Chased by Fires. Feedback: Order From Noise Tour Diary

Words by Toshimaru Nakamura

Some participants have travelled for sixteen hours, some for a half an hour. We all have gathered at this hotel in London, The Zetter; in the basement there is a well yielding natural mineral water and supplying it to the whole building. It makes me think I am living in a big tall tree. Or maybe I am idealising it too much. Anyway, here and now begins the Feedback: Order from Noise tour.

As you can see from this title, this tour is not just about wandering, dining and wining away, and causing problems anywhere we go. Even if it ended up like that, I would be happy anyway as long it brought me fun. But I guess some people wouldn’t see it the same way, and in fact I will be slightly happier if we achieve something and are productive as artists, rather than just having fun. I mean that wherever you go, whether in Tokyo or somewhere in England, there will be fun if you are with people, friends and good beer, wine or some such. The place itself wouldn’t make much difference. You would just drink. I mean… I would anyway. And when I find no other option than going to bed, then I go to bed. So, my heroes on this tour were Andy Hopton and Rob Storey, and the regulars at Rob’s Special Moveable Bar.

Speaking of bars, English beer is generally regarded as not cold enough for Japanese tastes. I myself sometimes think I would prefer if it was a little colder at some bars. On the other hand, beer in Japan is too cold for my taste. Icy cold beer in a frozen glass tastes of nothing, and makes a strange sensation in my stomach because of the strong fizzle. Canned beer that you buy in shops is the same. Just too cold to enjoy it the way I want. When I feel like having a beer on my walk—or rather I should say that I always want one in my hand for a walk— I ask the shopkeeper for a beer from their storage room instead of the ones in their refrigerator if possible. Because I like it better. But in summer, you know, the Tokyo summer, a beer at room temperature is pretty warm. But then the refrigerated ones are too cold. So, even though beer is regarded as a summer drink in Japan, I actually drink less beer in summer. It is a pity. A big loss for me and a small one for the brewing industry. But I guess I drink some other fun beverages instead.

I found that the English crew started their beers in the afternoon, and I thought it was very good that way. Of course, I wouldn’t generalise like that about all English people. I don’t know what English drinking habits are generally like anyway. I just thought the way they, I mean we, started was very natural. Looking back at Japan, I would say that there is a social pressure to make you feel guilty about drinking in daylight. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Japanese people don’t drink. Many want to drink. So instead of following their natural appetite, they hold back from drinking till sunset, and then drink too much and too fast in the evening. I suppose it is even worse for your health and it could lead to some bad behaviour. Therefore I think it is good to start drinking when you feel like it. Quietly start, and merrily keep on one level and not go beyond that.

However, I have to admit that sometimes I step beyond the boundary. Then that could make me feel unpleasant. Or, regardless of the amount of alcohol I took in on the day before, I sometimes think it would not be a bad idea to have one day off from alcohol. I think to myself, “OK, I won’t drink today.” But actually the fact that I have that idea tells me that an idea to do with drinking is starting to fill up my thoughts. A person who doesn’t drink just doesn’t drink without any thought or declaration. So, when I find myself hearing this sentence, “I won’t drink today,” in my mind, I see that I am thinking and knowing, in the other half of my brain, “Well, but I’ll be drinking anyway.”

Besides all this foggy business, our day job on this tour was as musicians, plus a video artist, all of us based on feedback in our technique and/or theory and so on, not just presenting each other’s work, but rather experimenting with new works through collaborations. At least I understood the tour concept in that way. And I thought it was tough. The nature of the idea within feedback is to stay within an individual’s closed loop circuit, and that is true technically too. So I thought the idea of a collaboration between feedback generators would conflict with the idea of feedback itself. But I believe that was one of the focal points of the tour. Difficult, therefore challenging. Anyway, maybe I thought about that conceptual element too much, so I was unable to make myself explore possible sound fields, and pick the musical fruit. I presented a piece called “Feed Me Feed You Blues.” And it failed, though the idea itself had sounded interesting, and it still does. I invited Nic Collins and Knut Aufermann into that piece. But Nic sensed that it was a sinking boat and he evacuated before it became a disaster. Sorry, Knut. You stayed with me too long. But we had fun when we were out there, didn’t we? Other musicians presented ensemble pieces which treated the sounds of feedback as musical voices, and I thought many of them were successful. Especially in the case of Knut Aufermann’s “Block Piece.” While we were rehearsing this piece, the tour producer Ed Baxter was listening and came to us, suggesting, “Why don’t you guys play that piece for two or three hours at intense loudness?” Somehow I had been feeling up to that point that we were hesitating, and pushing aside ‘extremeness’. I felt we were too much like good boys and girls. But his words freed us. His words ignited our instincts. We were not straying sheep anymore. ‘Wild animals’ might be too strong; but at least we were like unleashed pet dogs acting and playing like wild animals. We couldn’t actually play that piece for three hours, due to time limits determined by the whole structure of the evening, but we played it for half an hour, which was quite something on this tour. But why did we have to wait for Ed’s word till then?

At the London concert we specially presented Alvin Lucier’s gamelan piece (called “Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers”), as well as his “Bird And Person Dyning”, which was performed every evening. There were seven performers: Knut Aufermann, Sarah Washington, Xentos “Fray” Bentos and Alvin himself on bells (not hitting them but covering microphones with them to obtain feedback at different pitches according to their sizes), and Billy Roisz, Otomo Yoshihide and me on xylophonelike gamelan instruments. This required new skills from us. None of us had ever played these instruments. And playing Alvin’s piece, we needed some other skills to play the instrument, rather than acting as virtuosi on the instrument. We were required to create resonances with feedback sounds from the bells of those instruments which were new to us. I don’t know which was harder. I mean, I can imagine that acquiring virtuosity on a gamelan instrument is really tough and requires the full length of one’s lifetime, but playing an unfamiliar instrument in an unfamiliar way on stage is not so easy either. So it took a lot of time and work for us in rehearsals on stage before the concert. But we only had a few hours anyway, so we played the concert with what we had. After the concert, while I was chatting with Billy somewhere backstage, Alvin was passing by. I asked him if he was happy about the performance of the piece. He answered, “Not too bad for a first time,” without looking my way. I liked his plainspoken reaction.

Touring in an English-speaking country with a group of which the majority are native English speakers, a person like me, who has only a basic English speaking proficiency, tends to fall into silence. Even if I came up with some ideas and words, maybe my timing was a little odd or often a little too late, and I would swallow down my words. I don’t know how many unspoken words there were. I could imagine there were quite a few. But I can’t recall any of them. Maybe it’s only that I thought there were quite a few of them, but actually they didn’t exist. Or they were not important enough to have been remembered. At Rob’s Bar, there were special English lessons nightly for those guys from Japan. The classes specialised in obscure English colloquial words. I took notes like a good pupil. And I looked them up in an English/Japanese dictionary when I was back home in Japan, but most of them were not in those books, even though I had several good dictionaries. I wonder if that’s because either Japanese linguists don’t know those words, or they don’t want to spread the words around among Japanese learners of English. I suspect the latter. Anyway, always there is nothing better than being quiet and reticent. If you keep quiet, you will be able to at least manage to look like a well-mannered person. No-input is good, but no-output would be even better.

One night, while I was keeping quiet as usual, well-behaved and listening to the English crew speaking, I had a strange experience. I usually hear, think and speak English in that language. I wouldn’t take a procedure like hearing English, then translate it into Japanese, think in Japanese, then translate back into English and speak. It would be too slow and just too complicated. But that night, the guys’ words suddenly started to appear in Japanese. That was like English with Japanese subtitles, or even as if the sounds were overdubbed in Japanese. Maybe my brain was spinning around at hyperspeed in reverse. Those words I had been trying to understand in English were suddenly presented right in my face in a language familiar to me… I went to bed quickly because that was too intense for me. I don’t know how it would have affected me if I had stayed up all night with them.

In the course of the tour, we dropped by some places from time to time to see beautiful English countryside. The white chalk colour of the sheer cliffs on the Dorset coastline was especially memorable. On top of the cliff, there was a walking path. I climbed up from the bottom where the hotel was and reached one of the peaks. The path continued on and on, down a bit, up again, then a little piece in a straight line for a while before it hit upwards again. I walked forward as I didn’t want to miss the very point where the white colour dives into the ocean, where the white meets and blends with the blue of the sea water. But it was too windy to stay out there too long. My exposed skin was already feeling numb by then, so I headed back to the hotel, which I would call a “civilised place”, even though the hotel and the cliff were not far away from each other. The horses and ponies in the New Forest were very impressive too. Not just those horses there, but many animals I saw during the tour caught my eye. They were just pecking at grasses and chewing them, on and on. They looked like trees and plants, rooted and connected to the earth with their mouths. But I saw them with half-opened eyes through the window panes of a small van, floating one metre above the ground, while complaining, “Oh my back, my legs, I need a break…” and moving around here and there, arriving some place and saying, “Eh… where are we?” Then we would do something, and then move to somewhere else. That’s what convinced me that I was still a musician for a while, and gave me a feeling of doing at least something in my lifetime. I think this is not really anything so admirable. And I need an audience who offer me their company, sharing the time and a room, in order to play a little music thing. I am pretty sure that those horses would do what they do even if I was not watching them. I am sure the cliff is white and the wind still blows there.

By the way, on this tour it was as if we were being chased by fires. We saw the burnt pier in Brighton (a photograph of which is featured on the cover of Martin Siewert and Martin Brandlmayr’s CD on Erstwhile Records), and we stayed at a seaside hotel just across from that. I assumed the pier used to be something like a restaurant and bar. At Rob’s Bar after the concert, with the burnt pier in the view from the hotel window, I asked Otomo Yoshihide: “You must be one of the first guys who would run to the site when you hear fire engines, aren’t you?” He answered me, “Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to stay home!” The following morning, we were loading our gear into the van and we saw an enormous cloud of black smoke in the street only 100 metres away from us. The smoke was so intense that I couldn’t see what was actually burning. I really didn’t know what it was. It was not Otomo who ran, but Jim, aka Xentos “Fray” Bentos. He fetched a fire extinguisher from our van and disappeared into the smoke. However he couldn’t really stop the fire, as he couldn’t reach the object which was burning, because the smoke was too thick. But he was really quick and that impressed me. Soon the professionals arrived and they sorted out the problem. A van like ours, maybe a little smaller, emerged when the smoke disappeared, burnt completely black by that time. Maybe that was a band van as well. And some musicians might have burnt a loudspeaker with intense feedback signals in their concert, then loaded it into the poor van while it was still quietly burning, and the van caught fire. There was no sign of injured persons, so that was good. I think I saw fire engines on other occasions in the course of the tour. It would be a good idea to tour with a fire engine following our equipment van, so we could play all the louder without worrying about a burnt van.