Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I tried to instill them in my head. So, early on, I gave up on music.”
Instead, he found an expressive outlet in photography. It seemed like a natural fit for Onda, who was born into a family of artists. His mother was a painter, and his father used to document his travels with a Super 8 camera. The grainy images captured Onda’s childhood imagination. As a teenager, Onda began taking photographs of musicians, leading to magazine commissions and photographic encounters with the likes of John Zorn and Arto Lindsay. Inspired by the new currents in art and music represented by these artists, Onda soon left his native Japan, traveling widely. While in London in the late 1980s, his camera broke. “I did not have enough saved for a new camera… I settled for a cassette Walkman…”
His decision to settle would prove auspicious: the Walkman has become his trademark instrument. For more than 20 years, he has used the Walkman to document the sonic contours of his daily life, accumulating a vast archive of personal field recordings. This archive has become the foundation for his much-lauded Cassette Memories project, an ongoing engagement with personal memory in which he fragments and layers his own recordings to obliquely reconstruct his memories.
Reading through Onda’s biography brought to mind a passage in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that postulates a relationship between recording technologies and memory: “In the camera, man has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramophone does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory.”
This idea of materializing memory is central to Onda’s working practice. Through its attentiveness to spatiality and its relentless temporal abstraction, Onda’s music, often devoid of any metric pulse, seems to embody a distinct material presence. He wrote in his Cassette Memories project description, “What emerges from my sound memories is a sonic collage of ritualistic tape music.”
The phrase “sonic collage” underscores Onda’s interdisciplinary conception of music. It has become a cliché to describe texturally inventive music as “painterly,” but in Onda’s case such visual metaphors are almost unavoidable. He told The Wire, “The truth is, although I am labelled a musician, my musical influences are few and far between and I pull most of my ideas from other media.”
Perhaps a more fitting visual analogue to Onda’s music than collage would be the three-dimensional assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. Like one of Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Onda’s music reaches out beyond the frame, beckoning to the listener even as it maintains its distance. It seems to teeter at the threshold between comprehensibility and inscrutability, the secret memories it contains hovering elusively, just beyond our reach.
Onda’s intent is not to retrace his memories indexically, but to lay bare their underlying morphology, their imperfect architecture. His sonic excavations seem to exist in the folds of memory, conjuring evocations that can’t be placed, indistinct somehow in their sensuous particularity. He told Tiny Mix Tapes, “I have to cut the bond with the original meanings first. Then, I’ll be able to use them for re-creating the other meanings. So it’s not like telling you about my personal history, which I’m not interested in at all. I’d like to make it abstract and open to the others.” What Onda is describing amounts to an auditory palimpsest. The original meaning and context of the audio is erased, but the audio itself remains as a trace upon which Onda and the listener can inscribe new meanings. Onda actively cultivates this intersubjective process of making meaning, telling The Wire, “My music exists where [the audience’s] gaze and my gaze cross.”
One question that remains is: why does Onda continue to use a cassette Walkman when there are a host of more modern gadgets available to him? Onda has said that he likes the characteristic imperfections of the cassette sound. “I just like things that are damaged, destroyed, scratched, ruined, wrecked, and not perfect,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes. This wabi-sabi ideal permeates nearly all of Onda’s work. Brian Eno captured the allure of damaged, lo-fi aesthetics in A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996) when he wrote, “The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
Onda’s music is indeed momentous, but it is rooted in the mundane. In one of Onda’s soundscapes, birds chirping might give way to cars honking. It’s a familiar mixture of sounds to most people, but Aki’s careful curation and cultivation renders it unfamiliar.
Theorist Shuhei Hosokawa famously examined the Walkman’s capacity for defamiliarization in his piece “The Walkman Effect.” Writing in 1984, four years after the Walkman’s original release in Japan, he concluded, “the practical meaning of the Walkman is generated in the distance it poses between the reality and the real, the city and the urban, and particularly between the others and the I.”
Hosokawa saw this distancing effect as inevitable, a product of the private, hermetic nature of listening to a Walkman. Onda, however, by rebroadcasting his private soundscapes into a shared public space, seems to suggest the possibility of traversing the distance between “the others and the I.” After all, the Walkman’s very name implies an act of traversal. For that reason, Onda could not have selected a tool better suited to his art.
Aki Onda will perform live in the Walker galleries on Thursday, May 14 at 6, 7, and 8 pm.