It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon, and I was not ready for the experience that awaited me at the Cooper-Hewitt museum. After browsing around the photographs, wall hangings, and sculpture, which are part of the current ‘MA, Space/Time in Japan’ exhibit, I wandered into the performance area. I was stunned to find 10 priests facing the wall, absolutely still, meditating, completely undistracted by the gathering audience. A few minutes later I was stunned again to discover that those totally lifelike priests were statues. Then began the most stunning performance of new music I have attended in months.
Akio Suzuki appears on the small stage and takes his place behind an attractive piece of sculpture. Six coiled springs are stretched vertically between black cylinders mounted on a frame. He strokes one of the springs gently and it resounds with a strong, deep sound. He strokes again, scratches, plucks, moves from spring to spring, tests the resonances, listens. He is clearly improvising. There is no sense that he is playing specific rhythms, or making a composition, or asserting his will on this remarkable instrument he has made. He drifts with the music, allowing the springs to make their own sounds in their own time. After a while he stretches one of the springs out across the stage and sings into the black cylinder on one end. His voice resonates for such a long time that he can catch breaths without disturbing the tone. The resulting sound sustains without interruption, and its resonance spreads eerily around the whole room at once.
Takehisa Kosugi has still not appeared, but one can hear a sporadic clicking from behind the back wall of the stage.
Suzuki moves back to the six vertical springs and plays them some more. Then he bends over what appears to be a small glass table. He begins rubbing on the table in small circular motions and produces a sound that could have come from a wine goblet. He is not trying to dominate the glass. Maybe he is allowing the glass to dominate him. No. They are equal. They are both part of nature, and they are simply flowing together. It’s a special kind of sensitivity that’s hard for Westerners to understand, but which seems completely natural in this Japanese setting.
Kosugi can be seen now, and we realize that the clicking emanates from a fishing reel. Slowly, ceremonially, he walks to the front of the stage, gradually letting out a line that is stretched to some point behind the stage.
Suzuki returns to the six vertical springs, but now he plays them with a pair of mallets. As he moves from one spring to another, one can hear that the basic pitches of the springs have been carefully tuned.
Kosugi has gradually made his way from the front of the stage out through the audience. The clicks from the reel come in clusters whenever he takes another step. He walks with great concentration, listening to the reel and holding it carefully, but never trying to tell it what to do.
Suzuki moves back to the small glass table, this time producing little clicking sounds.
Kosugi has disappeared into an adjacent gallery, and the clicking of the reel is fainter. The line he has stretched out over the audience sways slightly in response to the movements at the performer’s end.
Suzuki is now stroking a corrugated surface on the floor with a wooden stick. The sound is similar to the clicking of the reel, but the similarity seems more coincidental than intentional.
Kosugi remains out of sight, but the clicking continues. The line he has stretched out over the audience reflects the line of a long coiled spring that is also stretched over the audience, but this too seems like a coincidence. We are in a very subtle artistic world where there can be no direct relationships, no Western rationality, no look-what-I-made. Only coincidence.
Suzuki continues playing on the corrugated surface, but he is also listening to the clicking of the reel.
Kosugi reappears in the doorway, and we realize that now he is reeling the line in instead of letting it out. He is intent on what he is doing, but he is also listening to the sound of the stick moving across the corrugated surface.
The two performers now come together in one of the oddest and most beautiful duets I have ever heard. They never force a relationship. They never attempt to imitate each other. They don’t take turns making their similar sounds, but they don’t not take turns either. They are not controlling, organizing, composing. Yet they are listening, sensing. I have seldom seen two performers so completely tuned in on the same types of sounds, the same performance attitude, the same philosophy, the same sense of what music ought to be. They are at one with the reel, the stick, the situation, and each other. And while I realize that I am romanticizing in an inappropriately Western way, I can not help feeling that they are tuned in on some sort of basic life flow.
Suzuki eventually gets up and moves over to the black cylinder at the end of the coiled spring that stretches clear across the room.
Kosugi eventually finishes reeling in his line and disappears backstage again.
Suzuki now focuses on his new black cylinder and, with one little tap, produces the most amazing sound of the afternoon. The tap races down the coiled spring, resonates in the black cylinder at the other end, races back, races down again, and makes five or six round trips before fading off into silence. It is an ingenious sound discovery, unlike anything I have ever heard before. The effect could easily hold my interest for 20 minutes, but the inventor-sculptor-performer lets us hear it only a few times. How odd. I can’t think of any other musicians who would work for 15 or 20 minutes with a familiar everyday sort of clicking and would then toss off a brilliant sound discovery like this in less than a minute. What elegant pacing.
Kosugi reappears with his violin. He improvises short phrases, some of which revolve around only two notes, and some of which are more active. The phrases have unique individual curves that remind me of the quick brush strokes of a calligrapher. And each one has a few little flaws too. Places where the ink or the sound doesn’t quite fill in. Places where a brush hair or a bow hair wanders a little to one side. The violinist moves a lot as he plays. Many phrases begin standing tall and end in crouch. The music seems to emanate from his breathing, from his body. I don’t think his brain has a whole lot to do with it. He seems quite at home on his instrument, and I have little doubt that he could play Bach respectably if he wanted to. But now he is not striving for any specific, thought-out results. The sounds have a more physical origin, and the scratchiness or mellowness of the tone seems more a matter of muscular accident than conscious decision. Sometimes the phrases are quite strident, but since they are disconnected from the will, they never seem aggressive.
Suzuki is now balancing a small board on one end. Sometimes it falls to one side and clicks against a dowel he holds in his right hand. Sometimes it falls against the dowel in his left hand. There is something quite elegant about the choice of wood and the appearance of the grain. It is clear that this man has produced a lot of sculpture. His sensitivity to materials, colors, and lines is apparent in all of his instruments, and one senses a sculptor’s eye even in the little piece of wood he is playing now. Sometimes he moves over to a metal plate, rubbing on it with a stick, and producing rough sounds that relate more closely to the violin music.
Kosugi continues playing his violin, or perhaps allowing the violin to play him. As always, he and his partner remain tuned in on one another, listening, flowing, and allowing the coincidences to happen until, as another kind of coincidence, they stop playing and end the performance.
It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon again, though I felt much different from before. I went up to speak with Kosugi, who is best known to New York audiences for his extensive work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and he provided several interesting footnotes to the concert. The activity of reeling a line out and in, for example, was actually a realization of the brief, conceptual, verbal scores he wrote in 1961 in his ‘Animus’ series. Experimental music, I learned, is still largely ignored in Japan, even when the aesthetic seems totally Japanese, and the two do not expect many performing opportunities there.