Ohama Can: Music, Sounds, Images, The Whole Ambient Kaboodle

by Carey Rutherford

Attending an “80’s and 90’s” dance party on Saturday was an interesting experience: while the music was definitely from the correct era, the DJ had clearly NOT been in dance clubs at that time, as the late 20th Century music had been mixed with an early 21st Century sensibility. Beat-mixing 80’s hits like Michael jackson, Amii Stewart or the Pointer Sisters together without the songs’ opening or closing sequences never occurred in 1980’s Alberta, and while “scratching” WAS happening here, it was still focussed on the song as a unit of enjoyment. Whereas Saturday nights mix never allowed any song to include more than a couple of verses, let alone it’s recognizable start and triumphant finish.

This isn’t to say that beat-mixing isn’t a valid approach: it just meant a clash of musical intentions. Conversely, Tona Ohama, who originally was performing way ahead of 20th Century musical tastes in the late 80’s, really seems to be coming into his own now that a larger, 21st Century, public is catching up to his current work.

“I started listening to ambient music, like a lot of people did, when Music for Airports came out: Brian Eno is, I guess, the guy who invented the genre, or is credited with that. That album in the 70’s was a big influence, and I started playing it myself, and I came up with what I call ‘multi-ambient’, in which you mix streams of ambient music together. And not necessarily multiple tracks (of the same work): they’re just randomly played together . . . If they don’t have a tempo in them, you can mix almost any number of (ambient pieces) together.”

Arts Commons poster promoting Tona Ohama's sound installation

Tona describes how, more recently, One Yellow Rabbit’s co-founder Michael Green heard some of Ohama’s recent work playing in the Arts Commons, and asked him to do a piece for the Calgary Tower carillon (the beautiful chime sequences heard everyday at noon around the Centre Street area).

“That’s what’s expanded into this project here: this soundscape is 15 channels (playing in the Arts Commons Plus 15), and then I decided to write (some) supplemental tracks, but none of those tracks are in the soundscape. I’d like you to put them on your iPod or iPhone or whatever device (the tracks are provided for free), and play them on headphones (in the soundscape).”

Thus enters the performance aspect of Tona Ohama’s work: the listener’s input to the experience. During the opening event, he’d like people to play the freebies on their speakerphones.

“Leave your cellphones ON, and ringtones and conversations are all part of the installation . . . you should be able to play any of my supplemental tracks, starting at any point, in any area of the installation, with any speaker, with any number of other cellphones. (And) you should be able to move around, and it’s all going to sync together.

The flooded, deserted, downtown Calgary core, an Ohama album cover.

“It’s not going to sound like chaos: in theory it will sound beautiful. I hope . . . When you pick a supplemental track and start playing it on your phone, and start walking through the piece, it really changes your total experience of the sound piece. (When I did it) I could turn it up or turn it down, or anything: I became really a part of it. It was amazing! You become one of the performers.”

Mr. Ohama notes that the 15 speakers set up (in the Plus 15 system between the City Hall walkover and the Jack Singer Hall) with 3 subwoofers, form a 12.3 surround sound system.

“I’m hoping we get 50 phones (which would) make it into a 112.3 surround sound system! And all of the speakers are going to move around: I’m dying to hear this!”

As the promotional material for his Arts Commons Soundscape, “A Moment Of Quiet Reflection In Downtown Calgary” says:

“Family, friends and fans are all welcome to the Tona Ohama artist reception, May 14, 2018, 6PM-9PM at Arts Commons as part of Happenings 12.
Admission is free (and) Children are welcome to this event. Catering by The Teatro Group and Ca’puccini, so come early for some amazing food.
Speech/Q&A at 7PM.”

Tona sings the praises of East Village Radio a staunch supporter of old and new electronica; and conversely we discuss the prejudice of traditional instrument players against the musicianship of someone who works with a synthesizer. And then he wraps up our conversation:

“ This is a long project: it started in 2010, and I’ve been making pieces for it for the last 8 years . . . The whole reason I made this piece of music was to help me meditate; that’s what it’s about.The way to listen to this is to focus on the bass note. And everything else that flows over and above it, that’s all fine. Take that in. But keep focussing on the bass note just like when you focus on your breath when you meditate. Everything else is like your thoughts that come in and out when you’re meditating.

“It’s made a difference in my life.”

Which is what music does. Tona Ohama’s “A Moment Of Quiet Reflection In Downtown Calgary” will be in the Arts Commons until August 31st, calming the mind.