October 29, 2017
In March 2016, the newly-founded curatorial platform Blank Forms hosted their first event, a seminar on composer Maryanne Amacher’s investigations of the “psychoacoustic dimensions of human perception.” The technical qualities of Amacher’s compositions and the research necessary in executing them evince the various aims of the nomadic Blank Forms: supporting, preserving, and presenting experimental time-based practices. (See Charles Eppley’s stellar essay in the November issue of the Brooklyn Rail for an extended discussion of such goals and Amacher’s work).
A year and a half since its founding, they have presented performances by Charlemagne Palestine, Marianne Schroeder, Stefan Tcherepnin, Limpe Fuchs, Yasunao Tone, and many more. Founded and directed by Lawrence Kumpf, formerly artistic director of ISSUE Project Room, Blank Forms’ programming engages the many histories and ephemeral simultaneities of time-based work—reopening the “forgotten” or demystifying the mythologized.
In October, Blank Forms presented Annea Lockwood, Aki Onda, and Akio Suzuki at Pioneer Works. Entering the space, spectators were greeted by a long table reminiscent of a well-organized stand at a funky yard sale. On the right, variously sized glass bells, magnets, tin funnels, a small amp, and tiny electronic motors were in Onda’s section. A frequent visitor to New York since 1995 and based here since 2003, Onda has often referenced the influence of everyday junk culture and downtown experimental scenes, particularly mentioning Anthology Film Archives, where he first saw the work of Jack Smith, Tony Conrad, and Ken Jacobs (the latter a frequent collaborator).
Near the entrance to the high-ceilinged post-industrial building, the three performed Tabletop Music, playing in duos, then in trio, to an audience seated neatly in rows. Brooklyn-based videographer Motoko Fukuyama projected their intricate movements and gestures in real time on a screen above. Among the items and instruments, Onda used feedback as a fluid audio-spatial form, channeling its sound through various containers, like a flower vase; Lockwood played a suspended and amplified bamboo rod (designed by sound and installation artist Elizabeth Phillips); and Suzuki played a wooden box, metal tins, combs, and a newspaper. While Onda and Suzuki have been frequent collaborators since a five-hour collaboration at Osaka Harbor in 2005, this was the first time the three performed together.
Lockwood’s practice is centered on timbre, and is “rooted in a belief in the complexity that deep listening can reveal,” per Blank Forms. She explores the materiality of objects via the sounds they can produce, but as I approached Pioneer Works along the East River, I thought of Lockwood’s sound maps of rivers—she has recorded many, including the Hudson and Danube. Such a project clearly resonates with Onda’s Cassette Memories: “sound tapestries” that he has been recording on cassette Walkman since 1988. He often describes them as “cinema for the ears” because of his own roots in photography and the audio tape’s means of documenting a specific site in time. But, when Onda plays the recordings they create a new “shared memory” detached from its place of origin, as Onda described to me. He continued, “I am changing the meanings in the memories themselves,” making the sounds abstract and their references malleable.
After a brief intermission, Onda and Suzuki moved to the center of the cathedral-like space. They performed their piece fu-rai surrounded by a large audience that was sitting, standing, and walking around them. For ninety minutes—though their performances are usually twice that—they probed the shape and echo of their music and its resonance within the space, “an attitude of close listening” as Suzuki has described their collaborative technique. (They usually take a full day for their sound check to learn the site). They responded to one another’s improvisations and movements, and to the dynamics of the space’s acoustics.
A few days later, Onda remarked to me that he and Suzuki use both shape and sound as instruments. This—as Suzuki pushed a metal structure on the concrete floors, its echoes bouncing off large windows buffeted by rain—recalled his oft-referenced first performance in which he threw a bin filled with objects down a flight of stairs at the Nagoya train station (1963). Initially influenced by New York Happenings, the rhythms this work produced moved him to consider the relations of sound, echo, and space.
Onda and Suzuki made use of all the instruments and objects: a wind-up radio, a base drum, cassette players, the Analaplos, a dozen pedals, lamps, cymbals strewn across the floor, metal forms, plastic bottles. While Suzuki played the Analaplos—an instrument he designed that mimics two mirrors facing one another, a container for reflections of sound—Onda played his cassettes.
Later, Onda opened the large doors to the garden, extending the performance outside and allowing the sounds of rain and passing cars to enter. As the composition continued, he turned lamps on and off, and towards the end picked up a single light bulb on a long chord. Continuing to move about, he spun the chord around himself, producing momentary circles of light. When I asked him about this, he quickly responded that shape, like sound, “has a personality.”