Aki Onda and Nao Nishihara

Photos by Cameron Kelly


2020    Kouya_e_to, Ftarri


1. Tamashii  たましい
2. Buriki-no-tokage  ブリキのとかげ
3. Tenki-ame  てんきあめ
4. Tomari-gi  とまり木
5. Nora  のら

Composed by Aki Onda & Nao Nishihara
Recorded by Bob Bellerue at ISSUE Project Room, Brooklyn, New York
Edited and mixed by Aki Onda
Mastered by Sean McCann
Artwork by Che Chen

Sound as a Moment, Sculpted in Time

Liner notes by Nick Scavo

In November 2016, Aki Onda and Nao Nishihara staged a performance a few days after the devastating results of the United States presidential election. The five recordings on this LP are constructed from edited material from this context: an abstract spatialization of the unique arrangement the two artists had installed in the performance space. I remember the nearly 90-minute performance well, not only for the expanded sculptural setting the artists had set up—where handmade instruments, analog equipment, various found and everyday objects, and lighting were carefully organized—but also for the discernable anxiety permeating the room as the audience dealt with the news. The event took place at ISSUE Project Room’s 22 Boerum Theater in Downtown Brooklyn, well known for its exceedingly resonant acoustics, intensified by marble floors and a high vaulted ceiling. The acoustics of the space are anxiety-inducing and stark; a dropped coin will ring for long durations of time, swelling and trailing off into silence. The audience was seated within the performance space, surrounded by elements of the installation and, in turn, surrounding the primary action of the performers. Strange apparatuses hung from a long, thin wire running from wall to wall, while the space was scattered with Nishihara’s self-made wooden and metal machines and Onda’s unique collage of analogue electronics equipment, bells, and glass pieces. The scene established a vast, ambling expanse that was a kind of homemade alternative vision—a space wherein the anxieties of the time could be hyperbolically suspended, sculpted, and re-arranged on an elemental level. The arrangement was a careful visual scene that framed their sonic explorations, and the artists used this sculptural space as a “stage” for an inventive, open-ended, and spontaneous approach to the boundless possibilities of sound as a spatial phenomenon. Overlapping sonic events occurred within the discrete relationships between these objects, made more pronounced through their enclosure in that space, at that time. Here, the drama and intensity of the preceding days was also an event, a massive global drama finding sudden and microscopic cadence with the movement of objects and generation of sound.

Onda and Nishihara have individual relationships with this performative approach, each bringing their own respective practices together as a shared vocabulary. Aki Onda has a long history of performing within expanded sculptural settings, including his numerous performances with Akio Suzuki, David Toop, Rie Nakajima, Annea Lockwood, and others. This approach suggests roots in Fluxus art, specifically the work of Takehisa Kosugi as evidenced in Theatre Music, a piece that featured a cardboard rectangle imprinted with a spiral of smudge-marks from footsteps. In Kosugi’s piece, the installation of the object was paired with the simple instruction of a word-score: "keep walking intently.” This also recalls Alvin Lucier’s Chambers, itself a word-score piece that asks the performer to “collect or make large and small resonant environments” (sea shells, subway stations, canyons) followed by the simple directive: “find a way to make them sound” (blowing, cracking, exploding). The intent focus on sonically activating a framed and arranged setting forms the basis for the sounds on this album. During the performance, Nishihara used kinetic sound machines that autonomously operated as individual “performers,” including pulley-machines that clicked and moved themselves across a room-length wire, as well as a small wheeled cart that was in fact an assemblage of various sound making objects held together with rope. These devices also reference early Fluxus history, including the work of artist Joe Jones, who often used invented machines in his performances. These machines included "The Longest Pull Toy in the World “ (a pedaled vehicle that pulled handmade instruments on wheels) or small drone machines such as those used in 1969 when he opened his own "Music-Store" in New York City (where anyone could press the numerous door buttons of the shop to play the machines).

Although referencing these various historical precedents, Onda and Nishihara depart from any tactical or directive method, instead favoring the open-ended and nonhierarchical  exploration of their specific sculptural arrangement. This approach, highly cultivated in strands of each of the artists’ respective practices, frees sound from its usual striated contexts while also emphasizing specific sonic and physical relationships through distinct visual and technical cues. Both Onda’s various found objects, as well as Nishihara’s “musician machines” (such as a kick drum triggered by a rope attached to his toe) behave as individual characters, performers, and sonic sources throughout these five recordings. There is a vast expanse of distinct objects scattered across the sculpture—everything from a box fan sitting on a microphone, producing sub-bass frequencies, to a table of Onda’s extensive array of objects and hidden effects units that process acoustic sources. The movement of the artists’ bodies are also a consistent and dynamic sound source, providing an almost ceremonial feel as stamped feet, claps, and other motions participate in the sonic array. The first recording opens with the long bell-tones of another of Nishihara’s tools—a long, fishing-pole-like rod with a metal sphere on the end. Nishishara would lightly hit the metal end of the tool against the resonant surfaces and marble floors of the performance space, producing sweeping, bell-like tonalities that would reverberate wildly, often reflecting off of other objects arranged in the space. The woodblock clicks and electronic noises heard in the second recording come directly from one of the “machine performers” dragging itself along a taut wire, while Onda presents broad, empyrean territories of bass and unknown tonalities from his electronics, further blurring boundaries between “outside” and “inside” sound sources as gongs and cymbals are processed and morphed into similarly gnarled shapes. These overlapping sounds build to dramatic heights as the “time-keeping” clicks of the music machines sets a rhythmic stage for other sound sources to collide, ascend, and transform—building and releasing tension like a magnificent improvisational group composed of objects.

Not widely known outside of his native Japan and in experimental circles in New York, Nishihara is an active researcher and practitioner of sound art, recording, performance, and instrument production. Having studied closely with Min Tanaka and Keiji Haino, Nishihara possesses a philosophy that emphasizes the physicality of sound and body, whether it be how a “sound can be a human,” coming from Haino, or how the “body is flexible and doesn’t exist,” from Tanaka. This exchange between sound becoming a body, or a body vanishing into sound emphasizes their innate reciprocity. Perhaps also loosely inspired by Tanaka, Nishihara performs his bodily movements in “the style of a clown or street performer from the medieval era.” Especially here, Nishihara attests to his other influences, from the ethnomusicologist Fumio Koizumi and Japanese folk culture researcher Shoichi Ozawa. This kind of appreciation for an insurgent spirit is certainly present through these recordings, especially in his playing of various slide whistles, flutes, and wind instruments throughout the album’s final two pieces. During the performance, Nishahara portrayed this sentiment through various character poses, such as an arched stance with a drum on his back. At one point he surprised the audience with a lit candle in the middle of the drum head as Onda faded the lights completely to black. Given the political circumstances of the original performance, occasionally these poses would contort into intense, nearly macabre depictions of a kind of madness or sinister force—a harlequin-esque character that formed a diabolical narrative throughout Nishihara’s motions. Scenes such as these, although imbued with visual affect during the performance, are given abstract space to recede into a more mysterious sonic space, one loosely referencing the visual, but separated into a shadowy atmosphere and speculative space where the sound’s liberated presence reigns. Onda has a keen understanding for how this liberated atmosphere forms a kind of open communication process in dialogue with other performers. Onda cultivates situations where improvising artists trace their own particular performative methods across a given site, treating a recording as a kind of abstract “scenography,” where objects and sounds are arranged. Here, in the suspended space of the recording, Onda and Nishihara’s site-specific sculpture-arrangement is given an even broader plan to spread out and dissolve into a seemingly infinite number of forms, as the sounds develop into a cascading flow.

These five recordings are a striking display of Onda and Nishihara’s handling of the covalent relationships between objects: exchanges between the minute actions of a given space and the immense dramas of world activity. An astounding plea for the intimacy of materials at the most fundamental level, the record itself is an abstract sculpture, one composed of multiple sonic grains orbiting around their specific environment—installed in the here and now—at the precise moment the record is played.