Entries tagged with “eai”.


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

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

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.

Etant donnes

Marcel Duchamp Étant donnés at the Philiaphia Museum of Art

Motubachii front cover

The cover artwork for Motubachii is among my very favorites from the Erstwhile catalog and it always makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant 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.

annette krebs / taku unami
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 instal09

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.

Amplify08 day 3: Keith and Toshi

Amplify 2008: Keith & Toshi @ Kid Ailack Hall, Tokyo Sept. 2008


I was in the mood for something a bit more harsh today so I put on Erstlive 008: Keith Rowe/Toshimaru Nakamura and played it loud.  If  you have a system capable of serious bass  reproduction, which I do, and you play it a sufficient volume to properly propel the bass, which I did, this album throbs with sub-sonics. There are sections of it that are like the sea: an unstoppable, unimaginably powerful force rolling over you again and again. And floating in that sea are cutting blades that slice into you from the completely opposite end of the dynamic range. While there are moments of near stasis it is a restless piece, using continuity of sound like a killing floor that bounces the detritus of the machine age upon it.  It feels like the end of something, something more than end of Amplify 2008 which it was.  Particularly interesting to me is that for such a roiling, harsh piece it ends with a whimper, not faded out, nor utilizing long stretches of silence, but simply increasingly delicate sounds, punctuated with bursts of tearing feedback for a time, and then tones, whispers, shrill whines of tortured electronics.  In this piece the world ends with a bang — and a whimper.

Amplify 2008: LightI was in Tokyo for Amplify 2008: Light and was of course in the audience for this show. This was the second time I’d seen Keith and Toshi perform as a duo and this cd is the fourth of theirs released on Erstwhile Records.  Their two studio albums on Erstwhile Records, Weather Sky and Between, were each landmarks in the Erstwhile catalog and in my personal musical listening.  Weather Sky seems to take ideas that Keith had worked through in AMM and look at them from another another angle. The laminal aspect is there but its much fuzzier, not so intentional with none of the exhaustion of the final AMM performances. Weather Sky gives you much less to settle into and its restlessness, which is a hallmark in my mind of the Keith/Toshi collaborations, undermines any surface stasis.  Between is a completely different beast that over its two discs runs the gamut of concerns of this music.  While the decision to make this album was a deliberate move it is immediately clear that retreading old ground would not be acceptable.  This is not the recording of musicians who are spinning their wheels; their restlessness, pervasive questioning and unwillingness to compromise cut through any notions of a rehash. The improvised music that they participated in hadn’t sat still since the release of Weather Sky, in large part due to their work, but it was already becoming difficult to express what was becoming familiar notions with what was becoming codified gestures. It is a testament to these two musicians that they found so much to explore.

ErstQuake 2: Keith & Toshi @ Collective Unconscious Sept. 2005

Keith Rowe played four shows at Amplify ’08 and rose to this heroic task with aplomb (you can read my reviews of these shows here).  His duo’s with Sachiko M and Taku Unami (released as Contact and Erstlive 006) seemed like breakthroughs and a new direction in contemporary improv while his solo show was a tour de force exploration of his concerns, influences and the ideas that motivate him (all thoroughly explained here) . This duo was of course well established with the two aforementioned studio albums plus a live document from the last time Keith was in Japan contained in the Amplify 2002: Balance box set. I’d seen them the first time at the ErstQuake 2 festival in New York City, a festival prior to which I’d seen very few shows in the burgeoning “eai” subgenre.  That aspect of course colors things but at the time I felt that this show was similar to that contained in the Amplify 2002 set: an engaging and solid piece of music if not ground breaking. Keith had recently constructed his Cubist Guitar and was still working through it, perhaps explaining the greater relience on radio during this festival. Back in 2005 I wrote this about this set:

No set at this festival was more anticipated by me and it did not disappoint. Nakamura seemed more active and upfront while Rowe explored a wider space and allowed a dominating role for the radio.

Keith & Toshi at Erstquake 2

As I write this I’m listening to the Keith and Toshi track on disc 5 of the Amplify 2002 box set and it does reaffirm these recollections, though there is a long section of rhythmic feedback from Toshi that so often cropped up in his solo albums from this time, a feature of his playing that rarely cropped up in the studio recordings.  [As an aside it has been quite a while since I’ve pulled the Amplify 2002: Balance box set off the shelf and I have to say that among a catalog of handsome releases this box set is simply stunning.] There also is a bootleg of Keith and Toshi floating around from around this time of them playing in Texas that is in a similar vein, what I’d call typically great: the communication between these two is solid enough that whenever they play it is a great set. But what is I think is really quite impressive is that on occasion they transcend that familiar greatness and produce something transformative.  Established groups rarely do this as part of the familiarity of frequently playing together is a toning down of risk: you anticipate too much and perhaps you settle into a subset of your own behavior, settling for what you know works. With this duo though it seems much more like they are working through something and it might take a while, so they have these clear “periods” but then they begin to struggle through something else.  It is a working relationship akin to AMM come to think of it.

KAH SignTwo years ago in Tokyo after seeing three impressive sets from Keith, and two very solid sets with Toshi one settled into ones seat for this duo with some expectations.  After the twin breakthroughs of Weather Sky and Between and a series of always engaging concerts one would be not be remiss to expect another typically great set. Which was certainly delivered and at the time it seemed like a rousing end to an amazing festival. Even at the show I was impressed with how they had seemed to have picked up where Between left off and by perhaps by channeling the energy of the festival, or the sprawling urbanism of Tokyo or perhaps a looming sense of endings everywhere.  But since then this set has come to seem increasingly powerful, that sense of uneasy doom increasing; a breakthrough of synthesis. It seems to take the pieces of Between, orient them orthogonally and reassemble them against the overwhelming sense of spareness of Kid Ailack Hall into a singular musical document.  It is irrevocably colored by the experience of having been there for me, of course, but this is music whose relevance grows, music that doesn’t have that flush of fresh novelty to it but the deepness of intimacy which, from musicians who are always struggling with those ideas that are never tapped out, results in music that constantly unfolds and reveals more.

Keith & Toshi
"The music doesn't happen without you"

Below are the ten releases the struck me the most in 2009. Most of these received many plays, all of these pieces revealing greater depth the more you listen.  Several of these pieces deserve an essay in and of themselves and that perhaps is the greatest tragedy of the lack of criticism in this area. For the most recognition these albums will get in our time is perhaps a short review, little more then a gilded thumbs up/thumbs down.  Perhaps in the future there will be scholars who will examine some of these pieces as they deserve (and honestly the classical pieces are quite likely to receive such attention sooner rather then later) but for now placement on a “best-of” list and perhaps a few words will have to do.

Releases of Note 2009 (part 2/2)

Morton Feldman/Howard Skempton Triadic Memories – Notti Stellate a Vagli performed by John Tilbury (Atopos)

John Tilbury’s set of Morton Feldman piano pieces All Piano, released on the LondonHALL label has been in my opinion the definitive recordings of the later piano pieces.  Since recording these pieces in the late 1990s Tilbury has been called on to perform these pieces on numerous occasions culminating with this release of Triadic Memories from October 2008.  Freed from the constraints of recording for compact disc and masterfully fitting this music to the space at hand this recording is a leisurely 103 minutes. This allows the notes to float in the space, their natural decay seeming to linger for longer than possible. Tilbury’s unrivaled touch at the piano, played with the sustain pedal partially depressed (a trick he learned from Cornelius Cardrew), gives the individual notes and chords an almost buttery feel with the occasional dissonances seeming to almost resolve themselves in the lingering overtones. Absolutely sublime music and nothing else released this year received more spins in my player.

Along with this definitive version of Triadic Memories is the sublime Howard Skempton piece Notti Stellate a Vagli in which the mostly single notes are perfectly placed among pools of silence.  After the Feldman piece it almost feels hurried, but it’s a spare piece in which the sounds are allowed plenty room to to breathe. The icing on the cake, this is a beautiful compliment to the epic Triadic Memories.

Cornelius Cardew Treatise performed by Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi (Planam)

I don’t buy a lot of LPs but recordings of Treatise by Keith Rowe was definitely cause for me to pre-order this one and dust off the table. Treatise, Cornelius Cardew’s epic graphic score has of course been a favorite piece of mine for half a decade now and Keith Rowe is easily the most significant interpreter of the piece. He had worked with the piece as Cardew was working on it, sometimes playing from the hand drawn pages. He was involved in the first performance of the piece in the UK and in AMM who performed the piece with Cardew many times. Since those days it has remained a constant companion and it is doubtful there is anyone who has worked through the score as thoroughly or as rigorously.  Oren Ambarchi has been a stalwart of the experimental music scene for the last decade and has been involved in what I think are two of the most successful recordings of Treatise to date. The first being the fantastic Seven Guitars performances released as part of the Amplify 2002 boxed set on the Erstwhile label which again also involved Rowe.  The other is of course this release. Each side of the record includes two pages of Treatise from what seems to be a contiguous performance of pages 53, 58, 168 & 169 on February 8th 2009 in Amsterdam (of which you can watch ten minutes of here).

Oren Ambarchi leans toward the drone, though a rich one made up of fractal like elements that reward close attention more then as a background sound.  If one takes him to be playing the lifeline and the divergent parallel lines it is an excellent interpretation of the pages played.  Page 53 can be seen in the little picture above and you can see how the lifeline runs through it with an line angling off of that which fits very well with Ambarchi’s drone that seems to open up as that secondary line does. Rowe in contrast plays in a spikier style, working each of the distinct elements on the score with a long defined set of actions. While these have been worked out over a long time as Rowe has constantly updated his setup and aspects of his approach his renditions of Treatise, while usually quite recognizable, have always remained fresh and vital. The first side of the record is page 53 and 58 over the course of about 14 minutes recognizable treating each element with care and consideration.  On the flip side of the platter are pages 168 and 169 which are the final pages in the score. These pages contain just the lifeline (and IIRC a gap in the line on the beginning of page 168) as a sort of dénouement of the piece. Ambarchi’s drone rustles in all buzzes rising and falling with dead silence for the gap. Rowe’s sound is equally subdued but instead of just working with continuous sound he works with small events, scrapes, little wirrs and rubbing on the pickups. These pages to me have a much slower feel then those on the other side and it is no surprise to me that they spend more time on them.  It is a beautiful rendition of the final pages of the score and the conclusion of what is in my opinion the best available performance of a section of Treatise (at least until Keith Rowe’s A Response to Treatise which hopefully is coming soon from the Cathnor label) .

Toshimaru Nakamura/Ami Yoshida Soba to Bara (Erstwhile Records)
No other album of improvised music was more surprising, challenging and ultimately rewarding then this first recording between Toshimaru Nakamura and Ami Yoshida. I’ve been writing an essay in which this disc features and it is something that I’d still like to finish but for now I’ve extracted from it just this short review of this album with a bit of additional framing, which will have to suffice for now. The existing “reviews” of Soba to Bara apart from limiting themselves primarily to the superficial were sure to include as an aside that this album is constructed from two performances recorded separately then layered together by Nakamura. These reviews (if positive) were sure to mention that the album worked despite this whereas the thrust of my essay is that the album works because of this (I should  note that Dan Warburton in his Paris Transatlantic “review” seems to take a similar stance). I came to this realization from playing music with the Seattle Improv Meeting when I found that the more I concentrated on playing the music at hand (we mostly played graphic scores) and the less I “listened” directly to my compatriots the more successful my participation was.  Listening has an exalted status in improvisation and to musicians of that stripe it means more then the word implies. It’s kind of like “swing” or “porn” in that it is indescribable but a musician knows it when he hears it. Now of course this doesn’t at all preclude listening to the gestalt, the room, as Keith Rowe would put it. The room contains the sounds that the other musicians are generating, as well as the audience, ambient sounds and its own ineffable character.

Soba to Bara in contrast with some of the earlier expressions of the use of independent recordings does not set out to directly express these experimental notions. Jon Abbey, the man behind Erstwhile Records, greatest talent is his ability to put improvisers together in new units that push each other in such a way to yield unexpected results. This really is a talent and one which seems to be severely lacking in so many people that attempt to do this.  On finding out that Ami Yoshida and Toshimaru Nakamura (two Erstwhile mainstays) had not performed as a duo he immediately set out to bring these two together.  In the course of preparing for performing and/or recording the two decided to record separately a track that Toshi would then layer together so as to get a feel for the duo.  Clearly they would try to record with their partner in mind creating a Sight like collaboration of memory. But it seems that the two participants remembered parts of their compatriots performances that the other chose not to focus so much upon. Ami’s vocal performance on this disc is harrowing, painful strangulations, gasps for breaths, a disturbing heavy breathing section, wrung out utterances and the like.  Toshi seems to have determined that he’d work more in accompaniment mode here and perhaps thinking of Cosmos, Ami’s duo with Sachiko M where Sachiko’s sinewaves are like a line drawn through Ami’s scattered pointillisms, his sounds form an uneasy background, one where he seems he is trying to allow space for what can be Ami’s very soft sounds. The nature of his instrument, its barely controlled feedback makes this a difficult task and in contrast with Ami’s strangulated sounds it has a straining effect, that falls back into little reprieves of jittering static. The combination of all these elements is as if something absolutely unknown and perhaps monstrous is being given birth. This is just the beginning as the piece develops Toshi’s wrestles his meandering static and juddering feedback into an uneasy background that Ami seems to try claw her way through. Perhaps considering how unsettling Cosmos can be at their most intense (2002’s Tears on the Erstwhile label for instance) Toshi’s contributions become increasingly fragmented, ripping the fabric of that background in increasingly dramatic bursts.  The way that one of these outbursts of feedback obliterate what can be a soft, or aggressive vocalization almost seems scored at times but never has that effect of following on, that “listening” in improv so often has.  I’m reminded of an example also involving Ami Yoshida, her 2006 collaboration with Christof Kurzmann (a s o, Erstwhile Records) where she does this odd little rising tone whose pattern Kurzmann immediately emulates with his software synthesizer. No single gesture has ever encapsulated the separation of old styles of improvisation and the new directions that are being explored.

Among EAI records in 2009 none I think captured its experimental basis as successfully as Soba to Bara and none challenged its listeners so directly. It was the most exciting album of the year, a year in which so much of the music had become incredibly predictable if of high quality. The cult of pure improvisation took some issue with it, but in the main minimized this aspect due to it’s incredible success. It is a testament to the musicians that they pushed themselves so far out in what was essentially a warm-up, a tool as a form of practice. Indeed when I saw them perform live in the fall of 2008 at the Amplify festival in Tokyo, it did not reach the heights of this album (which I hadn’t heard yet).  The direct situation allowed perhaps too much to be heard, or perhaps it was the demands of having to perform multiple times in a number of days, but for whatever reason it was a good solid performance but not the boundary stretching tour de force of this recording. It is also to the credit of Jon Abbey, who has publicly stated his dislike for projects of this nature, that he put this out. But the music is amazing and powerful and he certainly recognizes that transcends any such notions of construction and conceptualism.

Keith Rowe/Sachiko M Contact (Erstwhile Records)
When I said above that many of these releases deserve whole essays written about them I was thinking primarily of my unfinished essay that my Soba to Bara comments were taken from and this incredible, epic double album from Keith Rowe and Sachiko M. Keith and Sachiko have been involved in some of the most powerful, complicated and difficult music of the last decade and it is appropriate the decade end with their first recording as a duo. There is always something of the times in contemporary music and I think it is no coincidence that the aughts gave birth to what came to be known as EAI.
AMM had been applying experimental techniques to improvisation for decades, what was it about this decade that brought so many disparate elements together in quite this way? Alas exploring this is beyond the scope of this post, but I hope that someday someone takes up that challenge.

Oval, Track 2 on the first disc was from Keith and Sachiko’s initial meeting at the Amplify 2002 festival in Tokyo and thus is part of the documentation of those four shows. One of the best shows of the festival and one that surprised me at the tack that Keith and Sachiko chose, both working in a hyper-restrained pointillistic vein. Over the course of the two hours of this set, we get most of the rest of the possible combinations from these two, though Keith seems to have permanently moved on from the so called “drone” produced by his guitars pickups, electronics and amp.  The long first track sounds the most like one would expect, Sachiko using a single tone for the bulk of its duration. For the next couple she works with the twittery sine effect as well as the dirtier electronic sound of the switches on her devices. The final track has her utilizing her contact mics, a tool she has used in the past but has begun re-exploring (to mixed effect) in recent years. All of the music on this set is incredible, easily the greatest bit of collaborative improv done this year.  It is interesting to contrast this a little with Soba to Bara, which personally I found a bit more exciting, most likely due to having seen this duo live last year (plus the initial long track here, but more on that in a bit).  Toshi and Ami were less interesting in the live show then on that disc which as I alluded to above was perhaps due to the unavoidability of listening.  Keith on the other hand I think can focus directly on what he is doing while only paying attention to the room. This I think is a real skill that he has cultivated over the years and that arose from serious thought and decades of experience.  Sachiko in contrast is simply unyielding which in one with such a refined touch leads to a similar effect.

Oval and Rectangle (d1t2 and d2t1 respectively) are the two most amazing tracks on this disc and the real achievements here. What is particularly amazing about Oval as I mentioned above is that it was their first time meeting. The opening track, Square, is much more like what someone who was familiar with the two musicians would expect. It is great music, epic in scope and rich in detail and yet it starts out safe, as if the two are feeling each other out, which is strange on the face of it, as their first meeting was days before. Thus this track feels a bit regressive, included only for completeness sake. In a way I feel that this set captures the entire range of Sachiko M – all of the ways she uses her sinewaves lie within. Keith on the other hand works with merely a subset of his toolkit and in the main sticks with this subset for all four tracks. Sachiko’s incredible taste and touch are her real strengths and why her minimal toolkit suffices. At her best she works as a colorist in these pieces as if she and Keith are collaborating on a painting made up of dots in which each has a shared set of paints that she applies with a fine knife while Keith uses several little brushes. The space and silences, especially in Rectangle are far more effective then most of the heavy handed conceptual uses of late using that space to complete a whole. The final track where Sachiko uses contact mics and Keith responds in kind is a beautiful exploration of texture an excellent way to complete the album.

So much more needs to be said about this album, I have touched on so little of its depths here and probably in a most incoherent way. It’ll have to do though for now, like I said this album requires an essay and all the research that that entitles. It is a fitting close to the decade though, one of the most powerful statements of EAI to date and incredibly fitting at this point of time when things are ossifying.

Long Piano Christian Wolff Long Piano (Peace March 11) performed by Thomas Schultz (New World)

As I’ve intimated in the past I find it difficult to write convincingly about Christian Wolff’s music. There really is little more embarrassing then uniformed writing about classical music and rather then add too much to that unfortunate tradition I tend to demure. Wolff is difficult to write about because there is so much that has gone into the music, to make it what it is, that to ignore or gloss over that really does the music a disservice. Fortunately for you dear reader, New World has made the liner notes for this wonderful new disc available online so you can read John Tilbury’s insightful notes on Wolff’s music and this piece in specific. Along with that it contains a bit from Wolff himself explaining about the piece’s composition and Thomas Schultz writing about playing the piece.

“[Long Piano] seems to me like a kind of geological agglomeration. My hope is that it forms a possible landscape on one extended canvas. At first I just started writing and kept going. My tendency is to work in smaller patches. After the piece was finished I saw Jennifer Bartlett’s wonderfully engaging and cheerful work Rhapsody, first shown in 1976. It’s a 154-foot sequence of an arrangement of 988 one-foot-square silk-screened and painted enamel plates running around at least three walls of a gallery space. An extreme instance of what I’ve got in mind.” – Christian Wolff from the Liner notes

The prelude to the piece is the titular peace march which once again works in Wolffs deep commitment to humanity and social justice. TIlbury elegantly outlines this history in his essay in the liner notes and makes the essential point that Wolff, unlike his friend Cornelius Cardew, never gave up his commitment to the music in pursuit of these notions. Of course this works out better in some pieces then in others and in this piece, Wolff’s political statements are pretty oblique, fully at the service of the music it seems to me. Quoting again from the liner notes:

Long Piano begins unequivocally with a political “statement,” and yet in response to the question about the peace march from Long Piano, Wolff was equivocal. He simply replied, inscrutably, that “maybe it’s just to remind oneself. In my more recent work that content a number of times relates to a political mood, assertive, resistant, commemorative, celebrative, for instance. The connection may be fairly tenuous or subterranean; it is often discontinuous. “

It is a shame really that Wolff’s music is so unknown as much of it really is so appealing and not just to new music fans. Wolff worked a lot with interesting rhythmic devices, indeterminacy of composition and performance, empowering of the performer, but he never eschewed melody and his pieces are often quite charming as well as fully engaging on multiple levels. It is this dual aspect that again makes reviews that focus on the surface elements so useless as in many cases the magic lies beneath. And yet, Wolff always made those surface elements so compelling that the music can appeal to all really. As he wrote:

“But my notion is that music can function better socially if it is more clearly identified with what most people recognize as music, which is not a question of liking or disliking, but of social identity. By function better socially I mean help to focus social energies that are collective not individualistic, and that may therefore be revolutionary politically.”

The music herein may not appeal to many of those who read this site, but they are well worth a listen. The dissonance of some of the chords, the spaces between the sounds, the occasionally driving melodies, the odd rhythmic patterns all mixed together may seem inexplicable, maybe even a mess, but it all hangs together. The initial Peace March is perhaps the most incongruous, the “patches” that make up the primary piece contain all that I’ve ever loved in Wolff’s piano music and more, showing that his program is endlessly developing and always changing. At times beautiful in a way that evokes Feldman, yet owns nothing to him at other times beautiful in a way that brings Cage’s Number Pieces to mind and still at other times almost having that rigorously random sensation that Webern can inspire, while still others makes me think of Cecil Taylor! It evokes these, but never seems derivative of them always sounding to me like Wolff. Finally the performance of the piece by Thomas Schultz, who commissioned it is really quite a nice, a pianist I was previously unfamiliar with, but one I will keep my ears open for.

Finally Wolff’s music is a perfect example of the notion that I’ve long espoused that music based on ideas is richer because of it. Wolff puts this in the liner notes more succinctly then I ever have, so let me close this piece with another quote from him:

“Every piece, I think, has, in addition to the abstract arrangement of its sounds . . . what I would call a content, something that it suggests, which is not the same as its sounds, though such a content may deeply affect those sounds, how they are arranged and how they appear to us.” – Christian Wolff, quoted in the liner notes

Andrea Neumann Pappelallee 5 (Absinth)
It’s been a long time since Andrea Numann put out a solo release (Innenklavier in 2002, plus a self-released cd-r in 2007, Wohkrad, that I never heard) and really even her collaborations have never been that frequent.  Perhaps this has contributed somewhat to her mystique, there is none of that tendency for over documentation you sometimes see. Whatever the case may be, she remains my favorite of the Berlin improvisers and one whose new releases I am always anticipating. Of course there is a bit of a connection between Andrea’s music and my own; I play the wire strung harp, and the guts of a piano are referred to as the “harp” for good reason and are likewise strung with metal (though at far greater tension and with a lot more strings) not to mention the use of contact mics and the like. This was a bit of a shock for me the first time I saw her perform, at which point I immediately acquired what solo material I could find. As I listened more to her, I found a lot more differences then similarities and in the process she became a favorite. In addition her collaborative works, ATØN with Toshimaru Nakamura, In Case Of Fire Take The Stairs with Kaffe Matthew and Sachiko M and Lidingö with Burkhard Beins are among the strongest releases of the last decade.

This gem of an album was recording in this apartment building that she shares with a number of other musicians and the sounds of this environment permeate the album. It also features several artificial gaps between the various segments, which in themselves were not necessarily recorded in the order herein. This construction creates an image of a place, of a musician at work, of restless creativity and as a whole is a remarkable piece of music.  Listening on headphones you can hear some of the neighbors at play, practicing instruments or in day to day living. The silences allow the same categories of sounds from your own domicile to contribute likewise. An application of Cage’s work in silence that I find more sophisticated and successful then many, not only acknowledging such sounds as equal participants but working with them in a multitude of ways as the very fabric of the piece. The sounds that Neumann makes directly from her inside piano instrument aren’t too far from what those who have heard from her before would expect. But there does seem to be iteration in her overall sound, perhaps due to additional tools, or specific preparations but most of all from their collaboration with the space. Lots of sounds of strings: objects rubbed up against them, whirrs of rotating objects against them, brushes or steel wool interacting with string and pickup, objects vibrating against them, wonderful sounds, perfectly placed as always. A favorite section has a very distant conventionally played piano from one of her neighbors far in the background as Neumann works with these various techniques creating quite mechanical sounds in the foreground.

There was another album from Andrea this year ,a duo with Ivan Palacky playing amplified knitting machine (!) that was quite well reviewed in the couple I read. However I never saw it turn up for sale anywhere and thus never got a copy.  But great to see strong new statements from this most elusive of the Berlin musicians.

Various Relay: Archive 2007-2008 (The Manual)

“The first RELAY meeting was on 18 March 2005. We had two things in out mind; aesthetically speaking, we wanted a monthly improvisation concert more concentrated on making music (I still call it music) out of non-musical sound/noise, or even interaction with something extra-aural, the visual; regarding our artistic lives, RELAY’s main goal was to build a sustaining network among improvisers and experimental musicians domestic and abroad.” -Hong Chulki, from the liner notes

As I stated in the previous post of all of the various “scenes” in contemporary improv none seem as vital and bursting with creativity as the small group of musicians clustered around Seoul in South Korea.  This compilation documenting two years of this scene gives a compelling little glimpse into it for those of us far away. The RELAY series ran for four years and this double set documents the final years of the series when they had the funds from government grants to bring in a diverse array of guests musicians. RELAY seems to have been fully hooked into and facilitated by the internet and the documentation of the series can be found on the Manual site covering all of the events including listing the participants, scans of the flyer’s, pictures of various shows and mp3’s of a bunch of the sets.  My kind of series. This set documents the concert series warts and all: Mats Gustafsson not fitting in at all with Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae (I’d like to hear the story behind this rather unlikely collaboration), Taku Sugimoto’s self-indulgent composition performed by an all star tentet at Nabi, as well meetings that feel like long established working groups: Toshimaru Nakamura with Park Seungjun, Choi Joonyong/ dieb13/Joe Foster as well as local groupings such as Choi Joonyong/Joe Foster/Hong Chulki/Jin Sangtae/Ryu Hankil. Plus a delicious slice of English adding another piece to their small discography. Really all of the pieces are worth hearing barring the Mats track, though of course some work better then others.

2009 perhaps might have led to a slight over-documentation of aspects of the vital Seoul scene, all of the releases featuring Ryu Hankil rather spring to mind. Most of these have been good, but oversaturation can breed discontentment. This set came out in February 2009 and was like a breath of fresh air, something different from what we’d been hearing so far and infectious in its riot of energy and commitment to exploration. Being a compilation it would require a track by track writeup to really go into the music contained, so this will have to suffice.  I’ve kept up pretty well with the Seoul scene (though not exhaustively) and based on the recorded material (definitely not to be confused with being there) this is a fine overview, but even more importantly it contains some great music. Their idea of fostering a network of musicians appeals to me greatly as I think it does to all who live in an out of the way corner with only a small number of fellow travelers. This music is truly international and all of the vital regions have embraced that. Tokyo, London, Berlin and now Seoul, this aspect has kept things pushing ahead all the time. I look forward to hearing the further developments from Seoul and where ever else the music breeds.

Radu Malfatti/Klaus Filip imaoto (Erstwhile Records)
I’ve found Malfatti’s work over the last decade to be pretty mixed from fantastic early improvisations with Phil Durrant and Thomas Lehn, to astringent compositions that seem to lack, well a lot. It is with this album though that I made the realization that all of his compositions, his inflexibility and extremism have bascailly honed him into being able to make this kind of music.  Performing a composition that requires you to sit there doing nothing (while your collaborators – if any – may or may not do nothing as well) is perfect training to be able to do nothing in a live improvisation where seconds of inactivity can seem like minutes. It also forces one to really focus on the sounds used, a lesson that I myself learned in some pieces that I worked on that used some long spaces.  That really was my complaint on many of Malfatti’s compositions, the sounds seemed to be ignored and the structure wasn’t so interesting to sustain that.  Any ideas that may have been there were never elucidate clearly enough leaving it up to the listeners to draw their own. Those ideas definitely didn’t sustain the paucity of the structures or the disinterest in the sounds. But it seems that along the way Malfatti honed his sounds and in a studio context his dry hisses, simple taps and echoy exhalations have become rich and resonant.

I’ve never felt that Malfatti really works with silence in a Cagean fashion, that it’s not about ceding the music to the surroundings for him. Instead it always seemed more like an exercise perhaps related to the questions of memory somewhat poised by the quotations included on some of his albums, perhaps though simply as a parameter that can be pushed as some would push volume. This year I had a realization that if the silence in music is simply a space to allow other music to breathe then one can capture an aspect of this musically. To illustrate this consider Malfatti playing one of his spare compositions next to a babbling brook. His few sounds will come and go as the brook merrily babbles on the whole time. Now what if a recording of this brook was brought into the studio and allowed to play throughout the session? It is only one more step then to imagine a musician playing music in the manner of this babbling brook giving you a piece that captures the same essence of Malfatti playing with big “silences”.  This revelation turned around my thinking on a lot of things and I began working on a series of pieces exploring this notion (The Grey Sequence, so far unreleased).

When Imaoto was released in autumn 2009 it immediately struck me as an instance of this notion, intentional or not.  Klaus Filip’s sinewaves, always shifting and yet always present are just like that babbling brook.  Malfatti’s playing, as I mentioned in the first ‘graph, is meticulous here, etherial and perfectly honed.  The week I received this album I also bought Jonathan Lethem’s new novel Chronic Town and I incesently played this album each night for several hours as I’d read. I didn’t want to listen to anything else, the floating nature of this album somehow fit this book so well, creating the eternal fog that NYC lies under in the book or the haze of that other chronic that is burned so frequently within its pages. Pausing to contemplate what I’d read the music would always be there, rewarding close attention, with gentle tapping or an astringent hiss against the endlessly shifting tones.  It fills a space like that babbling brook does when you walk next to it in the woods, a snap of a twig or a rustle in the underbrush substituting for Malfatti’s ‘bone. I always listen to this softly and never on headphones, even when I’m not reading and it is like an open window.  This is easily Malfatti’s best album since dach and if it required all that unrewarding hard work to arrive at this, it was well worth it.

Kevin Parks/Joe Foster Prince Rupert Drops (homophoni)
There pretty much is just too damn much music out there and now that we have endless amounts of music freely available to download well there is just that much more. One of the most reliable curators of downloadable music is David Kirby’s homophoni label and this piece from Kevin Parks and Joe Foster was the highlight of his few releases this year (full disclosure, I’ve put out a piece on Kirby’s label, but don’t let that dissuade you from his otherwise impeccable taste). Kevin and Joe put out a disc a couple of years ago Ipsi Sibi Somnia Fingunt that while filled with many great moments had not ever quite done it for me, but this piece transcends all of the issues I had with that disc. This was another release from early in the year (Jan 31st) that I listened to countless times throughout the year and it constantly engaged me.

It begins with shifting tones that come in and fade out, a sample from Parks? Foster’s trumpet through some effects? Hard to say, but in a way it almost feels like the sax from Ground-Zero‘s Consume Red, though it comes and goes it only plays for a few repeats when does and at a totally different level of intensity. The rest of the sounds seem more like they come from Foster’s damaged pedals and Park’s computer. A rumble that gives one’s low end a good work-out persists for a while, crackles and little metallic bits add color here and there, squeeks and hiss that could be electronic, could be acoustic drift around.  The use of such disparate materials really works in this piece, keeping your attention and never feeling superfluous. Toward the end of the piece there is this haunting tone, heavily effected that comes in, as this hesitant series of taps on a drum gently contrasts with it. It is as if the consume red-ish bit has come back mutated into a different beast.  Things pick up a bit from here, bringing a feeling of finality to close out the piece, not in any sort of cliched way, but just right for all that has come before.

This is genuinely great music and shows that the download is not in any way a second class citizen. Kevin is back in Korea and at least occaisonally playing with Joe, let’s hope for many more fruitful collaborations between these ex-pats. Anyway give it a listen, it is freely available after all.

Radu Malfatti/Taku Unami Goat Vs Donkey (Taumaturgia)
This release finds Malfatti and Unami in high conceptual mode and while I’ve been known to express my contempt for that at times, in this instance it works (I tend to almost always go along if it works. It just doesn’t most of the time). There were actually two Radu Malfatti, Taku Unami releases this year (the other being Kushikushism on Slub) and fans were rather divided on the relative merits between the two. For me there was no contest, the noisey atmosphere of the venue was the unheralded third performer on this disc and the gauzy nature of this room recording really gave life to this space.  Malfatti brings his hisses and a nice rather rattly tone at times, as usual coming and going with long gaps. The sound of the room, Taku clapping, moving around it, evening playing some sounds occasionally pluse the audience and room noise, these all fill the gaps. Three Backgrounds, my favorite of Malfatti’s B-Boim releases, works in the same way, the sounds of the background filling in the spaces and making the whole affair decidedly more interesting then the sounds the musicians choose to use. I really like musicians improvising within a space, letting whatever sounds that are there add to the precedings, I always have. I recorded a series myself, Out of Doors, where I would deliberately play outside recording open air. Never quite worked out how I wanted but its the same impetus.  The flow in this piece works as well, shifting in densities, though always quite soft and finally ending in mostly empty space with just the tapping on Malfatti’s trombone and what sounds like the shifting of objects continuing for a while and then just stopping.

This recording has been on my list pretty much since it came out but re-listening to it as I write it up, perhaps I’d shift it lower down on the list. The much later released Imaoto covers much of this ground in a way (as I write above) and far more successfully.  Still this album stuck with me all year and received many a play. Well worth hearing and probably the most interesting of the Unami projects released this year.

So that’s it, 2009 in music. Well at least the music that I really liked. Yeah there was a bunch more things worth hearing this year, some of which just didn’t grab me quite enough, some of which I just have yet to hear and yeah there was a bunch of things I was highly anticipating that let me down.  So mentally place whatever you feel is missing on either of those lists and call it good. All of my rambling at the end of this year can be read by clicking here.  This also is it for this type of posts on this blog, or anywhere else from me. In the main I’ve enjoyed it, its been a lot of work but it makes me think more about the things I listen to and that is always a good thing. Thanks for reading along now and in the past. I’ve always done this for you and hope it has served at least some purpose. Happy New Year all and remember to keep looking up.

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!