Interview with Marginal Consort. The historical outsider Japanese quartet soon in Berlin in a rare concert
Marginal Consort is a Japanese avant-garde improvisation collective composed of sound and visual artists who were all students of the minimal violinist and multi-media guru Takehisa Kosugi at the radical Bigaku school of aesthetics in Tokyo in the ’70s:
“It was more like a preparation for starting improvisation, and since the beginning the majority of the classmates had no musical experiences. It was to experience how to make sounds. So, the class started from letting the voice out in improvisation” says Kazuo Imai, founder of the experimental Japanese sound art quartet.
Founded in 1997, the collective, which plays just one concert per year, is a reformation of the East Bionic Symphonia, a large improvisation ensemble in the spirit of Kosugi’s Group Ongaku and Taj Mahal Travellers projects. Marginal Consort’s current line-up includes Kazuo Imai, Tomonao Koshikawa, Kei Shii and Masami Tada. Each member is an independent soloist that usually meets the others once a year: “Marginal Consort is considered as a collective of solos, not as a group. And each member with other activities gather once a year performs simultaneously in the same space. That is also a way to keep it fresh”, they say.
However, in 2016 they made an exception. Invited to be a part of the 100th Anniversary of Dadaism Festival in December in Tokyo and to perform at Sound Live Tokyo, they will have their last show as a collective in London at St. John Church at Hackney before their Berlin debut in June 6th in the dramatic setting of St. Elisabeth Kirche. The event is part of a special program by Berlin-based curator Manuela Benetton, co-presented with PAN and 333, supported by Initiative Neue Musik.
The kaleidoscopic nature of their set – a battery of sound generating equipment: mixers, oscillators, sensors, wind and string instruments, bamboo and objects – plays with the audience’s perception of time with hallucinatory effects.
“We would like to have the same set-up as usual for the Berlin show. What the members share is only the same space and the same time. We have nothing to discuss before hand. We place ourselves afar from each other, in order to perform freely without having too much influences from each other. And the sounds of the members are mainly coming out from speakers set near each of them. Therefore, what one can hear may differs depending on where one stands. So, as the audience move around, changing place, they would all hear different sound figures” they continue.
Their extended set explores forms of sound and ways of playing that never coalesce into music, but create a group dynamic of ebb and flow, exploration and fluidity.
“When people think of improvisation, which is made up of sounds, they think of playing music. But the activity that takes place here is not limited to playing. There are sounds, for instance, that result from certain actions, and actions that do not have sound production as their object”, Imai admits.
A Marginal Consort show has a fixed start and end time, but otherwise nothing else is predetermined.
All is temporary, flexible. Accidental or deliberate unison. The musicians are physically separated in the performance space like individual actors. The audience is encouraged to experience different aural perspectives of their dense, kaleidoscopic and immersive performance.
Their extended music of riotous inventiveness forms a tangible relationship between sound, time and the environment. We can say that it is not exclusively musical, but more in between music, sound art, and visual art, and outside any categories.
“Perhaps there is an influence from the Fluxus”, they admit: surely they have been influenced by their teachers Takehisa Kosugi, pioneer of experimental music in Japan in the 1960s and closely associated with the Fluxus movement and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi.
But influences are several. In the interview published on The Wire by Alan Cummings, Imai remembers when he assisted to a performance by John Cage and Merce Cunningham during school: “It was intensely beautiful, very strong, and it felt very musical too. But the performers were not directly engaging with each other. The only relationship between them was that what they were doing was occurring simultaneously, in the same space. Seeing that performance had a huge effect to me. [..] For me, it feels like the way we communicate in the world. Sometimes we engage with others in a kind of call and response, sometimes we don’t.”
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cover image: Ujin Matsuo