English/Toshimaru Nakamura One Day (Erstwhile Records)

While Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones have been active in various music making circles for a number of years it has been with their English project that they have come to be most widely known. Prior to this album they had self-released two CD-R s, both untitled. The earliest of these was from 2004 and was released as two 20 minute pieces each on their own 3″ CD-R. A seething stew of glitches, feedback, super liminal trumpet sounds, pure tones and feedback generated rhythms. Never lingering too long on any sound or technique these two pieces are a rich mélange of sounds, relentlessly lo-fi and always engaging.. No chance of falling into drone with this strategy it also miraculously never feels impatient, undeveloped or scattered. The next year they again self-released their own recordings this time as five tracks on a conventional CD-R with times ranging from 5 to 21 minutes. The pieces on this release followed the formula of their previous work yet seem more mature, more able to delve into a sound world and escape intact. The short pieces don’t come across as under developed but as a tight focus on a few sounds. The long pieces in contrast feel like extended meditations on a structure derived from this sonic detritus, a structure that arises from the gestalt of the sounds and loses focus on close inspection.

Toshimaru Nakamura at this point has appeared on over fifty recordings in combinations from solo to large groups in any number of contexts. His work over the last decade has been amongst the most interesting and challenging of anyone and yet there has been a distinct something lacking in his recordings of late. His sound is really a gestalt sound that can range from pointillistic additions to the sound field or provide a wash that emphasizes and focuses other sounds. It is this nature of his performance that has clearly made him prized as a collaborator and as his reputation has grown so has those desiring him as a collaborator. This has led to a number of releases in the last year or so that have not resulted in that gestalt, releases that are less then the sum of their parts. While for whatever reason he has been willing to take on these collaborations it is clear that these need to be chosen with more care and perhaps after experimentation without expectations of a release. In his releases for the last year his role has been of extreme background, a mere wash to the canvas of sound. Perhaps in deference to this collaborators, perhaps as an easy way to work with incompatible aesthetics the results have uniformly been uninteresting and bland. It is with this backdrop of a hungry, fresh, risk taking duo and the old master in stasis, treading water that one must approach One Day with.

There is with English an element of being on the edge of and sometimes slipping out of control. When that control is lost it is reigned and those sounds are allowed in and worked with. There is a sense of boundary pushing, of not always choosing to take the easy route that can lead to failures and strange judgments. With this collaboration one can’t help but to think of their trio with Sachiko M, a collaborator with whom Nakamua so often does transcendent work, at the ErstQuake 2 festival in New York City. This was a risky set always on the edge, fraught with failure. It reached a very natural end point and Sachiko and Jones faded away. But Foster kept playing solo trumpet mouthpiece at first and various other objects in this increasingly sad display as it became clear he was on his own. As a recording with this ending edited out it could be a great track and one does wonder how much of their process that is indicative of: Play till it falls apart and take the section that works. At the same festival the duo of English were superb so of course it simply could have just been a risk too far in this situation. The trio of English and Toshimaru Nakamura performed for the first time in Japan in 2007 and then went to the studio to record the next day. The results of this session makes up the three tracks that form this release.

Ong Time (20’39″)
The initial track on the album kicks in right away as if taken mid improvisation. There is a steady state hum that dominates the sound field and this is augmented by hisses and electronic crackles. Thus we are introduced to the trio right away with Nakamura providing that hum of feedback, Foster the hisses via the trumpet or parts thereof and Jones the electronic crackles of her open circuits. This state last for a bit of time before the dominating steady state is slowly brought down. In the space that is opened up we get cascades of sounds from Jones’s circuits, a slippery and wonderful sound. A low tone comes in, glitched in and out amid rips of feedback, stuttering electronics and ping-ponging digital manipulations to create a rich assortment of sounds. A ticking sound is brought in and out as Foster creates the most organic sound yet tonguing his mouthpiece (or something similar) as Nakamura lets loose these tearing washes of feedback. This section goes from spacious to dense at a lightning pace, building up a structure whose foundations are laid bare but whose plans never seem finalized. In the later quarter of the piece, a static wash runs at a low volume along with an equally quiet rising rumbling tone as sparks and crackles and even the occasional digital beep comes in. There is little peace in this space, it creates a tension that seems to arise out of nearly nothing. It is not the tension of waiting for the next sound, or for a blast of energy or an abrupt ending; it comes from the sounds themselves. This tension resolves itself into nothingness as the track fades away with an organic crepitation, a sine wave and some orphaned crackles.

This track is the longest of the album (beating out the next by 38 seconds) and it sets the tone for the album with its sections made up of longer tones, overlaid with fissures of chopped up sounds that shift and trade prominence. The track develops in its own time with denser sections and near silences but never falling into predictability or routine.

Plant Signs (20’01″)
As if the scattered remains of the previous piece were swept into a pile, stirred around and picked through for novel bits and pieces this track opens with small little sounds of an indelicate nature. It stays very open feeling even as a rhythmic gasping sound comes in and a low rumble begins that continues for some time. All of this is eventually cut through by one of those rhythmic tearing events that a mixer fed back upon itself is prone to. This is brilliantly matched by a pulsing high pitched tone, probably from Ms. Jones’s damaged electronics. The feedback is cut off leaving this pulse which is gently brought down amid static tears, digital thuds and buzzes and then a rising whine. This track is akin to a canvas left its natural color that three artists approach, maybe crowding up to those already there, to dab, or splash, or even do a sustained stroke before backing off and leaving it to the others, or to itself. Toward the middle of the piece some more sustained sounds come in an almost mechanical twitter as of a rotating fragment of metal squeaking as it turns upon an off kilter axis. Even with a continuous sine wave layered against this and then later some more rhythmic feedback this never feels overly opaque. A much louder wash of static, built upon with feedback threatens this state, but never overwhelms it, it comes in and dominates like a splash of red paint on that canvas but it doesn’t become the whole world. The natural space always comes back, always setting the tone. The piece has a rising degree of intensity that is so subtle you don’t really notice until by the final six minutes or so the piece allows loud siren like sounds, jarring open circuit pops and metal on metal feedback to be layered upon the spaciousness and not corrupt its nature. As the piece concludes this intensity is backed away from which simply serves to underscore the degree to which it had ascended. The sounds retain a highly fragmented nature and a higher dynamics than what the track began with but the feel of space is more akin to how it all began. At the very end a number of sounds are allowed to play out, coloring the canvas before simply being cut off.

Like the first track this one again takes bits and pieces that are almost cliché, overused, trite even but through never letting them overstay their welcome and creative juxtapositions it becomes fresh, deep and endlessly engaging.

The Color Of (15’56″)
This, the shortest piece on the disc, begins much more restlessly. Chunks of mid-range muted sounds are chopped by static fuzz and digital skronks. It is the aural equivalent of kneading dough as someone drops additional ingredients into it. The kneading complete a sputtering fizz quietly plays out as wet stammers, most likely from Fosters mouthpiece, grind away amongst washes of static, gentle feedback and other sonic detritus. From this a roiling sound as of very distant thunder arises, greeted with a near raspberry from Foster as Jones keeps up a constant thin patter of electrics. The soft schizophrenia of this track continues as these sounds fade into space and new structures are unspun. Twittery sines, interspersed static, a ringing tone, squeaks and squishy sounds all swirl upon the listener. Unlike the previous tracks the conclusion of this comes from increasing danger. A hollow feedback is brought up slowly in volume as burst of almost synth like tones, pure tones and circuit noise flashes in and out. A rain like dirty static replaces the feedback and various components of this piece squeal through till two sounds as of devices being unplugged end it.

This final piece of the album is much more fragmented then the other two, but again fails to fall into familiar territory. Working with bursts of sound there is a risk of falling into the played out patterns of so called “insect music”, a risk that never fully transpires in this piece. The way that it is built of the constituent parts of the previous pieces and yet differs from them shows the range of this trio, their skill at using the tools of the last couple decades of improvisation and to transcend their routines and limitations.

In this album they flirt constantly with the conventions of drone, using long sustained tones frequently, but never allowing themselves to fall into that trap. At the same time even with the quick cuts and transitions it never falls into the ADD, schizophrenia that mars so much free improv. Likewise they use a number of the elements of modern noise, an area fraught with clichés that seem to be treated as goals. Again they only use it as tools, never falling into its trap of excess and ego. It is a knife edge balancing act that is pulled off through impeccable restraint. Nakamura may lay in a long near drone to which Jones’ chaotic, fizzing electronics undercut its potential soporific nature as Foster adds an overtone, or a contrasting stutter that just further subverts the proceedings. The degree at which these three work together is intense, constantly challenging and pushing the sounds to the fore. Consistently the results exceed the inputs, there are layer upon layer to reward a close degree of attention.

The playing from Jones and Foster is definitely the most mature I’ve heard from them. Apart from their collaborations and the concerts of theirs I’ve had the pleasure to witness, I’ve also followed their solo and collaborative work and there has been a continual refinement and increasing virtuosity with their instruments. Every new piece seems to push something further and this album is definitely a breakthrough for them. Nakamura is quite interesting on this release, sprung from the malaise he seems to have been trapped in for the last year or so. He is more dominate here in that he doesn’t relay on the static background style he’s used in many of his recent collaborations, yet at the same time working to actively augment the sounds of his collaborators. In many ways he has fallen back on his style and techniques of previous years, but mixing it up through bringing different things to the fore and using a much wider palette. You can tell they pushed each other, the music is always on the verge of falling into total noise and strays at the edge between stasis and chaos that where the truly interesting, challenging and deep sounds come from.

Relevant Links:
English
Joe Foster
Bonnie Jones
Toshimaru Nakamura
One Day
Erstwhile Records

(review originally published at ihatemusic)