falling under a charm: Rie Nakajima

Café Oto, London, 22 August 2012, after 9.00pm: a warm night; the place is quite full. A low table, facing the stage area. Sometimes children lay out old and unwanted toys on the pavement, sit together and hope to sell a few things. This is what it looks like: plastic pails, cups, wires sprouting here and there, electrical scraps, unknown devices. Rie Nakajima sits with the quiet authority of a proprietor supervising her market stall. She activates without performance. We are rapt.

Perpetual motion begins, a ticking; surfaces vibrate. Rhythmic cycles pass in and out of phase as if the watchmaker has drifted into reverie. But she is attentive, observing her children, keeping them out of trouble. She pours small materials, beads maybe, into a cup, upends it onto a vibrating plate, lifts a ping-pong ball from its pulsing surface, carefully upends another cup of small materials onto this same surface. Whatever is now hidden inside – these colourful plastic grains – dances in the dark.

Time passes quickly, in fascination, perhaps because the room has become a complex clock mechanism, hushed and busy, its ticking moving in all directions as if time is a dismembered body, wandering away from itself. There is no such thing as ‘moving forward’; stop using that expression now, or then, or ever.

Then she stops, looks up, smiles. This segment of time within an evening of music is marked by an ending. There is long applause (because we have all been drawn into the charm of small magic) but the machines continue for some time afterwards. Like insects, they have no interest in humans, their ideas of performance, the rules of engagement.

Café Oto is a remarkable venue but one of its disadvantages is the lack of escape. Very few improvisers listen to sets by other people if they are preparing themselves to play. I’m not a virtuoso musician. I don’t practice for hours every day, nor do I play regular gigs. Everything I do is about questioning and instability. Hearing a brilliantly executed improvisation just before I play can be disastrous. Doubt creeps out of shadow places, insinuating itself into the field of potentiality. “Why can’t you play like this?”, Doubt asks me. “Why do you have to play so quietly, so loudly? Why are you not better at what you do?” I have no answer.

Excitement is also a problem. Normally I don’t want to get excited about anything before playing. Derek Bailey once told me that he had turned age to his advantage. The promoter would assume he was exhausted from travelling or just from being alive for so long. “Please go and lie down,” the promoter would say and Derek would happily do so because it meant he didn’t have to engage in conversation with anybody and get distracted from the job in hand: to play.

Yet I felt excited by this small magic – Rie’s section of the evening – and felt energised, ready to play almost immediately afterwards, free from the creeping questions of Doubt. This evil of Doubt can be unleashed by musicians whose fierce singularity of purpose crosses over into narrow dogmatism, as if their work is a weapon designed to eliminate all that is not them. As an artist Rie seems to possess that singularity but her composure and concentration turned out to be liberating, perhaps because the performance mixed strong self-determination with deliberate passivity.

David Cunningham was in the audience and as I watched him watching her I recalled words written by Richard Cook for the sleevenotes of General Strike’s album, Danger In Paradise. The music made by Steve Beresford and myself in David’s Brixton studio, might, according to Cook, “have been drawn from a particularly industrious afternoon concert in an elves’ toyshop.”

Others came to mind: Pierre Bastien, his Mecanium and trumpet (though Pierre is more of a Geppetto to his mechanical orchestra of Pinocchios); Max Eastley’s sonic automata (part sound installation, part artificial life); the small sounds of Rolf Julius (particularly his beautiful recording with Miki Yui) and Akio Suzuki’s way of casting a spell with the simplest of devices. I also though of kinetic sculptor Pol Bury, whose infinitely slow-moving microaudial sculptures bewitched me when I first saw them in the 1960s. Yet none of these precursors, if that is how they should be described, feels entirely appropriate; perhaps my closest experience of something similar was a Chiang Mai market stall stocked entirely with electronic bird sounds, all of them playing simultaneously to their owner, a woman whose job it was to be immersed in a perpetual dawn chorus of digital birdsong.

This week I was asked a few questions for a newspaper interview. One of them wanted to know if making music outside formal concert environments was a good idea. My honest answer to that (though not exactly the one I gave) is that you could pick up all the world’s concert halls and dump them in the sea. I no longer care very much about what happens in such places. I care about these moments of falling under a charm.

About davidtoop

Ricocheting as a 1960s teenager between blues guitarist, art school dropout, Super 8 film loops and psychedelic light shows, David Toop has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This practice encompasses improvised music performance (using hybrid assemblages of electric guitars, aerophones, bone conduction, lo-fi archival recordings, paper, sound masking, water, autonomous and vibrant objects), writing, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera (Star-shaped Biscuit, performed in 2012). It includes eight acclaimed books, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), Sinister Resonance (2010), Into the Maelstrom (2016, a Guardian music book of the year, shortlisted for the Penderyn Music Book Prize), Flutter Echo (2019) and Inflamed Invisible (2019). Briefly a member of David Cunningham’s pop project The Flying Lizards (his guitar can be heard sampled on “Water” by The Roots), he has released fifteen solo albums, from New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments on Brian Eno’s Obscure label (1975) and Sound Body on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label (2006) to Entities Inertias Faint Beings (2016) and Apparition Paintings (2020) on Lawrence English’s ROOM40 label. His 1978 Amazonas recordings of Yanomami shamanism and ritual - released on Sub Rosa as Lost Shadows (2016) - were called by The Wire a “tsunami of weirdness” while Entities Inertias Faint Beings was described in Pitchfork as “an album about using sound to find one’s own bearings . . . again and again, understated wisps of melody, harmony, and rhythm surface briefly and disappear just as quickly, sending out ripples that supercharge every corner of this lovely, engrossing album.” In the early 1970s he performed with sound poet Bob Cobbing, butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii and drummer Paul Burwell, along with key figures in improvisation, including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Georgie Born, Hugh Davies, John Stevens, Lol Coxhill, Frank Perry and John Zorn. In recent years he has returned to collaborative performance, working with many artists and musicians including Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki, Max Eastley, Tania Caroline Chen, John Butcher, Ken Ikeda, Elaine Mitchener, Henry Grimes, Sharon Gal, Camille Norment, Sidsel Endresen, Alasdair Roberts, Thurston Moore, Jennifer Allum, Miya Masaoka, Extended Organ (with Paul McCarthy and Tom Recchion), Ryuichi Sakamoto and a revived Alterations, the iconoclastic improvising quartet with Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack and Terry Day first formed in 1977. He has also made many collaborative records, including Buried Dreams and Doll Creature with Max Eastley, Breath Taking with Akio Suzuki, Skin Tones with Ken Ikeda, Garden of Shadows and Light with Ryuichi Sakamoto and co-productions (with Steve Beresford) for Frank Chickens, the 49 Americans and Ivor Cutler. Major sound art exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London (2000) and Playing John Cage at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (2005-6). In 2008, a DVD of the Belgian film – I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Portrait of David Toop Through His Records Collection – was released by Sub Rosa, and in 2017 his autobiography – Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound – was published by Du Books in Japan. His most recent records are Dirty Songs Play Dirty Songs (Audika, 2017), Suttle Sculpture (Paul Burwell and David Toop live, 1977, Sub Rosa, 2018), John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano with Tania Chen, Thurston Moore and Jon Leidecker (Omnivore, 2018), Apparition Paintings (ROOM40, 2020), Field Recordings and Fox Spirits (ROOM40, 2020), Until the Night Melts Away (with Sharon Gal and John Butcher, Shrike, 2021) and Garden of Shadows and Light (with Ryuichi Sakamoto, 33-33, 2021). He is Professor Emeritus at London College of Communication.
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6 Responses to falling under a charm: Rie Nakajima

  1. Steve Beresford says:

    Just wondering whether I enjoyed your piece more because I didn’t hear the performance…..

    Keep bumping into Rie but didn’t realise she performed.

    Keep cool

    Best, S

    Steve Beresford mobile: 07961 176 459

    Or, at University of Westminster: 020 7911 5000, extension 4650 [room CG25, Harrow campus]

    (from a UoW ‘phone you can dial mobile code 1720)


    • davidtoop says:

      Maybe that’s true, Steve. There’s a lot to be said for not hearing concerts but thinking about what they might have been like.

      • …except that this was a wonderfully enclosing and intimate performance…even the ‘trick’ of re-orienting the audience in the middle of the evening worked…the people at the back were suddenly at the front and vice versa. And there was something about her nonchalance that undermined expectations…

      • davidtoop says:

        Yes, I liked the switch of focus, the way the audience had to rethink itself.

  2. Michael Ross says:

    Loved Cafe Oto when I visited London. One of those places where the atmosphere is beautifully in tune with the performances. Pointed stuff about doubt.

  3. Pingback: Magical moments… | My Festival Life

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