In March 2010 I went to Boston for a series of Christian Wolff residency concerts at NEC and to see a number of concerts involving Keith Rowe. This was the third month of the Eleven Clouds project and the distribution method for that months release (Vertical Landscapes I-V/aeolian electrics) was via in-person trade. Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records made the best trade: a cd-r of the the forthcoming collaboration betwixt Annette Krebs and Taku Unami. Only having my iPhone for music listening that cd-r was going to sit unplayed for over a week and that immediately began to grate. So I bought a super cheap portable cd player and gave it a listen. My initial impression was threefold: pretty good, not really groundbreaking and damn these headphones that came with my portable cd player sucked and thus rendered both of the previous assessments pretty much invalid. I did listen to it maybe three more times in the next few days though and then on my last day in Boston during a free afternoon I stumbled upon Newbury Comics, which included a pretty decent record store where I was able to pick up a reasonable set of Sennheisers. Well these better headphones really opening up the music for me as did subsequent plays on my home stereo, upon which a month hasn’t passed this year where it didn’t get multiple spins. Since that time I’ve been trying to write about it nearly every month as well but it has always confounded my attempts. I felt this was okay, that an album like this resisted easy analysis, or a superficial explanation and that more listens would reveal an approach. But this never happened; I kept listening and becoming if anything increasingly intrigued and beguiled but never really knew what to say. Thus it never appeared in one of my monthly music posts which, while they only covered an aspect of my listening this year, did end up in the end containing a number of my favorites for the year. And it should have because it is by far the best bit of improvisation I’ve heard this year and along with Lost Daylight my favorite album of the year.
Annette Krebs/Taku Unami Motubachii (Erstwhile Records)
Probably not since Keith Rowe’s The Room has there been an album that I think so defies a quick analysis. Like The Room, I enjoyed this immediately, but my snap judgement, as I related above, would have been superficial. Now with Keith I know how much thought is involved with each release, especially a solo album where it isn’t a documentation of a collaboration but is solely his own concerns. The Room perhaps especially so as he spent at least a coupe of years honing his ideas, his structure and performing the piece in his various solo concerts (one of which I saw in 2005). I never really did delve into that album that year; it resisted the easy analysis and I only ended up writing a paragraph about it in my 2007 wrap up. One I revisit frequently and which maybe someday I can find the words to delve into. Motubachii is in my mind a similar case, but even more difficult. With The Room one can at least find interviews with Keith, articles on his process, a long history of recording and of course I’ve had the great pleasure of quite a few conversation with him. This allows one to place it in context, to examine what he and others have said on it and so on. There are few interviews (in English anyway) with Unami or Krebs and they rarely seem to speak on their own music. But that of course doesn’t mean that all we have to go on is the sounds on this disc.
Annette Krebs at the Goethe-Institut Boston (photo by Danny Gromfin)
I’ve had the opportunity to meet Annette Krebs in Vancouver in 2007 and Taku Unami in Tokyo in 2008 and while I wasn’t afforded the opportunity for long chats I did get to see them perform. The performances and of course the recordings from these two do allow us to place this album in an historical context. Krebs in 2007 had come back from a seeming hiatus to begin a series of great releases both solo and in collaboration (Berlin Electronics, sgraffito, SIYU and so on) however by the time of this collaboration with Unami I’d began to feel that she had tapped out her newfound ideas. She plays tabletop (or laptop at least the times I’ve seen her) guitar with a variety of common objects and preparations: brillo pad, files etc as well as radio and laptop. She uses the laptop to play samples or simple synth like sounds and seems able to manipulate speed and length of the playback of these samples. Her approach has always seemed partly random, that is to say while her command of her materials is high she seems as surprised as anyone by what a particular gesture will invoke. The use of the software sampler was what made it seem like she had reworked her bag of tricks but hadn’t really tapped into an endless flow of ideas; the same sample, manipulated in similar ways began to appear on a number of releases. By the end of 2008 the freshness had seem to have evaporated and at least my interest began to wane. However if there was one collaboration that would mix things up, it would be with Taku Unami.
Taku Unami in the Book Cafe
Reportedly after I saw the Keith Rowe/Taku Unami duo in Tokyo in the fall of 2008 Unami claimed that was the end of his performance on the computer driven motors and manipulators and as far as I can tell that has been the case. In the years after that he began using handclaps, cardboard boxes, movement, and guitar. Unami has always defied expectations and has as far as I know never really explained himself. He seemed in a way to follow on from the ultra-minimal work of Taku Sugimoto but with a wicked sense of humor about it all. Perhaps more then anything else he is constantly challenging what performance is, what a recording is, fundamentally what music is. While he will play with people like Mattin and his disciples and follow them where they lead, he never really seems quite the agent provocateur that they are. Mattin et al always come across as ideologues, pushing their notions first and foremost as dogmatically as any Maoist. Unami reminds me the most of Bansky really – he’ll cleverly challenge just about anything but he pretty much leaves it up to the listener to figure it all out. And he’s really good at what he does, even when it ultimately isn’t compelling. Unami by early 2010 had really pushed well beyond what he’d been doing up to that point and a collaboration with Annette Krebs, who was beginning to repeat herself quite a bit was fraught with uncertainty – fruitful ground for Unami.
Marcel Duchamp Ã‰tant donnés at the Philiaphia Museum of Art
The cover artwork for Motubachii is among my very favorites from the Erstwhile catalog and it always makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s Ã‰tant donnés, the piece he worked on in secret for decades after he “quit art” for chess. A scenic tableau with a meticulously modeled female nude holding a gas lamp, the viewer looks through peepholes at this scene and the splayed out figure therein. Replacing Duchamp’s carefully rendered idyllic scene with the very real German (I assume) countryside and removing any trace of a figure it may just seem to be a nod, or perhaps even just the long reverberations of the piece in the zeitgeist. But to me it displays the humor that was the hallmark of Duchamp and that I think one can also find in Unami. Self referential in a similar fashion as Ã‰tant donnés is (the mannequin is a cast of a longtime lover, the waterfall and gaslamp reference a note on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and so on; see this comprehensive book for more on this piece) one can read a lot into that empty countryside and it is I think almost uniquely fitting for the music contained within.
I tend to avoid others reviews when I intend to write on something myself but since I spent the bulk of 2010 attempting to write on this album I did stumble across various impressions and takes on the album. The overriding impressions seemed to be one of confusion (though a joyful confusion for the most part) as though the music was a riddle that the listeners had to work out. The question in collaborations of who has made what sound, or what the source of a given sound is, or if a sound is a sample a natural occurrence or somehow created in situ is an oft raised one. Is this the result of our minds that are constantly seeing patterns, constantly trying to categorize things to reductively break things down to their constituent parts? It is not an unfamiliar exercise to myself , in fact I’d say its a definite trope amongst those who write about music myself included. You see someone like Krebs rub the strings on her guitar with a brillo pad and then later you can say on listening to an unrelated album “and a skritchy sound of a brillo pad rubbed on strings”. If one is attempting to describe the music – always a challenge! – then in many ways this is the easiest path, as it relies on the experiences of the listener to fill in the gaps. With this album we only have the prior performances of Krebs and Unami, and not even of them playing together, to utilize and thus it seems natural to try to puzzle out what is making the sounds, who is doing what and how the album was put together.
Talu Unami/Annette Krebs at Kid Ailack Hall. Photo by Yuko Zama
It is the sounds that tend to bring people into the current vein of experimental musics. Turn the focus away from melody, harmony, rhythm and sound becomes the natural element to focus on. The early experimentalists (Cage, Feldman et al) constantly talked of letting the sounds be themselves, of focusing on sound and so on. But the sounds have been left to themselves for quite some time now, even if most people aren’t paying attention. The experiements with contact mics in particular in 50s, 60s and beyond (Cartridge Music most famously but 60s AMM and many others as well) were all about bringing sounds to the forefront and using virtually every means to produce them. Sounds have remained the focus of recent endeavors, but what I’d really say has been the innovation has been the structure. This I think is particularly the case with Unami who I think began (at least on record) radically de-emphasizing sound with Malignitat where he allowed the samples to be played at specific times to be pulled randomly from a banal sound effects cd. The structure is what was important there and I think that it is the structure that has seen the most innovation in the last decade. Unami continued to downplay sound, with his handclaps, table pounding and cardboard boxes.
Robert Rauschenberg Nabisco Shredded Wheat Cardboard
I can’t help but think of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard box art when I hear of Unami’s usage of them as a sound source. It seems to me almost the exact same reason in that they are ubiquitous, cheap, disposable and as far from art as you can get. Rauschenberg transformed the detritus of our consumer culture into art and Unami utilized the same detritus to devalue the notion sound from his pieces. He also reportedly did performances where he used light to cast shadows with the boxes which he then moved around, removing sound completely from its pedestal. Interestingly enough after reading about the shows where he did this I found a Fluxus text score that is in essence “use a cardboard box to cast shadows on the wall. Move it around.” (I alas don’t have a copy of this score and will have to look around to get the full score and citation). I can’t help but think that there isn’t quite a bit of Fluxus in what Unami does: the subversion of accepted notions of performance and music making, the humor, the stripping down to essentials, the working with very simple scores and the theatricality of his works.
Taku Unami at instal 2009
I’ve listened to motubachii four times through as I’ve written this and even with all the other times I’ve listened to it this year it still intrigues. It is the combination of all that I’ve been going on about here: Krebs’ startled jabs on her instruments and Unami’s subversion of, well, everything. Unami on this recording sounds like he just wandered around the room doing various things as Krebs’ engages in a quite spare performance. There are handclaps, table slaps, dropped boxes, the sound of moving around the room, the rare note on a guitar, brillo pads and files on guitar strings, Krebs’ use of vocal samples distorted, slowed down and sped up, a few plucks of a resonant instrument like a banjo or steel guitar and so on. It could have been them playing a piece in a room, or it could be individual recordings put together or it could be parts from various recordings randomly selected ala Malignitat to either a defined or random structure. One thing that is known is that it is five recorded in five different locations and track one and five are the same. More playfulness from Unami and Krebs. It also lends some creedence to the notion that it is an assembled piece, in whole or in part, but really as I said earlier that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it all works; it has a flow, a beguiling structure to itself that could be the result of any number of processes. The sounds, a mix of Krebs who I’d say is still focused on sound and Unami’s seemingly devil-may-care though clearly thought out everyday sounds, create this structure, nurture it and give the listener plenty to hang on to.
the title stems from two original words from Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries, and the process is amusingly analogous to how the record was put together (which I’m not explaining, before anyone asks).
originally this was Unami’s idea, he suggested the word ‘pinckenbahii’, which he defined as a “gravity vortex which causes strange time phenomena, several times within a time at the same time” and he thought that was a good fit for the record. Annette was also a fan of Lem and The Star Diaries in particular, but didn’t like the way this word sounded in German, so she found a second word (‘uabamotu’) from the book and combined the two into ‘motubahii’. I then researched these and found that Unami had made a mistake with the initial word, which should have been ‘pinckenbachii’, hence ‘motubachii’. – Jon Abbey in the Motubachii post on ihm
I also love Stanislaw Lem and while I never would have worked out the reference (having read the The Star Diaries quite some time ago to begin with) that explanation from how this combined word came together does seem to encapsulate the record well. Perhaps Jon is hinting that the album is an assemblage; it certainly does have that feel. But Unami’s original word defined as “gravity vortex which causes strange time phenomena, several times within a time at the same time” now that captures the essence of the record. I doubt that the strange phenomena in this one will ever become overly familiar, or tiresome or that I’ll ever make it out of the vortex.