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so you wanna get into... aki onda
a guide to his radio and cassette works + collaborations
(photo by maki kaoru)
welcome to issue #34 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i (occasionally) publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this week we’ve got a guide to the work of tape creator/collector/manipulator aki onda, who has been using cassettes to record “sound diaries” for 30+ years. he uses these tape recordings to create sprawling sonic collages, which have recently gained more widespread attention due to reissues by the room40 label. however, he’s also an improviser and composer who has collaborated with folks including alan licht, dan warburton, and the filmmaker paul clipson. also, for the first time, the newsletter is illustrated!
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there’s a thrift shop downtown where i like to buy old photographs. for years i had no idea what i’d do with them. i just knew that they were amazing little artifacts, one-of-a-kind, somehow achingly nostalgic but evocative of other people’s memories rather than my own. some of them are, i think, world-class. i still can’t fathom why people would sell their own photographs. i buy them for 50 cents each, so god knows what pittance the sellers receive on the other end. i have a few hundred of them in a big paper sack.
anyhow, like i say, i had no idea what to do with them—and then i started thinking about aki onda, an artist whose work is almost entirely about photography, memory, and lost archives. and i remembered i have this newsletter which could use some livening up, visually speaking. so i figured i’d start illustrating new issues with photographs (usually that i buy, sometimes that i take).
you see, onda started out as a photographer, and he has a photographer’s approach to composition. way before he became a recording musician, he started making field recordings with a sony walkman he bought in a flea market. he’s a collector of his own experiences; by making music he simply added audio to his usual visual medium. then he let these recordings sort of sit around for a while. he started recording them in 1988; it was more than a decade before he put them to use. he’s said that he needs to be detached from his sounds before deploying them in a concert or album. like my thrift shop photos, he requires the odd experience of coming across the past semi-randomly, of nostalgia at second-hand, even if the memories are his own.
meanwhile, the archive grows. for decades now, he has continued to record his everyday experiences almost obsessively. the project of creating and performing with these cassettes is collectively called Cassette Memories, and this name also applies to a series of albums made with them. here’s a video in which onda organizes a selection of the cassettes before a performance:
there are some folks who have one really good idea and then ride it out through a whole career, and i guess you could say that onda is doing this. but the idea of memory transfigured via old cassette tapes and photographs is so adaptable that none of his work has so far felt repetitious or unnecessary. aside from the Cassette Memories project, he also records radio transmissions from around the world, editing them into documents of the subliminal zeitgeist, the urgency and anxiety that pervades the atmosphere (literally, in the case of radio waves) from brussels to seoul. in his Cinemage project he invites musicians to improvise over his still photography. for the recent Captured in the Air, he pairs photographs of the enigmatic guitarist loren connors (taken from 2005-09 but only recently developed) with connors’ homemade solo recordings. everywhere the past is dragged into the present, but in the process it’s reconfigured, re-contextualized, juxtaposed and made anew.
i start below with aki onda’s radio pieces, as his most recent album is the excellent Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me, the best example of these. then, his Cassette Memories albums, then a selection of his collaborations.
Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me (2020)
this is the King of the Radio Pieces, and really the only one you need. like the previous radio pieces, it consists of onda’s recordings of transmissions from across the world, but this time somehow haunted by the presence of the video artist nam june paik. visiting the nam june paik center in south korea, onda says that he began receiving otherworldly communiques from the artist:
It was that night I made the first contact, via a hand-held radio in a hotel room in Seoul. It was literally out of the blue. Scanning through the stations, I stumbled upon what sounded like a submerged voice and I began to record it in fascination. I concluded this was Paik’s spirit reaching out to me.
fanciful, perhaps, but this set of recordings does somehow cohere in a way that the earlier radio pieces don’t. throughout the whole, there is a rhythmic propulsion that seems composed. the best track is “seoul (2010),” which consists of 20 minutes of alien-communication-level drone. track two, recorded in cologne in 2012, is the shortest, but still features an extended percussive section. at the beginning of track three there is a news report on medical marijuana, which is all too familiar and therefore grating to these american ears, but even still, this also devolves (or evolves) into skipping static. if nam june paik were to haunt us i bet he’d choose t.v. static as his medium, but since we’ve all gone digital perhaps radio static is the next best thing. or maybe the spools of onda’s cassette recorder impose a rhythmic structure that was not actually present in the radio broadcast. or maybe onda is not referring to the patterned static at all when he says paik is reaching out to him; perhaps he inhabits a frequency that only onda can hear. no matter, because if only for “seoul (2010)” this is one of the best albums of the year, whether you can hear paik reaching out to you or not.
A Method to Its Messiness (2019)/ Midnight Radio (2013)
these two albums are the genesis for Nam June… in that they consist of recordings of radio stations from around the world, but rather than the abstract rhythmic washes of that album, we get far more voices. it was onda’s goal to listen to foreign broadcasts until the language itself became abstract, sound signifying nothing (though he admits this doesn’t work if the listener knows the broadcast language, of course). Midnight Radio, from 2013, was a commission for the my dance the skull label’s “voice studies” series (which also features thurston moore, jaap blonk, and other experimental notables). these are recordings that onda made in hotel rooms before (or as) he was falling asleep; one can only imagine the disjointed dreamworld that they must have inspired for him.
last year’s A Method to Its Messiness takes news reports from around europe during the tumultuous summer of 2017 while brexit negotiations went south in the u.k. and refugees arrived on the continent. radio news reports are paradoxical in that they are about historic events even as they form the mundane background noise of everyday life—with few exceptions we remember the event but not how it was communicated to us. here, onda aestheticizes the news broadcast, allowing us the distance necessary in terms of time, language, and experience to listen as to music. like cold war numbers stations, the effect is somewhat alienating, as waves of urgent voices spread messages lost to our understanding. still, the impetus is to keep listening, eager for even a hint to help place us in time and space.
Ancient and Modern (Vol. 1) (2003)
volumes 1 & 2 of the Cassette Memories project came out in the same year, and though they superficially seem alike they really couldn’t be more different. Ancient and Modern is the more traditionally musical of the two, as onda combines and loops and fx’s his cassettes into long, droning compositions that feature things like structure and sometimes even melody. the repeated figure that runs throughout “one day” can actually get stuck in your head, which is high praise indeed for a field recording album. “eclipse” seems to take the opposite approach, by splicing and juxtaposing rather than looping and layering, until a couple of minutes in and an even more somnolent and beguiling fragment begins to repeat. “voice” takes a vocal sample and lets chaos break out behind it. and finally, “last” consists of a pitched percussive pattern with a reverbed ambience morphing about it. in The Wire 237 (november 2003), ian penman writes that this album feels like the culmination, not the beginning, of the Cassette Memories series, and i’d have to agree—after this, onda begins to strip down his source recordings and do less with them, making the barrier to entry a bit higher. like Nam June…, this the King of the Cassette Memory Volumes, and it’s where you should start with this series and maybe even with onda’s discography as a whole
Bon Voyage (Vol. 2) (2003)
here onda lets the tapes speak for themselves, laying them next to each other side-by-side instead of combining them, and letting them play out for much longer. as a contrast to volume one, it highlights that album’s complexity. as an album on its own, it struggles to separate itself from the mass of field recording albums that have titles like “for the birds,” “rain,” and “night” (featuring, respectively, bird sounds, rain sounds, night sounds). though the subject matter is less than illuminating, onda’s cassette tapes provide a sense of warmth that’s lacking in other field recording albums which are so often single-mindedly focused on crystal clear audio quality. and there are moments that will stick with you, including the unselfconscious sing-song of the titular “little girl from tangier” and the booming cinematic drums of “good-bye,” the most processed/least bare piece here.
South of the Border (Vol. 3) (2012)
for the third volume, onda traveled to mexico and pointed his tape recorder at sounds that are evocative of that country (the marching drums and trumpets of the parade in “a day of pilgrimage,” the thin, reedy flutes in “i tell a story of bodies that change”) and some that are not evocative of any place in particular (the wind and static of “dust”). some tracks, like “bruise,” even combine these two forms, as abstract static slowly gives rise to street noise and music. it’s a slowly unfolding movie of a record, patiently teasing out its mysteries across long long tracks with few of the stop-start splices found elsewhere in the series. the downside of this cinematic nature is the sense that onda is a tourist leaning too hard on the tropes of his host country—the signifiers of an outsider’s grand but naïve idea of “mexico” proliferate at the expense of the unexpected and unexpectable sounds of street life itself. this leads one to question what the purpose of the recording is. it’s certainly not documentary, but not easy exoticism either. rather, it sounds like a travel diary in which only those events that are markedly different from the transparent mundanity of the day-to-day at home is considered worthy of remark.
onda’s father participated in the 1968 olympics in mexico city, taking a super 8 camcorder along with him. perhaps this the best cinematic metaphor for this album then: an entirely subjective recording, in grainy lo-fi, of a tourist’s travels, focusing on and thus propagating those elements that match his preconceptions. two out of three of onda’s cassette recorders broke down on the trip, but he decided to keep using them. thus, the tourist’s audio diary is noticeably marred by the constraints of his recording, constantly calling attention to the limited means by which he can translate his experience. this veneer of hiss and static serves as a metaphor for his own limitations of understanding and transmission. it’s not an objective portrait of mexico that we get here—that would be impossible, after all—but one that is partial and mediated. the album’s saving grace may be that it is fully aware of this, showcasing the fact that this is a mexico of onda’s distorted imagining rather than pretending to a high-def eagle’s-eye view.
Make Visible the Ghosts (with Paul Clipson) (2019)
paul clipson was a filmmaker who had an unusual working relationship with musicians, not only designing visuals for live concerts, but playing his film as if it were an instrument along with the music. using a film projector, he would change reels on the fly according to what happened in the set; the musicians would similarly respond to what was happening on-screen to create a collaborate multimedia project. onda met clipson on the way to iff rotterdam, where they shared a bill. after that, they began collaborating, which makes perfect sense: two analog purists improvising together, the musician trained as a photographer and the filmmaker at home in the concert hall. for this release, onda and clipson took elements of a live set in new york in 2012 and created a large poster of still frames (clipson) and a 45-minute album of excerpts from the performance (onda). in the streaming bandcamp version, we don’t get the benefit of clipson’s visuals, but his presence is still apparent from the beginning, as the first track starts off with a recording of the clickclickclick of his film projector. across the album’s four tracks we get some of onda’s best work, from the growling bass and haunting organs of “deep black degrees” to the massive airplane liftoff of “gravity… intruders.” clipson unexpectedly passed away after the album’s completion but before its release, making it an unwitting but beautiful memorial to a prodigious talent gone too soon.
Ke I Te Ki (2018) and Ma Ta Ta Bi (2014) (with Akio Suzuki)
akio suzuki is a japanese sound artist whose 40+ year career consists of sound installations, performances, and invented instruments. suzuki and onda have collaborated on a series of improvised performances that explore the resonances of space. rather than concert halls or clubs, they seek out less common venues and design their set around the unique sounds of that specific environment. for Ke I Te Ki, the venue they chose was the emily harvey foundation in new york, an art space founded by fluxus member george maciunas (onda’s favorite nam june paik had also lived in the building). they set up in the middle of the loft with microphones, amplifiers, and assorted instruments. it was onda’s job to set the “scene” with longform drones and static from his cassette field recordings, radios, and a giant fan. over this background, suzuki used a variety of instruments including his invented analapos, various flutes, and natural materials like wood and stone. the result is three long, unpredictable tracks, beginning with a squeaking sound in track one (my guess is the sponge/mirror combo listed in suzuki’s credits) and ending with a menacing machinic rumble. in between are spacey synthesizers, flute solos, and what may be wolf howls? with the combination of onda’s field recordings and suzuki’s alien instruments, it’s difficult to tell from the recording from whence each sound arises. although it may not have been clear to the attendees, either.
Ma Ta Ta Bi is the duo’s first album, and in addition those instruments listed above it features “nails, hammers, bottles, etc…” as a whole, it’s a gentler album than Ke I Te Ki, slowly unfolding over the course of an hour+ and rarely (except for the title track) becoming dissonant or jarring. if you prefer live improvised music, start with their second album; if you prefer ambient or background field recordings, start here.
Five A's, Two C's, One D, One E, Two H's, Three I's, One K, Three L's, One M, Three N's, Two O's, One S, One T, One W (with Michael Snow and Alan Licht) (2008)
this improvised album starts out rather plainly with michael snow doodling around on a piano, but then gets a much-needed timbral injection from onda’s cassette recordings, then alan licht’s guitar, then michael snow’s synthesizer, then alan licht’s electronics, until the whole of “allorolla” gets so strange that you’re not sure what’s happening. it ends with a massive wall of noise that slowly dwindles back down to michael snow doodling around on a piano, and only then do you realize that for the last thirty minutes you have indeed been listening to the same song. “doo rain” is less dynamic and less epic, but it also features less putzing about on recognizable instruments and more outright noise, which makes it more appealing to the less musically-inclined (that’s me, not a fan of music).
Everydays (with Alan Licht) (2008)
released the same year as the onda/licht/snow trio, this duo featuring only onda and licht traverses a wide range of styles from gentle drone (“tick tock”) to wandering organic soundscape (“tiptoe”) to post-rock grandiosity (“chitchat”) to straight noise (“be bop”). licht’s guitar is always appropriate, adding to the background provided by onda’s recordings and turning them into the basis for fully-fledged songs. it’s quite a task to play a traditional instrument in a duo with field recordings, as there is no common language of tempo or key or structure, but licht compliments, rather than overtakes, onda’s input (licht himself provides a key to a whole constellation of collaborators, from loren connors to members of sonic youth, and is author of a highly-regarded series of lists of minimal records, so his tact and his taste come with a pedigree).
Un Jour Tu Verras (with Jac Berrocal and Dan Warburton) (2005)
jac berrocal is a very weird trumpeter and dan warburton is a very weird violinist. here they team up with onda, who i suppose is among the weirder cassette-tape-samplers, for a weird album. warburton scrapes and scratches his violin while berrocal gurgles and grunts into his trumpet, with onda supplying a shifting background of field recordings. but you’d never guess: at times they come together to create really beautiful moments (if you don’t believe me, skip ahead to the halfway point of “pavlov’s dog” and ride it out from there). “soundcheck,” the second half of track two, is the nearest that onda has ever been to a groove-in-progress, i think. it features berrocal improvising a nonsense vocal line like a bargain-bin damo suzuki over a simple drum machine and warburton’s pizzicato playing, and it’s worth the price of admission for sheer novelty alone (although in this instance, the novelty is onda appearing on what could be called a “rock song”—perhaps reverse-novelty is the term).
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