Sawako Nakayasu's Improvisational Insect Orchestra: a review by Taylor Holdaway

Poetry Off the Page will feature a screening of films by poets including Sawako Nakayasu, Brandon Downing, Forrest Gander, and many others. At this event, Nakayasu will be showing a never-before-seen film. Improvisational Score, for equal numbers of musicians and insects is another, currently available film (watch it here).


Sawako Nakayasu’s Improvisational Score, for equal numbers of musicians and insects, sometimes referred to as Improvisational Insect Orchestra, is a forceful, painfully visceral reminder that we are all insects. As with many pieces of conceptual art the more important part here is the process of stumbling upon, after many scuffles and exoskeletonical deaths, the conclusion.

Watching the video of Nakayasu’s Improvisational Score could be likened to walking into a movie five minutes before the end, or to waking up from a strange dream to find oneself self in an unfamiliar setting, or perhaps more aptly to a child finding a torn and tattered scrap of paper on the sidewalk, upon which is written in faded but beautiful calligraphy a message in an unknown language. The mystery of the message and of the paper itself, of its origin and its path to any particular point on the sidewalk where the symbolic child would encounter it, is the mystery of Improvisational Score, and it draws the reader, or viewer, as one may more correctly be called, into the universe of the murderous and battling confined insects and the musicians who personify these insects. The cinematography used to document this performance creates an experience similar to being dropped into a fish tank and slowly (very slowly) drowning in minute, but still important and noticeable sensory withholdings.

That which is important, that which draws interest, is often not seen.

The mise-en-scène of the video recording of Improvisational Score is minimalist at best. A “negative space” approach is taken instead. That which is important, that which draws interest, is often not seen. Frequently, the viewer will receive non-visual sensory cues to new action before receiving a visual cue. When the “sensorium of smells” and “wind” begin to be played, by the gentleman holding the fan, the viewer first hears a swatting or slapping sound that remains ambiguous until the camera pans to a man (Yoshihito Mizuuchi) waving a fan around above a tupperware dish of presumably pungent, aromatic food.

Another method of sensory deprivation in the filmic representation of Improvisational Score is the withholding of details and factual information. The specifics of the performance are not stated until halfway through the video, and other information, for example the playing of the “balloon,” is not revealed until the end of the video. While it could be guessed that certain noises were created using a balloon, this delay of information conveys ambiguity to the viewer and creates a sense of confusion. 

The inherent limitations of the video form also introduce a lack of particular sensory information. A video using current technology is limited to audio and visual stimulus. Notably in the end credits, Yoshihito Mizuuchi is credited as playing, among other instruments, the “sensorium of smells.” The viewer is left to wonder what sort of smells wafted about the room and to what effect they were used.

It is the unknown that powers the grand machine that is Sawako Nakayasu’s Improvisational Score, for equal numbers of musicians and insects.

These all play into a broad approach taken to control sensory information, furthering a sense of confusion and mystery. The mystery—the unknown—is key here. It is the mystery that drives the video forward and keeps the viewer crawling along behind, desperate to pick up even the faintest and most perplexing clue as to the secrets held within the various subtleties and nuanced extremities of the performance. It is the unknown that powers the grand machine that is Sawako Nakayasu’s Improvisational Score, for equal numbers of musicians and insects. Indeed, even when examining the performance itself (rather than the video of the performance), we can see a similar mystery. The nature of the piece is improvisational, as hinted at by the title. Every new performance of the concept produces unexplored territory; every new set of musicians and insects is like a band of adventurers trudging through an arctic waste, or perhaps a tropical jungle infested with malarial mosquitoes and ebola-ridden swamp beasts.


Taylor Holdaway is a high school intern at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. He will be graduating from BASIS Tucson High School, a local charter school, in May of this year. He is currently working on a Senior Research Project to explore the relation of commercial viability of poetry to aesthetic; it is in the course of this research that he finds himself at the Poetry Center. Taylor is both an enjoyer and a writer of poetry, and hopes to, in time, become a better writer. Taylor plans to attend the Poetry Off the Page symposium in May 2012.

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