Shelley Hirsch / Aki Onda at Tonic, NYC January 30, 2004


The Squid's Ear, USA, February 2004
Text by Phil Zampino


The music of Bernard Herrmann is a shared piece of aural conciousness. His compositions influence such movies as Psycho, Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver with a sense a sense of grace, mystery, even terror. First and foremost a composer, his sense of drama was learned from master composers of his day, including Percy Grainger, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copeland. Shelley Hirsch selected pieces of more obscure Herrmann soundtracks for her improvisations, including pieces from Farenheit 451, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. As she explained, she intently listened to each track in preparation for the performance, developing a series of associations with each piece. These she unleashed over a succession of these recordings as sequenced via compact disc playback.


To call Hirsch incomparable threatens hyperbole, yet is an accurate description of the unique nature of her work. With grand, sweeping gestures, Hirsch unfolded a series of stories, fragments, literal or fantastic bits that brought to life the drama of the movies and the affect they had on her. Her words and free associations, spoken and sung, twisted the image of the various movies, sometimes in strict reference, sometimes in montages. Ever in control, she included self-aware context as she laughed at her own use of a microphone with reverb that she often uses for effect, or picking up on a listener's dropped bottle, transforming that accident into a dramatic connection within her narrative. In her presence and gestures she represented the glamour and style of the torch singer, while frequently shifting into the guise of the movie narrator. Her stories were touching, enveloping, amusing and strange.


The second half of the show was a duo with electronic improviser Aki Onda. As chance would have it, Onda is Hirsch's downstairs neighbor, which her improvisations brought to light. Onda has a distinctive and unusual approach, using a portable cassette player hooked into a series of processing boxes and foot pedals. He uses the cue button on the cassette in a vocal manner, squelching sounds that are trapped floating in his electronics. Apparently he can also sample the live action, reworking Hirsch's voice. The results are an extremely flexible and responsive method of sound generation with a surprisingly broad palette. Hirsch spun tales of their neighbors, cooing and slipping sounds in a duet that is difficult to describe, but fascinating to experience.