Choi Joonyong/Hong Chulki/Sachiko M/Otomo Yoshihide Sweet Cuts, Distant Curves (Balloon & Needle)

Like many of the EAI scenes the Korean contingent welcomes outside voices and frequently hosts musicians from all over. With it’s near proximity there have been many collaborations with Japanese musicians and there seems to have been a bit of cross pollination between the two groups.  In 2006 Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide came to Seoul and played as Filament and in various ad hoc groupings with local improvisers(4).   This included the quartet of Sachiko and Otomo with Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki who subsequently made a studio recording which was released as this disc.

And there was no Korean noise-related music back then. So discovering Japanoise like Merzbow and Masonna was a big influence for starting Astronoise.(1)

Choi and Hong moved into improvisation from an initially noisier background and it seems to have been collaborations with visiting musicians that moved them into the more deliberate and less aggressive forms of improvisation they seem to focus on now. They still incorporate a lot of those harsher sounds into their work, but with a much greater emphasis placed upon the sounds then upon the energy that is often more of the focus in noise. In a large part I think that the tools that these two in particular, but also many other Korean improvisers, seem to favor shape what they do.

I think we’re likely to use sound reproducing machine because they are easy to find, and maybe because we’re not that good at playing real musical instruments (laugh). If any machine has an input and output, we just plug it onto itself and make a feedback loop, or open it to mess with it. As for me, I got inspired by turntable artists like Otomo Yoshihide and Christian Marclay. I had the idea to use a CD-player like a turntable, but not the way you would use a CDJ-machine. (1)

Appropriating consumer electronics in this fashion leads to unpredictable and often out of control results. While this is fairly easy to shape into a barrage of noise it is much more difficult to sculpt into the precise ultra-controlled realm of EAI.  This also seems like a further iteration of the use of electronics in this realm, first it was instruments that were approached differently (prepared guitars, feedback saxophone and the like) then it was tools of music production that was subverted (mixers, turntables, samplers), then appropriated electronics (circuit bent guitar pedals, homemade synthesizers, open circuit manipulation) and now the application of many of these principles to consumer electronics.

I do little bending or making short circuit of CD-players, but I often end up breaking it (laugh). Yes, I touch the print board with tiny screwdrivers, but these days I’m trying to use CD-players’ innate sound such as the spinning sound or the sound of lens pickup moving.(1)

This subversion of electronics is quite clearly in the lineage of their collaborators on this disc, Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide.  There has been a long tradition of using the turntable beyond how it is used in DJ and hip-hop circles and Otomo has been a major figure in this movement. Combine this with his use of guitar in a post Keith Rowe fashion he really represents a fairly long continuation of adventurous exploration of musical tools. Likewise Sachiko M is an influential pioneer of electronics repurposing beginning with her unorthodox, though more standard, use of the sampler with Otomo’s Ground Zero project eventually abandoning its essential nature by just using its sine wave test samples. As progressive as this pair has been there has been a certain listlessness in their work for the last couple of years.  This was reflected differently from the two of them, Sachiko just seeming to lose interest and not foraging ahead in new projects or collaborations, while Otomo threw himself into more and more work that seemed less and less creative and thought through.

Sachiko I feel has returned to form as evidenced by her excellent solo Salon de Sachiko (Hitorri) which was recorded a year after this collaboration.  Sachiko is such a meticulous improviser that even during this somewhat listless period she would play in established groups (such as Filament and Cosmos) and the music would always be rock solid, often fantastic. After this release though she seems to be back in force as evidenced by the performances she put on at the Amplify festival this fall.  Otomo, on the other hand, seems lost in work, playing more music then ever but so much of it seeming disjointed with odd collaborations, seemingly incoherent choices (such as all the work in pseudo-jazz forms) and a genuine lack of restraint. His interests seems to have moved on from quiet, sensitive explorations and yet he seems to still be able to pull them off when the need arises.

Filament, especially in recent years, seemed to be about fluctuations in stasis. As evidenced in the fantastic box set they released in 2004 they had pared their sound down to absolute essentials, fluttery whispers from Otomo’s turntables,  long tones from Sachiko with perturbations coming in the form of simple amendations to these basic units. Adding additional players to this spartan affair is always fraught with risk and I’d say there are few collaborators that would work with this as opposed to transform it into something else. Their collaboration with Günter Müller for instance, while a fantastic trio, wasn’t really Filament anymore. Given how chaotic a lot of Hong and Choi’s work seemed at the time this was certainly something that one would expect could go in the direction of becoming something else.  However this collaboration turned out to be absolutely amazing, producing music that one evokes much of Filament and yet goes quite beyond the finite limits that that project seems to have set for itself.

The disc is made up of three pieces, the first in three parts (1/1, 1/2, 1/3) the second a short interstitial track (2),  the third in two parts (3/1, 3/2). The trademarked stasis of Filament is strong in the first piece, with Otomo layering whispers of sound from the turntable, perhaps just the lead-in track of a record, or the needle brushing over a soft surface. Sachiko lays back for quite some time in this piece and then carefully places soft, short twitters from her sine wave generators.  But along with this are short bursts of tattered feedback, never loud but a low stutter rising out of this soft bed.  This along with electronic hums, mechanical rattles, short rumbles and hisses of static, come in and say for only the shortest of visits. This creates a fascinating, multi-layered effect, one that obscures any sort of mental assemblage – it doesn’t lend itself to easy systems of structure. There are no major dynamic shifts, though there are louder and softer bits, it just seems to become such.  There isn’t a rapid fire run through of numerous sounds and techniques, but likewise the sounds aren’t overused and never become predictable. No this music is slippery, complex and yet constructed of the barest minimum of parts. The middle track seems to work with the fewest parts, left to stew for a bit but over its short six minute length there does seem to be a building toward something that never arrives leaving us again with a fragmented vacuum.  The final piece seems to be led a bit more by the Koreans; it is they who setup a grinding mechanical bed that the other sounds work in. Here Sachiko leaves a single tone running for long periods of times, merely backing it off and changing it to different frequencies at various times.  Even with the greater sound density of the Koreans mechanical apparatus they space it out, bringing these sounds and waiting to switch them to another. The final moments of this track is some of the most post-industrial sounding and works as an endcap to both the piece and the disc. Not a climax in any sort of traditional way but an ending, closure.

This collaboration was certainly never a certainty and I have to say the results probably exceeded my expectations. This was one I’d heard about right when it was performed and with my love of Filament and my increasing interest in the Korean scene I was highly anticipating it’s release. But I had no idea which direction it would go and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.  It is fitting I think that the disc is not Filament + Hong Chulki and Choi Joonyong but that it is an equal collaboration between Sachiko M, Choi Joonyong Otomo Yoshihide and Hong Chulki. As for the title, well your guess is as good as mine.

1) Choi Joonyong interview at Foxy Digitalis
2) Hong Chulki page at Balloon & Needle
3) Choi Joonyong page at Balloon & Needle
4) Review by Joe Foster of the 2006 concerts.