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Sat 16 Oct 2010
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.
I 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.
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.
Two 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.
"The music doesn't happen without you"
Wed 1 Oct 2008
Erstwhile Records presents
AMPLIFY 2008: light day 2
Kid Ailack Art Hall, Meidaimae, Tokyo, Japan
Once again I arrived to Meidaimae via the Keio line from Shinjuko. Though I pointed out earlier that coming from Kichijoji is more direct I always was in the Shinjuko area and so for all four days of shows at Kid Ailack Hall I would take the train from there. I of course returned via Kichijoji inscribing a great circle which I always prefer anyway. Today I again arrived a bit early and on this day I decided to swing by the PSF Records shop. It was about two blocks away from the venue, up a little side street. Its on the second floor of what just looks like an apartment block and you had to ring up to the room to be let in the gate. Another patron arrived just as I was figuring out the intercom and he helpfully handled that for me. After taking the elevator up to the second floor you find a tiny rectangular room stacked with boxes in the entrance. It gets no more spacious as you enter the room, with the walls lined with CDs, books and DVDs and as you got closer to the window bins of records. Crammed into one edge was a counter, also stacked with boxes, and with the proprietor just behind it along with a stereo which was blasting out some free jazz while I was there. There were two guys talking to him and a fellow gaijin browsing the records in the back. You had to wait for a person to leave to get into these narrow aisles. I did a pretty thorough survey but I wasn’t really planning to buy anything unless something absolutely amazing revealed itself to me. Not too much in the area of improv I’m into but there were some nice selections in the classical music section, a couple of Cage discs that probably aren’t that easy to find anymore. Anyway after worming my way around the whole store I left without purchase.
psychedelic speed freaks
The second night of Amplify 2008 was three solos. All of these were incredibly interesting to me and were highly anticipated. I’ve seen Keith Rowe solo on several occasions and they have been amongst my favorite shows, so I expected another great set. Sachiko M I’ve only seen in duo with Ami and the trio with English up to this point and her solos are of course legendary. With her palette restricted to contact mics this was sure to be a unique set that could honestly go anywhere. Mitsuhiro Yoshimura sprung to global awareness just last year, seemingly out of nowhere, with two interesting and impressive discs and all reports were that his feedback technique was far more impressive live. All of this combined with being one of the only people in this fest I’d never seen live made his solo one of my most anticipated of the fest.
I made my way to the venue finding myself the first person there with the proprietor setting up the tables and signs out front. Inside Yoshimura was sound checking and I leaned against the wall and enjoyed a free set of distant pure tones and mild traffic noise. Very nice. Not too long after that the sound check ended, things were setup and I was able to coral a seat. Again Jon, Yuko, Mark and myself were rocking the front row with Joe just behind and Keith took a seat in the back. The room again filled up to capacity (it sold out every night, with usually a couple people arriving a little late and sitting on the floor by the door or up front). It was pretty warm and with all the people there a bit oppressive, especially combined with those chairs. Yoshimura made his way front and center then the lights went out with only a very dim flood light on him.
Yoshimura utilized a stereo microphone on a stand in front of him and two sets of headphones, one on the floor at his feet the other clasped in his hands. Immediately his signature high thin tone of pure feedback was introduced. This sound was pretty all enveloping, resonating in the inner ear in a slightly disorienting manner. He let this pure tone play for a bit and then using the headphones in his hand began manipulating the second tone. These two tones were for all intents and purposes identical and by subtly changing the dynamics of one of them he was able to create a fairly wide range of sounds. His basic technique is to hold the headphones with the earpieces pressed together and by increasing the distance of the gap between the two earpieces he could dramatically influence the character of the feedback. This could range from the thin pure tone, to these scittery hollow electrical sounds, to more aggressive ripping sounds and if he gave them free reign (which he never did) would probably fall into that characteristic oscillating pattern modulated by the room dynamics.
Through careful manipulations he could slightly change the tone thus creating beating patterns between the two source tones and he worked with this for a while, an effect that created a buzzing ringing sound in ones inner ear. As the set developed he’d drop in a quick tear of feedback, louder though never aggressively loud. Dual tones, beating tones and this rising sequences of feedback were the elements that he constructed a tight piece of about a half an hour in length. In the closeness and warmth of the room it could be found oppressive but I in general found it pretty fascinating, especially when you factored in the extraneous sounds. The aforementioned chairs were nearly an equal participant in the latter half of this set, first with the occasional squeak and shuffle, latter with a cascade of these sounds at times overwhelming Yoshumura’s tones. One of my favorite moments was when a group of teenagers (most likely as I’d seen multiple packs of them earlier) stopped in front of the venue and had a short conversation (driven by the sounds from within perhaps) with much laughter. It combined with Yoshimura’s tones was really magical I thought. The distant traffic and at least one car going by out front also layered in nicely. I really enjoyed this set and was really excited at how Yoshumura was mixing it up from the pure single tone that he used on his recordings to date.
With only three sets every night (an amount I prefer personally) there was always a nice break between sets and the performers were able to stretch out as much as they wanted. Yoshimura’s set hadn’t been too long (though long enough in my opinion) and it was somewhat anticipated that Sachiko’s wouldn’t be too long either. While she has used contact mics in concert with her sine waves, this apparently was the first time she was using them on their own. Or at all in the past few years it was revealed. She had a table with a small mixer and four or five contact mics connected to it. The set began awkwardly with apparently no sound coming from her mixing. Switches were flipped, chords jiggled and eventually whatever was off was made to be on. Immediately the sounds revealed by the contact mics filled the room. Anyone who has worked with contact mics is famalier with the sounds she was getting: amplified scrapes, metallic grinding, hollow ringing, buzzes, amplified crinkles and so on. She seemed to mostly just let them ride, blasting out big sounds as she’d untangle the cords and drop or pick them up. In general I found this set totally unstructured, pretty much had a feel of working out of things on the fly. She’d fiddle around with the mics ’til something seemed to work and then develop that for a bit. The best of these were putting them in her clothes and carefully moving about, rubbing them on the table and the very best in my opinion was at the end where she enclosed a mic in each hand and gently massaged it. The transitions between these events were always terrible, not so much transitions as dramatic shifts with big clanks, thuds and ringing sounds as she’d reposition them and untangle wires.
There was no sense of deep structure, dramatic arc or anything of the sort. Just an exploratory working with the limits and possibilities of these tools. A lot of the sounds were great, I for one have spent many an hour with contact mics and love their metallic grinding range, but they were just thrown out there with no attempt to create music. For me this was the most disappointing of the sets as there is no one I respect more for her incredible touch, sensitivity and ability to shape the simplist of sounds into a structure piece of music. It was incredibly brave to explore these tools in front of an audience and I highly respect her for that. However I think that there is no reason she couldn’t have worked out in advance how she would use these tools to actually create coherent music. It has been pointed out to me that if you were listening to this on a recording the sense of figuring things out on the fly would not be nearly so obvious. This is probably true, but I personally think that one would still find this lacking in deep structure that the absence of intentionality would come through on repeated listens.
Keith Rowe solo
Keith was playing four of the nine sets of this festival and the question of how he’d mix it up was always in the air. The spiky event based duo with Unami yesterday was one direction, would we see the opposite for tonight? This being the fourth solo set of Keith’s that I’ve seen I’m fairly familiar with a lot of the structures and techniques that he uses. The way that this set developed turned out to be almost entirely novel, a real surprise to me and an incredibly exciting event. He structured the set with four long clips of classical music from his iPod, all European composers from the baroque era. He would let this run for some time and then begin playing along with them. ‘With’ is the important concept here: there was no destruction of the music, ironic reference or banal commentary. He was literally playing with the music, adding his own sound world to the gorgeous music of the past. The first of these pieces was the adagio from the Concerto for Oboe in d-minor, by Alessandro Marcello which he let play for a good piece before carefully adding in some subtle Brillo pad work on the strings above the pickups. When this was allowed to fade away the elements used were harder – metallic objects on the strings, the butter knife slapped into the pickup and so forth. Perhaps this was meant as a deliberate contrast but however he intended it, it was effective. He had told me earlier that he was revisiting a lot of his older techniques that he’d retired: the Brillo pad, the bow, springs and so on and these certainly came into play a lot (except for the bow, he didn’t use it all weekend that I noticed). The springs made a lot of play in this set, especially after the second of the classical pieces which unlike the first piece was a vocal piece, byJean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville. Further removed from the instrumentality of both Keith’s performance and of the first piece this one was of incredible beauty. Again he didn’t corrupt this beauty but worked with it, enhanced it eve. He did toward the end bring in the radio, which was playing this syrupy smooth jazz, before fading out the iPod. The jazz wasn’t treated as reverently and static, feedback and various attacks on the strings cut through it’s banality.
The set continued on in this way with two more vocal pieces being utilized,Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Castor and Pollux and near the end the lament from Henry Purcell‘s Dido and Aeneas. This last piece was particularly effective, again its great beauty standing in a certain contrast to the music and the surroundings of this weekend but also in it’s obvious melancholy and despair. While again the music was treated with utmost respect as the notes were fading away Keith’s attacks on the guitar became increasing violent and the volume was on the rise. Static and distortion, files on the strings, the fan adding its helicopter menace as the whole built to a crescendo and then ended. An amazingly powerful piece, once again somehow transcending the previous amazing solo sets I’ve witnessed from Mr. Rowe. While his collab with Unami was probably my favorite piece of music from the weekend this I think one could argue was the most powerful, the most important and well executed. He is working with ideas here that I think are of a greater depth then most people in the field and this piece in particular was very carefully thought out in its intentions. He freely spoke to those who asked about what he was trying to do, what the purpose of the classical music was. I don’t think I can really give his thoughts justice here but to give a bit of an idea it was the concepts of beauty and what it means in this music. He said also that he deliberately used these four European composers as that was his heritage and that this was the lineage he was part of. Working with these concepts, trying to resolve them in music is what gives his performance so much depth and power and I’m constantly reminded of this every time I see him perform.
Another great night of music, with for me personally getting a chance to see a new performer, a performer trying new things and what I would say is among the greatest solo performances I have ever seen. A fantastic night filled with new experiences and interesting music. Tokyo is a long way to travel for concerts but this festival is proving to be well worth the trip.
see all of my Amplify08 photos.
read all of my Amplify08 Reviews.
Mon 29 Sep 2008
Kid Ailack Art Hall, Meidaimae, Tokyo.
Roughly three weeks before the festival a second outside show was added , Toshimaru Nakamura solo at Kid Ailack Hall. This was originally described as Toshi perform a long solo set, perhaps two or three hours in length. When asked about it at yesterdays show, Toshi was a lot more conservative about the projected duration, stating that an hour and a half would be the upper bound. The set ended up being forty-five minutes. It had followed its natural arc though so I think this was for the best.
Jon and Yuko had come in earlier after meeting IHM admin Mark in Shinjuku so Keith and I had dinner at an okay place next to the katsu place we’d gone to the night before. It was kind of the Japanese equivalent of Denny’s I’d say, it had a wide variety of traditional Japanese dishes all rather mediocre. From there we took the ChÅ«Å Line to Shinjuku Station and from there caught the private KeiÅ Line to Meidaimae (this actually is not the most effecient route, as it took one away from Meidaimae and then you kind of came back. Instead you want to take the ChÅ«Å to Kichijoji and then the KeiÅ Line). Keith had played Kid Ailack Hall in the past so once we got to the station he was able to easily find his way there.
Kid Ailack Hall is a small, rectangular black box theater type of space about half a flight of stairs above street level. The building contained the Book Cafe in a sort of half sub basement and apparently galleries above the hall. The hall had maybe thirty or forth “chairs” of the strap of canvas between a scissored frame of wood, kind of like a folding camp stool. There was a decent crowd for Nakamura’s solo set but only about half filled I’d say. Jon had saved us seats up front and Mark was right next to him. Good to meet a fellow IHM-er here, hadn’t ran into Mark at a show since ErstQuake 2. We chatted for a bit until maybe 15 minutes past the advertised show time, Toshimaru Nakamura sat behind his mixer and the lights dimmed.
Toshimaru Nakamura solo in Kid Ailack Hall
Now I’d seen Toshi solo just the night before and while that was about fifteen minutes it actually turned out to be like a sketch for tonight’s show. He followed the structure of the night before and utilized pretty much the same subset of his repertoire of sounds. Everything was extended and explored a bit further and there were several unique events but the degree to which that short set was like an abstract of this one was quite high. It began with a hissing of white noise which he brought up to a pretty decent level. Not loud per se but not setup as a wash to fill the background. After a bit of this he began to utilize the electrical pops and clicks as he had the night before. After a bit this was cut out and there was a decent interval of near silence. A long thin tone was brought up into this which he then manipulated for a good piece, modulating and tweaking it. The volume was brought done leaving this single tone still playing just very quietly. The white noise was brought back in and he began to build up the density using it, the tone and various rips and tears of feedback. This was worked for a while and then he generated this odd bonging sound that I’d say was oscillating feedback run through a reverb at some extreme setting. He let this bong for a bit, but it out and with kind of a look of disappointment cut out everything else. He picked up his watch looking a bit ruefull upon noting the time and that was that.
So those chairs I mentioned earlier, well they themselves were an additional participant in this set. The squeaked with the sound of canvas rubbing against wood when you shifted in them and some movements would make them quite audibly slide against the floor. For a while this wasn’t an issue but a certain point, usually around a half an hour, you’d get cascades of these sounds as people had to change positions. Personally while I tried to avoid making sounds myself (failed of course) I tended to enjoy their additions to the various sets. It was definitely a factor toward the end of Toshi’s set, but not as dramatic as it would be in some of the sparser sets.
As for the music itself I thought it was okay but nothing particularly special. I’ve long been on the record of preferring Toshi’s collaborative work with only Side Guitar and this years Dance Music completely working for me. I was under the impression that he was changing some aspect of his solo performance and that we’d get a chance to witness some of these new developments. What seemed different to me from some of his other solo work was that we was working with a much more restricted palette. In the past he often let the oscillating feedback drive a lot of the structure, adding delays and other effects to create almost techno like pieces driven by that rhythm. There was nothing like that and when the oscillating feedback would arise he’d tend to tweak it into non existence. The odd ping-ponging bonging tones that ended this set was something that I’d think he’d have gone with on say the Vehicle sessions. Here he stuck with white noise, sine waves, open circuit sounding clicks and pops and various tearing bursts of feedback.
see all of my Amplify08 photos.
read all of my Amplify08 Reviews.