Marginal Consort: sound and silence

Japanese ensemble’s Portland performance focuses more on improvisatory process than musical product

By LUSI LUKOVA
Photos by Taz Coffey, courtesy of PICA

The performance began simply enough, with Marginal Consort’s Kazuo Imai using a giant sheet of paper to break the silence and commence the one-night-only concert at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), like a gun fired to set off a race.

Kazuo Imai playing the paper snapper at Marginal Consort’s January concert at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

In a workshop the previous night, Imai taught the simplicity of creating what they’ve dubbed “the paper snapper” out of mundane craft paper. Once built, we were all asked to “snap” our instruments unabashedly. The cacophony that this produced, the varying tones based on the strength and speed of each snapper built up to an eruption like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Opening the January 23 concert with this definite sound subdued any conversation, and focused all attention on the four members of Japan’s renowned musical ensemble.

Kazuo Imai, Tomonao Koshikawa, Kei Shii and Masami Tada first met in 1975 while working at a workshop led by Fluxus sound artist Takehisa Kosugiin. They subsequently joined his East Bionic Symphonia, and after it dissolved nearly twenty years later formed their own group. Beginning in 1996 and meeting only once a year, the quartet developed a performative style that emphasizes the grand potential of the artistic process over its finished product.

Incorporating auditory and tempo elements of Noh theater into their performance, they toggle between their own experimental interpretation of the Japanese concepts of Ma (negative space), and Wa (harmony). In aiming to enhance a sense of Wa in the performance, Marginal Consort concerts achieve a peaceful unity of typically opposing natures. The four musicians engage in a conversation with one another, with the audience joining them in a silent context. Perhaps the most commanding and impressive unity more closely resembles an erasure, an eradicating of expectation, and moving beyond the narrow frame of what constitutes music and musical instruments.

Marginal Consort at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

The only fixed elements in their long-form concerts are the start and end times. Everything else is transitory, easily adapted but always physically and psychologically overwhelming. They operate as a collective of soloists, and each artist choreographs his individual performance to remain in cue with the others. Each has his own method of amplifying their instrumentation, be it through sheer brute force or a more traditional electronic intervention such as an amplifier or microphone.

Shunning traditional forms of instrument making and playing, the ensemble pushes against the defined limitations of sonic expectations. By instead giving significance to everyday occurrences and infinite musical materials, Marginal Consort create a radical and unprecedented forum for self expression. They create space for a gripping new experience of sound and silence that surprises both viewers and performers alike as it unravels in each iteration.

Unity of Opposites

What can occur in the span of the several-hour long concerts is a seemingly unending stream of responses, revolving around the conjoining of disparate parts. None of their elaborate, almost orchestral events are ever planned or rigidly rehearsed. Instead, the four artists prefer to intuit the next crescendo or decrescendo of the piece in the moment.

Much like classical Japanese Noh theatre, which has limited albeit sharp action over an extended period of time, the bulk of Marginal Consort’s performances exist in the Japanese concept of Ma, in the negative space between action and reaction. In this sense, the sound Masami Tada makes when playing one of his many, homemade stringed instruments, is just as captivating for the crowd as is the silent and tense expectation of what will follow. This pause between two structural parts, and the rising tension it inevitably creates, weighs heavily in the room. The anticipated action, and its prior calculated restraint, both require equal skill in their executions and the manner in which the group navigates this manipulation is particularly powerful.

Masami Tada playing bamboo sticks and rubber band instrument at Marginal Consort’s 2019 performance at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

The brilliance of Marginal Consort is their fluidity — the way in which their homemade aesthetic purposefully promotes happenstance and improvisation. Each mediation in rhythm, vocalization or composition is merely a reaction that builds into an endless stream of reactions that give way to something entirely new.

A Space for Chance Encounters

At PICA, they filled the 5,000 sq. ft. warehouse space with native bamboo sticks, electronic pedals, plastic 7 ft piping, bouncy balls, and much more, each of their tables resembling something akin to that of a mad scientist’s. In what other context could a tree branch laced with rubber bands and bent piano wires be played with a twig like a string instrument; or a whistle whose pitch shifts as a string attached to its mechanism is pulled either left or right measuring the length of one’s arm? How about a vibrator attached to a drum head and hanging from a stand, or a shell brought in from Japan used to scratch furiously against sandpaper from Ace Hardware adhered to a block of wood?

Kazuo Imai at his table in Marginal Consort’s PICA performance

The staging of the Portland performance was simple, in line with their design to focus on process over fixed product. Four tables were placed in the corners of the warehouse, distant enough to allow each artist to concentrate on perfecting their own work without distraction. In the middle were strewn pillows and fold-out chairs for audience members to gather around and observe from the epicenter of the noise.

This positioning of the four musicians allowed chance encounters to come together throughout the evening, eventually building up to and beyond the expectations of both performers and audience members. Even as time passed, the ringing of the paper snapper still felt as if it was echoing and pulsing in congruence with the other forms taking the lead. Natural interruptions in their playing – a breath, a sip of water, a cough — emerge as a slowing down and lowering of intensity that only augment the overall experience.

Tomonao Koshikawa playing the viola da gamba at Marginal Consort’s PICA concert

When Koshikawa eased the fervor with which he is playing his one-sided viola da gamba, it left space to observe the way Shii sets the beat by repeatedly flicking a thin sheet of metal in the air or on the ground. These dips gave both players and audience a moment to recuperate and process the progression of the event. By no means do Marginal Consort perform at full volume and with full gusto for the entire three-hour duration, as that would prove too strenuous for both players and listeners. In finding a balance, Ma, and creating smooth tonal transitions, the group elevates their work to a an almost transcendent state.

What grounded us back in reality was a loud and jarring beep, emitted from the northernmost corner. There Kei Shii had stationed an electronic radar that detects and amplifies the precise moment when gamma rays pass overhead — one of many ways the four players manipulated the space, creating layers upon layers of fascinating compositions.

Timeless Moments

The audience walked around the PICA performance during the performance, taking in the variety of sound from all manner of angles and positions. Meandering through the space as the piece develops inevitably changed the experience as I became more attuned to the shifts in tonality and reverb. Where the water gurgling on the table of Imai might sound deafening close by, as if a microphone were placed next to the mouth of a breathing fish, when I moved over to the table of Tomonao Koshikawa playing the kalimba, a small finger piano, lessened its intensity as the soft chiming of the percussion instrument briefly overtakes it. As both sounds occurred simultaneously and melded into a surprising harmony, I forgot I was in a warehouse in Northeast Portland. Instead, I was transported to another space, envisioning a serene image of a babbling brook, with soft bells dinging in the background, like the chimes of a distant monastery or garden.

Walking around the space, I saw many a listener lying on the ground, eyes closed, as if in peaceful meditation to the sounds. I would not be surprised to learn that a good portion of those in restful positions may have drifted off in a brief sleep or dream.

Kei Shii playing a stringed instrument at Marginal Consort’s January 2019 performance at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

The performance came to a close almost as inconspicuously as it began. After an uninterrupted three hours, the bells and whistles and dings tapered off with no warning and no grand announcement, creating sonic space for a somewhat surprised and disoriented, but wholly enthusiastic, applause. As the sound of footsteps shuffling out of the space became the only perceptible noise, the sensation left hanging in the air in the wake of Marginal Consort is a feeling that an eternity, and yet also no time at all, had passed.

In the coming months, PICA’s upcoming events include the debut of unearthby Peter Siminsky on March 9, and the presentation of NARCISSISTER ORGAN PLAYER, co-hosted with the Hollywood Theatre’s Feminist March programming on March 18. For more information, please visit http://pica.org/.

Lusi Lukova is a writer and arts and culture critic, with a focus on visual arts and performance.

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