Forget Aki Onda


Improvised Music from Japan, Japan, 2004
Text by Ed Baxter


I met Aki Onda in pub in London, England, early in 2003. He was preparing for a radio interview with Paul Hood, who presents "Onkyodo" fortnightly on Resonance 104.4fm. We started talking about the kind of questions I would have liked to hear asked of the musician on the radio. Later I tried to recall the gist of this conversation, but by then I had become wrapped up in a separate pursuit of fugitive thoughts and was unable to recollect the details. I put it out of my mind until, a few weeks later, Mr. Suzuki kindly asked me to write something about Aki Onda. As usual when I am writing, I did a lot of things to warm up: washing up, laundry, DIY tasks, a radio series of my own that unexpectedly led me to reread Jacques Roubaud's forbidding The Great Fire of London – a novel in which the author determines to destroy the his own memory not though the act of forgetting (which the English Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey thought a subtle art in its own right) but through the effort of remembering the minutiae of the life he shared with his dead wife.


My own attitude towards memorials, towards with the steady and unstoppable slowness of an oil tanker that one withes to prevent crashing on a picturesque shore. Roubaud, if I understand him correctly, finds memory a flimsy thing that exists only in the far greater void, the vast absence-of-memory in which we all share despite our reliance upon our individual recollections as pointers to our identity. In fact, he says, one's memories are not all the substance of one's life. As so often with works of art, for a brief instant I retained an imprint in my brain of what the writer had said, though by the time I set about visiting his favorite imprint was rapidly fading. I thought to go to seat R14 (or was it R16?) with a view to taking his place and summoning him, as it were, form the dead, from this text. On approaching the Reading Room, I was turned back by a security guard who explained that a TB company were shooting a film inside and public access had been suspended.


By chance I heard a doctor describe the earliest development of a baby's brain in terms of its mapping of the body. That is, the baby's brain scans, as it were, all the body's organs and fixes them in place (inside the system of the brain) in a laborious, continuous process in the fist week after birth. The doctor recounted the story of a baby whose eye had been covered (because of an infection) for a matter of a few days: the brain had gone to "look for" the eye but, the eye having been covered up and its function having been obliterated, the brain failed to register it. So that when the patch was removed the baby was blind in that eye. To me it seemed that this story reinforced the fact that our body is itself a memory, quite distinct from the workings of our mind, located in physical reality rather than in the ebbing and flowing of time. I supposed our brains keep on scanning our bodies, constantly, and that our dreams, the animal instinct that overtakes us when in danger, body dismorphia, and the false memory of amputated limbs are all part of this internal activity that, in our cultural lives, we feel compelled to externalize, to record.


It was impossible to reconstruct our London conversation, which had been utterly casual and conducted in a noisy pub the spur of the moment, before I'd ever heard his music. But in our correspondence I asked Aki Onda if he thought memory was something physically imprinted on our brains or in our bodies? He replied initially in terms of liberating the past: "When you experience things, memories are imprinted onto each cell of your body: the whole human body consists by memories. I just let them out when I play music."


And what of memories incarnation in specific external objects, such as cassettes?


"I am obsessed with cassettes. They are my reality. However, I can also say that I use them as a metaphor for music-making in general. I make music in my own individual way. It's a part of my research of life and music. When I met you in London, you asked me whether there is a system of memories within tape recorders. If I stretch the point, we may ask, 'Is there a system of memories in tape music, or in musique concrete? – to which I would answer that musique concrete is quite strongly related to the human architecture of memories, because by its nature the original sound is duplicated over and over. Sometimes, I feel millions of 'memory atoms' of musique concrete jumping around inside of me. But I don't quote. I just paraphrase."


I try and turn the tables, as it were, and ask if memory is not something that in fact entails an act of deconstruction as much as a form of preservation?


"Tons of memories of my teenage days in Japan are missing – I guess because of the mental suffering I experienced about that time. I was feeling like a stranger in Japanese society and I don't know how to manage myself (well, I was young and silly.) That sometimes made me profoundly depressed. Also, it wasn't easy to make a living after I dropped out of a high school. So, I had been avoiding looking back on my past until a few years ago. But since that past all happened a long time ago. More than fifteen years ago, I'm able to manage those traumas quite easily. It's okay for me to look back now. The times are gone and with them some part of the memories. In the architecture of human memory, there is something uncontrollable. I think it's really fragile. It can be destructive as well."


Do you feel that in your music you are examining these fragile and numinous elements that have potentially profound repercussions?


"Art comes from the most fragile part of the society. I don't believe art itself has the power to change social structure at all. But it does have the power to penetrate people's mind and thoughts. Especially in the 20 century, in conjunction with the progress of modern technology, it was become more and more possible for artist to facilitate almost anything that they are curious about. However, the art scene has gotten boring largely because the commercial system, and also the educational system connected to it, are strongly systematized. There is not much area between the formidable institution of 'high-art' and the abandoned, fragmented local artists. I guess, the music scene is a little better since there are so many categories for music to fit into and because it's not yet so perfectly organized. But in a sense, the experimental music scene is losing its vitality. Nowadays, it's so easy to make music which merely sounds experimental. Musicians can access information about how to make it and how to sell it through the media. Much of the research that pioneers of this field had to devote themselves to are not necessary for those that fellow. They started from scratch. There process contained a great amount of 'trial and error' before a result was reached. The information resources we can utilize now are much more comprehensible. It's all edited and manipulated follow an established path, by ignoring hat is happening during the process. Most of the experimental music that is produced nowadays sounds very safe. There doesn't appear to be much experimentation in the process and therefore it doesn't feel like its breaking ground.


I value the experimental sprit, which I believe is part of human nature. So I could say I like music that has that experimental sprit. I hope that 'Cassette Memories' is not an arty project or an intellectual game. Rather it embodies my own approach to music. If you quote something from the past, you will miss something important. I guess that's one of the fragile and numinous elements you mention. That's why I said I paraphrase."


So you reiterate, go along the same path as (rather than repeat, which is what you are criticizing in your contemporaries) the pioneers. Do you think that a lack of knowledge of technology can lead interesting and new results?


"I wouldn't say that. Trial and error can certainly lead to intersecting results. Since my twenties, I've spent thousands of hours in studios working with both digital and analogue recorders as a producer, arranger, and a musician. And for me, the recorders, the instruments, the equipment are all an extension of a human body. The whole studio is an extension of a human body as well. Some studios produce good music, and some don't. So many strange things happen in studios. And so many things can effect the work you do there. All the people who work there, the physical architecture, the history of the studio: who has worked there in the past, all of those things affect toe music you make there. Probably, you can feel them if you're sensitive…the reflection of memories, the recollection of memories. I tend to take music like this. I guess, my sensitivity is quite animistic in a sense.


"I love mistakes. They often open a door which I hadn't noticed before. When I recoded the pieces of Ancient & Modern. I just played two portable cassette reorders and two Korg Kaoss Pads that made loops. Also, I used a small mixer, which was connected to a Roland tape echo and recorded onto Pro-tools directly. No overdubs, and no editing. The way of recording was so simple, so primitive. It was difficult to control the whole sound since I wasn't able to edit or adjust the balance of each sound afterwards. But the level of concentration required gave a musical intensity to the pieces. Of course, I couldn't' avoid making mistakes, so I left all of them in and they are a part of the content and of the form."


Finally, is to memorialize in truth a method of inscription which seeks to remove from the physical body the actuality of the event that the memory marks?


"Our life is basically unpredictable. We don't know what's happening in the future, and we are learning how to cope with that unknown future all throughout our life. It's exciting, but somehow it's painful as well. Everything is transitory in this world. Memories lose their significance, but their essence remains. We use them in our daily life. And we need them for making music."