Rie Nakajima · Four Forms

Rie Nakajima · Four Forms

Rie Nakajima is a Japanese artist based in the UK. She has exhibited and performed all over the world charming audiences with her inventive works of mechanical bricolage. In 2014 she received the Arts Foundation prize for Experimental Music. She co-curates the event series ’ ‘Sculpture‘ with David Toop and has collaborated with Miki Yui, David Cunningham, Phill Niblock, Pierre Berthet and many others.

Four Forms is the first audio-document of Nakajima’s work, comprising four pieces recorded in Oxford in January 2014:

"sources of sound that have the lives of small creatures, maybe small creatures that hibernate in darkness but then come to life when exposed to the light. These creatures of which I speak are activated to perform their own cycles of drumming or scraping, all working together as if moving inexorably toward the sudden miraculous synchronicity of flashing light that a few fortunate observers have seen in firefly displays. What I am saying, should it be unclear, is that this is a kind of intensely rhythmic music performed by an extra-human ensemble not susceptible to the orthodoxies of human culture, in a sense a step into another dimension."

- David Toop


Rie Nakajima’s improvisations are made with small objects laid out on a table or a patch of floor: wind-up toys, glasses, sponges, wood, close-miked bits and pieces that she sets in motion, slowly adding to or taking away from the sound over the course of a performance. Sleevenotes by frequent collaborator David Toop describe Nakajima’s setting up of an “extra-human ensemble...a step into another dimension”, and ensemble does feel like the right word for the devices that Nakajima gives life to. Heard on record, without the obvious presence of the artist, the whirring, ticking patterns sound intensely communicative, if indecipherably so. Four Forms is crisply mastered by Giuseppe Ielasi, and every sonic detail is sharp and tactile, but what really impresses are the compositions Nakajima coaxes from her flotsam orchestra. The second piece is atmospheric in a very literal sense, climaxing with a shower of percussive sounds like a tropical rainstorm that drowns out, for a few minutes, the constant high hum of insect life.

The four-track 12" single! You may have other expectations when you read that, but that's what this is. David Toop penned the liner notes, which may be - I am not sure - about the mechanical nature of this music. The printed inner-sleev shows us objects - whistles, lids, cans, ceramic bowl, glasses with small balls and some device; judging by what I hear on this record, this device is something mechanical which sets these objects in motion and Nakajima records these vibrating objects. Nakajima is from Japan but works in Oxford and she co-curates the 'Sculpture' series with Toop - that explains - and creates these objects. I quite enjoyed this record. It's rattling and shaking, but it firmly stays on the abstract side. Nakajima doesn't want to produce an imitation of a music style - say do a dance record with abstract means - but creates some interesting, highly non-static music by moving around objects and/or changes the position of the device. Sometimes quiet and introspective, but at other times rattling like thunderous rain storm. The last piece seemed a bit 'un-composed' to me, going a bit too much over the place, but the other three pieces were very tight: minimal, yet changing all around. This I'd be interested to see live and/or as an installation and hear it move through space.

I was able to catch Rie Nakajima live in concert last year thanks to Oxford-based festival Audiograft, giving me a little bit of insight into how the four short tracks on her debut solo album “Four Forms” were probably made. The Japanese-born, UK-based artist uses eclectic assortments of found domestic objects (cups and saucers, biscuit tins, cheap children’s toys, ball bearings, etc.) to make sound, animating them with batteries, motors, fans, or her own hands. Interestingly, she describes herself as a sculptor, a self-designation that didn’t prevent her from winning the 2014 Arts Foundation Award in the category of Experimental Music.

Listening to the new album, it’s quite easy to imagine Nakajima working away with her little kineacoustic sculptures, stopping and starting them, adjusting their position, building irregular patterns, adding and taking away timbres. In the first track a sound circles the entire stereo field before coming to settle, connecting the recorded work with the artist’s keen awareness of architectural space when performing live (at the Royal Festival Hall she sent objects tumbling down the auditorium stairs). Despite the leaning-towards-rhythm heard in the scuttlings, scrapings, and rattlings of the objects’ activities, this musicality can seem almost incidental rather than necessary — a fluke of human perception rather than something essential to the sounding. Or, at least, being of no more importance than the objects’ movements, their weights and densities, or their scattering. Compare this to the usual musical situation, in which the movements of objects are merely means to sonic ends, and one can see why the title ‘sculptor’ is entirely appropriate.

So what would it be like to put all this to one side, to forget about how the sounds are made and just listen to them as sounds? This works too (perhaps because sounds are also objects?). There are enough appealing timbres, enticingly rough-edged juxtapositions, and contingently complex polyrhythms here to satisfy even the most asynaesthetic of listeners, perhaps bearing some similarity to recent works by Luciano Maggiore and Enrico Malatesta or Cyril Bondi and Toma Gouband, but different again in its valence, being more energetic and propulsive than either of these duos. Having been lucky enough to see Nakajima perform live, I can hear a strong connection between “Four Forms”, her approach to performance, and her sculptural intentions; yet even without this prior knowledge (which many online videos can partially provide), the album remains a thoroughly engaging and compelling listen. Recommended.

A 12" vinyl, 45rpm containing four rather wonderful pieces.

The interior sleeve depicts eighteen objects, all but two (a pot with cover and a wooden wedge impaled by two hook screws) attached by wired to batteries. The objects are more or less of the household variety though several are a little strange including six standard whistles apparently affixed together in an alternating right/left pattern and two items that look like the heels of shoes, atop of which we see one or two spikes and a single die, one red, one green. One apprehends a toylike scenario. David Toop's notes make reference to a pachinko parlor and there's something of that bright, thin, semi-chaotic ringing aspect to the music, starting right in with the first track. But it's not all fun and games.

The first work on Side A is pretty playful indeed, small metal balls rotating in circular frames, jangly tapping elements added, more balls, tin hiccups and more, all gayly tumbling along giving something of a march of the toy effect, or some elaborate, lacy clockwork contraption. Track two grows more anxious, a slow, grinding rhythm underneath the higher clatter lending an air of insistency and even inexorability to the activity above. Flipping the vinyl, the third cut feels almost desolate, the sounds no longer strutting or scampering, now searching for places to hide. The atmosphere becomes dark and sooty, any laughing tingle from the devices having been replaced by dry whirs and hums like distant chainsaws. Strong stuff from such slight instruments. Then comes the clean-up, like a desultory Roomba scouring the abandoned floors for detritus, signs of life beginning to rise from the dust toward the end.

Hah, I'm sure I'm reading much more narrative into the album than intended but, I think, it's difficult not to. Also hard not to thoroughly enjoy the ride and wish to have attended a performance. Solid, fascinating work, well worthwhile and, as it happens, a very nice bookend to the Tilly above.

I grinned throughout all thirty minutes of Rie Nakajima’s Four Forms. And this wasn’t just on the first or second listen; with each subsequent revisit, it’s become clear to me that Four Forms is imbued with the sort of life-affirming pleasantness that’s rarely seen in music. In fact, the most immediate comparison that came to mind was Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. Like that film, Four Forms is very much an album whose appeal comes largely from sound design; each minute detail is magnified and feels precisely placed such that every tick and vibration can be appreciated. And its humble premise and presentation—four relatively straightforward recordings of Nakajima’s various automatons—only make the timbral qualities of her sculptures more delightful.

What’s really astounding though about Four Forms is the quality of these compositions. What could easily become tedious in its repetition instead transforms into something hypnotic and soothing. The swirling of a ball opens the first track but never feels oppressive or tiring during the four minutes it’s heard. One could easily accredit that to the inherent lightness of the sound but a lot is certainly owed to the mixing and how well Nakajima pairs her contraptions. The most amusing of these comes in the form of intermittent clanging on track four. The track’s scraping and rattling is generally tranquil but these loud and metallic interjections are frankly amusing, even comical.

The wonderful thing about art is that while an artist may have a say in how it can be interpreted or engaged with, it still has a certain life of its own. With Four Forms, that notion is almost literally presented. While Nakajima was the one who constructed these eighteen machines, these recordings don’t necessarily point towards her involvement. Instead, we’re forced to recognize the sounds as is and relish in the compositions that they seemingly made themselves. On the back of the LP, there’s a blurb from David Toop that mentions how the way we perceive music is a result of where and how we listen to it. Four Forms directly addresses that to us as listeners. While we’re not directly in the room witnessing these automatons function in real time, we’re able “to be closer still, almost inside but seeing nothing, hearing the microaudial detail”, as Toop puts it. Consumer Waste’s previous releases were all published as CDs but Nakajima wanted to have Four Forms pressed on vinyl. It’s an appropriate wish; the process of getting ready to engage with a record only takes us one step closer to engaging with the hyperspecificity of the sounds that are present herein.

Four Forms is a lot of things. With the way the album presents its numerous sounds, it’s effectively an ASMR lover’s dream. It also happens to be an interesting intersection between experimental sound design and twee. And unlike any other piece of music I’ve heard, it distinctly reminds me of the understated domestic humor that characterizes Yasujirō Ozu’s films. But what’s more important is seeing why all these things seem relevant: across its thirty minutes, Four Forms invites us to see how art is living and active, and how it’s possible to experience the same excitement in even the most simple of things we come across in life.