O Yama O is a genre-less music project created by Keiko Yamamoto, artist and cofounder of Cafe Oto in London, and Rie Nakajima, a Japanese installation and performance artist, who had her first major solo exhibition at IKON Gallery in Birmingham last year. I went along to experience it last night at Aller Park Studios, a new arts project on the Dartington estate…
On the floor as the crowd gathered in the studio lay about 50 everyday objects, pebbles bits of wood, a small pan, spoons, cooking utensils, batteries, sea shells. Everyone stood or sat around the edge of the room, evening light streaming in through the grid of the floor-to-ceiling window, and waited for the performance to start. Rie and Keko came in slowly clutching jars of varying sizes each covered with a turquoise square of silicon, and wrapped around the top by an elastic band to create a sort of drum. They started by plucking and twanging the silicon at short intervals.
There was a sort of rhythm, which grew out of the call and response between the two artists. Keiko would beat a stressed beat and Rie would respond in kind, either with the silicon stretch over the jar, or with an improvised wood block, as Keiko switched to a strong beat with a rubber tube, and the sound began to build. Keiko started to sing simple but haunting melodies repeatedly and as her voice broke from note to note Rie turned on an apparently ad hoc basis to each of the objects on the floor, slowly yet with precision, eliciting sounds from each, finding ways to make that sound sustain, spinning marbles in ceramic bowls, dropping metal spoons to gyrate like noisy spinning tops, building up layer upon layer of sound below Keiko.
One of the highlights of this process was watching Rie set off little objects that had been modified with small battery powered motors which, when turned on, made their objects spin on the floor at different speeds and consequently different pitches. Further inanimate objects were then balanced against the motorised ones to bring out sounds through resistance, creating a light soundscape of gently absorbing, tinkling sounds.
What brought the whole piece together was the balance of the situation – on the one hand Keiko prowling and stealing around the perimeter of the circle, singing and playing recorder, becoming ever more absorbed in the performance, seeming almost possessed at times by the sonority of her voice, which drew in part from Japanese folk music and part from her own sort of automatic mode of expression, everyday words, onomatopoeic words, taking her into a kind of trance – on the other hand Rie in the centre with quick efficient movements standing then stooping to tend to her various instrument-objects on the floor, more like a gardener, or a scientist, bringing out these beautiful percussive sounds, metal on metal, shell on metal, wood against something else. It made me think of a deconstructed solar system, where the sun has crumbled into multiple glowing pieces, and where there is only one planet, in haphazard, a-linear orbit. The two found a very special balance, which made absolute sense to us, even in its ad hocness and its spontaneous improvised simplicity.
The piece ended as it began, with the sound of the silicon pulled tight cross glass jars and plucked. To say the concept and delivery of the whole thing was “down to earth” wouldn’t be quite accurate; but it was close to this. The performance had a truth to it that everyone in the room could recognise, the pleasure that comes from finding beautiful sounds where you’d least expect them, and the desire to make them, again and again and again.