Willie Reviews Aki Onda & Paul Clipson’s “Make Visible the Ghosts”

Willie Reviews Aki Onda & Paul Clipson’s “Make Visible the Ghosts”

Aki Onda and the late Paul Clipson’s work on Make Visible the Ghosts is a collaboration in the strangest, loosest, and most interesting sense of the word. Audio and visual collide randomly and attractively. RPM’s review:

A few weeks ago, while listening to my AM/FM radio headset on my commute in Minneapolis, the light rail pulled into the station and immediately blasted me with screeching radio interference. Its electric propulsion system blocked out every other frequency on the dial and trapped me in an almost unlistenable flood of noise. Curiously, it amplified the rising and falling pure tones and harmonic sequences of the motor. I say that it was almost unlistenable because instead of simple static, I happily listened deep into the heart of the machine for almost half an hour.

It’s this sort of mystifying, fundamental sound that makes up much of Aki Onda and Paul Clipson’s LP Make Visible the Ghosts. Musician Aki Onda provides the soundtrack, and experimental filmmaker Paul Clipson provides the visuals. The conceit for the project was to create two independent works and merge them only at the very end. Their collaboration started back in 2012 and first took shape in a 2013 live performance in New York. They paired live audio with video in the form of film projections. It was later that they decided to pursue a recorded version, first releasing an eight-minute video and then going for an LP release. Now, the final product on vinyl is accompanied by a large-scale poster of Clipson’s film reels. Clipson passed away in early 2018 after the completion of the project, and Onda notes that “this is a chance to remember him and his images that extended and expanded our perception of how the world can be seen and heard.” And so, the album that came out of their project layers chance encounter upon chance counter in so many different shapes and permutations that it invites the listener to stake out a unique place in meaning-making. In a more direct way than we listeners are usually tasked with assessing a work, the almost random associations between audio and visual give us an opportunity to piece meaning together ourselves and become a translator of sorts.

Clipson’s poster, photo from audioMER

As a starting point for dispersing possible interpretations, Onda and Clipson both fish out the most foundational component parts of their respective media. Clipson’s macro lens peers into the human eye as it would a swath of fabric or an unidentifiable texture. He pulls detail out of light and films light as light. So much of the accompanying video for this project includes lights and reflections of lights dancing across the screen. His scope is impossibly small, but its frenzy and movement implies the existence of an impossibly big universe. Using the same emphasis on building blocks, Onda’s sounds are often empty in their mechanical nature. Even with vast layering, they don’t exude friendliness or malleability. In previous works, Onda has often sourced his sounds from field recordings. His Cassette Memories series uses his “sound diaries” to create musical offshoots. On Make Visible the Ghosts, he uses clicks, taps, stray voices, passing cars, and more to fill out the musical landscape. “Gravity… Intruders” is bookended by passages of this material. Before the droning notes come in, it resembles an empty city street as it echoes and spins aimlessly. The end of the track uses a sample that shows up throughout: the sound of the film reel clacking during the performance in New York. It’s a meta choice that so warps the relationship between the two that it comes around to make sense again.

Because both their outputs share an unpredictability and strong grounding in the world as it is, they must also defamiliarize these components, and they both go about this process in remarkably similar ways. Their interactions with their material mirror their interactions with each other—fluid, layered, alternately fully considered and full of wild abandon. “Shadow Rakes Across The Cold Pavement” layers abrasive noise on top of a single, smooth drone, but what really divides it is speed versus rest. The spinning film reel sound carries it along like a motorik beat, then fades to expose underlayers of sound. Onda often goes after time dilation effects like this, using the massive canvas of ten-minute tracks to tell a long story. Clipson’s battling forces are similar in that he uses speed and disorder against saturated, contemplative images. The album cover highlights rolls of still images, some of which express movement even in their static form. A puddle shimmers in six parts, and a cropped, blurred face leaves streaks of light in its wake.

Onda writes extensively in the album notes about each contributor’s work solo versus as a combined audio-visual unit. He sees the totality of the work as a different beast entirely than one or another. The audio and the video are both covered in the physical and digital artifact, all plain truths smudged out to facilitate a smooth joining process. And while I think any video can work with any audio, their self-awareness as “audio for video” and “video for audio” certainly opens up the doors of interpretation. Even in vinyl format, the project is labeled with both Onda and Clipson’s names. This unit is indivisible in many ways, and the process of collaboration left each format forever marked with the residue of the other. The revelations that they were hoping for really do happen. Watching this video in conjunction with any of the four tracks on the album elicits a different result. The little conflicts, resolutions, and dramatic tensions take shape just far enough from randomness to make them real, alive, and high-stakes. The video and the audio immerse the listener in an entirely new landscape where every critical observation may be fleeting. If you start the video in a different place or go to a different moment in the music, you can replicate the live performance aspect of the project and go to a place that’s always changing. This live reckoning is thrilling and a result of those many, many layers of substance.

Without being excessively on the nose, I’d like to suggest reading the album’s title as a description of the interpretive work on the album. They flush out so many of the dormant images inside themselves and inside us that leap out from fragments of real life. The sounds of traffic have never sounded so transcendent, and the human eye has never done such heavy lifting. This collaboration will surely go down as a singular one.

Score: Contact mic on the eye?