Wovenland, Wovensea, Wovensky: The Tsunoda-Unami Collaborations

By Spencer Cawein Pate

“Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible.”–James Joyce, Ulysses

In Theodore Roszak’s great horror novel on the occult history of cinema, Flicker, there’s a memorable scene in which a film projectionist explains how motion pictures depend on two perceptual quirks of the human nervous system: the persistence of vision and the fusion frequency. The first refers to the fact that the brain retains an optical afterimage of what the eyes take in even after a light source has passed out of our sight. The second is the phenomenon through which still images succeeding one another at the rate of (at minimum) 24 frames per second creates an illusion of continuity and motion. Were it not for the uncanny intersection of these two spandrels of our evolutionary phylogeny, film as we know it would cease to exist. (Apparently this hypothesis has since been empirically discredited, or at least complicated–we owe cinema to the flicker frequency threshold, not the persistence of vision. But it’s still a neat idea, not to mention a clever conceit from a literary standpoint.)

Think of it this way: what if a nonhuman animal were to encounter film? Would an organism with a faster perception—a higher frame rate, as it were—observe merely strobing lights and shadows where people see color and movement? Would a living thing with a slower perception of time even be able to recognize what is being depicted at all, or would it find only a meaningless blur? These questions pose a powerful challenge to naïve or direct realism, because they undermine the ostensible objectivity / givenness / holism of a noumenal event. We could just as easily transpose this philosophical debate into the medium of sound as well as that of vision. For example, consider the classic conundrum: if a tree falls in the wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is of course yes (in the sense that sound is just a pressure wave of air molecules), but that affirmation must be qualified: the event of a falling tree produces sound, but how that sound is experienced would vary widely between species; it must first be translated into our subjective phenomenological states by the physiological hardware of our ears, nerves, bodies, and brains before it can be apprehended as sound as such. Any evental source of sound exists in the Lacanian Real because it is properly outside the correlates of consciousness, a material remainder that cannot ever be wholly captured by and within the Symbolic Order of language and art.

But that should not, and does not, stop us from trying. Toshiya Tsunoda and Taku Unami’s two albums to date in their Wovenland series (on Erstwhile Records) comprise one of the most conceptually rich and sensuously enthralling attempts to grapple with the ontological nature of sound and perception: they pulverize and melt and smear the acoustic world into the quanta of its constituent particles, disentangle and split its waveforms through prisms, and then reassemble them into striking, strange new shapes. Wovenland (2018) and Wovenland 2 (2020) afford the listener a vicarious experience of hearing the world through nonhuman ears. (In this respect, they remind me of Stan Brakhage’s short films Mothlight and The Garden of Earthly Delights.) Tsunoda and Unami write the following in their liner notes to the second album (and which is also very similar to the rationale that composer Michael Pisaro-Liu articulated for his Continuum Unbound project):

What we see and hear in this world is not transmitted to the brain as an optical or acoustic image. Signals that enter through the sensory organs are deconstructed into peripheral units in the nervous system, which are then combined in the nervous system into a series of events. There is no ‘reality’ in there. Our sensory experience is constantly being formed in this system.

Taking this as a starting point, we have attempted to set up specific processes for recording spaces in the real world. ‘Reality’ seems to dissipate at first listen when hearing the strange acoustics resulting from these attempts. But it will never go away, because there is no other way to form the continuity and disconnection derived from the process rather than relying on this method.

Reality is like an ephemeral window through which we face the world.

While Chris Watson might be the finest nature recordist of all time on a technical and narrative level, Toshiya Tsunoda is probably the most original. If Watson’s work focus on what James Joyce (see epigraph above) called “very short times of space” as he moves topographically (across landscapes and weatherscapes) or orthogonally (through long durations of hours or days or months, which are then compressed via editing), then Tsunoda’s astonishing Extract From Field Recording Archive series centers on “very short spaces of time” as he renders audible the hidden pulse, the ineluctable modality, of the vibrating world. Tsunoda’s superb collaborations on Erstwhile (Crosshatches, with Pisaro-Liu, and Detour, with Manfred Werder) and self-released experiments (The Temple Recording, Grains of Spring, and Somashikiba) push his work into fascinating new compositional territory that reaches its apogee with Wovenland. (There is no better overview of Tsunoda’s oeuvre than Pisaro-Liu’s essay “Membrane – Window – Mirror (The Folded Worlds of Toshiya Tsunoda)” in Surround magazine. Indeed, it’s taken me literal years to write this piece, with many failed and abandoned drafts in my wake, simply because Pisaro-Liu’s piece is so admirably precise, elegant, thoughtful, and comprehensive.) And Taku Unami is one of the most consistently inventive and playful artists working in the improv-sphere today. Motubachii (with Annette Krebs) and Teatro Assente (with Takahiro Kawaguchi) are landmarks of contemporary acousmatic music, and Parazoan Mapping (with Eric La Casa) and The Whistler (with Graham Lambkin) are among my favorite field recordings, tracing and stitching together the raveled threads of percussive and pitched sounds through interior / exterior worlds. (Unami is also exceptionally talented at mixing and mastering albums; he’s a frequent engineer for both Erstwhile and Elsewhere. Both Wovenlands are stunningly crisp and intimate.) Together, Tsunoda and Unami break down the doors of auditory perception like nothing else I’ve ever heard; it is a drug-free psychedelic trip.

The CD packaging and Bandcamp pages for the Wovenland albums give a detailed overview of the methodological details behind each track, so I won’t belabor how the music was constructed. Rather, I’m interested in the subjective experience thereof. On the first Wovenland, “The Farthest Land #1 (Inzai, Chiba)” juxtaposes the close scraping and fluttering of windblown leaves with the faraway noises of a children’s playground, creating an eerie sense of both nearness and distance. “Park Cleaning / Crickets Chirping” cuts between two inputs—one for each stereo channel—whenever the volume of one drops below a certain level, and the effect is frankly jaw-dropping: it feels like someone is either walking through your skull (if heard on headphones) or through your room (if played on a sound system). “In the Park,” “In a Farmland,” and “From the Rooftop, Railway Terminal Station” crush sound into glowing crystalline-metallic dust. “In the City, Fire Sirens” slows down an oscillating ambulance into an underwater jazz ballet. “Crickets Chirping – Water Fountain in a Park” transforms the source material into a babbling infant. “Parking Lot for Bicycles / The Library” and “Shorefront of a Lake / Commercial Space” explore the acoustic properties of echoing, resonating spaces. Finally, “The Farthest Land #2 (Higashimurayama, Tokyo)” and “The Farthest Land #3 (Inzai, Chiba)” are delicate, evocative, and affecting ambient miniatures of environments and climates.

Wovenland 2 is a double album (before its release, I had been hoping for a more evocative title, like Wovensea); even if it’s a little less immediate than its precursor because of the longer runtime and track lengths, it’s still essential listening. The basic procedure here is to take a single recording and then to manipulate it in several different ways related to the amplitude and frequency of the waveforms. Thus, the “Fishing Spot in Misaki Port” tracks yield alien chants or spectral drones; “In the Glass, Kaneda” shifts between a buzzing hive and a twittering aviary; and “Pigeon” gives us rustling wings and cooing birds, or else the air they stir up. The “Fireworks” pieces are some of the highlights: with either the higher or lower frequencies removed, we are left with either the physicality of a dull bass thud vs. the springy zaps of a Star Trek phaser coupled with the reactions of the observing audience. “Small Valley in Kaneda,” “Hiking Trail Near Zushi High School,” “Inside the Fish Market,” and “Nagaura Port” are outdoor settings made inorganic, all humming, hissing machinery in factories and buzzing, clicking electronics in laboratories. “Sugaruya / Crickets” is a ghostly wail, where “Miyagawa Port” is the surface world as heard from beneath the waves. Sped-up versions of “Fireworks” and “In the Glass, Kaneda” turn into a sparking campfire and a croaking frog, respectively. “Overlooking Hasse” and “Jinmu-Ji Temple, Evening Cicadas” present the slowed songs of birds and insects; they are so simple in their unadorned beauty as to be curiously moving.

It’s sometimes said that an unfortunate side effect of science is to disenchant the world and deromanticize nature—to “unweave the rainbow,” as it were. But Wovenland and Wovenland 2 prove this to be false: Tsunoda and Unami use the techniques of science to braid and knit together a new spectrum, to make us see it fresh as though for the first time. Their music is ecstatic in the original sense of the word–it allows us, if only for the duration of an album, to stand outside oneself, to hear through nonhuman ears. Indeed, I once had an ecstatic moment when I was walking in a park shortly after I first read about some of John Cage’s conceptual pieces, like 0’0″: I felt as though I were surrounded by silent invisible infinitesimal music. Every gap between air molecules was charged with it, and for one all-too-brief second, I could even imagine myself hearing it: not the music of the spheres, but subatomic music, the music that is the fabric of the expanding cosmos itself. I’ve been living in the radioactive afterglow of that epiphany–the Cagean insight that the difference between sound and music is just a matter of perception–ever since. Listening to Wovenland is perhaps the closest I will come to recapturing that sense memory of silent music, and for that reason it may be my favorite album of the Erstwhile catalogue (which is saying something, considering how many mind-expanding and life-altering records they’ve released). If we allow its music to rewire our hearing, to reweave the land and sea and sky, we will find that, as with Caliban in The Tempest, “the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweeet airs, that give delight and hurt not: / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, / That if I then had waked after long sleep, / Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.”

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