• Art
  • Only sound: Kazuo Imai of Marginal Consort


Only sound: Kazuo Imai of Marginal Consort

INTERVIEW. Whatever you do, don't call it music! Legendary Japanese experimental noise foursome Marginal Consort break their rule of only performing once a year and treat Berlin with a special concert on Jun 6 at St. Elisabeth Kirche. But why?

Image for Only sound: Kazuo Imai of Marginal Consort
Clockwise from top left: Kazuo Imai, Tomonao Koshikava,Tada Masami, Kei Shii. Photo by Bryony McIntyre

On June 6 Berliners have the rare chance to see Marginal Consort in action. The experimental Japanese sound art collective normally only performs once a year in Japan, but this year they’ve made an exception, and will bring their discordant, lucid soundscapes to London and Berlin. 

Since forming 19 years ago, members Kei Shii, Masami Tada, Tomonao Koshikawa and Kazuo Imai have individually and collectively built a reputation for work that disregards the boundaries between sound, music, art and noise. Carrying on the avant garde spirit of Dada and Fluxus, Marginal Consort’s work is pure process, keeping performers and audience members firmly in the present moment.

We had the chance to Skype with Kazuo Imai, founder of Marginal Consort, while he was in Tokyo. The 8900km distance and trickiness of speaking through an interpreter aside, Imai’s matter-of-fact attitude towards his work was brief, transparent and unpretentious. It became clear that Marginal Consort’s clarity of vision and commitment to format have made the enigmatic collective something of a legend.

How did you decide on the name Marginal Consort?

When I was considering members for a new improvisation collective back in 1997, I found out that some members from a previous group I was in, East Bionic Symphonia, were still working – in all different genres, in between music, sound art and visual art. My concept for the collective was for it to operate on the edge of an unknown genre, so I decided to name it “marginal”. And the word “consort” points to the small instrumental ensembles in early music, so I put them together.

Are all of the members musicians? 

One of the regular members, Masami Tada, is a sound performer and visual artist, and works with photography too. Another, Kei Shii, started his career as a visual artist. He was a student of Genpei Akasegawa. 

Why do you normally only perform once a year? And why have you made an exception this year? 

Marginal Consort operates unlike regular bands. Each member is an independent soloist. Just once a year we come together, that way it’s always fresh, and we can keep doing it longer – now it’s been 19 years. This year is unusual – on top of our annual performance in December, we’ve been invited to be a part of the 100th Anniversary of Dadaism Festival in Tokyo and to perform at Sound Live Tokyo. We also have shows in London and Berlin in June.

Who are your biggest influences? 

Of course we’re aware of the Fluxus movement, and maybe we’ve been influenced by it, but Marginal Consort uses collective improvisation and simultaneous solo performances by each member, which I conceptualised after seeing the music and dance performances of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. My teachers,Takehisa Kosugi and Masayuki Takayanagi, are great influences too.

What kind of music is it?

Marginal Consort is not music. It’s only sound.

How do you collaborate during the live improvisation of your performances? 

Each person is giving a simultaneous solo performance freely, so we don’t consider it a collaboration. Of course if you hear others’ sounds you might go along with them. But it’s also all right if you don’t. We position ourselves far away from each other so that we don’t affect one another, and consequently we’re not really sure what the other is doing. I think solo performances represent the player the most, and when solos come together in this way, they become a group. It’s the relationship between the individual and the group that forms the whole.

What instruments do you use? 

In Marginal Consort, I use Asian instruments and the German gamba and fidel, but also objects, like pieces of wood, stones and stuff I can find at the hardware store. I don’t know exactly what the other members are using, but Koshikawa uses Asian instruments, an electric violin and also “uninstruments” that he can get sounds out of. Shii uses handmade instruments and devices and Tada uses Asian instruments too, along with wood and bamboo. I am not sure if these objects would be considered musical instruments, but they are all tools for making sound.

You allow, if not encourage, your audience to move around during your performances. Why is that? 

The sound differs depending on where you are. If you’re sitting near me, what you’re hearing is different than if you were sitting close to someone else. And you can sit closer to the performer you like! [Laughs] We actually move around too.

What do you hope your audience walks away with? 

We ask the audience to take with them whatever they want. I would like them to have the opportunity to focus, to concentrate. It’s not that they need to focus on what I’m doing, or what the group is doing – of course it’s okay if the audience is thinking about something else. But we would like to create focused time and space. If they do it perhaps there is a chance they might find something of their own. So it doesn’t matter if they care about me or our sound, but that each person can just think for themselves.

It’s been said that time and space change during your performances. Is that true? 

Music is time, and the speed or density of the performance can change the concept of time through the ears of the audience. So in that way we change time.

Can you feel that change while you’re performing? 

I’m not sure… maybe when I feel like the show went by really quickly. Of course there are times that I feel like the show will never end, so maybe it depends on my level of concentration. [Laughs]

Go experience Marginal Consort as part of a special programme by Berlin-based curator Manuela Benetton in collaboration with PAN and Thirty Three Thirty Three.

MARGINAL CONSORT, Jun 6, 19:30 | St. Elisabeth Kirche, Invalidenstr. 3, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosenthaler Platz