When we think of the sonic arts, be it music or sound-art, we tend to conceptualize it generatively, within a fairly one directional stream – an artist creates something, which we subsequently we hear. This distinction – implying a default of hierarchical placement, is, in all probability, as old as music itself. It’s not easy to dislodge, and, in one way or another, continues to be enforced by nearly every infrastructure surrounding and sustaining the sonic arts – the gallery, the concert venue, recordings, and what we write and read.
Looking back over the past 75 years of its realizations, avant-garde practice can be understood as a confrontation with our expectations of definition, location, utility, and hierarchy. It isn’t necessarily about being radical or creating something fundamentally new, but rather a means to establish a more developmental and intimate relationship with sound. Indications of this can be found within nearly every practice at the avant-garde’s disposal – the utilization of graphic scores or new technologies, improvisation, indeterminacy, prepared or unconventional instrumentation, extended technique, processing, synthesis, tape music, found or field recorded material – the list goes on and on. What is often overlooked, is that threading through all of this, are attempts to undermine the relational hierarchies through which we order and locate ourselves within the acts of creation and listening. The avant-garde doesn’t only set out to confront our expectations within the abstract realms of art. It also operates within our own physical dimension. As metaphor, or through direct action, it challenges the schism between the maker, what is made, and those who hear it, proposing alternate terms for relationships, as well as new approaches for existing in the world. Among the most crystalline examples of this, are the efforts of Akio Suzuki.
Born in 1941, Suzuki is widely regarded as one of the great pioneers of Japanese sound art, though such a simple designation – or even the desire for definition and location, does an injustice to his practice. While his work is performative and deals with space and location, it has nothing to do with a space’s existing signifiers or definitions. If anything, it is a complete dismissal of them. When Suzuki performs in a space – a gallery, concert venue, or any other, his practice reforms its existing relational terms, establishing a new elemental balance between sound – both existing and generative, performer, and audience. He might be understood as a kind of sonic lens. His occupancy of space frames and emphasizes what naturally occurs within it – at times refracting or altering perspective, at others responding and intervening. Crucially, whether in action or stasis, it is Suzuki’s position within the sonic field which carries the greatest importance and weight. His recognition of, and response to, the value of existing sonorous material, with a space’s role as an actor on the sounds he generates, places him within the same sonic field as the listener, breaking the standing hierarchies and divisions between performer, audience, context, and sound. His actions stitch the desperate into a single, conversant and unified body, where hierarchies and definition drift away.
Back in 2010, while I was still living in London, Suzuki paid one of many visits to the city. The trip was probably instigated by a gig (or a small series) at Cafe Oto, but the years, with what happened within them, blur together – too many shows, too many nights, too many drinks. While he was there, he executed a small series of solo environmental performances in the Walthamstowe Marshes, an open landscape which divides two outlaying neighborhoods in East London – Clapton and Walthamstowe. The marshes aren’t exactly what the word calls to mind – part wasteland, park, and nature preserve. While the sprawling space offers fleeting escapes from the city, it’s never far from reach. Scars of high voltage power lines traverse its length. The ground and water are permeated with years of industrial waste from the surrounding areas. It’s nature on decidedly urban terms – dirty, wild, and unkempt, defaulting into its current use, rather than having been planned. Among its trees and underbrush, you’re more likely to catch sight of encampments of the homeless, junkies slamming skag, or the entangled bodies of teenagers, than the idyllic images of nature that one might expect.
For most of the decade I lived in London, the Walthamstowe Marshes was my local and most visited green space. As someone for whom nature offers almost no appeal, it was perfect – as near I needed to get – respite and quite, but never too far away from the heaving mass of humanity, with all its dark and light. The space holds a special place in my heart, which, at least in part, is why the three short films made by Helen Petts, documenting Suzuki’s solitary performances there, have resonated so much with me over the past seven years. I’ve returned to them again and again, caught by his slow reforming of spaces I know well.
When regarding practices which fall around the territories which Suzuki traverses, we often orient ourselves relationally – contrasting what we hear and see, against what we know – standing presumptions about music, generally emphasizing materiality – what is making the sound. This is not without reason. The historical emphasis on unconventional sound sources and generators, be it those positions stemming from Musique concrète, the ideas of John Cage, or the camp drawing on the gestures of David Toop and Max Eastley, has largely focused on a principle point of contrast – pushing us to recognize the value of all sound, stating that when organized, any sound can be sculpted into music. While incredibly important, these ideas and actions generally operate through a kind of mirroring, duplicating the structural contexts of music, with its standing hierarchies, in order to affirm meaning and location. In other words, while the sound sources defy the standing signifiers of musicality, we can understand them as music because of the way they are contextualized and framed. Suzuki’s practice and orientation is considerably more complex – doing away with the affirmation provided by structural context. While it might be easy to approach this as a natural progression – first stripping the signifiers of music’s materiality, and then those of its contexts, what Suzuki proposes is more dynamic. Rather than simply being a creator of organized sounds, his body and actions are an indication of a larger sonic reality within which we all exist and participate. He is a marker, through which a the entirety of a non-hierarchical landscape comes into focus. His work is an indication of something which already exists. His actions are a metaphor, proposing a pathway toward a more developmental and intimate relationship with sound – breaking the standing hierarchies and divisions between its performers, audiences, and contexts.
With that, I leave you with the three films. My thanks to Helen Petts for making them, and for the joy and revelation they bring.