I’d always visualised the subtle interplays of sound and silence in Ryoko Akama’s work as a kind of spacey whiteness, a snowy fjord gradually shrouded in mist, or a white cube-style gallery space whose empty, chilly spaces provide a resonating chamber for even the quietest of scratches and rustles. But what if I was wrong? After all, I usually am. What if, instead of glacial brightness, those eloquent spaces are like shadows, shrouding her sonic explorations in a welcoming, warming shade? It’s an inversion stimulated, in part, by a reading of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows:
“Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”
Of course, it is a bit churlish to draw comparisons like this. Not much connects the Tanizaki and Akama, really, apart from the fact that they’re both Japanese. It’s a bit like finding subtle connections between, I dunno, H.G Wells and Evan Parker while reading The Time Machine and listening to Monocerous. Fine, but kind of arbitrary.
That said, I still can’t get those crepuscular visions of shade and shadow out of my head as I listen to this lovely recent Akama collaboration with the French musician and composer Bruno Duplant, out on Notice Recordings. That’s not to say that I want to ascribe anything essentially, stereotypically Japanese to these recordings: Duplant plays an equally important role in their creation; indeed the two pieces use a score and initial sonic sketches from him as starting points, according to the release notes.
Akama and Duplant have worked together before, notably in a very nice duo recording from last year, Espèces D’Espaces, and as part of a trio with Dominic Lash, for a gorgeous release on Another Timbre, 2014’s Next To Nothing. So they’re hip to each other’s methods and approaches, and this, I think, adds to the integration and telepathy shown here. The instrumentation is minimal – Akama’s on organ, and Duplant plays organ and electronics, but the textures are rich and engrossing and the meditative depth is fabulous.
As its title suggests, l’immobilité (n’existe pas) – immobility does not exist – builds a creeping momentum, as inevitable as the dusk. A cracked, rumbling undertow evokes images of a diamond stylus locked onto a rock-hewn turntable even as it is gradually wiped clean by overlapping arcs of sine tones, as weightless as cobwebs drifting in the breeze. At about 19 minutes, a cluster of quiet bleeps flourishes, a blink-and-you’ll miss it instant captured in slow motion. Occasionally there’s a slight, wavering throb to the tones in their final, dying moments. Towards the end, a flickering pulse makes itself heard through the silvery threads, a message in Morse code from across the dark valley.
The titles to these two long pieces are both utilitarian and allusive. même place (same place) revisits the sonic material of its companion, but brings with it a strange sense of deja-vu. It’s all the same notes, but not necessarily in the right order, as an English musical savant once said. Those igneous rumbles and smooth tones are replayed, but they’re deployed differently, with the low-end appearing and disappearing, extruding physicality into the glassy, high register undulations. Rather than tension, the spaces between these gritty interventions create anticipation before they swirl round in a sedimentary embrace.
Yet if the uncanny is present here, so is the mundane. During this piece, we occasionally hear Duplant and Akama in the act of creation, the shuffles and scuffs that are usually edited out in the quest for audio perfection (at one point I think I can hear a clock ticking in the background). It’s a comforting, humanistic touch, and adds to the thick, nutritious textures the duo have worked up. And, like its companion piece on the other side of the tape, there’s a momentum too, this time borne from the simple, mantra-like cycles of crackle and whine. Wind-pure. Friction-smooth. Bliss.