Masahiko Okura/Taku Sugimoto/Taku Unami Chamber Music Concerts Vol. 1 (HibariSlubloadfactor)

“It is assumed that there is a certain type of environmental sound which doesn’t matter to the recording of music or which even sometimes adds some fragrance to the music.” – Taku Sugimoto(1)

I’ve been quite mixed about the compositions coming from the Tokyo scene for the last half decade or so. There have been the occasional interesting pieces, but in the main those have often been almost incidental to composition, the interest arising from the incidental sounds in the recording or the juxtaposition of the performance with these sounds. Taku Sugimoto’s career as an improviser followed a path of reduction that led to fewer and fewer sounds from his performance being played and an increase in the predominance of the incidental sounds.  His acceptance of these puts his sympathies in alignment with Cage’s use of silence and perhaps it was an acknowledgment of this that led him increasingly toward composition. When he was at the stage where he’d play a dozen or so notes over an hour, it probably was approaching composition.  Mentally when you perform with silences seem to last for a long time, so strategies I’m sure where developed for him. For instance you play a sound and then wait ’til it seems like it’s been a while then you do another and you see that it really hasn’t been that long. If you’ve decided on a finite number of sounds you then realize you must wait a decent interval so you tell yourself “I’ll wait fifteen minutes and then sound another” and so on.  You reduce the sounds to few enough you almost have to pick times they will sound. So you’d naturally develop something like a variant on Cage’s Time Bracket(2) notation. You tell your self you need to play a sound in a give time block but you allow yourself to do it whenever during that block, so it doesn’t sound like all the sounds are equally spaced out. It probably just became easier to notate this out and then this becomes an interest in and of itself.

The problem though, for listeners of his music, was these early compositions just weren’t really that good. It seemed in the case of the few notes over a long period of time the primary interest was in tension and the composition process seemed to kill that.   This perhaps was part of the agenda, there was a constant winnowing down of techniques and systems and concepts to just a couple: single sounded notes and silence. The elimination of tone, which while note going as far as his colleague Radu Malfatti (whose interests in these matters I think are quite different from Sugimoto’s) was never as much of a primary concern for Sugimoto. There were times, especially when he composed for other instruments where he would demand a dry, affectless tone, but he tended to let his guitar ring out with a full sound allowed to decay and resonate. Eventually Sugimoto began to mix it up adding in additional eliminates and these usually demonstrated even further a lack of proficiency as a composer. You did have to try to figure out what he was doing, with only the occasional bit of guidance translated into English but what one could determine rarely seemed interesting or at least his take on it. One of the most recent trends has been introducing the major scale into his pieces. Additionally long tones begin to appear, often in conduction with the scales. His pieces were becoming more dense but once again he wasn’t really making interesting music.  Additionally as he increased the amount of complexity he added into his music, even if he was exploring simple elements the more he was heading into territory that had been more fruitfully mined. Think of Tenney’s work with scales or Lucier’s with long tones.

In the course of this process Sugimoto did pick up some acolytes, or at least those interested in composition in a similar restricted fashion. Many of the group of musicians he had been improvising with continued on to play his composition as well as a younger generation of performers. Over time a number of these individuals turned to composition as well, greatly influenced by Sugimotos work. Of course nobody is going to completely share agendas and these post-Sugimoto composers used a wider variety of sounds, methods and strategies that would hear from Sugimoto. Many of them I think found the musical ideas challenging and wanted to work them and did not have some of the additional agendas that Sugimoto may (or may not) have.  Either way I think that in some instances while Sugimoto relentless worried over a single concept whether it “worked” or not his acolytes had different concerns: working these concepts into music. Whatever the case may be clearly there isn’t any sort of hegemony really, you always see the same set of players, including Sugimoto  playing each others compositions, no matter how far off they may be from the others concerns.

Chamber Music Concerts vol 1 is a collection of compositions composed by Masahiko Okura, Taku Sugimoto and Taku Unami that were performed by a wide variety of musicians at Loop-Line in Tokyo. Apparently this was a monthly series that focused on the fact that their would be different instrumentation each time.  This was released as a three CD set published by the labels that each of these musicians run.  The CD’s plus accompanying material (only in Japanese) all awkwardly fit into a little cardboard box with a whimsical drawing on the cover. I tend to feel that the way the material doesn’t fit well into the box was deliberate, a subversion of the whole notion of packaging and product.  As the music is always somewhat awkward and confrontational that would go along with that but it is just a supposition. Anyway these three disc contain 16 compositions by the three composers: six from Unami and Okura and four from Sugimoto. Of these sixteen pieces I think that six of them are really good and that there are interesting elements in another six or so. There are some downright stinkers on this and the pieces that have interesting elements are almost always undermined by a compositional element.  But, and this is why this set is so intriguing to me, the pieces that work are a real breakthrough I think for these composers and are the first real great music made from this compositional scene.

What is particularly telling though is that of the pieces that I think have made this breakthrough there is only one by Sugimoto. He relentlessly is working his current (as of these recordings anyway) obsession with scales and each of his pieces work them in in some way.  Tellingly, the one piece that is composed by Sugimoto that really works is ‘D’ where if the scale is worked into it at all it is completely non-obvious. As the whole point of his use of the scale is to put such banalities front and center, to force you to try to reconcile something that comes across as cheesy I don’t think it is actually used in that piece. But if it is, and by its very slow and fracture nature it could be, that would be a brilliant application of it. But changing the point dramatically. The other pieces though, composed by Okura and Unami only tangentially share Sugimoto’s concerns. There are a couple of pieces from Unami that use scales but Unami seems to work them in more effectively.  Unami in general is a more cryptic character and I think is always working his off kilter sense of humor into his music. Not so much as humor as music, but as a sly subversion. Sometimes one gets the impression that he is even subverting Sugimoto’s ideas, taking them and abandoning whatever agenda Sugimoto may have and just screwing with them. His quirkiness though and willingness to use and try anything mixed with a genuine sense of musicality I think has him far outstripping his master. His humor I think makes his stuff never seem forced upon you, he is like a brilliant rhetorician compared to a haranguer.  Okura is more of Sugimoto’s generation and his stuff is far more varied. He uses ideas of Sugimoto’s as tools and applies them, at times, to great effect: His pieces are the most varied in the swinging from the sublime to the banal.

Listening to this entire set in a row with no break as I wrote this has been an interesting experience that reaffirms to me my thoughts on this set. Yes it has just over a single CD’s worth of good music and yes there is striking missteps on it that seem to subvert my very notion that these guys are developing as composers. And yet there are sophisticated, engaging and most importantly musical things going on here, driven by ideas and a sense of how to put them into practice with these disparate players. I am definitely interested to see where they go next especially the waves that have come after Sugimoto. There is an even younger, newer groups of composers working in these areas in Japan, a third post-Sugimoto wave if you will. While they have yet to really achieve much success this transmission of ideas and adherence to this aesthetic is an interesting development in and of it self. As for Unami, Okura and Sugimoto I do hope that the promise of ‘vol 1’ is fulfilled with a vol 2, though I wouldn’t mind if they were a bit more selective.

For those interested this is my selection of the essential tracks(3) from the set:
1-2 one,two,three,and many (okura)
1-3,4,5,6: 4 pieces for violin (unami)
2-4: D (sugimoto)
3-3: kinoshita-kun (unami)
3-7: red scarf, red curtain (okura)
3-9: california guitar trio (unami)

References
1) Taku Sugimoto Live in Australia Liner Notes
2) Number Pieces article at Wikipeia
3) Chamber Music Concerts Vol. 1 track listing at Hibari