Sawako: Baltimore City Paper (2008)
Blinded by Silence
Sawako, The Carriage House, Dec. 5

By Michael Byrne | Posted 12/10/2008
IN THEORY, THE MULTI-DISCIPLINARY aspect of the Los Solos series should be to its advantage. There is no law, after all, that says music performance can only be in the company of music performance. (The Transmodern Festival should serve as a good example.) Particularly given the relative forward-thinking, challenging (experimental) musicians the monthly woman-centric performance series has booked for this season, why not mix in performance art/lectures/etc. for an audience that is on its toes already or willing to get there? Overall, it's a great, format-challenging idea.

And the fourth edition of the series presented a challenge indeed. Walking into the lower Charles Village Carriage House space, off an alleyway and unmarked save for a street address number, you were confronted with a rather different show setup/vibe than we've experienced there before. Instead of the audience facing the room's nice, stained-wood stage on the northeast side of the room, the chairs were oriented toward the doorway on the west side, with small handfuls of seats on the stage, a long narrow balcony, and the floor, cut way down in usable area by the trappings of a photo shoot--clothing racks, lights, white paper backdrop, makeup table, and a bunch of other stuff you don't expect to find at a performance of any kind, at least for the audience to view.

It was an odd vibe, and it wasn't really explained what was going on for, roughly, another 45 minutes. Basically, audience members/friends of the responsible artist, Sarada Conaway, were reverse-makeovered, kind of Jerry Blankified. It was cute and funny and not very well explained either in a subsequent lecture, which seemed to reduce it to "realistic" art, which I took to mean experiential art. (That 45 minutes also provided plenty of time to admire the Carriage House, which is one of my favorite places to see shows now--lots of wood, rustic lighting fixtures, a whooshing fake wood stove, schoolhouse chairs. It's what you imagine Scarey Studios, basically a chilly old mechanic's garage, would have been like run by women.)

I won't get into much here except to say that, given that the lecture/photo shoot thing was paired with a 30-some-minute ambient music performance, some brevity could have been in order. It took an hour and a half for the night's first performance. I'll admit readily that it's partially because I was into the night for music--Sawako is a very big deal to these ears--but by the time the first portion wrapped up, I was feeling a bit bugged.

Oh, well--the wait was worth it, and then some. (To clarify, this isn't to say Conaway's presentation was a waste, just a little reductionist and too long.) Sawako is a young Japanese woman now living in New York who's been making electronic ambient records in the vein of Music for Airports Brian Eno and more contemporary folks like Oval for labels such as 12K and West Coast ambient dude Paul Dickow's (Strategy, Nudge, Fontanelle) on-hiatus Community Library. Her lovingly humanized--courtesy lively field-recording backdrops--and minimal soundscapes have met with near uniform affection from the foaming underground of ambient music devotees.

Friday, she sat in a corner of the night's ad hoc stage area, the floor in front of the photo backdrop, which served as a screen for her real-time manipulated projections. Sawako performed with just a laptop and microphone; the room's PA consisted of a single stand-alone speaker perched about 10 feet to her left. At once the room was very dark and very quiet. She entered with the sound of children playing, matched on screen by orbiting digital line drawings glowing bright white on black. The children were as loud or louder than real live children playing in the room would be, and the effect is surreal, like she's summoning little kid spirits. The music that enters is a sort of narcotic, ethereal series of plonks. The children faded and the room became pure electronic sound.

Sawako sang only briefly, and it's a shame. Her voice is low and sweet--it didn't rise out of the mix so much as complement it. When it disappeared after only a few lines, it wasn't abrupt. On screen she rendered slowly rotating roses out of sharp, self-consciously digitized lines. It felt like the music got to this point of abject beauty rapidly and effortlessly and now she's just gliding. At just the point of maximum glide--imagine a moment of comfortable vertigo--she shakes the composition loose with dissonant ringing bells as the screen shifts to jagged whorls.

Children reenter her composition, just one child surrounded by the sounds of a forest. Her visuals have morphed into blurry, psychedelic images of small plastic toys being stirred around and around with a fork in a liquid-filled glass. And for a brief period, the entirety of the performance feels to be all about rotation--a little frozen tiger spins in a glass as Sawako's plaintive tones loop. And then it is very, very quiet, save for a single tinny pitch, as if the room has frozen in time. (More than anyone that comes to mind right now, Sawako understands the devastating possibilities of silence.) It's so quiet, you can hear the scratch of a pen on paper. In the final moments, as her visuals soften into watercolors and her song swells one more time, it feels like an encore. It thins to a trickle, and ends in a room of stopped breaths.