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Alan Nakagawa's Conical Sound Project

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Alan Nakagawa has recorded twice at the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's outré architectural opus in South Los Angeles. He's also gained access to Antoni Gaudí's masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church in Barcelona. The recordings are to be processed into a piece called "Conical Sound," an allusion to both architects' prominently cone-shaped buildings.

"I haven't it finished yet," Nakagawa says sheepishly when I meet him at Union Station, where he works his day job as a public arts official for the MTA. After doing a test at the Torrance Art Museum, Nakagawa realized the piece needed some more hardware. He seems to fret over the piece, wanting to constantly tweak it. In a way, Nakagawa is embodying a space between Gaudí, who famously never finished the Sagrada Família, and Rodia, who obsessively worked at Watts Towers.

Of course, Nakagawa will eventually finish the piece, which was born from a City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Artist grant (C.O.L.A.). Because basically, Nakagawa is in the midst of an artwork he's been thinking about for a long time, having, at a young age, pieced together the dovetailing spirit behind both artists' work. As soon as he was given the opportunity, he was on a flight to Barcelona to see several of Gaudí's works, including a rare recording session at the Sagrada. Alas, when he finally recorded at both sites, he realized that it wasn't the conical shapes that were the locus of the piece.

Alan Nakagawa at Watts Towers
Alan Nakagawa at Watts Towers.

"My theory was because they put this organic form in their architecture that there would be some sort of similar sound experience," explains Nakagawa, who studied as a drummer and is a member of the experimental Southern California Soundscape Ensemble. "Basically, that was not true. It was true in the sense that there was a circular pattern to the wave within the structure, but there's probably a circular pattern in any structure. It's more metaphoric -- these two guys were nutty people. They were both eccentric; they both had this amazing focus; they both died alone; they both were raised Catholic; they both experienced a time of history where industrialization had sputtered society into new technologies and ways of living. But one had no money, and the other had all the money in the world."

And yet, even with all the money, Gaudí never finished the building. In fact, it's only been open in it's current, viewable state for about a year-and-a-half, says Nakagawa. The opportunity to record in such a sacred masterpiece was not lost on him. "I'm extremely privileged," says Nakagawa, beaming. "According to the Sagrada Família, I'm the first artist who was given permission to record inside. There have been acoustic engineers who have measured it with recording devices, but that's not what I do."

Once inside, Nakagawa used commercially available recorders with left and right microphones -- the point of the microphone being that it's trying to replicate how we hear out of our left and right ears. He and his team of seven people did field recordings at the ceiling, halfway down, and on the floor. "You can record the space, acoustically, as it exists," says Nakagawa. "And this is something that no one can experience, because you can only be in one place at one time. I've always been attracted to the idea of omnipresence. If you believe in god, god is always omnipresent. If you believe in Mother Nature, Mother Nature's omnipresent. Or time, or space. I like how electronics can give us that opportunity. We can put microphones all over the world and listen to it at the same time."

Sagrada Família Church
Sagrada Família Church.

At the Watts Towers, Nakagawa was able to record twice, once by placing microphones on the walls surrounding the Towers and doing field recordings, and once by placing contact mics on the Towers. "[The first recording session] got a lot of external sounds," he says, "but then I realized that was the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is inherent in the Watts Towers, because Rodia left it for the people. Now it's a community center, and lots of people have stories of it growing up. I had another opportunity to go back and record it, so I thought, 'Why do I need to repeat what I did?' I put contact mics on the Tower itself, because, of course, they move. So I got the sound of them moving."

Nakagawa and his team had similar experiences recording Sagrada Família, where both the sounds of Barcelona and the building made themselves known in the recordings. "We were at the mercy of the street noise," says Nakagawa, who then mimics the sounds of car horns honking, people shouting. "It's actually very busy around the Sagrada at night -- engine noises, people dropping things, whatever -- but by the time it gets in that room, it's not an audible sound. It's just a tone, and the tone would dance around. What was most articulate was that there was this one door at the very end of the church, and for one reason or another it shut really fast, and it was literally like a cannon. So in the recording, you can hear it."

Watts Towers
Watts Towers.

Nakagawa has combined these elements into single tracks. For the Torrance Art Museum performance, for instance, he layered everything -- the Sagrada Família recordings, the Watts Towers, and recordings he made at other Gaudí buildings. The result is something confusing, distorted, and surprisingly transportive, both to the places Nakagawa recorded and to nowhere recognizable at all. "Sometimes you're in one room, sometimes you're in four rooms," he says of the actual noises "Conical Sound" is made of. "There are a lot of sounds that are recognizable, but for the most part it's this ominous tone that's like ocean. On top of that, I'll add tones and frequencies. But nothing too much."

All mixed together, however, Nakagawa imagines the piece takes you to places unknown, utopic even. "It brings you nowhere," says Nakagawa. "It brings you somewhere that's nowhere. It kind of reminds me of utopia. I always thought utopia was an intentional place. I never realized that [16th century philosopher and author of "Utopia"] Thomas More was actually joking. He was talking about a 'no place.' I think that 'no place' is really important, because it's really not 'no place,' it's a place of destination, but it's unattainable, so you're really talking about the monumentality of process. Process is really what it's about, like life. It's not about how much money you make at the end, or how many toys you had at the end -- it's the journey."

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