October 2006

Michael Snow, Alan Licht, Aki Onda | Synth When II
presented by ROUGHIDEA
October 11, 2006Goethe InstitutToronto
Eyes Shut) (Wide Open
by David Fujino
I mostly shut my eyes when I listen to music, so I'm a bit of a problem when a musician decides to put on a slide show.

Aki Onda's "Cinemage" started with slides of dotted and curved white lights inscribed into a night scene, while low rumbles of sound paused and emanated from Alan Licht's processed guitar...

My eyes alternately kept shutting and opening, and I found myself thinking, "Oh-oh, here we go again" — but they popped wide open when a lovely young woman repeatedly appeared on-screen in the nude in different (non-pornographic) poses, which phased into colour shots of interiors and cycled back again to the opening stark black-and-white exteriors.

Initially, Licht was more focused on the guitar in his lap and his foot pedals on the floor, but he started watching the screen and played to it with measured silence and gritty pedal-distortion, before successively lighting six or so matches, allowing each match to sputter and burn out in a kind of reverse visual counterpoint to the black screen that increasingly grew more dense with spots of white light. As Licht's remaining sounds died out, the screen annihilated to metaphorical black.

"Cinemage" was a form of avant slide show in which the music — even with eyes shut — was itself a character, and not a mere fractured accompaniment in service to the visuals.

The second piece was an anticipated relief. It featured all three collaborators — Snow, Onda, and Licht; and I knew I could listen and not feel bad about my closed eyes.

It felt great. A taped shortwave radio piece by Michael Snow became the basis for this second evolving aural entity. With a ringing siren sound, which eventually served as a kind of muted ground — and with the sequential entry of humanizing radio voices and a kind of drill hammer repeat — LOUD wave oscillations morphed into a sliding kazoo of wows and squeaks (which made me think 'we' don't always need a song structure), as this piece slowly revealed conversing human voices which then elided into a natural, restful silence.

During an almost romantic third piece — threaded through by a lyrical, bubbling, 1-2-3-4-5-6 arpeggio, with a pause then, 1-2-3 beats — I realized the sound source was likely the world of ringing cell phone prompts. Never before have these tones sounded so lovely, rising up as they did from a collectivity of rushing sound storms, wobbling Theremin-like signals and eventual rockets that flare and soar (think Jimi Hendrix), to over arch those far-off sirens that are melting into a global space diminuendo.

Earlier on this evening — during the 6 pm to 7:30 pm Discussion period — we heard how each of the collaborating musicians had moved into this form of sound malleable performance, but — more important and more interesting to me — we found they agreed on a definition of music.

Alan Licht said that "Music is sound, but not all sound is music." Then Michael Snow emphasized that "Music has a beginning, a middle, and an end." Aki Onda agreed with both views, and as we heard at 8 pm and onwards, they happily took off together, outputting organized sound, all with the turn of a knob and the push of a switch.

But throughout this concert of 80 minutes Total Playing Time, these 'free improv' guys delivered a music that was more than the sum of all their parts — their parts being Michael Snow on a synthesizer, Aki Onda playing 'old-fashioned' audio tapes of collected and re-processed sounds, and Alan Licht making good on his view that distortion is as much an instrument as his guitar.

All without any laptop computers — but, understand, they were fluent.

In the case of Michael Snow, he said he wasn't sure when he'd get around to working with a computer, but he did understand that the computer is "a compositional tool with unprecedented control".

Sure, watching musicians twiddling knobs, flipping switches, and pushing foot pedals might be as exciting to some as 'watching paint dry', but if you 'cop the conception', and concentrate with both eyes closed, we'll all be on the same wave length.

Thanks to Ron Gaskin of ROUGHIDEA, and the Goethe Institut-Toronto, for featuring this trio of Michael Snow, Alan Licht, and Aki Onda in Toronto as part of the Synth When II series. We eagerly look forward to a Synth When III.

The Musicians
Michael Snow (Canada) — CAT Synthesizer
Alan Licht (U.S.A.) — Guitar, electronics
Aki Onda (Japan) — Cassette recorders, electronics, Buddha Machine
We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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