Entries tagged with “Taku Unami”.


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.

Taku Sugimoto/Taku Unami Tengu et Kitsune 2 (slub)

I was a pretty big fan of the original Tengu et Kitsune so of course I had to pick up the follow up. This release features two tracks of 22′ and 26′ respectively. The first track is made up of rattles from Unami’s computer driven motors and devices and Sugimoto operating metronomes that gives the proceedings a rather interlocking mechanical feel. It somewhat evokes the clockwork’s of Ryu Hankil but not nearly as as interesting to these ears. It also evokes some the process pieces from the sixties especially György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique For 100 Metronomes. I’m not sure if its based on a score but it doesn’t really seem so to me. Perhaps a very loose one, with instructions to just play at certain times. Anyway all things considered its not bad, if nothing earth shattering. I do rather like mechanical type sounds like this but I feel that the density at times mars the piece, if anything it could have used a bit more of the trademark Sugimoto space,

The second track is from six months later and seems to reflect a slight shift in direction as at least the reports of Unami in performance over the last six months seem to be in line with this performance. It is again focused on rhythmic structures but instead of the mechanical processes used in the first track it is mandolin and sounds that can be generated with the body. The mandolin playing is mostly broken chords, repeated rhythmic strumming and here and there, fragments of melodies. The other sounds are mainly handclaps though tapping the bodies of their instruments and tongue clicks feature as well. It seems to be an attempt to replicate the mechanical rythems of the first track naturally, perhaps even following the same loose structure. However these methods work a lot less convincingly then the first track mainly in the lack of precision. It could be deliberate or an element that they wished to incorporate but I was pretty unimpressed by the inconsistencies of their rhythms and the sounds themselves. I should note that it is definitely the rhythmic failures that make this less interesting, as failure in technique has long been a fasciation for me. That is to say the accidental events that occur that lead to different sounds are something I’ve exploited a lot. In fact I’ve even worked with failure in rhythmic structures with my Book of Musical Patterns and this is perhaps an insight into what would happen if someone chose to play those patterns very fast. Perhaps in the end I’m just not that interested in hearing handclaps and half assed mandolin melodies?

One of Sugimoto’s smartest moves is that he only really hints at what his point is in all of this. He is not like Mattin, who is right out there saying what exactly it is he is challenging. This almost always proves to be to the detriment of his activities as his challenges are almost always strawmen: he is railing against a situation that doesn’t really exist (see this post for a perfect example of this). Sugimoto for all we know could be just doing that but he doesn’t make dramatic public statements or issue manifestos, he simply does his show and puts out the occasional recorded documentation of it. Almost all of the assessments of what he is doing (and Unami as well, but I think he is mostly following Sugimoto’s lead in this) are pretty much conjecture, I don’t think we’ve had much of a statement from him since the beginning of his extreme silence phase. I tend to think these two (again Unami following Sugimoto) as trickster figures involved in a continuing commentary on improvised music and its audience.

Keith Rowe/Taku Unami ErstLive 006 (Erstwhile Records)

Almost my final musical acquisitions for the year were two live concerts from Erstwhile Records AMPLIFY 2008: Light festival held in Tokyo, Japan. I was in attendance of these shows and have previously documented these sets to the best of my ability(2,3).  These two sets, along with Sachiko M and Keith Rowe’s duo were my favorite of the festival (followed right after by Mitsuhiro’s Yoshimura’s solo and Keith Rowe’s duo with Toshimaru Nakamura) and it truly is a rare pleasure to be able to revisit these sets so quickly. It is interesting to see how my memory (and notes) compare when being able to hear something more then once.  Of course set and setting are an inescapable elements of a concert review, much more so then listening to a recording where these elements even out over repeated exposure.  A recording should never really change one’s impression about a live event, it is a different experience after all. But (assuming the recording was well done) it can add a lot to one’s understanding of the music and compliment ones experience.

Upon the conclusion of the festival it was the duo with Keith Rowe and Taku Unami that was my favorite. It was sonically rewarding, fraught with tension and unexpected delights and it was fascinating to watch. Listening to it again there is a lot there: Unami’s odd juxtapositions, Keith rising to the challenges and tossing out some of his own, the tentativeness of a first meeting combined with the surety of individuals very secure in their own processes. I wrote at the conclusion of my review of the concert:

This set was unexpected, slippery in that its structure and elements are hard to hold in ones mind and absolutely brilliant. This was the most interesting bit of music I’ve witnessed in a long time, a collision of two of the most interesting musicians around pushing each other outside of any sort of routines and boundaries. The set is so difficult to recall in detail as it was filled with constant left turns, change ups and dense amounts of detail.(3)

Being able to listen to this one again certainly confirms this. As I detailed in my report on the duo there were so many little events and unexpected elements that one just couldn’t retain it all. A review of a live set shouldn’t try to be a moment by moment detailing of it anyway, but should try to capture the essential nature of it, which in this case is it’s uncatchability.

“Music is a vagrant; it has no fixed abode. It’s a menace to society. It needs cleaning up. The impossibility of abolishing music. It’s omnipresence. It’s uncatchability. Perhaps after all we have to step down and let music pursue its own course.” – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.142)

There is in my mind few musicians who let music pursue it’s own course like these two. They are dramatically different yet they share many qualities.  A disruptive nature is one.  I think of the times that Keith would throw up some totally incompatible radio grab and force AMM to work with it, incorporate it. Compare that with Unami’s use of software to randomly pick samples from a sound effects cd to make up the elements of a piece. The orientation is different I think, Unami, though far less forthcoming in his motivations, seems much more intersted in subverting recieved notions of music and disrupting expectations. Rowe on the other hand is questioning his own notions of music and what it is for: “I  [On Harsh] wanted to make something that was not very liked, something that was not obviously a well-rounded performance, something which wasn’t aesthetic, something which wasn’t that satisfying…”(4).  The goals, the process and the tools are all different as are the approach and maybe even the degree of seriousness but there is I think a shared core.

In rehearsal Feldman would help his performers by describing the sounds as ‘sourceless’; he wanted them to take on that precious quality of transience, of uncatchabilty (Cardew’s word), to be free but not arbitrary, elusive but compelling — a perception which evokes and old Taoist dictum: ‘The greatest music has the most tenuous notes.’(1, p.141)

This quote I feel captures this performance very well. The uncatchability that I mentioned previously, the transient nature, the unexpected but not arbitrary.  This duo pushes all of the boundaries, it is right on the edge, the arbitrariness constantly threatening but it stays together, no matter how tenuous.  I’m reminded of Cardew’s view on structure: “arbitrariness is characteristic of the ‘feeling of structure’.”(1, p.96). Cardew celebrated ‘nowness’ and felt that the ‘feeling of structure’ dissipated that. This is the music of the now if there ever was any.

Keith Rowe
ErstLive 007 (Erstwhile Records)

In contrast to his duo with Unami the structure of Keith’s solo set was easier to grasp, after all it was a single mind following a loosely pre-planned route and my memory of it seemed pretty accurate.  In my conclusion to my review of the live set I wrote:

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. (2)

Having had a chance to listen to these many times I’d say that my impression of this piece remains.  I also think that it translates a bit better to disc and as a recording is the stronger piece. While the duo was the music of disruption, of tenuousness flirting with the arbitrary this is music in all of its power to work through ideas. Rowe set out with this set to explore some specific ideas and he was I think quite successful in this. Issues of beauty in music, of differences in cultures (he was the only western musician in this festival), of the place of electronic music in the western tradition and even more pragmatic notions such has having to playing four sets in three days were all a part of the construction of this piece.

I found it [playing with Taku Sugimoto] very easy. It goes back to AMM, I think, and an understanding of economy. Reflection, philosophy. It isn’t necessarily a question of what you do. As Michelangelo would say, “Drawing is making a line around your thoughts.” Your thoughts have to be very clear. My thoughts are very clear; Taku’s thoughts are very clear.(4)

This clarity of thought permeates this piece, which flows with an internal logic, but still retains that uncatchability that has been a hallmark of Rowe’s career. While everything may be questioned, explored worked through, there is a surety at hand, an understanding that it can be done through music if one’s thoughts are clear.  This piece has a depth to it that is rare in improvised music.  Sound orientated music is by it’s nature working with certain ideas and each musician brings to it their own notions as well.  But there is, I think, a bare few who are trying to work through ideas in the music itself. There is a strong undercurrent of music being solely for musics sake in this time and a genuine unwillingness to even try to connect it to the greater world. How many other musicians try to work with “difficult knowledge”:

We live in a world where we know there are lots of difficulties. Lots of things we know to be difficult: child abuse, for example. How do we deal with that as artists? Do we ignore it, or do we try to work in some way towards that?(4)

The most enduring music deals with ideas, it engages with the world.  There is a beauty and an attraction to all sounds and I would not disparage sound orientated musics in any way.  But it is in this realm that novelty is especially prized: there are always new sounds and new juxtapositions of sounds to be had and in this context newness is a feature. The music that lasts is one where novelty is a component that (if present at all) will wear over repeated listens but it is not what keeps bringing you back. No it is that from which the music springs that makes it rich, and constantly rewarding.  The hard questions, the deepest feelings, the big problems, these are things that have no easy answers. Filtering these through music doesn’t give us pat answers, it gives us nourishment, inspiration and contemplation. This is why they last.

“The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world”  – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.490)

1) John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished (Copula 2008)
2) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 1
3) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 2
4) Keith Rowe, interviewed by Dan Warburton

Masahiko Okura/Taku Sugimoto/Taku Unami Chamber Music Concerts Vol. 1 (HibariSlubloadfactor)

“It is assumed that there is a certain type of environmental sound which doesn’t matter to the recording of music or which even sometimes adds some fragrance to the music.” – Taku Sugimoto(1)

I’ve been quite mixed about the compositions coming from the Tokyo scene for the last half decade or so. There have been the occasional interesting pieces, but in the main those have often been almost incidental to composition, the interest arising from the incidental sounds in the recording or the juxtaposition of the performance with these sounds. Taku Sugimoto’s career as an improviser followed a path of reduction that led to fewer and fewer sounds from his performance being played and an increase in the predominance of the incidental sounds.  His acceptance of these puts his sympathies in alignment with Cage’s use of silence and perhaps it was an acknowledgment of this that led him increasingly toward composition. When he was at the stage where he’d play a dozen or so notes over an hour, it probably was approaching composition.  Mentally when you perform with silences seem to last for a long time, so strategies I’m sure where developed for him. For instance you play a sound and then wait ’til it seems like it’s been a while then you do another and you see that it really hasn’t been that long. If you’ve decided on a finite number of sounds you then realize you must wait a decent interval so you tell yourself “I’ll wait fifteen minutes and then sound another” and so on.  You reduce the sounds to few enough you almost have to pick times they will sound. So you’d naturally develop something like a variant on Cage’s Time Bracket(2) notation. You tell your self you need to play a sound in a give time block but you allow yourself to do it whenever during that block, so it doesn’t sound like all the sounds are equally spaced out. It probably just became easier to notate this out and then this becomes an interest in and of itself.

The problem though, for listeners of his music, was these early compositions just weren’t really that good. It seemed in the case of the few notes over a long period of time the primary interest was in tension and the composition process seemed to kill that.   This perhaps was part of the agenda, there was a constant winnowing down of techniques and systems and concepts to just a couple: single sounded notes and silence. The elimination of tone, which while note going as far as his colleague Radu Malfatti (whose interests in these matters I think are quite different from Sugimoto’s) was never as much of a primary concern for Sugimoto. There were times, especially when he composed for other instruments where he would demand a dry, affectless tone, but he tended to let his guitar ring out with a full sound allowed to decay and resonate. Eventually Sugimoto began to mix it up adding in additional eliminates and these usually demonstrated even further a lack of proficiency as a composer. You did have to try to figure out what he was doing, with only the occasional bit of guidance translated into English but what one could determine rarely seemed interesting or at least his take on it. One of the most recent trends has been introducing the major scale into his pieces. Additionally long tones begin to appear, often in conduction with the scales. His pieces were becoming more dense but once again he wasn’t really making interesting music.  Additionally as he increased the amount of complexity he added into his music, even if he was exploring simple elements the more he was heading into territory that had been more fruitfully mined. Think of Tenney’s work with scales or Lucier’s with long tones.

In the course of this process Sugimoto did pick up some acolytes, or at least those interested in composition in a similar restricted fashion. Many of the group of musicians he had been improvising with continued on to play his composition as well as a younger generation of performers. Over time a number of these individuals turned to composition as well, greatly influenced by Sugimotos work. Of course nobody is going to completely share agendas and these post-Sugimoto composers used a wider variety of sounds, methods and strategies that would hear from Sugimoto. Many of them I think found the musical ideas challenging and wanted to work them and did not have some of the additional agendas that Sugimoto may (or may not) have.  Either way I think that in some instances while Sugimoto relentless worried over a single concept whether it “worked” or not his acolytes had different concerns: working these concepts into music. Whatever the case may be clearly there isn’t any sort of hegemony really, you always see the same set of players, including Sugimoto  playing each others compositions, no matter how far off they may be from the others concerns.

Chamber Music Concerts vol 1 is a collection of compositions composed by Masahiko Okura, Taku Sugimoto and Taku Unami that were performed by a wide variety of musicians at Loop-Line in Tokyo. Apparently this was a monthly series that focused on the fact that their would be different instrumentation each time.  This was released as a three CD set published by the labels that each of these musicians run.  The CD’s plus accompanying material (only in Japanese) all awkwardly fit into a little cardboard box with a whimsical drawing on the cover. I tend to feel that the way the material doesn’t fit well into the box was deliberate, a subversion of the whole notion of packaging and product.  As the music is always somewhat awkward and confrontational that would go along with that but it is just a supposition. Anyway these three disc contain 16 compositions by the three composers: six from Unami and Okura and four from Sugimoto. Of these sixteen pieces I think that six of them are really good and that there are interesting elements in another six or so. There are some downright stinkers on this and the pieces that have interesting elements are almost always undermined by a compositional element.  But, and this is why this set is so intriguing to me, the pieces that work are a real breakthrough I think for these composers and are the first real great music made from this compositional scene.

What is particularly telling though is that of the pieces that I think have made this breakthrough there is only one by Sugimoto. He relentlessly is working his current (as of these recordings anyway) obsession with scales and each of his pieces work them in in some way.  Tellingly, the one piece that is composed by Sugimoto that really works is ‘D’ where if the scale is worked into it at all it is completely non-obvious. As the whole point of his use of the scale is to put such banalities front and center, to force you to try to reconcile something that comes across as cheesy I don’t think it is actually used in that piece. But if it is, and by its very slow and fracture nature it could be, that would be a brilliant application of it. But changing the point dramatically. The other pieces though, composed by Okura and Unami only tangentially share Sugimoto’s concerns. There are a couple of pieces from Unami that use scales but Unami seems to work them in more effectively.  Unami in general is a more cryptic character and I think is always working his off kilter sense of humor into his music. Not so much as humor as music, but as a sly subversion. Sometimes one gets the impression that he is even subverting Sugimoto’s ideas, taking them and abandoning whatever agenda Sugimoto may have and just screwing with them. His quirkiness though and willingness to use and try anything mixed with a genuine sense of musicality I think has him far outstripping his master. His humor I think makes his stuff never seem forced upon you, he is like a brilliant rhetorician compared to a haranguer.  Okura is more of Sugimoto’s generation and his stuff is far more varied. He uses ideas of Sugimoto’s as tools and applies them, at times, to great effect: His pieces are the most varied in the swinging from the sublime to the banal.

Listening to this entire set in a row with no break as I wrote this has been an interesting experience that reaffirms to me my thoughts on this set. Yes it has just over a single CD’s worth of good music and yes there is striking missteps on it that seem to subvert my very notion that these guys are developing as composers. And yet there are sophisticated, engaging and most importantly musical things going on here, driven by ideas and a sense of how to put them into practice with these disparate players. I am definitely interested to see where they go next especially the waves that have come after Sugimoto. There is an even younger, newer groups of composers working in these areas in Japan, a third post-Sugimoto wave if you will. While they have yet to really achieve much success this transmission of ideas and adherence to this aesthetic is an interesting development in and of it self. As for Unami, Okura and Sugimoto I do hope that the promise of ‘vol 1’ is fulfilled with a vol 2, though I wouldn’t mind if they were a bit more selective.

For those interested this is my selection of the essential tracks(3) from the set:
1-2 one,two,three,and many (okura)
1-3,4,5,6: 4 pieces for violin (unami)
2-4: D (sugimoto)
3-3: kinoshita-kun (unami)
3-7: red scarf, red curtain (okura)
3-9: california guitar trio (unami)

1) Taku Sugimoto Live in Australia Liner Notes
2) Number Pieces article at Wikipeia
3) Chamber Music Concerts Vol. 1 track listing at Hibari