It was a strong enough year that there was pretty easily twenty things that I felt were well worth hearing, and I could probaly find another ten without too much trouble. Things do start to become uneven though, even toward the bottom of this list there are things that are worth hearing part of, or that may not fully sustain multiple listens but are still worth hearing.  So yeah, this is the bottom half of my top twenty which is still ordered, though beyond the first 5 or so, it gets a little meaningless. Several of these I simply didn’t have enough time to fully absorb due to getting them late, a couple others are mostly great with perhaps one dud track but all are strong in their own way and I’d wholeheartedly recommend them  all .

Releases of Note 2009 (part 1/2)


Keith Rowe/Toshumaru Nakamura Erstlive 008 (Erstwhile Records)
With this release the quartet of shows that Keith Rowe played at the AMPLIFY 2008: Light festival in Tokyo is complete. As an attendee of said festival, who was blown away by all of Keith’s performances it is a real treat to have high quality recordings of all of these shows as a memento. This is the fourth recording of this duo (Weather Sky, Amplify 2002 and Between all on Erstwhile) and that was the second time I’d seen them perform live. They are one of the strongest and constantly engaging duos in improvised music; always pushing each other to new places and ever greater heights. The performance as captured on this disc was the stronger of the two I’ve experienced and right up there with much of the material on Between. The piece begins aggressively and while it contains many periods of relative calm, the piece is mostly dense and rich with sound.  If Keith’s duos with Sachiko and Unami were exploratory, both in the sense of working with new partners and in pushing away from his previous works, this duo is sure in it’s footing but no less exploratory in its desire to bring these two into a new place.  Toshi, always at his best in this type of situation, fully responded in kind and stood toe to toe with Keith the entire time, pushing him in turn. In the context of Keith’s four Tokyo performances it was an incredible finally, encapsulating the festival, the city and his relationship with Toshi all in a dramatic and gripping performance. Get all four of the Tokyo Rowes and experience the highlights of AMPLIFY 2008: Light.

BuoyPhil Durrant/Lee Patterson/Paul Vogel Buoy (Cathnor Recordings)
This album was my first favorite album for the year – it was released right at the start of the year and has sustained my interest through countless listens right to the end. In a way this was a pretty surprising release to me as I can’t say I really expected this trio to actually work. It’s seems like it had been so long since we had heard much from Durrant that I didn’t really know what to expect from his laptoppery at this point, though he has done so much good work I did have high hopes. I’ve been loving Vogel’s collaborations mainly within the Irish scene and of the ones I’d heard that I didn’t think worked so well his playing was always rock solid. Patterson though, well honestly, his music to date has done little for me; while it is always impeccably recorded and contains interesting sounds there just seems to be something missing. There is a certain knack for field recording, I think, that recognizes a certain narrative arc without imposing too much of the recordist that I just don’t find in his work. Furthermore in collaboration, especially when one is interjecting pre-recorded material, it is the rare hand that possesses a sensitive enough touch to not undermine the proceedings. Thus I was surprised, even blown away by how well everything works here and how well it holds up over multiple listens. For this is usually the failing that arises from most improv that uses prerecorded material: it can seem great at first, but over time it loses its charm (as an aside I think in many ways it is the fact that placement  is the only parameter that Rowe fully controls in his radio grabs that makes them work so well, but that is another post). There are a couple of moments in this disc where elements from all of the participants teeters right on the edge of losing this listener – a cheesy bit of laptop, a buried vocal sample, an overly in your face clarinet line – but it always ends up resolved by what follows as if it was a dissonance made good by a later consonance. This album to me seems like the fledgling Cathnor label really finding its footing, putting out music that fully works and reflects Richard’s taste and passions so well (disregarding Sight, which remains the labels strongest release but which Richard was more a participant in then a curator).  It also contains my favorite of his, err Olaf’s, sleeve designs to date.

ï¿¢ + : *Noid, Taku Unami ï¿¢ + : * (The Manual)
There was quite a few releases this year featuring rhythmic tocking sounds (numerous Ryu Hankil related releases in particular) with this one I think being the best. Made with Taku Unami’s laptop driven motors, beaters and effectors on Noid’s cello with interventions by Noid it is a particularly resonant and complicated extension of Unami’s more typical soundworld.  Possibly the final statement from Unami in this general area as well, as performance art and extra-musical activities have come to dominate his performances throughout this year. Noid’s contributions are harder to place though you can definitely hear string manipulations in a dry, scraping vein as well as what sounds like moving Unami’s devices around. Rich and endlessly fascinating this album is well worth hearing, though it does become a bit tiring over the duration.

Filament with Musikelectronic Geithain 4 Speakers (2-:+/Studio Parabolica)
Apparently Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide set up sound installations at Parabolica Bis in Tokyo this summer, both of which were recorded and released as little 3″ discs by the 2-:+ label (which appears to be associated with Parabolica in some, not immediately transparent, way). Musikelectronic Geithain seems to be a speaker company and the installation seems to be a four channel setup of their speakers playing Filament.  The disc sounds like Filament, which is something that Sachiko and Otomo seem to be able to just turn on and off as neither of them are making music exactly like this these days. Sachiko does spend more of her time here in the twittery mode and working with the noise that comes from the switches on her oscillators as she turns them on and off then in the very high pitched continuous sounds that she favored in Filaments heyday, though they do make an appearance here.  Otomo, taking a break from jazz and his more droney/noise focused pieces of late falls right back into the microsounds and whispers with occasional outbursts. And frankly I love it and am glad to hear more of it.  This would certainly be one of those releases that I would say fall into the “mature” category, though there is I think a slight incremental development (which lets face it, fits Filament perfectly: it would seem against the whole project to make sudden radical leaps) especially from Sachiko though I think Otomo drops in hints of his more recent work.  Interestingly enough it is Sachiko’s solo I’m Here ..Departures.. that really feels regressive and while it is a nice slab of music and well worth listening to, didn’t grab me enough.

Sculptures Musicales, Fifty-Five, Eighty-Three, EightyJohn Cage Sculptures Musicales, Fifty-Five, Eighty-Three, Eighty (OgreOgress) dvd
Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I love John Cage’s music, from the early percussion works to the etherial Number Pieces. I do indeed love it all and were I to compile a list of my favorite Cage pieces it would certainly span that entire arc. That being said I do have a particular fondness for the anarchic, noisy electronic pieces from the 60’s where Cage, Tudor, Mumma et al would abuse contact mic, primitive electronics and the like to seemingly tap right into the broiling quantum foam that makes up our unseen universe. Thus it was with a lot of pleasure that on getting this dvd of unrecorded large scale pieces from the Cage discography to hear that OgreOgress brought the noise.  The later Number Pieces create their primal roar from the large ensembles involved (the numbers that form the titles of these pieces are the size of the ensemble) but Sculptures Musicales is its own unique beast. Composed in the late eighties, the height of his composition of the Number Pieces, it is for four performers using electronics originally performed to Merce Cunningham’s Inventions. They are to work with blocks of sound seperated by silences of a random length (up to three minutes) the sounds themselves to be heavy dense to form the structure of the sculpture.  In this performance there are blistering walls of sound, recorded sounds of trains and train yards, what sounds like vacuums, percussion both standard and bespoke and many more. There are numerious long gaps of silence which give the sculpture its form (and incidentally display that Cage also worked with longer silences then many people seem to think).  The number pieces on this disc are equally great, dense drones separated by spaces with Eighty never having been performed before (perhaps due to its conductorless nature and the size of the ensemble).  The DVD format allows for these pieces to be stretched out at length and nicely collected together as a unit. They are more of a pain to play, forcing one to listen at home, but I think the format serves the material well.

Oscillation VacillationJoe Foster/Hong Chulki/Takahiro Kawaguchi/Ryu Hankil Oscillation Vacillation (Balloon & Needle)
This isn’t the rawest of the releases from the consistently fascinating South Korea scene to make it to CD this year, but it is one of the most perfectly balanced, always flirting with chaos. It never settles down too much in the oppressive rythmics that Ryu Hankil’s clockworks can sometimes fall into, nor does it become dominated by the blistering electronics that Hong Chulki cartridgeles turnable can generate.  Joe Foster is almost always a moderating element in his collaboration with his sometimes noisier compatriots. His sensitive and always angular contributions can bring it just as intensily but he rarely (and I can’t really think of a recorded example) allows to fall into excess. I’m not as familiar with Takahiro Kawaguchi but here he is credited with “remodeled counters, selfmade objects, tuning fork” which I think adds some of the subtle pure tones (tuning forks), percussive elements (self-made objects) as well as contributing to some of the wild electronics (remodeled counters). This is one of those releases that I’ve gotten late and really haven’t spent enough time but it has immediately captured my attention and I’ve listened to it more over the last couple of weeks then I would have thought (its one of those that compliments airplane roar quite well). This has been a strong year from those involved in the South Korea scene, which I think is unquestionably the most exciting region for this type of music today. They are constantly pushing, on the edge, raw and melding in material from other contemporary musics.  Much of it at this point doesn’t work, but that’s experimental music for you: it can, in fact must have the potential to fail.  It is the lack of failure as an option that has brought on some of that stagnation that I’ve spoken of before and that I think marks much of the other scenes right now (along with moves toward performance art, nostalgia, fusion with past forms and empty conceptualism). The music on this disc constantly flirts with failure, keeping it tense and and consistently engaging working at times with an extreme low end that disappears on headphones and lesser stereos as well as with almost empty flutterings that some to be mixed with people just moving around. I’m just getting started with this one, but it already has excited more then most of what I’ve heard this year. It has the elements to remain engaging over many listens, which I for one will be testing in the months to come.

TrypichEliane Radigue Triptych (Important)
Important Records may have the most pretentious name of any label in existence but from time to time they really do put out releases that can be considered of at least historical importance. This year they put out two cds of early material from the fantastic and under recognized minimalist composer Eliane Radigue. Utilizing analog synthesizers and drifting drones as a kind of meditation she has created music that in a way is the inverse of the equally great and under-appreciated Phill Niblock (whose imposing two disc set Touch Strings I have alas not managed to hear this year). While his vast walls of finely pitched drones obliterate your consciousness, Radigue’s drifting tones work their way right into your very being and as they slowly drift apart so does your sense of self. There is no doubt that Radigue definitely got better at what she does and that in these early days she was still experimenting. Of these two discs that Important put out this year, one (Vice Versa, etc…) is clearly just experimentations released as multiple discs that you are supposed to simultaneously play. Tryptch on the other hand completely works as a piece of music on its own and while it is certainly much more slight then her later pieces is satisfying and well worth hearing.

Vanishing PointJason Kahn Vanishing Point (23five)
I had the pleasure of seeing Jason Kahn live multiple times in 2008 & 2009, several time solo and several times in various collaborations. I’ve always found his recorded output to be mostly hit or miss (mostly miss if I’m honest) but I really was taken by his live presence. The way he fills a room, the details that hide beneath his sonic washes, the texture that make up his drones, none of these have seemed to have made the transition to record in an even remotely quite as powerful a way. This release, which I got pretty late and have really only just begun to explore, is easily the best recording of this live presence that I’ve heard to date. Played on a stereo that can capture its full dynamic range and at a volume that he would use live (which gets loud but never oppressively so) it almost feels as if his snare drum and synth are in in my living room with Jason crouched behind it. I like the uncomfortableness of his drones, the way that they don’t really allow themselves to fall into the background, that the elements that make them up keep slipping and ultimately don’t really drone. The arc of the disc is great, beginning with an uncomfortable static washes, working through various levels of density and then slowly evaporating.

This album has been quite well reviewed, but for all the wrong reasons as far as I can tell. There seems to be a focus on externalities, a personal tragedy that people try to read into the music. I knew this long before I bought it (perhaps why I held off so long) and it is because of this that I wanted to stress how normal this sounds to the live solo performances of Kahn’s that I’ve seen. Those they think they hear loss, or despair or whatever are projecting onto the music, this is as I’ve said how Kahn sounds live and this cd is noteworthy for capturing it so powerfully.  People seem to be such suckers for any sort of personal connection that they can attach to this music, a tendency that has definitely led to several quite overrated discs. I don’t doubt for a moment that emotional events have pushed performers of abstract music to new heights but I am always skeptical of those that put albums on such a pedestalal once the cause has been made public. How many albums have been generated by similarly powerful emotions that this aspect has gone unremarked due to the artists not revealing this information? Frankly I’m a bit surprised that some of the more agent provocateur types have yet to capitalize on this fetish with a faux bit of emotional porn. Buy this album for the great solo performance captured brilliantly; don’t worry about the externalities.

Pocket Size IsolationismTomas Korber/Utah Kawasaki Pocket Size Isolationism (Esquilo)
This is another album that captured my attention early in the year and managed to hold it until the end. Like Buoy, it also was a bit of a surprise given that I’ve always had rather mixed reactions to Korber and Kawaski’s previous work and hadn’t really heard much from either of them in a while. Both of them have produced albums I’ve quite liked though so while I didn’t really have any expectations w/r/t this album I found the collaboration interesting and certainly hoped for great music to result. The music herein seems uncertain, not so much in a feeling each other out sort of way, but perhaps in some sort of overarching away. This seeming lack of surety which you’d expect to lead to lackluster music instead creates a tension and keeps one guessing the whole way through. Bursts of noise come in and out, soft sustained tones, low-volume white noise, and domestic sounding percussive elements combine with restrained feedback and mangled synthesizers and even a very natural bit of the neighborhood sounds work their way in. Recorded in Kawasaki’s apartment it also has that sort of hothouse feel that living room music often has – sheared of the pressure of an audience, it can have a looseness, but at the same time your fellow musician provides a much more demanding audience, the only one there, with no escape. Of course there’s also the neighbors… Ultimately I think this album is a nice document of two musicians working together. This was their first collaboration and it was successful but, perhaps because of that isolation, it doesn’t quite have the deep structure that I find makes things hold up in the long term. I’m still enjoying it, but its definitely a more slight affair then those that have preceded it on this page.

Semi-ImpressionismTetuzi Akiyama + Toshimaru Nakamura Semi-Impressionism (Spekk)
This would easily be the most deeply flawed release on this list, but one whose charms keep bringing me back. The first two tracks on this disc could have been recorded in 2002 and are one of the most obvious examples of nostalgia I’ve heard in this area. I would have loved those tracks in 2002 and I enjoy hearing them now. Bluesy plucked acoustic guitar and broken chords from Akiyama and Nakamura firmly in textural accompaniment mode make for a highly enjoyable, if completely comfortable listening experience. Nothing new here, no pushing just nicely colliding sounds from perfectly restrained feedback and unhurried guitar. The third track on the other hand is a disaster.  Toshi is in the forefront here and frankly that utterly fails. Akiyama seems more in the accompaniment role on this track and that never seems to work for Toshi. Compare it to his duo with Rowe at the top of this list and you can see what I mean. When pushed hard by his collaborator he can be just as far out front, co-leading the production and absolutely spectacular. Given free reign like this and perhaps also trying to escape from the easy nostalgia of their other performances, his worsts tendencies come to the fore.  Feedback in this style has some really recognizable tropes and Toshi is among the best at slipping away from them. But sometimes, most obviously in the NIMB series, he lets those aspect reign and they have always marred the music. Overtly rhythmical at times coming across as incompetent techno, or cheesily melodic (this aspect is particularly egregious on this track) this element of the NIMB is best fought against. Akiyama likewise works some of his worst excesses into this track with banal strumming and ineffective random outbursts.  But those first two tracks, they bring me right back to what got me into this music (well at least in part) and they are beautiful and tasteful and well worth hearing. Plus this is definitely the packaging of the year.

Tomorrow is the final entry in my End of Year wrap up. Stay tuned!