Interview with Jon Sakata

Jon Sakata, ex(i/ha)le, 2020, Multidisciplinary installation 

Interview with Jon Sakata
Being & Feeling (Alone, Together)

Spring 2020 – Virtual Exhibition at Lamont Gallery

Artists in Being & Feeling (Alone, Together) explore embodiment, emotion, and being: how we make our way through the world, full of feeling, as solitary individuals and together with others.

Concert pianist and transdisciplinary artist Jon Sakata has created ex(i/ha)le, a multidisciplinary installation for Being & Feeling in which visitors encounter auditory, visual, and sensory experiences. This installation is part of an ongoing response to the poetry of poet and PEA instructor Willie Perdomo.


Q: Some of your work suggests inspiration by nature: use of crystals, rippling fabric, music, sounds.  Are there any aspects of nature that especially inform your work? Are there any common themes you seek to present in your works?

A: The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, speaking about Spinoza, states that “Nature is precisely the infinite set of all compositions of relations.” No matter the medium/media I’m working in, there is this common thread with compositions of relations: the interweaving of relations – be they between people, sounds, sensations, materialities, temporalities, perspectives, concepts – and the problematizing of what might engender the emergence of yet new forms, and natures, of relation.

Themes? Hmm. It’s funny – understood differently than you are asking about – some people complain that my musical compositions lack ‘themes’; and, well, they are correct, I consciously eschew writing (particularly, melodious) themes in my pieces. [Though, as a quick aside, I’m currently composing a work for chorus that takes the notion of ‘theme’ in a new way (for me): the 10+ minute work will be a single ‘theme’ that lasts its entire duration…(laughter)…imagine a 10+ minute ‘theme’ that is the whole piece!] So, going back to your question about “common themes”…rather, my creative work involves working out ‘problems.’ The Swiss painter, Paul Klee, has been a touchstone: “not to render the visible, but to render visible forces that are not themselves visible.” What might it be, say, to make audible or to give a sense of touch to phenomena that are not themselves audible or touchable?

Also, some projects – the Academy Library’s 40th Anniversary installation-concert, CLEW, as well the current installation, ex(i/ha)le, in this exhibition, having been local examples – explore(d) the ‘field conditions’ of the interstitial gap where conjunctions/disjunctions, syntheses/ruptures, take place. What are the dynamical tensions, dispersions, dialogics that arise from in-between things? Can gaps, intervals, hiatuses, fissures themselves be seen as a kind of materiality? How might the sensorial give expression and contour to…?

Jon Sakata, ex(i/ha)le, 2020, Multidisciplinary installation

Q: Many of your work seek to envelop the viewer in multi-sensory experience: sight, sound, language (CLEW, the 45th Anniversary installation at the Academy Library).  In these exhibits, the viewers are surrounded by rippling fabric, light, architecture, projected video, musical performance, the spoken word, and other objects. What do you hope that the viewer will see/understand/appreciate/learn from/perceive from these experiences?

A: Installations as enterable condition(alitie)s: what if audiences are situated in, invited to navigate within, the interstitial condition firsthand, rather than remaining outside observers to it? How might they become a part of, active agents within, this very conditionality? Might the installation, not to say, people themselves, thereby undergo gradients of alteration?

Q: You collaborate with other artists, writers, musicians, architects. Which do you find more satisfying, working on collaborative or solo works? Have you ever encountered conflict with other artists/musicians while collaborating?  If so, did this affect the intended outcome of your work?

A: I hold each self to be many, so whether it’s ‘solo’ or ‘collaborative’ there’s a ‘crowd’ at play and work, so to speak. What is satisfying is how such interplay between multitudes creates unimaginable and unplanned-for alterity, mutation, destabilizing and complexifying every(thing/one) into unknown longitudes and latitudes of affect, imaginings, questionings, problematizing.

As satisfying has been collaborations where there is a shared ethos and anticipation of mutation: not only a resistance to the staking out and protecting/defending of known or pre-defined or pre-held territories, stances, dogmas, solutions; but rather, there is an open-dialogic furthering, caring and carrying elsewhere that happens with and through one another…multiplicities entering into new relations with other multiplicities. Rather than encountering conflict, we have found a certain zeal in endangering fixity, monumentality, preciousness, predictability, an engineered effectiveness, perfection

Jon Sakata, ex(i/ha)le, 2020, Multidisciplinary installation

Q: Do you have any particular formula or method for preparing to create a work?

A: I used to say to myself: “complicate through simplification; simplify through complexification”…but these days I tend to try charting an impossibility (echoing Klee from earlier) that – while perhaps not clear at the outset – comes about through the creative/problematizing process, eventually serving as a kind of horizon or North Star. The process, which always varies in path and velocity from project to project, then becomes one of producing thrived* ‘failuring’

*: thrive + lived

Q: Does this creative process change when working on a collaborative piece?

A: Ah, the beauty and thrill of failing better together! There is a special glee and trajectory to falling short of the impossible…collectively!

Jon Sakata, ex(i/ha)le, 2020, Multidisciplinary installation

Q: How has your work as a composer evolved over time?  As an artist? As a collaborator?

A: This remains opaque to me. Am I evolving? I don’t know. Truth be told: I don’t want to know and I don’t spend any time thinking about this. Each project has its own unique problems to engage with. I’m in a place not to be able to reflect on the larger sweep of things.

Q: Did you have any formal training in visual art as a young person?

A: None. Not even as an older person!

For over a quarter of a century teaching here at the Academy, thanks to both Gail [Scanlon] and Jackie Thomas before her, their respective staffs, I’ve enjoyed having access to roam around fairly unfettered, scaling, studying the Academy Library (even occasionally giving tours for visiting architects). Rather than ‘formal training’ over these years, Kahn’s design has afforded me a training-in-Form, helped along by architect friends of mine to be sure, to learn to see and feel the building in such transformative kinds of ways.

Think of the layers upon layers of ‘framings’ that Kahn uses in his design. Some of the most startling are to be found up on the outdoor roof terrace: the way local church steeples, the ship weathervane that caps the bell tower of the Academy Building, or even the tips of surrounding trees, are exactingly framed by the glass-less open brick ‘windows’ — timeless floating icons that take on such sublime immediacy, proximity, aura.

But there are also the layers upon layers of ‘obstructions’ he uses as well. Sometimes, often times, the very members or elements that are blocking one’s view from a certain perspective form – from another vantage point or station – part of another structural aperture that allow one to see the most ‘common’ of objects in completely new light and wonderment. What does this lesson concerning the value of being able to change one’s perspective about (any/some/every)thing? The obstructions, as well, confront one to imagine what’s on the other side, which Kahn has intentionally blocked from sight. How integral might obstructions be then (not to say, imagination) to the process of learning to learn. Kahn’s Library is the first work of architecture that provided for me the experience to understand how a building can achieve a profound didacticism: teaching one through its very design how to see and feel the world otherwise, and yet, clearly, and even, clearly anew. For him, ‘library’ was by definition a place to evoke wonderment. Has anyone so beautifully conceived a brick façade as woven textile?

Jon Sakata, ex(i/ha)le, 2020, Multidisciplinary installation

Q: Is your favored role composer or performer?

A: My folly: it used to be that — in say, Bach’s time, then in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, and on to Liszt and Brahms — one is both; there was not a changing of role but a creative life of making and sharing that were of single stream. My problem is that composing, performing, fabricating, designing, filming have become so many worlds to be lost in orbit amidst. So much more, I suppose, to fail at!



Interview Conducted by Ann McGrath

Ann McGrath has worked at the Lamont Gallery since 2010.  She is a retired fourth grade teacher from the Marston School in Hampton, New Hampshire and brings a great degree of organization and love of education to the Lamont Gallery. Ann helps us research information for exhibitions and selects resources from the Academy Library that enhance our exhibitions. Ann also works at the Academy’s Class of 1945 Library. When she is not on campus you can find her exploring the many hiking trials in New Hampshire and abroad.

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