Akio Suzuki with Aki Onda

Translator: Aiko Masubuchi

In the last decade, I crossed paths with Akio Suzuki many times during my own travels around Europe and Japan. I have visited him at his place in Tango, Kyoto to see his famous masterpiece, Space in the Sun. In Osaka, we performed together for five hard, straight hours. Off stage, he is a warm and gentle man but once on stage, I saw him become an animal. He blew me away with the way he communicated with all things in nature as if he were a powerful shaman. It seemed to me that it was not Akio that created sound, but rather that Sound descended upon him, using him as a catalyst. We use Akio Suzuki as our filter, and when we do so, we begin to listen to the sounds in our environment and imagine sounds that are not present; we begin to seek and find sounds that we do not ordinarily hear .
Aki Onda

Throwing Things at the Stairs, Photo by Suzuki Nanae

Aki Onda: Your first work was the happening, Kaidan ni Mono wo Nageru [Throwing Things at the Stairs] at Nagoya station in 1963. Why did you think to do this and can you let us know what events lead up to it? Also, what was the sound like when you actually threw the things inside the bucket against the stairs?

Akio Suzuki: It was really an unplanned first performance. I was taking time off to study for my university entrance exams and for a year I stayed with an architect in Nagoya who took me under his wing. Japan is a small country so I wanted to design buildings that made use of staircases. I thought I would approach the idea via sound by throwing all sorts of junk against existing staircases. So, at Nagoya station, owned at the time by the Japanese National Railway, I found a set of stairs that lead to the platform of the Chuo line and set forth with my task. Of course, at first, I hesitated, but at the time, the art world was all about gutai and in the era of happenings. So, I found my courage and got to work. But just as in the letter “X” in which two lines intersect, when my two concepts about Junk and Music intersected and I was beyond this point of intersection, the actual sounds that emerged (the clangs ♪ and the splashes ♪), as I was finally being taken away by the station’s public safety employees, were surprisingly more raw and fresh than what I had imagined. It was then that I realized my goal to diminish the gap between music born out of concepts and actual real-life noise. That was how I began my study in sound. Since then, I still experience things as the “intersection of X.”

AO: From here on, I believe that echoes became the point of inspiration in your work. Why echoes and not the originating sound itself?

AS: I was already 23 or 24 years old when I decided to quit architecture and found myself in Sound. I was self-taught and my teacher was Nature... That’s why, immediately, Self-Study style performances that I did for myself became my main arena for study. Pieces such as Ogawa wo Tazuneru (Visiting the Stream) and Echo Pointo wo Saguru (In Search of Echo Point) were born out of this practice. Immersing the body into the surrounding environment became my fundamental approach and it was not until later that my experiences in during my confused 20s began to emerge in my work. Echo Pointo wo Saguru is a result of me playing with the echoes that I heard after shouting out into the open mountains1. It was by taking heed of this phenomenon of echoes that I created my own echo instrument ANALAPOS. My current project in progress, oto-date is an extension of the performances that I held for myself during this period.

There is a famous haiku by Matsuo Basho that goes “such the old pond/ frog jumps in/ water sounds.”2 The landscape in this haiku only becomes apparent once the frog takes action. Furthermore, the picture that one imagines from this haiku differs in a myriad of ways depending on the readers’ unique experiences. “Nagekake (to cast, to throw)” and “Tadori (to trace and to follow)” are two words that I throw at myself in order to heighten my senses. If I were a mathematician, I guess it would be like seeking the most beautiful equation… Echoes happened to be the kind of sound that was exemplary of an era when futuristic musical instruments began to come about in the name of “convenience for civilization.” Think about karaoke and how we sound better than our actual abilities. My own petty analog instruments, though, were quickly overtaken by digital ones (laughs).

ANALAPOS, photo by Keiichi Tahara, 1978

AO: Can you elaborate on your self-made instrument, ANALAPOS – an instrument that is very characteristic of you as an artist?

AS: The application I sent to the Japan Institute for Promoting Invention and Innovation for ANALAPOS was a rather fancy one since the name derives from a portmanteau of the word “analog” and “postmodern.” The construction of this instrument is similar to the toy telephones I played with as a child – with two cups attached to either end of a piece of string. When I was calling out to the mountains, I did not fail to notice the sound that was being created out of the coincidental meeting of two objects. ANALAPOS is made of two one-lidded cylinders attached to each other by a long steel coil. The coil is stretched taut and you make it ring by either using your voice or by touching the spring itself. In 1976, six years after its invention, I had them up as an installation at a gallery in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. The birth of this weirdo performer happened when the gallery owner, Kusuo Shimizu suggested that I play at 4 every day.

It was then that I met Toru Takemitsu. Among many things, Toru invited me to play his film music (for Empire of Passion, Nagisa Oshima, 1978 etc.) as well as participate in the exhibition, MA-Espacel temps au Japon at the Festival d’Automne in Paris, 1978. That was my first international performance. My career began in a flat gallery space so I experimented with everyday objects and explored playing to audiences within the confinements of four walls.

AO: In 1981, you did a residency in New York through the Asian Cultural Council (ACC). You had many performances then. What were the impressions you received from New York at the time and can you tell me about these performances?

AS: I think it was 1981 when I was in New York through the ACC residency program and participated in an exhibition under the direction of John Cage called Sound on Paper: Music Notation in Japan. I felt very honored when my graphic notations piece Mudai (Untitled) appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. For the opening, I performed a semi-improvisational piece called SOUNDSPHERE. I have never been able to forget the “bravo!” that came from Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota. Then in 1983, JAPAN HOUSE invited me to play in Performing Original Music. However, we were heavily snowed in that day and ended up playing to only a handful of people.

During this time, I became friends with Marianne Amacher who passed away in 2009. One time when I visited her apartment, as a joke, I inhaled some mold that was growing on a dirty plate. As a result, I developed empyema upon my return to Japan. I have always hated going to hospitals and so a year later, I found myself having a near-death experience.

I was climbing the Tower of Babel when I time-slipped in my dream to the top of the tower, which I had been wondering about for quite some time. Once I was up there, everything was shining white and surrounded by cliffs that seemed to lack any sense of distance. Just like in my youth, I started to play by calling out. The sparkling sound that echoed back to me belonged in the inaudible region. Ecstatic, I threw myself into this game, consumed by greed to enjoy it all to myself. The moment I decided that I wanted to share this joy with a good friend of mine, I sat up on my bed and just like Rodin’s The Thinker, I held my head in my hands and dug my nails into my skull to endure the searing pain I suddenly felt. That was when I came to.

Later, I thought that maybe during their last moments, people die immersed in the things that they like doing the most. I confirmed then that it was okay to be “Sound being.”

Space in the Sun, photo by Junko Wada, 1988

AO: In the late 80s, for your project Space in the Sun, you spent sunrise to sunset listening to the sound of nature, staying in between two walls that you had built. Can you talk about this?

AS: The 80s was when I self-proclaimed myself to be a “conceptual performer.” Space in the Sun was my way of returning back to basics, back to my youth when I spent all my days listening to the sound of nature. I chose the place and chose to practice asceticism in order to concentrate on listening. Doors of opportunity kept opening up for me once I decided on doing it at the northern most tip of the meridian line - the line which determines the standard time in Japan.

The Tango region in Kyoto is north of 135 degrees along the east longitude and is the birthplace of the chirimen fabric. In the midst of this declining industry, the people of the region gathered and started a support association saying they were happy that I had followed the meridian line and ended up where they were. My comrades and I were given a mountain and shelter. We migrated there from Tokyo and were able to work on the project.

However, my habit of becoming lazy soon became apparent and I was given a two year restriction (my deadline was September 23rd, 1988 - the day of the Autumn equinox). Everyday I worked furiously at 150m above sea level. I made about 10,000 bricks using the red dirt from the land in order to build the “wall space” - two walls facing each other with a seven-meter wide gap in between. The sizes of the two walls were based according to my instincts (3.5m tall and the 17m wide). To spend all day facing nature was an exceedingly solitary project but, after almost being buried alive at one point by a collapsing wall, there finally came a time when I was at the point of intersection, just like in the letter “X.”

On the day of the solstice, I sat by the center of the northern wall and was immediately bitten on the neck by several mosquitoes - it was an unexpected way to begin. In order to make my many supporters proud, I applied my entire body and soul into this moment - an irreplaceable experience in my life. Just when this point of all intersections felt like it was on the verge of breaking down, I heard the autumn insects call to each other and heard the cries of the mountain birds. It was then that I was enlightened to the idea that “when humans listen to these cries, they replace them with words.” After this point, I acquired through this bodily experience, the skill to become one with nature like the trees that surrounded me.

AO: From the 80s onwards, you became more active in the European sound art scene and your work has more often been presented in the art world rather than the music world. You became friendly with the likes of Rolf Julius and Hans Peter Kuhn and also participated in exhibitions such as Documenta 8 in Kassel, 1987 and the Sonambiente Festival for Eyes and Ears in Berlin, 1996. How do you think these experiences aided you?

AS: You’re right. Since my experience with Space in the Sun, my approach towards sound has definitely shifted. However, it’s difficult to be self-aware of these things... Well, in the 90s, I began sound installations based on the concept of Sound but do not actually emit any noise. My pieces Flower in Saarbrucken Stadtgalerie, Germany, 1997; Pyramid in SoundCulture 99 in Auckland, New Zealand and MAKE UP in Sanjyo-Shirokawa, Kyoto were all part of this concept. However, people like Rolf Julius and Terry Fox who appreciated and understood my work have all departed from this world. I feel left behind.

oto-date. Ichinomiya, Japan, 2008

AO: You initially revealed your work, oto-date at the 1996 Sonambiente Festival for Eyes and Ears. How did you come to this piece?

AS: Ah, yes, yes, oto-date can also be seen as a piece that came about from the idea to “be on the side of the listener.” After receiving my invitation to the festival, I spent a year thinking hard about what I wanted to do. It is a piece that uses my earlier work Echo Pointo wo Saguru from my “Self-Study Event” days as a sort of a blueprint. It was just around the time when the capital city of Germany was changing to Berlin and I listened to the symphony of sound found in the midst of the city’s construction boom. I worked to find listening points in the sandbanked islands that Berlin originated from (specifically the islands with museums such as the Pergamon and the southern fishing islands). I spent over a month locating 25 spots and marked each one with my oto-date logo using white spray paint. The logo is the shape of ears and footprints combined. I had not alerted the police about this so it was not only unwarranted “graffiti” but because half my locations incorporated a bit of humor, I ended up receiving the nickname “Bad Cat (Bose Katze).” To give an example, I marked a section of the road where the water rose to about 10cm high after the rain. Also, this is probably irrelevant by now but I sprayed inside one of three standing phone booths and taped it shut with a bunch of construction tape until the paint dried.

Oto-date is composition. A kind of “tadpole” placed in the streets. The concept of “listening as a performance” is dependent upon the senses of the individual who stands in these places.

AO: After that, you presented oto-date in various cities around Europe and Asia. What did you learn from these experiences?

AS: Yes, this project triggered a series of chain reactions in places like Strasbourg (France), Chu-wei (Taiwan), Paris (France), Cork (Ireland), Koln (Germany), Turin (Italy), Bristol (UK), Brest (France), Bolzano (Italy), Aichi (Japan), Kanagawa (Japan), Kyoto, Tokyo and etc... Maybe over 30 locations. One great advantage was that I got to feel the culture and the landscapes of these places. I am certainly not doing this out of the desire to conquer. I think it has more to do with being given the time to be challenged by the act of “truly listening.” It is as if oto-date is taking a walk of its own.

By the way, the term oto(sound)-date(point) is in reference to an actual term “no-date” which is a term for an outdoor location used to practice the art of tea.

Akinyan, drawing by Akio Suzki, 2009

AO: A while ago, I saw your cartoon alter-ego Akinyan at the Gelbe Musik in Berlin. Can you tell us about that? I often see this “spirit of play” appear in many of your works.

AS: Maybe I am merely “Akio Suzuki”... Some people say that they can only see me as a cat and therefore calls me Akinyan [translator’s note: Aki (his name) - nyan (meow)]. I’m like a cheshire cat roaming the world I guess (laughs). I’ve had a rubber stamp picture of Akinyan, leaving the site of one of his Mr. Bean-style pranks, used on the cover of a catalog.

AO: Akio, you don’t seem to create your pieces all by yourself but rather to create an experiential space to mingle with nature and other human beings. There is something game-like in the nature to your work. Where does this liberalism and gentleness come from? Your attitude seems like a rarity in the sound art world.

AS: When I was kid, I lived right next to school. I only went to school after I heard the school bell ring. I would clamber over a secret fence to get to class. After class was over, I would leave the regular way just like my friends. As a result, I got into the habit of loitering around before finally heading home. I think these times spent meandering opened me up to observing nature and are probably the reason why I can still become infatuated with strange and silly things. In a world where speed is on the rise, maybe there is a place for an absent-minded cat like me.

AO: Your upcoming Voices and Echoes tour will include your first New York performance since 1983. Have you visualized a plan for the stage?

AS: Hm, yes, it has been a while since my last New York performance. When I was young I used to pile up a lot of sound... Takahiko Iimura once exclaimed to me, “Isn’t that a little too much sound?!” There are many lessons to be learned I guess.

So, maybe I want to do something that says that, “this is the old cat’s way of saying that even a single note can send a soul to heaven.”3 In any case, I want to do this by listening well. I want to hold on to the importance of being on the “listening side”... If I move towards point “X” in this manner, maybe I will once again find myself in unexpected places... (laughs).

August 26th, 2012

1 Akio originally said, Yamabiko asobi: a game that one plays by shouting words at open mountains and listening to the echoes.

2 translation A. Masubuchi. Original Japanese: 古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音 (Furu ike ya/ kawazu tobikomu/ mizu no oto)

3 Akio had originally said in Japanese 老猫なりの一音成仏 (rou-neko nari no ittonjyoubutsu). A more direct translation of this would be “an old cat’s way of ittonjoubutsu.” Ittonjoubutsu refers to a Buddhist concept of being enlightened by one musical note. The term is most often used in relation to shakuhachi (traditional bamboo flute) playing.