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Hearing with the Whole Body: Alan Nakagawa's Reverberating Composition

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Artist Alan Nakagawa smiles as if he's in on some cosmic secret. And perhaps he is.

With quiet warmth, a soft-spoken manner and a wise glint in his eyes -- revealed in conversations that flit from obscure scientific experiments to Nam June Paik to ethnomusicology in one sitting -- he reminds me of a real-life (albeit slimmer) Totoro, an entry into the strange layered over the mundane.

"I've had tinnitus since I was five," begins Nakagawa, "It's like it happened just yesterday. I'm on a playground on Wilton Place Elementary looking at the sky and I'm hearing these frequencies."

Tinnitus is that sound in your ear you just can't shake. It isn't a disease, but a condition that has no cure. An estimated 50 million people in the country have tinnitus to varying degrees. They hear ringing, hissing, or even ocean waves. But for Nakagawa 44 years later, it was the sound of his latest experimental musical composition, "The Organ of Corti."

"[It] is the symphony of my tinnitus," says Nakagawa, who despite living with the condition for more than four decades, exudes the tranquility of a man content with life, content to learn and create. It is his childhood condition that has also influenced his approach to art. Though, Nakagawa credits his time at Otis College of Art and Design for opening his eyes to the possibility of art without strict boundaries. Before then, he was torn between what he thought were two diverging passions: jazz drumming and painting.

"They introduced us to all these artists from the turn of the century all the way to the 60s and 70s, artists who were using multimedia. Not multimedia with the way we look at it today with the Internet, but multimedia in using multiple genres of art and using them into one piece." Emboldened by these artists, Nakagawa suddenly realized he could combine his far-flung fascinations into one cohesive whole. In each of his pieces, a myriad of influences is layered one after the other, interspersed so that one can't tell where one ends and the other begins.

In the "Organ of Corti," a 12-minute version of which he presented at the Redcat's Spring Studio this year, Nakagawa is the maestro behind a chimera-like contraption of boards, pedals, boxes and wires snaking this way and that. From the womb of his contraption, two umbilical cords wind toward two aluminum soundbeds that hide speakers within their hollow bellies.

After volunteers don earplugs, lie on the soundbeds, and clutch an inflated balloon, Nakagawa begins his symphony. It is music unlike what plays on the airwaves. It is dissonant, uncomfortable, down right strange; the body instinctively rejects it. But after awhile, as the ear gets used to it, it becomes a facsimile of the exotic sounds of everyday -- a train screeching on the rails, the fire truck's siren call, and static noise from walkie-talkie. In truth, it is none of those, but then the mind makes strange connections when left adrift in sound.

Then, there is the body. As the sounds course through the speakers beneath the sound beds, its frequencies jostle with the nerves along your body. It moves you on a microscopic level. (Later, I learn Nakagawa incorporates frequencies researched by Dr. Royal Rife, in the 1930s. Rife -- a cult figure -- claimed he could destroy diseased cells in the body by exposing them to specific oscillations.)

What just happened?

To understand, a dissection is needed. In this simple seeming sound piece, Nakagawa shoehorns a myriad of concepts drawn cherry picked from his lifetime of writing ideas down on blank notebooks.

First, there is the name and thus, the framework.

"The Organ of Corti is this little tiny fibrous organ in your cochlea," patiently explains Nakagawa. "Sound is airborne, frequency travels through the air, through our ears, into the tympanic membrane and eventually goes into a liquid solution. Now, it's a solution that's waterborne. Then it goes into the cochlea.

"In the cochlea, there's a network of fibers (and mechanisms) called the Organ of Corti. That's where the frequency is translated into electrons, which is the language of the brain basically.

"To me, that's like a microphone. If you had a mic and talked into it, that's turning our sound waves into electrical information. That's the Organ of Corti. I love that."

Throughout the piece, Nakagawa incorporates the scientific and the artistic. Instead of notes placed on a staff that we would normally see on piano pieces, he uses the cross section of the Organ of Corti to remind him of what to play.

Then, there are the means.

Nakagawa's soundbeds are part and parcel of his experimental piece. Inspired by Joshua Tree's Integraton, an all-wood acoustic chamber famous for its sound baths, Nakagawa developed these sound beds as a way to experience sound that gets under our skin.

Each soundbed is basically an aluminum or wooden skin loosely screwed on top of a wood frame. As the speakers within it vibrate with Nakagawa's sound, it transfers the agitation all along the bed.

"You're lying down the bed and the speaker is inside the bed. And it vibrates like crazy. It's wonderful," says Nakagawa.

The sound is created by a maze of guitar pedals, modulators, oscillators, among other gizmos, blended in with sounds of common objects: a comb, tissue paper, a fallen leaf.

Nakagawa invented yet another machine he calls the Isocube that would help tease out the sound lying dormant in these normally "quiet" objects. "It is nothing complicated," says Nakagawa, who speaks as if his tinkering ways were not in the least out of the ordinary.

"It's just a box that's insulated but has holes so you can put your hand on it. The top of it has a double plated plexiglass window so you can see what you're touching. A mic in it picks up what you're touching." Nakagawa created the Isocube to separate the small sounds of life and put on the same level as his electrical frequencies. He mixed the sounds of bottle caps, wires, leaves, bond paper from the printer and feeds into the whole of the "Organ of Corti."

Right now, only two beds are in existence. Nakagawa does not yet have the funds to build more. Those unable to experience the beds can still experience vibration on a smaller scale, by holding an inflated balloon while wearing ear plugs. It is a method Nakagawa learned from a deaf student during one of his artist talks. "You start to just focus on what the balloon is doing," says Nakagawa, "What the balloon starts to do during the piece, what I've heard from the audience, is nothing that they've ever experienced before."

"Organ of Corti" showcases Nakagawa's layered inspirations, geologic in scale, as if years of disparate knowledge have seeped into the sands of his mind, squeezed and superheated to form a striking, exotic amalgam.

To be sure, most of Nakagawa's music is unlike anything most of us have experienced, but he says it is not altogether different from what our ears are used to. "[Experimental music] is not as mysterious as many think it is. If you think about all the opportunities we have to be entertained in Los Angeles. It's kind of already there," says Nakagawa, "If you watch the Flaming Lips, turn down the volume and instead played Brian Eno ambient music or the 12-tonal Stravinsky pieces, that's closer to what we're doing. The elements of what we're doing are there, but it's not totally out there."

The artist is used to complex reactions to his music. "[It's] because they have to permeate through the definition [of music]. If you see something that is different, it's upsetting because we all want to be safe. When you tweak with that, people generally feel unsafe. When they feel unsafe, they feel uncomfortable, lost or disinterested. Anything innovative has always done that," says Nakagawa who was awarded a California Community Foundation Visual Art Fellowship last year.

"When Wagner first performed one of the Rings, they had a riot. They practically burned down that theater. The first time Stravinsky did Firebird, the whole auditorium was yelling at each other."

"We're capable of so much more than we think, I think the arts, sciences and everything, the reason we continue to research, experiment, push is because we're trying to nudge all our fellow people to a higher degree of living.

"We're not trying to freak people out, destroy the universe. We're just trying to say, that I understand that's what you think music is, but music is always growing and turning and digesting technology and bringing it back and trying to push it a little bit."

A five-hour version of the "Organ of Corti" will premiere September 21, 5 to 10 pm at the East LA Rep arts center near California State University Los Angeles. The audience will be free to come and go during the whole duration, to experience as little or as much of Nakagawa's experimental sound.

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Top Image: Nakagawa at work, playing with knobs on one hand and tinkering with objects inside the isocube on the other. | Photo: Carren Jao.

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