Improvised Music from Japan / Aki Onda / Articles & Reviews

Ancient & Modern (Cassette Memories Vol. 1)

by Ed Pinsent

Onda's been an electronic composer and improvising musician for over 10 years; I think he's now based in Brooklyn NYC. This is a CD of cassette-tape compositions, and it's a fairly incredible collection. A frequent traveller, Onda got into the habit "which became an obsession" of making cassette recordings of sounds and ambiences he heard wherever he went. He used a little hand-held device to do it. It became so important he turned it into a project, gave it a name "Cassette Memories." It beats collecting air miles any day.

He liked the way he would "collect these sounds recklessly, innocently." Acutely self-aware, he didn't even know why he was doing it. There was no intention, at first, to use these tapes to make them into a musical statement of any kind. He looked around one day and found he had practically built up a "diary of sound," as he calls it. He also found he was running out of storage space for these little beasts, which were accumulating quicker than dead cockroaches in an NYC apartment. In an act of recycling that would delight Friends of the Earth, he started to make new sounds out of old. He decided to start putting the tapes together and got lost in the process; he "layered new sounds onto them," and attained "some incredible sonic collages that just invented themselves."

That last bit is pure modesty on his part, of course. In the hands of a gifted creator like Onda, it might seem easy. Anyone else could take their stack of home recordings and treat them likewise. They'd likely end up with a sprawling mess of noise. They could even use the same materials as Onda, and it would end up badly. What seems to be most important, more so than the process really, is how Onda's personal life (his memories, his travels) has become inscribed into the music you hear. "Entangled" is the word he uses for it; it happens in a highly effective and natural way, and this lack of contrivance is wonderful and refreshing.

To listen to, this CD is... well, glorious layers and layers of looped sounds, odd unrepeatable patterns emerging, shimmering rhythms, moments of pure magic. This powerful music and sound-art is filled with nostalgia, packed with events, moment and gravity. Where some lesser creators, having hooked into a new "gimmick" for making distinctive sounding music, might feel content to repeat themselves, Onda demonstrates lots of varied methods in the tracks released here. Where "One Day" is a dense kaleidoscopic mass, "Eclipse" is more obviously fragmented. The former uses lots of loops to build up a very deep sound image, the latter uses distressed tapes, vaguely open-air recordings, moments of action in an urban setting. "Eclipse" also shows the exciting way that Onda is joining the sounds together; the "meanings" of the original events have been emptied out, in favour of purely sonic associations... matches of tone, texture, timbre, and so forth.

In "Flickering Lights," we hear the way that the coarse-grained, approximate quality of the cassette tape has been made into a positive virtue, along with a few backwards tapes and further loops; this one is somewhat reminiscent of William Basinski and his Disintegration Loops. "Voice" is one of the more uncanny statements here; a looped fragment of voice is put together with an urban bricolage, with its sudden shifts of time and place suggesting a jagged journey in an impossible dimension. "Dream" is another magnificent and powerful piece; far from depicting a wispy and ethereal daydream, this is a deep Surrealist fantasy made real, an eerie drum-propelled odyssey across fields of strange sounds and fantastical pulsing rhythms. Incredibly beautiful. The final track "Last" is where he pulls out all the stops, and shows you the full extent to which he's capable of crafting his material into something new, vital and vibrant. An incredible assemblage, layers of amazing sound; the use of ultra fast-forward tapes, creating a string of far-out gibberish speech, is the least impressive part of it.

Add to all this a sumptuous CD package which is assembled like a mini gatefold LP cover; artwork is pasted on boards, and a great collage design adorns it. You rarely encounter such greatness; I will certainly start looking for the other CD by this fellow. Certifiable genius.

The Sound Projector, 2004

Last updated: December 15, 2005