Asian Meeting Festival 2016 4th Day in Kobe The Meeting's Chain Reaction Satoshi Osawa

The Meeting's Chain ReactionSatoshi Osawa


I used to be addicted to South Korean TV dramas.

That was in the early 2000s when the country was in the midst of Kanryu, or the "Korean Wave." I immersed myself in the craze out of curiosity at first, hoping to find a topic of discussion (neta), but after a while I became a typical (beta) Kanryu fan. Incidentally, neta and beta were popular terms among the world of intellectuals back then. Spending many hours watching those dramas, my Korean listening comprehension improved remarkably, although my pronunciation was not very good, or I couldn't tell if it was good or bad. This period of absorption lasted several years until I suddenly broke it off. About ten years have passed but some Korean words still come back to mind on occasion. One such example is 미팅 [miting]. Originating from the English word "meeting," it is used in referring to a "conference" (as in English), but under certain circumstances it can also mean "group blind dates." It was not necessarily the most commonly used word, but the leap in meaning seems to have made a strong impression on me. Even now, whenever I hear the word "meeting," whether in English or Japanese, I have to quickly wipe away the image of a matchmaking party that pops into mind.

But the point of this article is Asian Meeting Festival 2016. I joined the audience of the Kobe concert on February 8. As I headed to the venue, Kobe Art Village Center, I couldn't help picturing, because of the event's title, men and women coming from all over Asia for a large-scale matchmaking party. To be honest, I had little knowledge about this project, and it wasn't my habit of going to this kind of concert. It was decided, though, that I would have to write this review. I blamed the lack of information for the inappropriate image, but seeing the concert I thought perhaps it was not completely wrong.

A dozen musicians and sound artists from East Asia and Southeast Asia, most of whom were meeting each other for the first time, formed a circle to provide a two-hour free session as an impromptu ensemble. They took turns in a seamless relay with three or four members always playing. The formation gradually changed as if connecting chains with the spotlight cast on the front player each time. It was an accidental visualization of a network of sound improvisation by Asian artists living in the same period. The multi-centric network with no privileged leader looked like an organic growth with matching lines creating a constellation of constantly changing shapes. Since theirs was underground music that defied classification, with their activity bases geographically distant from one another, the musicians rarely shared the same context, at least not intentionally. But here, in Kobe, they were in the same place all at once, bringing sounds that had evolved in different places.

The event was an open-seating concert that allowed us to change seats freely. Although informed by an earlier announcement, the audience did not seem too sure at first, but they gradually started to take advantage of the open seating and moved around the dimly-lit hall. Some moved closer to the instruments that intrigued them, trying to feel the sounds with all their senses, others sat in the back to capture the whole picture. The view and the sound were dynamically realigned according to where we sat, while the players produced the one and only meeting in a shared space.

The sources of sound were diverse. Some were familiar instruments such as the guitar, Chinese zither, cello, synthesizer and turntable, while others were unusual tools, one that looked like a sieve, a glass bowl, some ethnic instruments, and indescribable digital devices. Vocal performance also played a part at some points. The instruments created unconcerted sounds that gradually shaped the music in a process like successful matchmaking. Subtle noises and hisses from the audience and even a baby's fretful cry blended with the music. Everything was interlocked.

What does it mean to be interlocked? Since this was an ensemble, the players naturally paid attention to the other sounds and adjusted their own. They listened carefully to what the other members had to offer and responded deliberately without exchanging words. I thought the performance looked similar to something else. Rarely using eye contact the players seemed to concentrate on the task at hand. They seemed to have locked themselves in the space around their work table and continued to throw their work into the vacant center of the circle. This reminded me of a fighting arcade game, where two strangers in an arcade or some distant places fight with each other on display devices. Unable to see each other's expression they carry out an attack or drop an item and wait for the other to respond. This process is repeated throughout the game, with the players represented by characters with various specialties, just like the performers of the music ensemble. (I hope matchmaking parties and video games do not spoil the project's concept.) The Asian artists' dexterous control of their "tools" also reinforced this association, because it was exactly like making moves in a game. Come to think of it, "meet" does mean to "compete" or "contend."

One of the artists actually used three Nintendo Game Boys connected to a loudspeaker. When he hit a button the equipment made a "whoosh" sound. In the latter part of the session all the performers played together, creating musical chaos through a multitude of sounds, during which this Nintendo fellow used his sound effects and watched the others' reactions. Sometimes the sound was ignored, other times it was met with a corresponding note. This resonance and failed resonance mingled with the other sounds to add layers of phrases and kept overwriting the music.

This is how they interlocked with one another. John Durham Peters, a researcher in communication studies, maintains that the foundation of communication is not interactive, one-to-one dialogue, but non-interactive dissemination by way of media, where, despite the appearance, ethical problems wait to be solved. I think this concert unwittingly showed the potential of this communication model. The session will soon be released and archived in YouTube and other streaming services to stimulate further reaction across time and space. And the reaction may not even be in a musical form. In this way, I think this meeting will continue causing a chain reaction and diffusing sounds infinitely.

In the early 2000s, when I was hooked on Korean dramas, there were a number of initiatives for establishing non-political, non-diplomatic regional networks in Asia. Although some looked feasible, a series of events during the following decade created a backlash, leaving us with various tensions and conflicts. In the current situation, we must seek a different mode of regional communication, and I think we might find clues in events like this meeting. One reaction triggered another reaction, which triggered yet another reaction, making the concert seem endless yet not frustrating at all. In fact, it felt rather good. As the session approached its climax, I bared myself to the heat of this extraordinary performance.

Satoshi Osawa, critic, media researcher