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Aki Onda, "Transmissions From The Radio Midnight"

Transmissions From The Radio MidnightThis is one of the more enigmatic and compellingly inscrutable albums that I have heard in quite some time, but I could probably say the same thing about a half dozen other Aki Onda albums at this point. This particular project began in 2006 when Onda acquired a slim handheld AM/FM radio/cassette recorder and began bringing it with him whenever he traveled: each night when he went to bed, he would turn on the radio and scan the dial in search of something interesting to soundtrack his descent into sleep.

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Unsurprisingly, that nightly ritual was soon enhanced by Onda's fascination with the spaces on the dial in which multiple frequencies overlap in surreal and unpredictable ways and his nightly hunt for entertainment soon transformed into a sound art project. Naturally, the spontaneous and unique juxtapositions of colliding transmissions are the album's most immediate/obvious pleasure and there are some great ones strewn throughout the album. However, those surface-level pleasures are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as any inquisitive mind will easily find a host of deeper layers and meanings to contemplate.

In the album's description, Onda explains his long fascination with the airwaves by equating them to "an ocean of languages," adding that radios "continuously project a million chatterings happening simultaneously all over the world." In theory, everyone knows that, but it is a thought that few choose to linger on. If one does choose to linger on the fact that we are immersed in a constant chaos of invisible chatter in hundreds of languages every second of our lives, however, the world suddenly seems like a much more magical and mysterious place than our day-to-day reality might otherwise suggest.

On a less conceptual plane, Onda was also intrigued with how languages that were foreign to him became abstracted into aural textures or unintended sound poetry. Naturally, I had a similar experience, as I quickly became absorbed in the musicality, rhythm, and emotional shadings of those languages that I do not understand. Moreover, once I became accustomed to appreciating words and languages decontextualized from their intended meanings, I began hearing understandable phrases with fresh ears as if I were an alien wondering what human beings in the 21th century were endlessly blathering about. Regarding the aural textures, at least one passage amusingly reminded me of Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room" feedback loop and there are several others that feel like they could have been plucked from a Phillip Jeck set or a minimalist electronic composition, but it is mostly the voices themselves that do most of the album's heavy lifting. On a related note, it was interesting to occasionally pick out understandable words and to know that Onda presumably understood a different set of words than I did, as those few words that I was able to grasp played a significant role in how I perceived what I was hearing (at one point, for example, I caught a date that coincided with Woodstock in an otherwise unintelligible monologue).

In keeping with that theme, another mental rabbit hole that I explored was wondering why Onda chose some of the passages that made it onto the album. Given that he distilled more than a decade of recordings from all over the world into just under forty minutes, there must be something special about every single passage that made it onto the album, but that "something" is not always easy to grasp. On the more graspable end of the spectrum, some highlights from the album's first half include a distorted and ephemeral snatch of a hauntingly beautiful pop song, something that sounds like cartoon robots starting their lunch break at a factory, a voice that resembles a sultry Spanish android, and a host of more abstract sonic surprises (at one point, I found myself appreciating a squall of crackles and pops as I would a picturesque snowfall). The second half, on the other hand, features some leftfield pleasures of its own: a brief klezmer intrusion, a religious chant, a probable mariachi band, and a vibrant conversation that is unnervingly and arrythmically disrupted by heavy thuds. There are also a couple of moments on the album that feel like something incredibly strange and beautiful has supernaturally materialized from the ether, such as the haunting alien whimper that emerges from a squall of crackle and hiss on the album's second half or the passage near the end of the first half that impressively evokes a literal ocean of voices.

Naturally, the big caveat with this album is that it is literally just unenhanced snatches of decontextualized/recontextualized radio, which is fundamentally a niche endeavor (familiar terrain for Onda, of course). Anyone could have made this album, but the crucial bit is that Onda actually did make it and the fact that these recordings are presented as art by someone who knows a thing or two about art makes them something worth thinking about deeply. One could also argue that the artistry lies in how Onda curated these passages (some of which previously appeared on 2013's Voice Studies 17 cassette) or in how he "played" the radio, but his greater achievement was simply that he was 1) thoughtful enough to realize that moments of sound collage magic are spontaneously and organically happening all around us, and 2) patient enough to devote himself to capturing as many such moments as he could. Composing and recording music is certainly cool and all, but being great at listening can be an art as well and very few artists understand that better than Aki Onda.

Listen here.