Human, object, machine: Marginal Consort

There is not one Marginal Consort show but many. The Japanese four piece play once a year, in the round, each with a cluttered table of objects and instruments. Theirs are reckless mixtures of the acoustic and electronic, of Rube Goldberg sound-making machines and traditional stringed instruments, lengths of timber and metal piping, contact mics and percussion, bamboo sticks and grey drainpipes, sex toys and taiko.  

There is never a right place to stand in a Marginal Consort show, no sweet spot, but many sweet spots. It is a completist’s nightmare: even in the middle you miss something. One member of the audience sleeps under a table, others walk in loops around the room, some stand, some sit along the back wall, eyes closed.   

This final part of the Critical Writing Workshop is an experiment in representing the performance’s plurality through a group writing exercise, which reflects the collective spirit of Marginal Consort. There is not one leader, and here there is not one author. Each participant was given a 30-minute slot in the three hour performance, and was briefed to experiment with descriptive forms of writing about sound.


The performance begins with a bang – a giant origami paper banger that requires a full-bodied swipe from Kazuo Imai, like he’s serving tennis. Elsewhere in the room, Tomonao Koshikawa slowly tilts a rain stick back and forward. Kei Shii stands nonchalantly under a long stretched wire that runs high over the room, bowing a second piece of wire pulled down, creating a resonant metal sound. Masami Tada is understated, manipulating and making sounds with a contact microphone in his mouth.

The set-up is like a kids science fair, but in place of chatter there are these four enthusiasts playing with an assemblage of objects and instruments. (Jenny Soep)

There is no stage in the wooden-floored concert hall. There are a few black chairs against the walls and black padded benches in the centre. We can walk, sit, slouch, move, lie, stand up, “do anything within Swedish decency laws” as festival organiser John Chantler puts it. Low blue spotlights illuminate the otherwise dark room. They are not necessarily directed towards the four corners of the room where the musicians stand behind their table. 

On my right Kei Shii is sitting calmly, grating his stringed instrument with fervour. On my left Masami Tada is engaging his whole body in banging the edges of a drum. Tomonao Koshikawa is blowing in a small flute and Kazuo Imai is agitating two metal springs. Both have their heads down.

The absurd is present from the start, but this performance is also physically demanding. The musicians are playing, literally. They are disturbing silence, throwing things – objects are breaking. We are forced to move around if we want to observe each of them, to understand which thing is creating which sound.

Yet, even with this movement we seem physically restrained. When freedom of movement is explicitly encouraged, why does it seem that we hold on to conformity? Is it because even standing partly in the light means it is hard to let go? Or is it because we still can’t break the reverence of a concert hall, even when the stage is removed? (Charlie-Camille Thomas)


The Scrapman, the Raven, the Craftsman and the Minimalist are stirring their instruments and activating their objects. The performer to my left is playing a triangular shaped box with a mallet. The instrument is being stirred. This performer is the Craftsman. On the table in front of him is a series of carved instruments. There is a mini-bass the size of a ukulele and a slender one-string instrument, a measuring tape and long wires framing the set. He has strings, straps and buttons to pull, pluck or push.

To his right, is the Scrapman. His table contains large tubes and cables, paper and metal sheets. Items come in pairs: bowls, balls and circular tubes. A test tube percolates throughout the set. In his scrapyard a metal lid becomes a colony of screaming seagulls.

On the opposite side is the Raven, the bad omen. He brings high-pitched squeaks like gravel in machinery. Under clinical lights, his table holds objects salvaged from the oceanic currents of rubbish: a porcelain cup, a plastic panda, a child’s aluminium xylophone, a parrot whistle, a set of flutes and an electric violin. He sings a trumpet sound – a blues.

To the left of him is the Minimalist. He is wearing a sports outfit; light shoes with thin soles and a tracksuit. He builds patterns of repetition. Stacked and piled, spread all around are sticks of bamboo. Strapped to the side of the table is a structure that is part dream-catcher, part antennae-rack, with loops of wire and beads.

The Scrapman, The Raven, The Craftsman and the Minimalist weave together sounds that obliterate the individual. (Nathalie Wuerth)

From Imai’s corner comes first a soft crackling of paper, then a thunderous song is bellowed through paper tightly wrapped around his head. The paper reverberates creating something close to throat singing, only much stronger. He is a siren conjuring a storm, while shrill thunder from an extended steel tape measure is thrown again and again by Shii.

The bellowed song and thunder gives way to a brief lull of electronic arpeggios and dark melodic steel chimes. Koshiwaka replies to the previous song, filling the room with an amplified reed flute, briefly trilling, and accompanied by increasingly distorted synth arpeggios from Tada and a soft stringed bass by Shii.

Imai plays drums on a drainpipe, drops wooden beams to the ground in clattering rhythm. As he drums he sings, now free from the paper, he duets with Koshiwaka on flute. I desperately try to see and explain everything, but the performance starts to evade me. Only then does it make sense: I must let it wash over me. (Ivar Järnefors)


While some of the sounds are outbursts, some crunch as if someone is chewing wood, they soften, like they are getting wet, until they are almost unheard. From here the sound is reshaped, spreading all over the floor and dispersing into the mouth of the listener. When the room finds a balance, it is torn down. That’s why people continue to move: they have to.

When walking, you cannot fall. Discourse only has its place below the soles of your shoes. Stop thinking, and I promise you will experience the vibrations of the wooden floor better. But don’t forget to sit down once a while. It’s like the drum, you know. One has to leave it to be able to return back to it. This is the loop, it functions like the small instruments inside your ear, the heart of acoustics. It is not you who is sounding, but you are needed for the sound to go on. (Frida Sandström)

Is one instrument not enough for you? I ask myself. Could these sounds be different? Marginal Consort are talking through texture. Like changing all a´s to b´s, they set up sounds and then use them in any way possible.

The glass cone is giving birth to the fog. The melodic lines are not endless. The dead choir chants in the old city. Someone screams, in pain I think. The sounds from the city transform into mockery. I cannot explain why it moves. It is a tree. The axis is abstract. Someone tells me his chin is sore. Butterflies are breathing and someone is sawing wood at a distance, the wind flows and everything ends with water in a glass.

The sound is all that matters. (Daniel Palmberg)


The above animation of drawings by Jenny Soep documents the entire three hour performance. Placement of drawings are – Top left corner: Kazuo Imai – Top right corner: Kei Shii – Bottom left corner: Tomonao Koshikawa – Bottom right corner: Masami Tada.


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