Improvised Music from Japan / Aki Onda / Articles & Reviews

The Trace Memories and Travails of a Japanese Non-tourist and His Failing Cassette Recorder

by Ian Penman

Aki Onda Ancient & Modern (Cassette Memories Vol. 1)
Aki Onda Bon Voyage! (Cassette Memories Vol. 2)

Older listeners will remember perhaps the first time they encountered the grand new toy of the cassette recorder, the first playback and how odd it sounded, itchily a-human, woefully but hilariously one-dimensional, as if our voices' warmth and presence had been icily dematerialised. This, surely, was not how we sounded! What remained to be heard was slightly creepy, insectival, alien.

Someone out to compile a catalogue of all the different registers of postwar hearing, fondly recalled or completely forgotten: from quadraphonic demos to in car-stereo, from the ex-static ecstasy of your first few Walkman trip to... well, to Aki Onda's strange, singular Cassette Memories series, of which we now have the first two volumes. Cassette Memories: there is a double echo in the phrase, and that is to the point here; for not only are memories a thing of the past - a vapour, an essence, an archival no-thing - but this particular technology also now lies on the edge of being oblivion. Why? Because it isn't a faithful enough reproduction of the Real... which is just what Onda exploits, as it turns out. He wanders the world, battered Walkman in hand, letting it record anything and everything, with no real narrative (or formalist) logic in mind. Then later - sometimes much later (the earliest 'memories' here date from 1988) he prunes and processes his archives, sometimes (most of Vol. 2) just leaving them be; sometimes (most of Vol. 1) overlaying different tracks to a point of near disintegration.

Confusingly, the two volumes sound as if they have been incorrectly dated/numbered. 2 is more pale 'n' plain (song); while 1 sounds like the turn into experimental mash up. Bon Voyage! (Volume 2) contains the more 'natural'-sounding soundings. "Night" is - presumably - just night: nothing much, cares going by, distant sirens. "Underground" is just that: a (French?) underground station. (Although, given the 'constricted' playback space of cassette tape, when the train comes in it sounds like a Merzbow riff descending: impossibly loud.) "The little Girl in Tangier" is improbably moving; a little girl at large, singing an improvised air, as innocent as the birds elsewhere invoked. "Rain" is mainly rain (falling on a flat tin roof?) but its closing seconds are garlanded with brief bursts of hand drums » female voice » an odd little repeated descending riff » sudden end. The final track "Good-bye" is a clue to a stylistic leap that seems to take place - as they have been ordered and numbered - between volume two and volume two: the latter is much more messed up, heavily treated, its source material at times wholly unrecognisable. Bon Voyage! is 'all over the place', literally, topographically, in situ: a huge rollcall of cities. Ancient & Modern has far less air: the layered pile-up of samples feels more threatening, claustrophobic, frenziedly in between.

Onda stage manages memory as a continual adding on or juxtaposition; ragpicking from a stockpile of roughly recorded pick up and drift. What attracts his selecting ears is presumably as much to do with how the sound has registered, as sound, as any sentimental or erotic associations, say. Begging the question, as those subtitles maybe already: are these strictly speaking 'his' memoirs or his cassette's?

Scenic photos, family snapshots, holiday pics: all freeze time and instill an orderliness that may feather our eyes but disappoint our heart. The remain of the visual as an index of airless, too-tidy cliche? Onda's untidy sound collages are the opposite of this: they are sometimes nothing but flux, fidget, overlay. Onda tapes bustle and urban edge: sudden shafts of calm or shifts of mood, which he crosshatches until they become detonations of blooming, messy, scrunched up beat and unbound texture.

In the fictions of Borges, archives are utopian, until utopian endlessness begins to feel somewhat oppressive... and something in this though possibly accounts for why even the most prettily alluring of Onda's 'momories' (especially Vol. 2's long stretches of bird throat and weather fall) don't really 'lull', as such: they take place, rather, in that over-invoked but still indispensable category of the Uncanny - the 'not at home'. Or: the homely taken and intensified until it breaks in waves of strangeness. This is literally so - Onda is rarely 'at home', to begin with; and figuratively, he's something like a vivid visual pun in a Kitaj painting, a modern day reincarnation of Walter Benjamin, say, drifting, inside and at large in each city, on this perpetual and lazily vigilant and endless drive, unlearning itinerary and rescuing the art of getting lost. And this, it's hard to not here, comes replete with ironical resonance of a Japanese non-tourist, mapping the globe with non-visual and non-contemporary, non-cutting edge technology.

One initial reaction on hearing about Onda's project might be lowering resignation: so what's new? But Onda somehow transcends the purely technical or formal considerations of such an approach. A clue - paradoxically visual - might lie in his sleeve art. Where a lot of current electronica might go for a white, pseudo-scientific purity, Onda has a messy collage of deep reds and bright blues, scraps, skies, bodies, the formlessness of memory, its grubby, icky, overload aspect: smudged dada collage rather than pseudo-scientific grid. The actual CD of Bon Voyage! is imprinted with a postcard view of sand, surf, sky, shadows of leaves; what is buries within is not so securely reframed: it sometimes feels as if this is the sound usually left out of the frame, returned - and returned - to haunt the scene.

If these are memories they are memories as glimpsed in dream, and utilising, craftily, all the devices of dream: condensation merger, juxtaposition, speed up and slow down; and, most of all, overlap. On Vol. 1's more aggressively layered tracks (tricks?), Onda builds up brittle tornadoes of tracework, approaching distortion: each individual sample might, if heard in isolation, be characteristically obvious: but when treated, meshed, double tracked, they become profoundly disQUITEing. What are those sounds torrents? The 7'55" of Vol 1's "Dream" was really nagging me: I kept thinking it reminded me of something - how could this be? These aren't my memories, after all.

And then I realised: this metallic whirligig sounded just like one of the Voudon ceremonies on Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: The living Gods of Haiti. Why should a collage of city scenes, recorded on cheap technology in the first year of thee 21st century, sound just like an untampered recording of Caribbian ritual, recorded on hi-technology in the middle of 20th? The thoughts this leads to, about a retroactively 'channelled' X-roads of Freudian dream, a-theological ritual, and the abandoned channels of aural technology - ancient and modern - are a tribute to whatever it is Onda is engaged in, however it is he works over his fuzzily retrieved and resuscitated days gone by.

The Wire, November 2003

Last updated: February 23, 2004