The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda: ke i te ki

In 1876, a child in Connecticut named George Starr White played with a tin-cans-and-string telephone. It had drum skins for bases, and he tried to sensitize it further by experimenting with moistening the string. On a whim, he asked his friend several yards away to put a cat near one end, but instead of hearing its purr he intuited what he called a “breeze” through the can. Starr White spent his next forty years studying this mysterious phenomenon, concluding that the breeze was the cat’s “aura” or “psycho-magnetic radiation” conveyed over the wet string. As a marginalized physician in 1918, he documented this in his self-published textbook of (very) unorthodox medicine. The objective existence of the breeze is uncertain.

This offbeat nugget of quasi-acoustical lore sprang to my mind while contemplating the fascinating new EP by Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda titled ke i te ki (translatable from Japanese as “blown airhorn/whistle” or “alarm”; a title suggested by Suzuki as encouraging an awakener to question norms). One of Suzuki’s trademark instruments is his Analapos: two large metal cans connected by a Slinky-like spring, akin to White’s telephone and remarkably reverberant. “It inhales any sound from either side and exhales from the other side,” explains Suzuki's collaborator Aki Onda. Breath, wind, and soul are traditionally seen as interlinked—the etymologies speak for themselves: the Greek psyche denotes both “breath” and “soul,” as does the Latin anima; “spirit,” etc. Through semi-improvised performance on their sound-making objects, Suzuki and Onda aim to sonically convey the spirit of the place in which they perform—after all, sound is an air-wave, an oscillatory breeze. As if to forestall any pragmatists doubtful of White’s esoteric breeze, Onda literally produces a breeze with a massive industrial fan—its low, entrancing 60 Hz hum is often heard underscoring Suzuki’s object-manipulations within the space. The space here is SoHo’s Emily Harvey Foundation, a loft studio where Fluxus artists George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, and others have worked.

Prior to this release, in 2014 Suzuki and Onda recorded another collaboration (ma ta ta bi) at a less-celebrated location: an abandoned factory in Belgium, littered with broken glass, asbestos, and pigeon shit. Onda had previously referred to that space’s atmosphere in terms of “energy”: “I did feel as if we were trying to soothe this malicious qi by performing.” The Emily Harvey Foundation likely has a nicer qi, but its fame might imbue it with more intense energies still. Outré speculations aside, Suzuki and Onda’s latest live recording carries an implicit commentary on the oft-fetishised “vibes” surrounding landmarks of repute (as with London's Abbey Road Studios), probing to what extent such vibes might whisper their way into consensual reality.

It might seem remiss to have gotten this far into a review without discussing the audio content, but both artists have meta-sonic interests in contemplating limits of audibility, and indeed not all the performed actions are heard: Aki Onda employs shifting light sources, strobe lamps, and the semi-perceptible fan. A silent, seated audience encircles the performers.

The EP opens with its twenty-three-minute title track. Long-serving sound experimentalist Suzuki commands classical elements as well as modern ones: stone, water, wind, wood, glass, cardboard, and cocktail stirrers. He embarks on a sensitively paced improvisatory feedback loop: bowing, agitating, striking, or blowing his bespoke object of choice, then listening to its reverberations (and environmental cues or Onda’s actions) to inform what should follow. Onda, meanwhile, provides sonic beds from loudspeakers, initiating rich cassette drones, progressing to blown bamboo flutes. Half-way through this piece, an echo-vortex opens via Suzuki’s Analapos—its word-fusion of “analog” with “postmodern” could equally reflect this EP: an analog acoustical form of exploratory, would-be electronic music.

Aki Onda—twenty-five years Suzuki’s junior and equally astute—could be said to bring a technological bearing to complement Suzuki’s ecological one, but their sonic-romantic sensibilities overlap and interact, just as their sounds do with Onda’s miked-up cymbals and Suzuki’s Analopos, both of which naturally absorb and re-echo room noises. Echoes-upon-echoes characterize the second track, which attempts to escape the space’s acoustics to conjure a realm suggestive of primordial wetlands. Occasional room-shuffles and distant traffic hooting prod the bubble.

The epic third track consolidates all these directions against a sequence of randomized electronic sine waves. Notably, Onda here presents as a metaphysical sample-ist, re-diffusing saturated recordings by cassette aficionado Al Margolis to exorcistic ends. The industrial fan imparts its hum, and is gradually pushed to higher audibility by wedged-in paper grazing the blades. Through the whorl, Suzuki emits hand-filtered, blown white-noise, while a large foil blanket wisps against the fan. At the climactic point something is intuited: a breeze.


Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson is a UK-based writer, researcher, and composer, recording as Meadow House and Radionics Radio, and is one quarter of of improv group Oscillatorial Binnage.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues