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Magical stones: an interview with Akio Suzuki. By Tomoko Sauvage

April 2019

The Paris based improvising musician shares an interview with Japanese sound artist originally undertaken for the Oscillation festival

On 28 April Akio Suzuki will perform at Oscillation Festival: On Sound's Nature at Q-O2 workspace in Brussels. The project will also publish a book titled The Middle Matter: Sound As Interstice – an anthology of writings by festival participants including Jennifer Walshe, David Toop, Mark Fell and Brandon LaBelle. Tomoko Sauvage contributed this interview with Suzuki, which took place at Geneva’s cave12 in 2014.

Tomoko Sauvage: Was it in the 1970s that you started to construct Analapos? [The Analapos is an echo instrument invented by Suzuki, consisting of two resonant chambers connected by a long spring].

Akio Suzuki: It was actually in 1969. Before that I was playing with echoes for many years and I had become a kind of echo-otaku [Japanese for echo-nerd]. I would visit buildings which had nice reverberations. I'm still doing it today. I call it Oto-date [listening point].

I thought Oto-date was about listening at a determined point? Is it also about making sound?

No, it's just about listening. I mean, you can also try to make sound. I decide on the places intuitively – they're the right ones most of the time. I clap my hands and it makes an awesome echo. But there are other places that are not like this – that are a kind of joke.

A joke?

Yeah. I get bored if I have to be serious all the time – I often become naughty, start making jokes. They called me Böse Katze [Naughty Cat] when I exhibited in Berlin – people like to find nicknames for me. When I first started with Oto-date I was in my twenties, doing it just for me. I called it Echo Pointo Wo Saguru [In Search Of Echo Point]. In 1996 I was invited to the Sonambiente sound art festival in Berlin, and I was at a loss as to what to do. All the other sound artists were picking their locations – at that time, after the fall of the Wall, there were many empty spaces in East Berlin. I thought to myself, there won't be anywhere left for me to exhibit in if I'm too slow, and then I thought of doing Echo Pointo Wo Saguru in public. There's this island on the River Spree, the lower half is called Fischerinsel, Fisherman Island, and the upper half, where there are museums, is called Museumsinsel. And I applied for the entire area. It took me one month to walk around and find locations, I chose 25. That was my first Oto-date work.

So the locations had lots of echo?

Yes... Well maybe five out of 25. Those I chose seriously. The rest were almost jokes.

In my imagination you were travelling in nature like Basho did. Tell me about your trips in search of echo points.

I'm from Komaki, close to Nagoya and I know the surrounding area very well. There's Seto, famous for its ceramics – they've mined clay there for hundreds of years. In the Kanto region, they mine oya stone. There are lots of tunnels, lots of interesting spaces. Around the Mikawa region, there are places with great echoes, like Okazaki quarry.

Some quarries are really beautiful.

Yes. Fantastic landscapes. This kind of artificial space is also interesting in terms of echoes. I visited many such tunnels, walked around the Kiso river valley. After moving to Tokyo, I went to Gunma and Saitama, for example to Yoshimi-Hyakketsu, these caves dug out underneath an ancient mountain. It's like a maze. No one knows what they were used for in ancient times – maybe for prayer. I'd visit these places and play on my own.

You were doing it by yourself?

Yes. I could get in. You can't get into those kinds of places anymore, but it wasn't secured at that time. So I'd play there alone. There were stray dogs. Sometimes they'd bark, sometimes they'd listen to me. I was doing an event for myself. Once I was travelling in Shikoku, walking along the Oboke–Koboke gorge, and I came to a village – I forget its name – and an old woman invited me in for a cup of tea. It's a village where each family cultivates its own tea with its own scent. It's extraordinary. There I was, chatting with this lovely old woman about this tea. ‘It's very good,’ I said, and I heard another me repeat, ‘It's good’! I was astonished, and then I noticed that there was a small hill in front of her house, an ordinary looking hill that was producing this echo. Of course, a normal volume yoohoo echoed back, but also whispers, sa-shi-su-se-so... So if you speak ill of your neighbours there, they'll hear you. I wish I could visit that place again.

Now, after a lot of playing with echoes, a lot of travelling about searching for echo points, I was fully echo-otaku. I came back home to Tokyo, where I had collected lots of objects to make sound... At that time, American culture was being imported and a new American-style supermarket opened in Yotsuya. They were selling different sorts of juice, some in big cans, which I bought... I just wanted the cans. My studio was full of junk like this. I'd also picked up a piece of spring off a broken lamp. I was still single at that time so one evening I was alone playing with the empty juice cans and the spring. I put the spring onto the can, pulled it and it went grrrrn! I said wow, there's a wonderful echo here! And that night I got all these ideas, and the next morning I walked around all over the place to find good springs. In the telephone book I found a company called Suzuki Spring, and I ran over there to ask them to make a special long spring for me. They made it and I played with it. I thought of the tin can telephones I used to play with when I was a child, and I wondered if you might get more feedback if you used a spring instead of a string to connect the cans. I did it and wow it sounded so good, I played it all night... All the techniques I use now I mastered just in that one night. And this was the first Analapos.

Then I made many versions of it, not only with cans but with many different receptacles – wood, plastic... I tried everything I found – junk off the street, like a celluloid Kewpie doll. But after many experiments, the steel can I used first was the best. So I ran to a can maker and I ordered many different shapes. Different lengths, thicknesses . . . I tried everything. In the end the steel one I'm still using now sounded best with my voice. But when other people try to play Analapos, it doesn't always work well with their voice –. because their voice is different from mine. So they just give up.

Akio and dancer Hiromi Miyakita performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Photo by Naoki Miyashita

The Analapos has such amazing tones. And your ways of singing are so unique...

When I was travelling alone in my twenties to play with echoes, I'd sing in the mountains. I taught myself.

About the echo points in your own body...

Yes. I tried to learn by myself how to resonate the cavity of my own body and the Analapos.

What was the name of your glass instrument?

De Koolmees. In Dutch it's the name of a small bird... a kind of tit. I did this artist residency at Het Apollohuis in Eindhoven, and I was practising playing this instrument there, before it had a name . . .

But you'd invented it a long time before the residency?

Yes, in 1975. I called it the Suzuki-type glass harmonica, after Benjamin Franklin's plate-type glass harmonica, the kind you see at musical instrument museums. So I was practising playing my glass harmonica at the residency in Eindhoven, hitting it with a stick, tikkin-tikkin – and then I heard the same sound – tikkin-tikkin – from outside! I opened the window and it was birds singing. I thought they were imitating my sound. Those birds were koolmezen – I named the instrument after them.

I'd first created it when I got interested in the resonance of glass. It didn't come from a special idea – I found it kind of by chance, like how you discovered your porous ceramic sound in the water. [Suzuki had seen a concert of Sauvage playing with the amplified sound of porous terra cotta. emitting small bubbles in the water. When they later talked about it Sauvage explained that she had found the material by chance.]

Yes, a coincidental discovery.

When you're an otaku, your ears are developed in such a way that you don't miss a particular sound, a sound that others wouldn't notice. In my room at that time, there were lots of neon tubes and one day there was a dying one. When I tried to change it my hands happened to be wet, and it went “hyun”. That's how I got the idea of playing glass tubes by rubbing them. It was rare to do it at that time. After that moment, I started to visit companies specialising in science equipment to look for different sorts of crystal tubes, flasks you only use in scientific laboratories, in many different sizes. I tried many kinds and I found specific points that vibrated when rubbed and produced harmonics.

Do the harmonics change depending on the room's reverberation?

Yes. It's the room that sings. Most flutes are like that. As the room becomes an instrument, I can sometimes make my flutes sing, as if I had become a genius. But when I go outside to play the same flutes in a field, I'm not a genius anymore... In resonance, some sound, that normally doesn't sound, sounds.

So a room is an instrument, the space is an instrument?

That's the important thing. I think it's quite Eastern, as a way of thinking. In the West, auditoriums have developed as if people felt obliged to deliver the same music to everyone. In our world, we somehow make use of each moment...

The moment, the space, and the people in the space...

Yes. Making use of them is in the Eastern nature, I think. Flutes are made very accurately in Europe. The holes are made to have very precise pitches. However in Japan, even shakuhachi are made approximately. By adjusting your fingering, you can play accurate pitches. But if you move your fingers slightly you can make unique interesting sounds. Each flute has its own character and I believe it's the Asian way to master these unique characteristics. It's the same with space.

Tell me about stones.

Playing with stones is something I've been doing ever since my ‘self-study events’. Where I live in Tango there's a cultural centre for archaeology, and a friend from this place showed me these hekomi ishi, a pair of concave–convex stones. One is long and thin and the other is flat, and they are always found in pairs. Scholars don't know what these small stones were used for. One day I was walking through these Yayoi period [300 BC–300 AD] ruins, and to the side of a rice field I saw a pair of the same kind of stones. I was excited and kept them for myself.

So were they real ancient stones?

Yes, they were genuine. When farmers find things in rice fields while working, they just throw them aside. That's what had happened. I started to imagine what these stones could have been used for. For example to emit some kind of signal. One of the stones has a hollow, so people must have hit this part. Maybe they used them to crack open some kind of cereal, or nuts. I was having fun carrying these stones around with me and imagining different things. One day I was at the beach and I saw these small squids with their arms folded, having a nap in the water. I felt like teasing them so I put the stones in the water and tapped them together – and the squids turned and came towards me! Depending on what sounds I made, they came dancing to the sound. They loved it. By the way, squids have beaks. If we put a hydrophone in the water, we might hear them sending signals like this stone sound – that's just my imagination, but that's how I felt when I saw the squids responding to the sound. So it's my guess that this used to be a special fishing technique – they called the squids with the sound of the stones, and caught them with a fishing net or something. This knowledge must have been forgotten, replaced by more modern, more convenient methods.

Do you ever play with other animals through sound?

Very often. Around the same period that the Space In The Sun project came to an end, I was planning to go back to Tokyo. But I had become too marginal to live there. I had spent two years in the countryside. The air was fresh, the food was good. I was subletting my studio in Tokyo to a friend of mine but I'd become unable to pay such expensive rent. That's why I decided to stay in Tango... I also wanted to learn from the fishermen and farmers there to recall and revive the senses that we modern people were losing.

When was this?

Around 1988. The first thing I did after deciding to stay in the area was to build a pit-dwelling on a hill which I was free to use. I made some research into ancient techniques: digging, mound-making, woodworking... I wanted to learn from nature, live with nature, that's why I wanted to make this pit-dwelling. Around that time, some local fishermen still knew how to make traditional straw skirts out of woven paddy rice. These woven sheets are up to 50 metres long, and they use them to make thatched roofs. I learned many things from local fishermen and farmers in making the house. It became a kind of community centre and we were having parties inside. From outside you could hear everything going on inside through the walls of the house. That made me understand that in ancient times people used to hear everything that was happening in their surroundings, so I guess they were living quiet lives. Nearby we made a small pond. One day lots of small holes appeared in the wall of the pond, and I saw many small frogs in them, looking out from their holes! I would often play in the field, tapping bamboo sticks and stones. One day I was doing this, and I saw the frogs coming out from their holes. I carried on hitting the stones, and the frogs came up to me to watch me play! The same day my wife had bought a video camera and she filmed it all.

There's another story about playing with stones from my trip to Bali. They have these big festivals called Odolan, and the musicologist Shin Nakagawa brought me to see one. We stayed for about two weeks at the village chief's place in Singapadu. It was in the rainy season so I asked the village chief what they would do if it rained on the days of the festival. The chief very confidently replied that this festival is so sacred that it cannot rain. I always carry some stones with me and one day I was playing with them. The village chief's grandson came and we played with them together. Then lots of other kids came and joined in. We were playing with the stones, almost like Kecak [a form of Balinese hindu dance and music drama developed in the 1930s], and then it started to rain! The village chief got so angry at me! I was afraid he'd stop me staying at his house, so we stopped hitting the stones. Then it stopped raining.

Really?

Hitting stones called the rain... That phenomenon was so mysterious.

Wow, they can be a bit scary, stones... Do you think they have special frequencies?

Maybe they produce special vibrations that reach the atmosphere. People try to call rain in lots of different ways, but stones could be useful tools to make special vibrations for that.

Translator Tomoko Sauvage's note: Akio Suzuki often uses the word asobu which means play like a child. In many European languages, play (jouer, spielen) is used both for playing a musical instrument and for playing like a child. In this interview, most of the time he used the word asobu and very rarely ensou suru which properly means ‘play an instrument’. He uses this form only once when speaking about the dekoolmees.

This interview was conducted in 2014 with the support of Adrien Silvestre, Nikola Curavic and cave12, Geneva. Thanks to Jacob Blandy and Henry Andersen from Q-O2's Oscillation project for their help with this piece.

The Middle Matter: Sound As Interstice is published on 25 April.

Suzuki's installation works An Encouragement Of Dawdling – Oto Da Te and No Zo Mi were recently added to the permanent collection at MOT: Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

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