Sounds, Sourced and Unsourced: Aki Onda at the Walker


The Green Room, USA, 2015
Text by Sam Segal


Set One


Composer and electroacoustic improviser Aki Onda begins Thursday night's Sound Horizon performance soaked in the overcast light that floods through the massive eastern window in the Walker's Medtronic Gallery. Accompanying visual artist Liz Deschenes's spare, meditative installation, Gallery 7, Onda sculpts a piece of equally precise and hypnotizing sound art. Equipped only with a portable radio, two guitar amps, an array of cassette players, and several cassettes, he manages to craft a soundscape of surprising depth and intensity by the end of his first thirty-minute set. Given the unconventional nature of his instruments, it's often difficult to see how Aki Onda is deriving some of his sounds and patterns. This inscrutability is liberating. When you see a string quartet, your brain can intuitively understand the chain reaction between the bow, the strings, and the violinist's fingers. When you witness an Aki Onda performance, a loop of chirping tones might be the feedback bouncing between a tape player and an amplifier or it might be a field recording of a Mexican birdsong. If you understand the source of every sound, the live music experience can become a bland appreciation of virtuosity. With Onda, you quickly give up on understanding all of his sources; you allow yourself to experience the entirety of the acoustic environment as he facilitates its growth and change.


Set Two


Now, none of this is to give you the impression that Aki Onda is a formless technician, manipulating sounds with scientific exactitude. He is very much a performer, and he is as fearless an improviser as any of the great free music pioneers. For his second set, Onda plays for a large crowd in the long hallway that runs along Hennepin Avenue. His expanded set-up includes a larger collection of cassettes, two Kaoss Pads, multiple looping pedals, three cymbals, and a few cups of marbles. There is a noticeable choreography to Onda's movements. He paces methodically up and down the hallway, wrenching the tape player in his hand back and forth with a consistent rhythm, a frankly beautiful pattern of movement. The focused physicality of dance permeates Onda's entire performance, embedding a constant human presence in his maze of disembodied sounds. Onda's calm demeanor may give the impression that he isn't paying attention to the audience, but in this second set he subtly engages with his onlookers and their expectations of musical performance. On top of a brooding, ambient background, Onda sprinkles in the sounds of a soft rain by casting marbles down the hallway, letting them bounce with unpredictable rhythms down the slanted brick floor. As the marbles roll past members of the audience, they must choose whether to interact with them or not, whether to allow themselves to alter the soundscape or to let it continue on its path. Of course, this is a false choice. An audience member's decision not to touch the marble still leads to a sound that would not have occurred if they had decided to touch it. In this way, Aki Onda enlists us all as his collaborators.


Se Three


The night ends in Gallery 5, which currently houses the Walker’s Art at the Center retrospective, an exhibition that includes Nam June Paik’s hyperactive television sculpture 66-76-89 (1990) and selections from On Kawara’s TODAY series (1989), as well as Siah Armajani’s Prayer (1962), a typographical labyrinth that serves as the backdrop for Onda’s final performance.

The music resonates thoughtfully with these pieces of visual art. The screeching noise of feedback pairs perfectly with the looping chaos taking place on Paik’s televisions. Onda’s cassettes, heavily manipulated field recordings from his travels around the world, act as artifacts of memory completely cut off from their moments of origin. Kawara’s TODAY paintings, with their decontextualized calendar dates, achieve a similar feeling of detachment. Yet, both artists also open their work up to the audience’s free-associative memory. Kawara’s dates connect the viewer to their own real and imagined memories of the times he invokes. Aki Onda’s obscured sounds are equally open to individual interpretation. In just one of his tapes, depending on who you are, you might hear the squealing of a free jazz saxophone, the din of a busy street, or the terrified screaming of a human voice.