Thank goodness for “like” and “as.” Without metaphors, I don’t think I’d be able to even begin describing the four performers from Japan. The vocabulary that I have developed over the years to describe art and performance was completely inadequate to analyze or even explain what they were doing. It was nothing like my expectations. Their art was far from anything that I would have actively searched out, but they caught me so off guard that I was engrossed by the good and the bad of their performances.
When Fuyuki Yamakawa ambled onto the stage, his gaunt physique and waist-length hair gave him the appearance of a industrial post-punk frontman beside his amp stack. He had a slightly strung-out, focused intensity, the eeriness of which was only exaggerated by the microphone taped up near the bridge of his nose. Heavy, prolonged breathing filled the microphone and then he reared back with a sudden outburst of a rumbling, circular, buzzing screech. His jerk away from the mic and the volume of the sound shocked me so much that it took me a minute to realize he wasn’t using a repeater with effects pedals to produce the sound – it was his singing. Yamakawa is an acclaimed practitioner of Khoomei, a type of overtone signing in which the musician creates two notes at the same time. The best I can do to describe it is that it sounds like a didgeridoo from hell. It was jarring and compelling to experience, but when his performance really took off was when he revealed his audio stethoscope.
Taped to his chest, the device amplified his heartbeat, filling the room with its rhythm and synching up with up a cluster of light bulbs dangling from a boom. As a result of Yamakawa’s khoomei mastery, he has developed an unnerving degree of control over his heartbeat, which he regulates to fill the dark room with a piercing light and static-driven sound. Grabbing a guitar that he manipulated without ever strumming the strings, the sum effect of his pulse and overdrive was blisteringly loud and totally enveloping. While the sounds ranged from resembling the feeback of a rock band to blarring white noise, it was hypnotic to watch as his performance and his body’s vital systems merged into one force. It was awesomely terrifying.
In contrast to Yamakawa’s sorcery, Kanta Horio played the role of the mad professor. His instrument consisted of an electromagnetic field, with which he manipulates paper clips and metal washers across a rough wooden board to make a percussive music that blends with the 8-bit whine of the electronics. All of this is filmed and projected in real time, so that you can watch the corresponding motion of the shrapnel. I found it interesting how much of a narrative the audience ascribed to the paperclips. The small leaps, feints and pauses seemed like a Lilliputian ballet. Horio kept stepping back from his work to watch with a look of delight as his little experiment took on a life of its own. At many points, he had the distinct look of a flea circus ringmaster. His joy in his process was infectious, but for me, the jerky play of the metal pieces grew tiresome once the novelty of his conceit wore off.
Everything on the program fit within the loose category of onkyokei, a Japanese branch of electroacoustic improv music. The pitfall of such improvisational work is that it can veer off into self-absorption as the performers become fixated on working out a sonic experiment to its conclusion. Many times, the musicians built a piece its apex and then held on to it for just a bit longer than the audience was willing. This was largely how I felt about Aki Onda’s performance, which I enjoyed the least out of the four acts. The concept sounded great, like turntabling with cassette decks, but the combination of the meandering sound combined with his affectless stage presence didn’t satisfy. I personally would have found the music to be more successful if it were a bit more tonic. All of the recorded sounds fight for primacy over the others – parades, cars, piano practices, airplanes, white noise. I understand that Onda is working with the illusive terrain of memory (the aural sort) and that, by nature, it is likely to be a bit muddled. Still, I feel like the qualities of his field recordings were lost in the droning sonic wall he created.
Luckily, Atsuhiro Ito provided the perfect companion piece to Yamakawa’s opening work. Ito’s performance was probably the most musical of the entire night and served as a coda to the line-up. Using the Optron – essentially an amplified florescent light ballast – and a bevy of distortion pedals, Ito made a pulsating, driving electronica out of deep beats and surprisingly guitar-like strums. If Yamakawa’s performance was the digital embodiment of his organic presence, then Ito was an android; all techno-geometry. On one end of the evening was a throbbing heartbeat and the elliptical flares of a cluster of round bulbs. At the other end of the night, Ito delivered blaringly staccato noise and the linear flash of a florescent tube.
To call any of these performers musicians would be a hasty misnomer as their work has more affinities with contemporary new media artists than songwriters. I imagine that venue is always a difficult decision with work like theirs. In some ways, it could be better suited to a warehouse installation, but the performative aspect of the pieces demands a stage. At the end of a long week of performances, it was an overwhelming spectacle and a bit of an endurance test. But at the same time, it was like that boom of the bass drum in a marching band; the kind of experience that forces its way inside you.
posted by patrick l.