Field Recording by Aki Onda

Part of the Field Recording series.

Aki Onda Bomb 1

Photo by Maki Kaoru.

Burn, burn offerings… the fire will purify your body and mind…

This recording was made on January 1, 2013. My wife Makiko and I enjoyed going to an annual New Year’s Fire Puja held at artist and poet John Giorno’s house on Bowery Street. Our friend Marcus Boon, a writer and the editor of Subduing Demons In America: The Selected Poems of John Giorno, took us there for the first time and we kept going for several years. The ceremony is a Tibetan Buddhism tradition in the Red Hat Nyingma school, where lamas and worshipers (and perhaps a few visitors like us) gather around the fireplace, chant mantras, and meditate for long hours. The room gets smoky at times since lamas burn offerings such as oil, butter, grains, honey, sugar, spices… And each ingredient pops with a slightly different sound, scent, and color of flame. I’m smitten with watching the ever-changing fire burn. It’s such a powerful and hypnotic experience for starting a new year. No wonder Giorno has kept hosting this event in his living room for three decades.

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The living room was emptied for the event but still decorated with many tall plants, colorful Buddhist paintings, et cetera around the walls. Marcus told us that the room once housed the back catalog of reel-to-reel tapes of Giorno Poetry Systems, a multimedia venture label founded in the ’60s that explored “what-poetry-can-be.” After the ceremony, Giorno showed us his studio and another room, where William S. Burroughs once lived. Some of his belongings were still there, and I found a typewriter with Burroughs’s name printed on it, though Giorno claimed it’s his and “Burroughs” is just the name of the brand. Ghosts hover anyway, as this building—first built as a YMCA in the late 19th century— has kept the history of the New York underground illuminated (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns… and many artists hung out with Giorno there). More dimly, one could feel the lurid history of the Bowery in its midst. The Bowery: one of the worst neighborhoods in Manhattan at the time. Until relatively recently, it was a dark place where the criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, and adventurous bohemians resided. You can smell or sense it, although once you step out of the building this aura dissipates and you’re back in the gentrified panorama of museums, galleries, shiny boutiques, and fancy restaurants. Smells like money instead.

Recalling that experience triggered another memory in my mind…

I grew up in Nara, Japan. When I was a small kid, my family lived in a building surrounded by a Buraku, a ghetto for the ostracized. The Burakumin were the descendants of an outcast caste (let’s say, the Japanese untouchables…) and not a racial or national minority. Well into the ’70s, their lives were still separated from the general public. I loved playing with kids there. My parents were liberal intellectuals, a university professor and an artist. They were idealistic and hated the “common sense” norms of Japanese society, so they didn’t care if I hung out with them. My father had a Korean background, also ripe for discrimination in Japan. Ostensibly, we were all alienated.

The kids and I shoplifted many things, like sweets, porn and comic magazines, toys, and goods from stores, then collected them in our hideout. There were many empty shacks in the Buraku in the ’70s, since many Burakumin moved out of these communities and into the big cities, partly because the caste system was abolished by the government in 1971 and the Buraku Liberation Movement was taking off. In these empty houses, we often did a ritual to burn things we stole. We would stare at the burning of the goods until they were nothing but ashes. There was an anarchic mood in the Buraku, since the kids all hid a feeling of “we are not part of this society” deep in their mind. One day, we set fire to an empty house and it burned down. My memory is vague and I don’t remember what happened afterward… 

It is weird. Just thinking about fire took me there, and led to this juxtaposition of memories. I probably shouldn’t relate the two… but I can’t help it. 

Was it just a dream?

Each installment of this ongoing portfolio series features an original audio recording by a musician, composer, or sound artist along with their commentary. Projects range from raw documentation of live performances to sound collage and experiments with aleatory music. 

Aki Onda is a New York-based artist and composer. He is particularly known for his Cassette Memories — works compiled from a “sound diary” of field-recordings collected by using the cassette Walkman over a span of the last quarter-century. He creates compositions, performances, and visual artworks from those sound memories.

Okkyung Lee and Ikue Mori
Okkyung Lee Ikue Mori  01
John Giorno, Poet by Rebecca Waldron & Chris Kraus
John Giorno Feature 01

John Giorno’s influence as a cultural impresario, philanthropist, activist, hero, and éminence grise stretches so widely and across so many generations that one can almost forget that he is primarily a poet.

Okkyung Lee and Ikue Mori
Okkyung Lee Ikue Mori  01

Two improvisers and composers discuss their involvement in New York’s experimental music scene.

Remembering John Giorno
Giorno 01 Body

In memory of poet and contributor John Giorno we revisit this poignant conversation with Marcus Boon.

“People think that when a poem works, it’s because of the lines of a great poet—Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Whitman, or whoever—but it’s not so. The lines, when they magically work, are the reflection of your mind. It’s almost like the poet is making a mirror that nobody can see.” John Giorno