A tiny light sways into view from the back of the auditorium. Step by step the brightness calls, and a young woman with perfectly winged eyeliner draws forward, the top of her strappy evening dress just visible in the glow. Her arms are dancing, her fingers too. Odd little sounds pierce the darkness: a whooshing and squeaking, a tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk and then a scream that goes on and on and on. It feels like watching music from the dawn of creation, a sonic bubbling up. The audience is rapt. It is as if the young performer’s very skin is playing.
People have been inventing musical instruments for millennia. But it is rare for a new musical instrument to be created entirely from scratch. Even rarer to find one that must be worn to be played Pauchi Sasaki, a 36-year-old sound artist from Peru, has made an instrument out of a dress, or rather an instrument into a knee-length, sleeveless strapped dress: about 100 black and silver speakers soldered together. The visual effect is hyper-modern, a geometric, metallic garment that sits on the body like armour. Yet the music the speaker dress produces is almost primordial, using Sasaki’s breath, her skin, her long dark hair and her voice to find new ways of making sound.
The idea was born by accident. Working with a videographer friend in 2012, Sasaki set off one day from her home in Lima for Pachacamac, a massive pre-Columbian archaeological site. Carrying their equipment, the two planned to play and record a musical soundtrack: “But of course, there was no electrical socket. I felt so silly.”
Back in her workroom, Sasaki set about creating a self-contained instrument that would produce processed electronic sound, but would also allow her to move freely while performing. She soldered together small, square metal speakers to form the body of the robe. Hidden inside was an amplification system, as well as batteries and processors, all of it operating wirelessly. For Sasaki, making the dress herself was a fundamental part of the project. “I really wanted to build it myself. I love things that are handmade.”
Sasaki’s musical roots are classical. When she was two, her mother found her lying on the floor with a baroque flute in her hands: she was trying to pick out a tune she was listening to on the radio. At five she saw a cousin playing the violin and announced: “That’s my instrument.” Her family asked a Japanese friend to send over a one-sixteenth-size miniature and she was off. For ten years Sasaki studied the classical repertoire. But she also began composing music of her own on her computer. She wrote film scores for her fellow students at Lima’s Catholic University, and organised improvised performances with musical friends in abandoned garages and warehouses around Lima, even, on one occasion, in a toilet: “It was a big toilet,” she says with a laugh. “We fitted in a dozen people at a time.”
In underground bars in Lima, musicians gather every night to play the fiddle and the cajón, a box-like drum for thumping out the beat. So Sasaki’s improvised shows had a ready-made market to experiment on. “When you jump on the stage, you mustn’t think about perfection. You must think, ‘Now, we are going to learn.’”
She had some technical problems with early versions of the dress; on one occasion it overheated and set her hair on fire. But Sasaki pressed on. “At first I wanted to work with my skin. Our skin is a boundary, a membrane. I wanted the sound source to be the boundary itself.” She experimented with a contact mike, recording the sound of the surface of her body. “I wanted to know how does my eye sound? My hair? How does my neck sound?” She added a primal scream by running the mike over the speaker panels and transmitting the howl of the feedback.
Later, Sasaki experimented with making music out of breathing. She made a second dress, with a skirt of flattened silver speakers for flautist Claire Chase. At the premiere in New York in 2016, the two figures stalked each other in a ritual that evoked an elaborate Japanese Butoh dance. Sasaki played her violin and Chase held up a tangle of glowing tubing, like the innards of a magical extra-terrestrial being. Breathing into one end, Chase began to play.
Sasaki is not a conformist (her Japanese-born mother is not either: she recently abandoned Lima to live in the Andes, where she eats only what she grows). Over time her creativity has become more political. Though a man could wear her dress, it is made for a woman, and the music she has composed with it stems from her own, female voice: “What is the most beautiful timbre of human history? It’s growing up with your mother singing to you.”
With each new dress that she makes, Sasaki pushes this idea further. “My dream is to make a constellation of dresses, 13 in all, each one with a very specific topic. The first was about skin. The second was breathing, about what we hold in and what we express. And the third one will be about the female body as a land of war, a territory over which men fight. About seizure and possession and taking.” A dress with ambition.