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Akifumi Nakajima, better known as the prolific creator of noise and ambient music, Aube, is an unusual musician. He admits: "I don't know whether Aube is music or art, perhaps it's just the design of sound and packaging. The packaging and design are very important for me, I want to keep each release united with the sound source as much as I possibly can."
Akifumi's day-job is as an industrial designer, and this seems to be reflected in the way that his releases consistently examine just one material. Each album starts from only a single sound source, and since Aube's first release in 1991, these have included fluorescent lamps, single voltage-controlled oscillators, water, wire, an "executive decision-maker", air, metal, and telephones. The sounds that result range from mesmeric, repetitive ambience through to cathartic torrents of noise these releases are often as much art objects as musical albums, existing only in tiny micro-editions and dedicated to the obsessive examination of their material.
Aube's Aqua Syndrome CD, on US label Manifold Records, came as a limited edition packaged with a bag of water, and the album used only the manipulated sounds of water. The even more limited (to 12 copies) Black Depth, a mini-disc on Akifumi's own G.R.O.S.S. label, was packaged in black glass, and, of course, used only recordings of glass-related sound. 1995's Wired Trap CD (on Self Abuse), processed recordings of steel wire, included 100 copies in wire mesh packaging.
Many of Aube's albums draw on sounds from the body, or from medical equipment used to investigate the mysteries of the body. The sounds of lungs, voice, a heartbeat, blood vessels, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy equipment have all featured on Aube releases. The recent Evocation CD (from the Auf Abwegen label in Germany) uses brain waves transformed into sound by an electroencephalogram. Some of it imitates the chaotic but serene sound of birdsong, or specially-recorded exotic insect swarms, although Encephalic Vocation features a loop that reminded me of a mechanical cockerel. If the album sounds like anything else, it's like cosmic music from the 70s, electronic waves pulsating and warbling through an enigmatic void, developing with the deliberate gradualism only otherwise found in minimalist music. Perhaps these are the ultra-high-frequency firing of neurons, electrical impulses slowed down enormously until audible. The painfully high-pitched squeals of Paroxysmal Discharge suggest that perhaps the brain wasn't meant to be listened to!
Akifumi says: "Some my friends are doctors, and they provide interesting information to me about the human body. They also sometimes help with sound sources. The sounds in the body, like brainwaves, the lungs, heartbeat, blood vessels, these are usually not heard very well. But I have a mysterious image of the body, and what kinds of sound are within. My albums using these body sound sources are my way of expressing my image of the body".
If Evocation imagines the body at rest, other releases investigate the body in torment. The Iris Light label recently compiled several Aube tracks on the Substructural Penetration double-CD, including Breath Hard, multi-layered elephantine wheezing suggesting the body pushed beyond its limits. If Undercurrent I/II starts out drifting in the shallows, you're quickly submerged by the high-pressure cascades of water-based noise. The more recent tracks definitely show a more mature and better-crafter approach, although no less brutal, as on Ionosphere II, where electricity becomes an instrument of torture. In these tracks, Aube perhaps bears comparison with Merzbow, seeking out the opportunity for catharsis when sound escapes normally tolerable confines.
Akifumi tells me: "I feel something in common with these others, as we make similar sounds, even though the methods and concepts are different from each other." I asked him why he thought Japanese noise musicians got so much attention. "I think it is created in all the world, not only in Japan. Only the Japanese get the most attention, strangely, fortunately or unfortunately. As the Japanese language is very different from European and American languages, so noise music must be an international language, because there are no obstacles. All the people in the world who are interested in it must listen only to the sound itself, I think."
John Peel's "Meltdown" series of concerts in London in July 1998 offered a rare chance to compare and contrast several of the better known Japanese noise musicians: Aube shared a stage with Tetsuo Furudate, C.C.C.C., Merzbow, and various European counterparts. The sheer variety of Furudate's music, ranging from barely-audible whispering, through carefully-constructed sample loops and electric guitar to blizzards of noise, was perhaps the highlight, while the walls-of-noise from Merzbow and C.C.C.C. were merely overpowering. Aube's music, which seemed to rely on only a couple of simple voltage-controlled oscillators and a few delay effects, was perhaps the most hallucinatory, coaxing astonishing, shuddering flurries of sound from these basic electronics. It was enjoyably disorienting in a far less obvious way than the others who performed.
Another respect in which it's perhaps a mistake just to see Aube as a musical artist is that he often provides work to order, like a freelance designer. A record label (and labels seem to queue up for the name-recognition that established noise-artists like Aube offer) can suggest a sound source to him, and he'll take into account the label's usual approach in what he creates. "It mainly depends on the label's style and desires. I like to try to my best for the labels which kindly offer to release my recordings. If they tell me to be as free as I like, then the type of music may depend on my current mood."
One of Aube's most interesting releases is the recent Pages From The Book, a CD from Elsie and Jack Recordings in the US. The title and choice of sound source come courtesy of the label's James Rodriguez, and rely on the sound of rubbing pages of a Bible together. Initial copies of the release came with pages torn from the Bible used in the recording. In an interview for Bananafish, Akifumi had been at pains to point out that although he hated the ideology, he admired the design sense behind Nazi functional and absolutist art. Akifumi is also clearly aware that listeners would read more into this latest release than normal. "Normally, I choose the sound source by myself. But a few times, the labels give me a sound source. If it is an interesting sound source, I will accept it, as on Pages From The Book. I'm always interested in both the sound itself and the image from the source. I was worried about the use of the Bible, and I'm not anti-Christian. The label told me there would be no problems, so I did it. My sounds are a peaceful and delicate representation of it."
It's often argued that Aube's music is repetitive and hence dispensable. Some sound sources such as water are used across many releases, and there's often little variation within an album. Perhaps that's like accusing Henry Moore of being dull because of an over-reliance on sculpted bronze. Taken away from the context of the record industry, and its demands for artistic progress and diversity of product, and viewed more as art objects, as the product of a single-minded sound sculptor, it all makes far more sense. Placed in the context of minimalist art, Aube's textures suddenly sound surprisingly rich.
"Noise music is a kind of sound from the city", says Akifumi, who lives near the centre of Kyoto, close to crowded shopping streets. "It's always as noisy as any modern city, although not so much as Tokyo or Osaka."
Kyoto, however, is also an ancient capital containing traditional shrines and temple gardens, as Akifumi acknowledges: "Yes, maybe I have some unconscious influences from these sorts of traditions, as I went to many of these places when I was a child. But I'm definitely not thinking about that when I'm make my sounds."
If I can't decide whether Akifumi is best described as a musician, a designer or a sculptor, here's another possibility. He's the musical equivalent of a temple gardener, patiently working his way through the plain grey gravel, flattening it out, creating grooves here, listening intently to the garden stream and imagining therein a whole new world of sound.
As for the future, Akifumi has a contrasting view. When I ask him about his non-musical interests he quickly mentions: "Computer and other related technology. At the moment, I'm not using it for making sound at all, but it will influence my sound in the future, I think."
Contact: G.R.O.S.S., c/o Akifumi Nakajima, 412 Higashianekoujicho, Sanjo-agaru, Furukawacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0029 Japan.
Evocation is out now on Auf Abwegen. Substructural Penetration is out now on Iris Light (through Kudos / Pinnacle). Pages From The Book is out now on E+J Recordings.
This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in The Wire 173, July 1998.