Entries tagged with “Reviews”.

Ami Yoshida/Minoru Sato Composition for voice performer (1997 and 2007) (ao to ao)

This album first came to my attention via a post in the what are you listening to now thread on ihatemusic. It was subsequently posted as an mp3 file to that thread and then six months later on my trip to Japan for the Amplify festival I was able to secure a physical copy of the disc. The disc itself is a 3″ compact disc with a cute green cover with little  flowers drawn by Saiko Kimura. This little sixteen minute disc had already become a favorite but as is so often the case with this kind of music the uncompressed audio revealed far more.

Ami Yoshida is one of the most original voices in contemporary improvisation and pretty much the only vocalist whose work I regularly enjoy.  I have been fortunate enough to see her perform live twice with Sachiko M (as Cosmos) as well as with Christof Kurzmann and most recently with Toshimaru Nakamura. Her releases on Erstwhile Records (especially the two recordings with Cosmos) are recordings I go back to time and time again. These were difficult albums to access; uncompromising and unrelentingly abstract but once I found my way in was rewarded with nearly endless depth.

Minoru Sato I had only heard on one track on the companion cd to the Improvised Music from Japan 2005 Magizine. This short track is a layered drone of digital buzzing and ringing with a roiling bass drum rumbling throughout.  Not a bad little slice of music but not something that had compelled me to seek out more of his work until this collaboration.  Having looked through his website he seems to be quite active in a number of areas that blur distinctions between art and music, composition and improvisation. This is the territory that his collaboration with Ami Yoshida explores.

The mini-cd is comprised of two tracks both composed by Minoru Sato:

  1. 1997 (6′ 11″)
  2. 2007 (9′ 24″)

How these operate as compositions is quite interesting and is I think the essence to why this music has proven so fascinating.

The piece “˜COMPOSITION for voice performer’ is a composition with regards to vocal performance which is improvisational. Here I use the theme of “composition” based on the assumption that the “composition” can reproduce the essence and nature of vocal performance where the performer intends.
First of all, I request that the performer is conscious of the specific configuration of her/his improvisational piece in performance.
Recording each performance separately several times, the performances may be the same piece of music, as the performer aims for such consistency. However, this can not be entirely possible as the voice changes in accordance with physical and mental conditions and structural vagueness in the music and so on. The more abstract the music, the larger the difference will be.
I compiled the recordings as layers, thus having a collective “composition” reproduced in this piece. (1)

In essence the voice performer engages in a series of improvisations attempting for consistency in performance.  Sato then layers the varying takes together creating the “composition”.  There are two notions of composition at play here: the vocal performances and Sato’s mixing therein.  The vocalist theoretically could work with a through composed piece of music, “Recording each performance separately several times, the performances may be the same piece of music, as the performer aims for such consistency.” and this variance in performance would be revealed in the layering.  He does however generally refer to this performance as an improvisational piece which of course lends itself to an even greater degree in diversity of performance: “The more abstract the music, the larger the difference will be.“

The notions of the vocalist improvising a piece of music and then subsequently trying to replicate it is interesting. The piece that is replicated can at that point be thought of as a composition and like any composed piece it varies in realization. Sato then adds another layer of composition by mixing the takes to tape.  So we have an improvised piece of music that is attempted to become a fixed piece whose variations are then revealed through the additional step of mixing the takes together.  This is a fairly subversive notion of composition, a meta-composition, where is true structure lies in the fact that a performer cannot replicate something they improvised without introducing variance.

The two pieces on the disc are this same composition but with a different improvisation as its starting point. This are quite markedly different due to the length of time between the two pieces and the development of Ami’s sound and technique in the duration.  The first piece, from 1997, has a looping lyrical quality to it that seems both more playful and naive. Higher pitched, almost melodic the variance in the performance almost works as harmony to the simple abstract vocal lines.  The second piece in contrast evokes Ami’s trademark “howling voice” with horse, plaintive cries that, warp and twist as the timings between the performances vary. She keeps the sounds under a much tighter control – they stay in the same range consistently, but durations slip and you hear almost echos of her cries buried behind the more powerful synchronized vocalizations.

Both pieces are fantastic and they show how this simple, yet subversive compositional technique can produce endless variety when pared with a performer so ideally suited to this material. Ami’s extreme abstractions and her uncanny control over such powerful vocalizations fits the demands of this piece in such a way few other vocalists could. This type of composition, where a few rules are used to generate widely varied results is of great interest to me and something I’ve been exploring over the last year.  The way that Sato couples his simple score, with a vocalist in particular is particularly compelling. His composition takes into account, in fact depends on aspects of the vocalization as its fundamental nature.  I think that is a gray area of composition one that is ripe for exploration.  In the case the results certainly speak for themselves.


1) Composition for Voice Performer liner notes
2) Minoru Sato’s (M/S) website
3) Ami Yoshida homepage


There’s something depressing about the way we mark time in these days.  The yearly rituals become such a focus, such a dominate part of our lives. I’m sure this is all tied into our consumer society in some way; we are expected to work extraordinary amounts and we are given specific times, dates and events where we are allowed to engage in activities that should be a regular part of our existence. As the significance of these events ever increased the yearly assessment evolved  from a few minutes of reflection coupled with a resolve to do better to an epic examination of the prior year, what is ultimately a short amount of time even by the standards of the human life span. For those involved in music this of course culminates in the top ten list.  The hubris of this, as if anyone could hear a representative sample of anything, much less actually listen to something enough to know it well enough to critically compare and rank it, is galling.  For something as subjective and as prevalent as music this notion is pretty much laughable on its face. Hence you get breakdowns by genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre, or people who just give you fifty or a hundred releases, acknowledging that there is simply too much (or more likely that they are afraid to offend the people who send them free music) to narrow it down.

I’ve struggled with the “best-of” list for a long time, something that I’ve always acknowledged as just a list of favorites from the last twelve months. But really what is the point of that? So I tried to supplement them with useful information: artwork, links and short little descriptions. For it is probably the case that the most useful thing that an end of the year review can attain is to assist someone in finding some new music.  The list gives a decent amount of samples for the reader to determine with some degree of accuracy matches in taste and thus may find that something that you’ve liked that they have yet to hear might appeal to them. Adding reviews and descriptions help, as any astute follower of a reviewer will also soon work out where tastes don’t overlap.  But apart from altruism on the part of those willing to put in this amount of work can there be something of greater value from an end of year list?

This year I’m going to do my end of year assessment different, to concern myself even less with ridiculous notions of “bests” or “essentials” than I have in the last couple of years.  I’m going to do a post a day for the remainder of the year, on a dozen albums I lived with extensively and that I feel are important in one way or another. The concerns here are primarily of interest to those that perambulate around the narrow confines of various abstract musics and thus important is extremely limited in scope. But an attempt will be made to look at these releases a bit more critically, a bit more in context and with a bit more depth. In the end, sure you can just take this as my top ten (or twelve as the case may be) but that isn’t really what I’m attempting to do. There are plenty more great releases where these came from and my list of things that I’ve been meaning to pick up is still plenty long.  Given our penchant for mandated reflection and that fact that I have enough time off from my plenty demanding job to devote to this task, now is the time to delve a bit deeper, to re-listen to things that have moved me all year and to see what can be seen.

The Twelve Days of Interesting 2008 Recordings, will begin tomorrow, December 21st, the winter solstice and conclude on January 1st, the first day of 2009.  The releases will be reviewed chronologically, there is no ranking mean or implied by the order they come out. This system allows for the maximum amount of time to be spent with each release, those that came out late in the year allowed a couple more days of listening and reflection.

Tuder and Mumma cover David Tudor & Gordon Mumma
(New World Records)

David Tudor was the mid twentieth century avant garde’s favorite pianist, often called upon by such greats as Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage to perform works that demanded incredible skill. In his work with Cage, he was increasingly called upon to use the electronics of the day and he became a maestro at coaxing the most from these primitive circuits. Cartridges, amplifiers, contact microphones, simple oscillators and filters were the materials they had to work with and Tudor was a master at pushing these just to the point before they would harshly feedback, distort or otherwise produce sounds out of the range called for. Eventually he began to assemble his own circuits, combing the simple elements they had into novel and unique devices that he would often house in soap holders. As he became more of a collaborator then an interpreter he was asked to compose works for various people and in 1968 Merce Cunningham commissioned music for a dance based on Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People called Rainforest.


Circuit Diagram from Rainforest

On hearing the proposed title for this Cunningham dance, Tudor remarked, “Well I’ll be sure to use lots of raindrops”. Instead of any sort of practical technique or taped based method, he chose to use pure electronics for his recreation of the sounds of the rainforest. For the initial version of this piece (which Tudor would perform and expand throughout his career), his interest was in the sounds of amplifiers in and of themselves. “The basic notion, which is a technical one, was the idea that the loudspeaker should have a voice which was unique and not just an instrument of reproduction, but an instrument unto itself.” (1) He utilized small sounds amplified via phonograph cartridges (a technique that he had used on Cages Cartridge Music) then fed into a multi channel speaker array. These sounds were designed to emulate the sound of rain, of wind in the trees, the repetitive calls of birds and the screeches of unseen animals. “In the first version, I made objects which I could travel with. The objects were so small, however, that they didn’t have any sounding presence in the space, so I then amplified the outputs with the use of contact microphones. Then for the second version, I wanted to have a different kind of input”¦ because for the first I had used oscillators that made animal and bird-like sounds. “ (2) The first version of Rainforest was performed in South America during the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance company’s world tour. This new release from New World Records documents Rainforest from this first tour as well as a much longer version from concert in Ithaca New York. Nicely breaking up the two performances are several short piano works by Gordon Mumma also from around this same period.

The first track on the disc is a twenty-minute version of Rainforest from July 30th, 1968, performed in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. A low thrumming sound opens the piece with some audience noise audible in the background. Things then really take off with a distant rattle followed by a persistent clicking sound as of a disturbingly large insect somewhere deep in the forest. This is followed by an oscillating whine as that initial thrum fades away only to be replaced by a rather electrical sounding buzz. Tocks, irregularly repeated, a scratchy moan and feedback with oscillators creating these birdlike calls. Toward the conclusion, there is a persistent bit of feedback and then things wrap up with this cranking sound and then applause and shouts from the audience.

From this very first take on the piece, you can hear that Tudor’s intent was genuinely realized. It truly does capture the sounds of a rainforest as anyone who has heard field recordings from the Amazon or a seen a nature show that allows for some unmediated sound (or I’d image actually being in the Amazonian rainforest). The sounds don’t quite seem natural, their electronic nature obvious and yet played at a low volume or in another room you would swear that someone was playing “sounds of the rainforest”.


David Tudor and Gordon Mumma

This earliest version of Rainforest is followed by six pieces by Gordon Mumma for two pianos that range from fifteen seconds to six minutes in length. Mographs and Gestures are the pieces in question and there are four of the former and two of the later. Both of these works are for two pianists who, as with the rest of the music on this album, are Tudor and Mumma. The Mographs were “derived from seismographic recorded P-waves and S-waves of earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions”(3) and for the most part are quick little bursts at the piano. The sounds are of fragmented arpeggiations, quick chords, spaces and the occasional single note. Often small sections will be repeated the same or with minor variations which as anyone who has seen a seismograph recording can see how that would have developed. The Gestures were a more structurally complicated composition that used different techniques in each of the different numbered section. Section X was a game piece with a very limited range and Section 7 was through composed piece that spanned the range of both pianos. These short little pieces may seem at first listen to be slight little extravagances, but I found them to be a nice interlude between the two versions of Rainforest that additionally I found would hold my attention each time. Simple sounding but with interesting structures and an almost fractal nature in that they seem to be so self similar but are continuously varying.


Circuit Diagram from Rainforest 1968

Following the piano excursions is the second and much longer version of Rainforest. Definitely the centerpiece of the disc, this version takes the concepts and systems of the earlier performance to the limit. It begins with a skittering oscillation and an almost liquid rubbing sound that is shortly followed by a repeated chittering and a gentle wash of static. Out of this arises some bird like chirpings with an electronic edge and a low textural roaring sound that comes in and out, in and out but soon replaced by a low oscillation. A chirping begins, following a rising pattern, which repeats a number of times until transforming into a solid line. Added to this are an oscillating low tone and a very gentle quiet tweeting, soon disrupted by some relatively loud grating feedback. Nothing in the piece, as in the forest last long and this quickly fades out and we return to a more static sound field. Eventually a much louder grinding, stuttering sound comes in, as of a much larger bird closer by. And things continue in this way as this piece captures the effect of spending forty minutes in the rainforest with the variety of sounds that you would expect. Much more varied then the first version this one adds those pulsing, ticking and pounding sounds that one so often hears in rainforest recordings as well as more ambient sounds made up of the low rumble of feedback, warbly hums and bursts of static. Sounds that could have come from a woodpecker, the scream of a large cat, cicada like insect noises and those unidentifiable tocks, screeches and projector like sounds are all found here. It is a rich world of sound and nothing less then what one would expect from such an environment. That it was created with such simple elements ably demonstrates David Tudor’s creativity and how closely he must have listened to the sounds around him. For out of merely amplifying normal sounds and some simple electronics he has created a complete sound world.

The album concludes with a very short solo piano piece that Gordon Mumma created on hearing of the death of David Tudor. Song without Words is a melancholy, almost romantic meander across the keyboard made up of little spaces, single notes and simple chording. You can feel the emotion that just poured out of Mumma and onto the keys, formless as ones thoughts can be at these times and as he titled the piece, wordless.

Rainforest holds up well and can be performed as it always has been with or without the use of new technologies. This autumn I witnessed Gordon Mumma and Matt Rogalsky perform this piece at the Vancouver New Music Silence: John Cage festival (my review here). The performance was stunning and was what drove me to investigate this album. I cannot express how happy I am that I did, as this is one of those rare albums that hold both historical significance and fantastic music. So much of the early electronic music was merely evolutionary, composers playing with new toys and developing new techniques at the cost of the music. Tudor seemed far more interested in using the tools at hand to create the sounds in his head and in this case with complete success. This compact disc exists beyond the mere documentation of an important development in electronic music it is a musical sound world and one of the best listens I’ve had this year.

(1) from an interview by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf May 17th and 18th 1988.
(2) from an interview by John Fullemann October 12th 1985.
(3) from the accompanying liner notes by Gordon Mumma, page 18.

Originally published at Bagatellan