Not silence, exactly. Or, at least, not just silence. Silence and its opposite. Or, more accurately, an absence, a pause between actions. Not cause and effect but a moment, like a beach that bears the imprint of a walker who has just passed, but which is also, somehow, contains the seeds of what it will become.
For senu hima, Ryoko Akama asked four composers – Jürg Frey, Antoine Beuger, Sarah Hughes and James Saunders, to send her scores, for which she could create a response. Her vision for the album was to use those pieces to explore the idea of senu-hima, a concept from classical Japanese Noh theatre that denotes an interval of silence between actions. But her first response on receiving the scores was one of bafflement. “I was given scores that requested me to ‘perform’ actively with sequences, numbers and certain rules. It was a challenge for me to come up with my correspondence to the scores,” Akama says. Sequences, rules, actions seem the very opposite of the intuitive, internal, meditative landscapes she had in mind.
But, maybe, that idea of a pause between actions offered way out of that potential impasse. After all, a sequences and lists need pauses, gaps between steps, to become those very things. The scholar and translator, Noboru Yasuda expresses senu-hima as “intervals of not acting.” He says: “By using such empty, action-less intervals, [Noh actors] could alternate fast and slow tempos in a lively manner.” And so, perhaps, it starts to make sense. The pauses become as important as the actions directed by the score, porous buffers that leave Akama free to deploy different sound sources – voice, piano, guitar, various electronics and objects – as she brings each score alive.
Not that I’ve seen the scores, you understand, so this review focuses purely on the end-results, the sounds pushed out into the universe by Akama. Nevertheless, this concept of senu-hima seems most beautifully realised on the delivery of Antoine Beuger’s touw (voor joop) from 1996. Across more than 21 minutes, the spaces and lacunae in Akama’s performance become almost solid, tangible forces that push and pull as the piece progresses. The sounds themselves are pretty minimal, really only a metronomic blip that’s less drum machine than some piece of life support equipment. At first, all we get is the regular blip, which at least focuses our attention somewhat. Every so often, there’s a longer pause – sometimes lasting several minutes – which ushers in slight variations of this minimal soundscape. These periods of silence are times of both tension and calm before the next blip section starts. The result is something stark and beautiful, almost icy in its shining stillness.
In comparison, the performance of Jürg Frey’s Die moisten Sachen mach man selten is almost sprightly. Akama’s vocal fragments – which behave almost like samples or exercises for language learners – along with piano and electronic tones almost skip along to invisible rhythms, like pebbles carried down a river. Here, too, the spaces have a role to play. On one hand, they’re like the beats of an invisible drum, pushing the piece forward in an almost aqueous flow. But they also delineate each tiny section of sound perfectly, not braking the momentum such, but adding a kind of looseness so that the piece can bend and flex like a vertebrae. Of the four, this is the piece in which the idea of sequence can be felt most strongly, a set of recombinations that could, seemingly, continue forever.
Between those two pieces comes lovely realization of Sarah Hughes’ I Love This City and Its Outlying Lands (1.2). At almost 27 minutes it’s the longest piece here. But it’s this duration that enables Akama, using a very similar set of tools to those she used in the other three realizations, to gradually dissolve time into a stream of intense singular moments. There are some lovely close mic’d scrunching sounds early on, which reappear later, and a really weird creaking noise that sounds like some ancient dinosaur hooked up to a ventilator. These lizard breaths add a little bit of Beckett-style alienation, jarring it out of its rather beautiful symmetries. There’s also something that could be a field recording – it has that distinctive wind-on-the-microphone sound – and all of these elements combine into a thick sonic impasto, the wind and screech punctuated by isolated piano notes and plucked guitar. Handclaps, too. Yet it still manages to retain a peculiar stillness, a strangeness.
After all that, the performance of James Saunders’ Overlay (with transience), feels like a departure. It’s a denser work, with layered tones and an oscillating, almost sci-fi drone. A woolly cloud of hiss drifts in from time to time. Gaps and spaces are harder to discern, although they do exist, but rather than firm barriers they are interstices, where crystalline sounds dissolve into air before reappearing in a new forms. Given the sparsity of what’s gone before it, sometimes it feels like there’s way too much going on, Akama seeming intent on pushing her sounds forward with a not always comfortable momentum. At about 6:20, in fact, the oscillator and sine tones clash rather than coalesce, in unexpected dissonance. Credit to Akama after tall this sparse beauty for giving us something that is less easy to process; and, anyway, after a few minutes, you adjust to the pace of the work, with the overlapping wafts of sound acting as eddies or currents twirling you in their wintry gusts.