Japanese artists Tetsuya Umeda, ASUNA, and Marginal Consort bring sonic alchemy to PuSh Fest

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      Neither fully scientific nor entirely random, the music played by three adventurous Japanese acts coming to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival can best be described as alchemical—sounds generated by experimental processes, and by musicians capable of combining serious intent with a willingness to seek the miraculous and the unknown.

      The most obviously alchemical performance, in that it combines elements of both science and ritual, will likely come from Tetsuya Umeda, who eschews conventional instruments entirely. In Ringo—which means “apple” in Japanese, but will have other connotations for percussionists and lovers of popular music—he crafts mysterious sensory environments from the simplest of means: tin cans, dry ice, bowls, and those little propane burners popular in hot-pot restaurants. Bright lights, dark shadows, fire, and dancerly movement all add to his atmospheric performances; he’s concerned not so much with the alchemical transformation of his materials, but with inducing subtle psychological shifts in his audience.

      “In our daily life, we sometimes come across unexpected situations, and at other times, we experience things that should exist forever suddenly disappearing,” he says from Osaka. “These things happen to us, but we might not realize these changes because we are buried under hyperexcessive information overload. In the performance, it is my duty to subtly control and change the things already extant in the space, to change the balance so that it is just noticed or sensed. It is ideal to have an ambiguous and uncontrollable balance, so as to go back and forth between the border of the ordinary and the extraordinary.”

      Ringo by Tetsuya Umeda crafts sensory environments from the simplest of means: dry ice, bowls, and propane burners.
      Alex Davies

      Naoyuki Arashi, who performs as ASUNA, likewise walks a line between science and magic. In 100 Keyboards, he uses cheap and mostly outmoded synthesizers to set up beating tones; starting with a single note, he’ll build an enormous, physically enveloping cloud of sound. And while he knows fairly clearly how his hundred synths will interact with each other, each performance is different because of the more random factor of how the music will engage with each venue’s acoustics.

      “When I first arrive in [the] space, I check which note has the most resonance and interference,” Arashi explains, noting that 100 Keyboards draws on his interest in minimalistic music, his work with digital sound, and his experiences playing lo-fi experimental punk music. “During the performance, I choose each note on the keyboard on the spot while listening to its sound so that those phenomena are likely to occur.”

      The four members of Marginal Consort upend concert orthodoxy by trying not to listen to each other.
      Kazuyuki Funaki

      Setting is also important to the four members of Marginal Consort, who upend concert orthodoxy by trying not to listen to each other during their performances, and by deliberately siting themselves as far away from each other as possible. The idea, as explained by founding member Kazuo Imai with the aid of translator Keiko Higuchi, is a kind of “parallel” play; each member of the group is an independent entity, with their own amplification and instrumentation. (The tools used range from familiar horns and strings to amplified springs to home-built electronics.) Audience members are free to “mix” the sound for themselves by moving between performers, creating their own balance of sound—and sight, given that the musicians also delve into anguished, perhaps butoh-inspired theatrics.

      Otherworldly? Yes. But also beautifully open-ended, democratic, and, ultimately, human.

      The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Tetsuya Umeda in Ringo at Performance Works at 7 p.m. on Friday (January 18). ASUNA performs100 Keyboards at the Russian Hall at 4 and 8 p.m. on Saturday (January 19). Marginal Consort appears at Performance Works at 2 p.m. on Sunday (January 20).