Improvised Music from Japan / Aki Onda / Articles & Reviews

Existential Electronica

by Rob Young

"When I was in my teens, art was my only way to escape reality," asserts Aki Onda, a 31 year old Japanese omni-musician who has spent his mature years trying to break the bonds of nationality and musical fossilisation. His restless adventures with top-drawer avant musicians in his studio escape pod have resulted in two CDs of silverpointed urban songs, whose textures and sample loops fluoresce out of the digital backcloth like growing reeflife. The most recent, Un Petit Tour, documents - in music and the photographs of Ayako Mogi - a descent into the romantic and erotic life of Paris in the company of Jean-Jacques Birgé and Bernard Vitet's extemporisation collective Un Drame Musical Instantane.

If anyone who deserves to inherit Ryuichi Sakamoto's role as rootless cosmopolitan, it's Onda. 1998's Beautiful Contradiction CD shares Sakamoto's aesthetic delicacy and networking capacity, with a cast list that includes Brixa Bargeld, French Improv guitarist Noël Akchoté, soundtrack composer Simon Fisher Turner, and on the extraordinary "Do You Remember?", singer Linda Sharrock, wife of the late electric jass guitarist Sonny. "I was inspired by her voice for a long time," rhapsodises Onda. "It consists of strength and weakness, a fever and ice cold sadness - I thought her voice was a 'beautiful contradiction' in itself. Perfect voice for me. Normaly it's not difficult to find someone to work with. If I listen to their sound carefully. I can know them immediately. I just follow my intuition. I saw Noël Akchoté in 1996 or 97, his music was so brilliant and I assumed this guy has a sense that is very close to mine. He knows how to reflect himself in music - he's not just a guitarist."

More than a successful fusion of charismatic personalities and studio synthesis, Onda's music is an intimate drama that reflects existential hunger, which comes to the fore in the texts on Un Petit Tour. Recited by Bernard Vitet and Agnes Desnos, they build a depiction of an intence love that threatens to send the narrator over the threshold of death. "When I met Jean-Jacques Birgé," Onda says of his principal collaborator, "I realized that we had the same problem, by chance... We were both in some troble about love. We talked about how that kind of experience can influence our music. Although this album was based on one theme and we used many elements like a film, there was no one specific story. Music, texts and photographs: they are all fragments of our daily life. I expect people could make their own story by experiencing this album."

Onda's project sure clock up the air miles: he records in London, Tokyo, Paris, New York. Does he need be on the move to make music? "My imagination is developed in an imaginary space," he muses, "not in a physically existing city such as Tokyo, London, or Paris. Somewhere between two cities. A place maybe existing in a film. Milan Kundera, a Czech writer who now lives in France, his books gave me a good suggestion on this."

The sleevenotes to Un Petit Tour begin with a manifesto of disruption: "Contomer les obstacles. Detoumer les objets..." "I'm applying this philosophy to my music," states Onda, who had his own head rearranged in a London HipHop club in 1988. "I encountered HipHop and House music - that was the turning point of my life. When I saw Ice-T's gig at the Fridge, Brixton, I was shocked with their playing. It works like an epiphany for me, and I assumed that I could do something in music even if I hadn't had any musical education."

Onda now lives in Tokyo but grew up in the historical southern town of Nara. Which gave him easy access to Osaka, Japan's second city and home to a strong avant garde music tradition. "I was a troublemaker in school and I felt like a stranger all the time," he remembers."Finally I dropped out. I suppose my sense is rather different from the average Japanese. Where's my home?"

Escaping into an aesthetic universe revealed to him by his painter mother, and mindful of the hardships he witnessed in Nara's Buraku ghetto of displaced ethnic folk, he bypassed the plasticity 80s New Wave by taking refuge in the free jazz of Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble Of Chicago and don Cherry. After a few years in London he moved to Osaka, had his mind blown by seeing Otomo Yoshihide's Ground Zero ("The furious sound was so desperate!"), and fell in with screaming singer Yamatsuka Eye (whose group, Boredoms, Onda had once photographed as a teenager) and electonics expert Nobukazu Takemura, forming Audio Sports in 1990. "The mood in Osaka was completely different from Tokyo's: more lively and crazy," he says. "It was a small society and everyone knew each other."

Audio Sports grew from the skewed HipHop of their 1992 debut Era Of Glittering Gas, to the psychotropic brew on 1996's mini-album Strange Emotion, which featured Otomo, rapper D-zine, saxophonist Greg Osby and gender-bending synth player Hoppy Kamiyama. By 1998 onda was ready to strike out on his own; his solo work opens out a space where musicians can spool their contributions into a sound pool. "when I work with musicians in the studio," he says, "I always bring a master plan and try to fix it with them. But sometimes the others have a better idea. And if it's better than mine, I definitely take it. i don't have an interest in a world where everyone has the same idea. I'm not ann egoistic tyrant."

"The most important thing in my music," he continues, "[is that] I'm always describing 'personal politics' between individuals. My music exists where their gaze and my gaze cross. when it happens in a studio, I catch it quickly and record it onto a tape. I collect such fragments that really connect to our experience. I try to create a space where voices mingle and overlap. So I think I'm just describing our daily life. I'm always watching for something 'behind the sound'"

If the content of so much electronica refers back only to the tools that constructed it, Onda's poetic sensibility suggests a new expressive range. "I've been questioning whether music evolves from music itself. I stopped thinking about this possibility in 1996. That's why I stopped using the project name Audio Sports. I was playing musical experience and eclectic styles anonymously: a sound game, I think. But what I'm doing now is a mind game."

The Wire, September 1999

Last updated: February 18, 2004