I had to cook for myself. I had a little brother and sister, so I had to take care of them.”
With not even a TV in the house, Onda grew up feeling outside the Japanese cultural system. “I’m glad I had some guts to realise what I should be. I really hated that country, I thought it’s just boring. If that’s the only system you know, you have to obey it, but I knew many other countries. Then, when I was 11 I found a diary in my house. My father kept it when he was young, in his Korean name, about his experience as a foreigner. That gave me a good excuse: I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just a stranger, I have no obligation to follow the rules.’
Almost overwhelmed by loneliness and a feeling of abandonment, Onda found comfort in writers like Marguerite Duras, also an experimental film director. Born in French Indochina (now Vietnam), Duras grew up in poverty. Her father died soon after her birth and she claimed to have been beaten by her mother and brother. Onda: “She had her own solitude all through her career, and it vibrated in my mind even when I was really young.”
Onda started taking photos well before he made any music. By age ten he was already selling his textile work, and was a semi-professional photographer at 15. At this age, due to magazine photo commissions, he was meeting musicians like Blixa Bargeld, John Zorn, Arto Lindsay and Boredoms. But after keeping silent for five years, he was now paying the price in the form of extreme depression, emotional numbness and hallucinations. As a teenager he was desperate to escape from Japan. “I survived a difficult period. But through reading I knew there was a different world. And I started watching avant garde cinema: Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage.”
This was the traumatic period of his youth which Onda now feels he is investigating. His ongoing Cassette Memories project is an essential archaeological dig into his personal past, healing through unspooling. And Onda’s teenage years were just in time for Japan’s ultimate enfant terrible, Shuji Terayama: “He was my favourite, his books were my bible. He was an inspiration as writer, film maker and theatre director, and last year a book of his photos was published. I saw his last performance when I was 15, just after his death – it was a memorial show. So I was really familiar with that kind of underground culture – that was my school.”
Born in 1935, Terayama also suffered parental neglect. His father, whose police job included terrorising anti-war intellectuals, disappeared in Manchuria when Terayama was five, and at age 13 his mother deserted him for five years, while she worked on an American base at the other end of the country. By 18, Terayama was a nationally famous poet, and the rest of his career – fiction writer, film maker, international theatre director, racing tipster – till his death at 48, was a series of provocations and scandals as he probed mercilessly at the cultural limits of what post-war Japan could tolerate. As Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei puts it in her biography, Unspeakable Acts, “a study of Terayama’s theatre… may help to illuminate the shadowy spirit that lurks beneath the sunny mask of Japanese imperturbability.”
In the 1980s Onda spent time in London, bought the Sony Walkman that would kickstart his whole Cassette Memories enterprise, started recording anything that caught his ear, and, back in Japan, began a career as a record producer. He formed a group called Audio Sports with Yamatsuka Eye (from Boredoms) and electronic musician Nobukazu Takemura. Aki himself played samplers and computer. A feature of the Japanese scene is that it’s common for experimental musicians to moonlight as producers on highly commercial records; Otomo Yoshihide and Hoppy Kamiyama are two examples, and Onda himself has recently finished an album for German singer Niobe on Tomlab, Blackbird’s Echo (involving David Grubbs, Eyvind Kang and DJ Olive). When I press him about this apparent anomaly, he stresses that musicians have to survive; without government or private funding, you have to do commercial work. I’m still confused. Surely a British pop group would be terrified of what havoc Otomo might wreak on their record? Keith Rowe producing The Ting Tings? It’s a nice idea. Onda clarifies: “But the avant garde scene here [in Europe] is really academic in a sense. There are theories, there’s a tradition, and they know what they want to do. In Japan, that tradition doesn’t exist. Think of the free jazz movement, Abe Kaoru, [Masayuki] Takayanagi… they’re all one-offs. Always in Japan, if you go over the history, each scene is a one-off, there’s no connection, no school. In the European music scene there are many schools, sometimes they combine and you can follow them.”
What about the onkyo people, I interject. The quiet improvisors like Taku Sugimoto? That’s a kind of school, with considerable international influence. Onda’s not having it. “No, these people started quiet music mainly for practical reasons, not because they were studying contemporary music or John Cage. In the case of the Off Site venue [a small venue for low-volume Improv – see The Wire 233], it was in a residential area and they couldn’t play loud. Then Western musicians found that music and took advantage of it for their theories or ideas. And then some other Japanese musicians jumped on the bandwagon. The music that Taku Sugimoto was making before this period was quite different, a kind of moody impressionism. But as soon as he thought he was involved in Western culture in a serious way, he changed his attitude. There’s no theoretical background in this music. OK, [trombonist] Radu Malfatti has his theoretical background of course, but the Japanese don’t. Sachiko M is a good example. Look, Reductionism was named in Europe, not in Japan. Even Japanese journalists didn’t take it seriously. This is the idiosyncrasy of Japanese culture. In a sense Japanese culture is still abandoned from Western culture. It’s just different, that’s why I find so many interesting things in Japan.”
In spite of all this, Onda crops up on a key onkyo album from 2002, Meeting At Off Site Vol 2. In the Improvised Music From Japan 2004 magazine he contributed a thoughtful piece about Off Site: “Through a process of trial and error, music increases in purity; and the natural course it follows is that after the style is established, it begins to decline. That’s why it was smart to end the series before that happened.” But he stresses to me that he was always much more interested in musicians like Akio Suzuki and Keiji Haino.
Too much tradition in Europe, not enough in Japan? Whatever the reason, Onda found New York most congenial for the essential task of developing his own artistic language: “I started visiting New York quite often around the middle of the 90s. In 1997, I saw DJ Olive, Toshio Kajiwara, Raz Mesinai and Christian Marclay playing DJ Olive's “Vinyl Score Composition 11” at Roulette. I first got an idea of how to play the cassette Walkman that night. The music was inspiring; the techniques these turntable players were using and the tape manipulation of early French musique concrète sparked and connected in my mind. I could also see the connection from these turntable players to early hiphop DJs in the 80s. Then DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara started a weekly event called Phonomena in the basement of Tonic, from the first Thursday of 2000 until May 2005. Nobody talks about that, but they were amazing people – sloppy in a really nice way – what was happening there was the best thing I could find in New York. I frequently played at Phonomena and exchanged ideas with other musicians: Alan Licht, Jim O’Rourke, Tim Barnes. That's where I developed my performing style. New York is a great place to develop something, you get lots of opportunities. People are more openminded compared to European countries. I can say that if I hadn’t met DJ Olive and Toshio, my playing would have been different. They are my soul brothers.” Thus was Cassette Memories born. By 2003 the project was bearing fruit, with its first two volumes: the remarkable Ancient & Modern on the Phonomena label, and Bon Voyage! on Improvised Music From Japan. And Onda names as his “top priority” releasing volumes three, four and five of Cassette Memories. The memory work continues. Elsewhere he has described visiting the French resort of Trouville on the Normandy coast, where Marguerite Duras had an apartment by the beach, and being overwhelmed by a complex déjà vu of Duras’s writing, Duras’s voice, a strong sense of having been there before. Whose memories were these?
Memory can be an artist’s scourge. Writing his memoirs, François-René de Chateaubriand, the 19th century French pioneer of Romantic literature, acknowledged what drove him on: “The fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories that overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.”
Onda, too, senses the danger: “For me, memory is irrelevant to time and space. It doesn't have to be true to your experience in chronological order. We remember things and juxtapose them randomly as we like. And we create memory at an unconscious level in a dreamlike state. That's why it's uncontrollable and attacks you sometimes.” A photographer long before he became a musician, Onda sees himself as doing the same thing with both media, documenting fragments of his personal life in the hope that something will be revealed. He describes his Cinémage project as his personal way of making a film, using still photo projections – static, serene images – accompanied by live music. “With Cinémage I always ask friends of mine – guitarists Loren Connors, Alan Licht, Noël Akchoté, Jean-François Pauvros and Oren Ambarchi – to improvise on my slide projections. I prefer not to play music myself for this project since it would be too predictable for me if I do both visual and sound. I need a surprise! In fact, I don't explain what to do to them and we don't rehearse.”
Working with images has affected Onda’s musical performance too: “Technically, my music style is getting closer to editing films. I’ve begun to play plain longshot field recordings without any manipulation. The number of cassettes I use for a performance is getting less and less, as well as the number of pedals for live sound editing – effects, loops, etcetera. I would say that my approach toward playing sound footage is now like making an invisible film.”
Like landscaping and tending a complex garden, the Cinémage and Cassette Memories series are evolving slowly, and Onda acknowledges it’s gradual work: “I prefer leaving a lot of room to develop an idea. I was collecting sound as a diary for over ten years before I arrived at the point where I began performing with cassettes. It took more years until I released the first Cassette Memories album. These projects require a significant amount of time to accumulate an efficient amount of sound and visual memories; it has become a lifelong dedication.”
Steadily, ever cat-like, he prowls forward, alongside carefully chosen co-workers: “In the past, personality in music was much stronger than now; if I listen to jazz, say from the 40s to the 70s, I feel a really strong personality. But I can still find interesting personalities somewhere on the edge of the city. These people I work with, they all have it, their lives and music are connected, or the same thing. So I only work with these people, that’s the common thread. That’s why I talk about my memories and upbringing – I was always surrounded by these people. I have no intention of making a success in a certain field, I’m not interested in that at all. I know where I came from, I know where I’m going.”