Music We Care About #4

Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s Strange Worlds

Ray Evanoff

Sideshow Tsilumos
Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s The Destinies of Hallucinations (2009-13), performed by Tsilumos Quartet.

It seems inappropriate to refer to the theatrical elements in Steven Takasugi’s work as such. It is an art of staging presence rather than manufacturing scene. The visual elements themselves do not rest on fiction. They are their own validation. They evidence humanity. They can take strange forms, but people take strange forms, too. There is an unrepentant nakedness in Takasugi’s performances that suggests an intensely honest viewing of the world.

The work’s language is one of immediacy. Such immediacy is increasingly the vehicle for storytelling, as manifest in the recent and cripplingly engrossing Sideshow (2009-15). But discreet moments continue to assert themselves as being fundamentally of themselves. They are laden with archetypal movements, perceptions, and emotions. These project beyond their context. They speak with a primacy that story cannot fully encase. These forces may be wrested to narrative ends, but they retain their own capricious drives. What they express may or may not integrate into what surrounds, both on and off the stage. They appeal to directness, through directness. This directness disarms. It short-circuits, circumnavigates, bringing us through a looking-glass to an inverted world. It is like a Wizard of Oz bereft of tornadoes and technicolor: rather than journeying with spectacle, we find ourselves already in the foreign land. This new place emerges from the one we have always known, or thought we knew.

Strange Autumn 1
Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s Strange Autumn, performed by Mark Knoop and Serge Vuille.

Strange Autumn (2003-04) marks a fulcrum in this journey. The individuals therein are a kind of trauma on Takasugi’s vast catalogue of original sound samples. These samples derive directly or obliquely from the artist’s life. They capture ephemera, a fly’s errant buzzing, a laborious illness’ manifest sounds, the pathos of objects and actions burdened by history, association, unease.[1] A vast indexing of personal meaning. To insert others into such a private sphere is disruptive, an infringement evident in the actors themselves: they wince, contort, obsess, and stutter, perhaps displaying the strife it took for the composer to place them there. Or their own shock at finding a where so alien. That they are there at all seems a victory given the animus of their surroundings. They echo Sisyphus, laboring vainly. Or perhaps Prometheus, brought there by noble action. They are mythological in any case. They embody unknown qualities. They execute mysterious tasks. They essentialize forces, give them concrete form.

Sideshow 1 Detail
Sideshow, performed by Talea Ensemble.

Through their work, these figures transform the everyday. The turn of a page, the sweep of a gaze, these acts transfigure the space around them, imbuing the routine with new meaning and new possibility. The world is remade into one where what is common leads directly to what is rare. Lead into gold. The mundane becomes luminous and purpose-filled. There is no unseeing such a change. It spills off the stage and outside the concert hall, suffusing an appliance’s hum and the smell of fresh coffee and the crinkle of newspaper with previously unrecognized significance. Is this the world as it has always been? Or have we been brought into a new one? It is hard to say. Takasugi’s work is not a place of answers, but rather of things that are much more lasting.

Strange Autumn, performed by Mark Knoop, Serge Vuille, and Newton Armstrong.

Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s Strange Autumn will be performed by FOCI Arts as part of Music Through the Looking-Glass, a program of works for unconventional instruments and unconventional means to be featured as part of the 2016 Omaha Under the Radar Experimental Performance Festival.  For added perspective on Takasugi’s work, see Aaron Hynds’ article, “The Road Never Ends.”

1. Steven Kazuo Takasugi, “Travelogue Through Two Decades of Sound Samples,” lecture given at the SALT New Music Festival and Symposium, University of Victoria, May 31, 2013.