Matt Wellins, Dusted
Ed Howard/Joe Panzner/Mike Shiflet, Stylus Magazine
Nirav Soni, Bagatellen
Brian Olewnick, Squid's Ear
Notes on AMPLIFY02: balance
by Brian Marley
We ate well at AMPLIFY 2002. Very well. It was, said Thomas Lehn, in what I think was a deliberate pun rather than a slip of the tongue, a feastival.
In his booklet essay for AMPLIFY02: balance, the Australian gourmand and guitarist Oren Ambarchi provides a list of best dishes and the restaurants in which they may be found. Many of these restaurants are clustered into narrow streets in the outer Tokyo suburb of Kichijoji. Erstwhile fans wishing to undertake a deluxe pilgrimage should heed what Oren has to say. Otherwise, there's always, if you really must, McDonald's.
Kichijoji is where AMPLIFY 2002 took place, at a well-equipped, well-run basement club by the name of Star Pine's Café. Tokyo delights in underground - metaphorically as well as literally - venues of this kind. Overground is where Japan's ferocious take on capitalism can best be observed, in which time is money and the pace of everyday life is adjusted accordingly. On balance beams, the DVD that's a vital part of the immersive experience (a best approximation of the sense of having been there) of AMPLIFY02: balance, film-maker Jonas Leddington captures the bustle, speed and energy of Tokyo by walking his camera at knee-height around the exterior of the Asakusa Kannon Temple and out through the city's markets and streets. In addition to concert extracts, two complete performances mixed into 5.1 Surround Sound, interviews with musicians, and Keith Rowe's non-directive explanation as to how performers may best approach Cornelius Cardew's enigmatic score Treatise, the DVD also contains sequences shot from moving trains, automobiles, etc. Baffling snatches of Japanese TV are woven into the mix. The interludes between musical events constantly emphasise the difference in mood and pace between overground and underground. Generally speaking, the events that take place overground are restless, dislocated experiences, given shape and meaning by Jonas's visual riffs and deft editing. Those that take place underground are calm, thoughtful, purposive.
For the first-time visitor, Tokyo can be a punishing experience. Sensory overload is hard to avoid. It's a thrilling but disorientating city, one that can drain you of energy at a phenomenal rate. Quite frankly, I was glad to be able to relax in Star Pine's every evening and let the music wash over me. And what music this was! In certain respects, the uniformly high quality of the sets made the festival hard to review, and in my write-up for The Wire I felt that my evaluations of the performances could - should - have been more subtly nuanced, to match the subtleties of the performances themselves.
One year on, just as my recollections of the concerts are starting to fade and bleed into one another, along comes AMPLIFY02. The box contains a booklet of photographs (full colour) and comments/essays by many of the musicians who played at the festival, the aforementioned DVD, and seven CDs. Four of the CDs contain eight complete sets from the festival proper. Two further CDs cover some of the pre- and post-festival shows, organised by Toshimaru Nakamura and Taku Sugimoto. The remaining CD, Tint, is a contemporaneous studio recording by Günter Müller and Nakamura. Once the Amplify box has sold out, Tint will be repackaged and reissued as a stand-alone item.
It goes without saying that listening to a concert on CD is an altogether different experience from attending the concert. It's also undeniable that one's memories of a concert are often imprecise. What we retain is merely the gist of the proceedings. But even those memories aren't fixed, inviolable. Whenever we give an account of the concert to other people, or involuntarily recall aspects of it, we're shuffling and reconfiguring the material, making it anew. This is a creative process, one which, prior to the advent of recorded sound, was of considerable significance. (Should Charles Burney's account of what Thomas Roseingrave told him about hearing Domenico Scarlatti play really be taken at face value?) But what we gain from the recording medium is the ability to refresh memories from the source, so to speak, to check memory against 'fact', and I would argue that listener creativity isn't stifled or sidelined by this turn of events, merely put to slightly different use. Which is a roundabout way of saying that my recollections of these concerts weren't always consistent with the evidence as presented on CD.
Take, for example, the two performances on disc 4. My strongest recollection of the set by Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler was that from the outset they created a punchy, tightly focused, almost hermetic music - exciting, if a little forbidding. Certainly, in comparison with the sets played on day one of the festival, this music seemed to be consistently, sometimes relentlessly, loud. This tallies hardly at all with what's on the CD: moments of great delicacy, a wide dynamic range, and a fluid and extremely well-shaped sequence of musical events. The improvising seems more approachable, less clenched and bludgeoning. After several plays, Lehn and Schmickler's set has become one of my favourites in the Amplify box. As, too, has the one by Otomo Yoshihide and Günter Müller, of which my strongest recollection was Müller's fluttery beats panning across the stage and eventually rolling like thunder into the audience while Otomo pounded for emphasis on his turntables. This episode seemed to go on, blissfully, forever, into noisier and noisier realms, whereas in fact it lasts for less than eight minutes of a 36-minute performance. Bowed cymbals, guitar drones and much filigree-work by both Günter and Otomo also occur during this episode, most of which I'd either forgotten or retained only a hazy memory. But how could I have entirely failed to recall the deep-toned, stuttering, drony denouement that hits you square in the chest and takes some 10 minutes or so to play out?
Discrepancies such as these are true also of some of the performances on discs 3, 5 and 6. Burkhard Stangl and Günter Müller's set, which in a straw poll was highly rated by many people (musicians and audience members alike), appeared to get off to an awkward start. Stangl couldn't seem to find a way to slot his fractured sounds and judicious silences into Müller's seamless flow of material. Worse still, for several minutes Müller's sense of time and timing seemed to be utterly irreconcilable with those of Stangl. That's how I remembere d it. But on CD this difficulty is hardly noticeable. In retrospect, I wonder whether this was mere nit-picking on my part, whether I was looking for fault so that my Wire report would be suitably critical. Frankly, I now consider Stangl and Müller's set to be one of the best things that Amplify 2002 had to offer.
Of the remaining sets from the festival proper, a favourite both then and now is the duo of Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M. Key moments in the duo's playing history are to be found on three CDs - meme's un, Erstwhile's do, and the present recording. Anyone who doubts the developmental potential of Onkyo music (and its kissing cousins, Berlin Reductionism and New London Silence - titles that are perhaps no longer indicative of the musics in question) obviously isn't listening carefully or without prejudice. There are awkward moments on the meme CD, hints of a music premised on more volatile interaction than is the case with do. If do is - and it is! - abstract to a fault, chillingly austere, and devoid of the clichés of improv language to such a degree that some people can't tell whether the music is improvised or not, and, more to the point, whether it's good or bad, well so be it. In my opinion, do is a landmark recording, akin to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, Peter Brützmann's Machine Gun , and AMM's AMMusic. What distinguishes the Amplify set from do is the unrelieved tension that Sachiko and Nakamura generate during their festival performance. Sounds have rarely, if ever, been so starkly pitched against silence. In this absolutist world of sound/no-sound, a music of spell-binding fragments emerges.
Of the outside shows organised by Nakamura and Sugimoto, I was able to attend only the Seven Guitars concert at Grapefruit Moon, Sangenjaya. A brief Sugimoto composition with which the evening began hasn't been included on AMPLIFY02, but the remainder of the programme has. The guitarists - Sugimoto, Nakamura, Otomo, Akiyama, Stangl, Ambarchi and Rowe - played pages 82-84 of Cornelius Cardew's graphic composition Treatise, and rounded off the concert with a 31-minute improvisation. The improvisation and Treatise can be found on disc 7, and quite a contrast they make. No two interpretations of Treatise are alike; often they sound so unalike they might as well be different compositions. And only rarely can individual pages of the score be identified from what the musicians are playing. This elegant, self-effacing composition, offering a myriad of possibilities to the creative musician, is perhaps Cardew's finest achievement. But creativity is key - no performance of Treatise can succeed without it. Here creativity is given full measure. One of the hallmarks of Onkyo is heroic restraint, and Ambarchi, Rowe and Stangl have a similarly disciplined approach to music-making. The improvisation that follows Treatise is, understandably, more flexible, and it's more fluent too; sounds coalesce much more often than in Treatise, and the guitarists make greater reference, however fleetingly or obliquely, to one another.
The remaining disc of outside shows contains a series of duos and trios, recorded at three Tokyo venues. In general, the music on this CD is less fully developed than the sets from the festival proper, but there are some fascinating moments, especially during the Lehn, Nakamura and Sugimoto performance at Gendai Heights. The trio's interplay is teasing and enticing, whereas the set by Lehn and Nakamura, also recorded at Gendai Heights, demonstrates little more than how warily the players approached each other, as though each had been given the task of defusing an unexploded bomb. But although Lehn and Nakamura's piece contains few of the bold ideas that Nakamura brought to Tint, his excellent studio session with Günter Müller, it will be of interest to anyone who knows their music.
AMPLIFY 2002 was a fascinating event held in a fascinating city. How much of this fascination can be communicated by means of seven CDs, a DVD and a book of photos and quotes is, quite frankly, unknowable. But for the music alone, AMPLIFY02: balance should be celebrated. In a typically contrarian booklet note, Taku Sugimoto states that the festival was "worth much ... as a funeral of Onkyo or electro-acoustic music." Of worth? - oh yes. A funeral? - no, definitely not.top ^
by Matt Wellins
Tokyo in the Fall, mid-October to be specific. The year is 2002. The population is just above 12 million people in one of the smallest prefectures in Japan. Stroll down its densely populated streets, through the Asakusa market and the district's Kannon Temple, where the Shinto goddess of mercy has been memorialized since 645 A.D. Eat dinner with improvising musicians in Ikenoue and Shimokitazawa. Stop by the Star Pine's Café, a small, progressive club christened with an abstract English name.
Friday, October 18, the full bill reads:
Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet
Cosmos - Sachiko M/Ami Yoshida
Keith Rowe/Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler
Burkhard Stangl/Christof Kurzmann
This is all in a single night, the inaugural night of the AMPLIFY 2002: Balance festival. It is something of an urgent, three-day summit meeting; a state-of-the-union address in regards to a strain of contemporary electro-acoustic improvisation, one that seems to have been evading any descriptive nomenclature for half a decade. Jon Abbey, head of Erstwhile Records and sponsor of the event, is aware of this pressing importance. It is a rare occasion when so many musicians with so much in common, excluding geography, are able to focus on their craft, their field, their method of working, for several days in one place. Abbey knows this and is documenting it extensively for release on his label: photographs, films, essays, interviews with the artists, and of course, the music.
More importantly, however, more than any attempt at definition or explanation of some greater style or approach, the AMPLIFY festival is first and foremost a handful of improvising musicians on a three-day hiatus in Tokyo where they have the opportunity to interact in a number of different configurations and present their art. That premise is largely Erstwhile's credo - the distinct dismantling of communication barriers. Still, these artists aren't concerned with what Erstwhile means, or what electro-acoustic improvisation should be. This music is more direct and intuitive than critical or intellectual, sharing a fundamental level of aural expression, rather than a strict agenda.
This is still in some regards a premature speculation on the arc and content of the festival. Some of these musicians have been in town for a number of days preceding the festival, with a couple, in fact, already residing in the immediate vicinity. These performances are held at Gendai Heights, in the Ikenoue section of Tokyo and the renowned Off Site venue, commemorated in the Meeting at Off Site CD series on the Improvised Music from Japan record label. Gendai Heights is a small, whitish room, with what appear to be a number of overlapping spotlights that illuminate the stage. The artists sit in manila cushioned chairs, with one or two spare seats used to hold equipment. Thanks to Abbey and filmmaker Jonas Leddington, as well as mastering and recording by Toshimaru Nakamura, these recordings were also preserved and give a shape and context to the festival. Cologne-based Thomas Lehn and Swiss percussionist Günter Müller are the two out-of-country eager improvisers to be placed in different arrangements with natives Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Tetuzi Akiyama.
On October 16, Sugimoto is dressed impeccably: a porkpie hat, a jacket and a grayish brown, vertically pinstriped shirt. His distinct approach to the guitar leaves the notes damp and muted, their resonances consistently stifled in one way or another. It is percussive, but still lyrical, and often integrates the intermingling of resonating harmonics and feedback, providing an indispensable dynamic. These pitched plinks play an importantly conventional counterpoint to Thomas Lehn's comparatively bulky analogue synthesizer system and Toshimaru Nakamura's no-input mixing board. One of the consistently fascinating elements of this current generation (in reality, several generations) of improvisers is how the sounds generated by their instruments are shaped. Each instrumentalist has a distinct approach that lies outside any conventional, learned technique, even the traditional construction of the instrument itself. Andrea Neumann's gutted piano frame and Sachiko M's no-input sampler are two often-cited examples. Even Sugimoto, who is playing notes on a guitar, uses a vocabulary based around the number of ways he can restrain and stifle the instrument's logic.
It is important to note that these vocabularies are often changing, and in some of the strongest improvised music, new techniques and concepts of approach change right before the listener's ears. Over the course of five days, any given musician might play upwards of four different sets, with at least half of those sets taking place with unfamiliar partners, affording the improvisers ample opportunity to define and redefine their intentions.
When armed with the recordings from AMPLIFY, one could potentially listen to each of the four separate sets featuring Keith Rowe. Perhaps at first glance, this would seem like ample time for Rowe to communicate his approach, yet each set is wholly captivating and curious. As Abbey mentions in his accompanying essay, "seeing someone perform so many times in such a short span really pushes an artist, or it quickly becomes evident to the more discerning members of the audience that the performer has a limited range of approaches." In the context of the festival, we bear witness to Rowe's variety of roles: mentor, interpreter, performer, and collaborator. He is a figure of respect, having more or less taken part in the birth of this music 40 years ago, in the incomparably influential British collective AMM. Yet there is not a single moment in the entire festival where Rowe seems to assert any of the token affectations of superiority, often playing with musicians half his age.
Four sets with Keith Rowe:
October 18: Rowe, seated center stage in a gray shirt, is hunched over his guitar. To Rowe's right is Thomas Lehn, his facial expression a constant, visible register of his response to sound. On the left is Marcus Schmickler who alternates between what appears to be a small, red Nord synthesizer and a laptop placed at a slight distance.
The group is far more restrained here than on their dynamic, occasionally schizophrenic Erstwhile release, Rabbit Run, and perhaps because of this, the set is one of the strongest at the festival. To emphasize Rowe's role here is somewhat problematic considering that the three instrumentalists seamlessly inhabit each other's territory. A swelling, grumbling stream of noise begins at the end of the fourth minute of their set, then culminates and breaks right at the six-minute point. It is comprised of feedback, electronic noise, whirring pitches, perhaps individual inputs that could be attributed to specific performers, yet erupts from the speakers as a singular voice.
This is one of the definitive sets in the Erstwhile catalog. Here, improvisers are not seen as separate entities, this is not a "conversation" between distinct egos in the way some improvisational music operates. This is composite improvisation. The set is a place where mimesis blurs the distinctions of character, still only existing as a result of a particular unique combination.
October 19: Toshimaru Nakamura has what might be the most completely motionless, restful face in a division of music almost defined by its deadpan concentration. Like Rowe, Nakamura is shrouded in nearly complete darkness, the smallest bit of white light allowing the two musicians to manipulate their equipment. The music gestures are so small as to seem almost non-existent. Perhaps this performance is a perfect display of the acute awareness of hands that prompted Rowe's leadership on the MIMEO recording, Hands of Caravaggio. Small, repeated and premeditated gestures. If a hand enters the vicinity of the instrument to make a sound, it is quickly removed from the area once the sound has been struck, returning the performer to his thoughtful state.
Here is what might be the festival's most eagerly awaited reprise, the combination that yielded the Erstwhile milestone, Weather Sky. One day and four sets have past since the Schmickler/Lehn/Rowe trio and, suitably, the approach is also quite different. This duo has shifted into a more "conversational" vain, especially when compared to Weather Sky, a nearly telekinetic monochrome-printed exercise in tension. Nakamura seems to provide a rhythmic underbelly, focusing on more bass-range tones, where Rowe tends to add a more brittle texture.
Yet, there are plenty of points of intersection. Early on, the two exchange muffled white noise, playing with a sense of stereo space. High pitched tones are layered, their sources indistinguishable. Dynamic progressions ebb and flow. There is no argument that they are somehow on the same wavelength, it's just that it's a more exploratory bond. This set is probably the most likely to fit into Abbey's once-used "dangerous improv" category. Nakamura and Rowe had, on Weather Sky, found a complete, blistering focus at one point in their interactions, this set shows how they've started to grow since then. Nakamura's rhythmic elements that define his Vehicle record seem to hold more prominence at this point in time, Rowe's predilections, though less quantifiable, are also decidedly shifted.
October 20: On the final night of the festival, Rowe is paired with percussionist Günter Müller and Taku Sugimoto. It is a seemingly odd combination, as each player would appear to exude a different philosophy. Rowe's work seems to be the most constantly fluctuating of the three, deeply self-critical and pressingly progressive. Müller is definitively neutral, a genius of chameleon-like blending, one of the most explicitly "composite" improvisers. Sugimoto's approach, as mentioned earlier, is somewhat more conventionally sonorous. In fact, a bonus recording made during the festival is entitled "Old Fashioned Duet/New Fashioned Duet," the former featuring Sugimoto and Viennese guitarst Burkhard Stangl, two artists more or less holding up the sweetly melodic fringe of the Erstwhile axis.
The set, which was omitted from the released recordings, shows up, fragmented, on film, only adding to the disorienting approach. This is the opposite end of Rowe's range at this festival, placed against the unmistakable serendipity of the Schmickler/Lehn/Rowe set. Perhaps the definitive fragment is a point where Rowe and Müller approach a bird-like percussive interaction; contextualized by Sugimoto's drone, it is certainly more casual than miraculous, and slightly echoes the percussive festival highlight in the duo between Otomo Yoshihide and Günter Müller the night before. Yet, here all of the players' personalities are visible. Müller has adapted to Rowe's prickliness, Sugimoto has interjected a paced, bright drone to lend atmosphere.
October 21: Though theoretically falling outside of the Balance festival, "Seven Guitars" was performed at the Grape Fruit Moon, which at least in namesake is close in spirit to Star Pines' Café. Rowe is the motivating figure in a performance of Cornelius Cardew's "Treatise," alongside six other guitarists: Taku Sugimoto, Oren Ambarchi, Tetuzi Akiyama, Burkhard Stangl, Otomo Yoshihide, and Toshimaru Nakamura.
"On one level, there is nothing to say about it because there are no rules," says Rowe, at the center of a table, discussing "Treatise" with the group. "The classic example would be to say we have a tree, we have a 'tree' in lots of different countries, we have trees, but in each of those communities or countries, they have a different sound to represent that tree," Rowe refers to Wittgenstein, explaining the visual world of Cardew's graphic score, the intent of using image to prompt sound.
The consequent 70 minutes is a particularly lovely footnote to the AMPLIFY festival. It is resolutely gentle; a product of both the extreme sensitivity of the players involved and a certain, slightly more relaxed, less stringently progressive approach. The piece serves as an after-dinner mint to AMPLIFY; a sweet, palette-cleansing set. It is one of the most explicitly pretty moments of the week, perfect as what Jon Abbey later deemed "great 3 a.m. music."
Günter Müller is essentially one of the more frustrating improvisers in the Erstwhile roster. He goes to great extents to play down his role in any given improvisation scenario, choosing to wrap the present sounds in a thin, translucent gauze, giving a sense of context rather than content. This, at times, seems like a blind spot in Müller's work, despite the fact that it is his explicit intention to approach music from this angle.
Yet, Müller's translucency is not in and of itself ineffectual. Eight Landscapes, his recent solo release on For 4 Ears, while occasionally suffering from his stringent vagueness, is an expressly unified, thoughtful statement. The problems are two-fold. Firstly, Müller's muted subtleties can often take on a monochromatic stability, and while his playing often blends perfectly, it also often blends in the same way repeated times. Secondly, and more importantly, other improvisers, often eschewing conceptuality for heightened sensitivity, attempt to respond to Müller's playing, rather than allowing him to wind his gauze around their more pronounced gestures This was a very notable problem with the Otomo Yoshihide duo, Time Travel.
Abbey is visibly aware of Müller's approach and has gone to great extents to pair him with what are decidedly assertive players. For instance, the Erstwhile Poire_Z album paired the Müller/Voice Crack/Erik M team with Christian Marclay, among others. Time Travel showed Yoshihide cleverly not playing the role of violent provocateur, opting more to accentuate Müller's ambience. The resulting problem was the outright rarity of assertive roles (the Weather Sky recording, despite an often piercing immobility, features both players taking an aggressive role in maintaining that tension). The AMPLIFY teaming with Yoshihide seems to be a more clear-cut example of everything Abbey could've hoped for.
It seems important to first look back at Müller's state of mind by the time he performed with Yoshihide. As one of the improvisers who came to town a little bit ahead of schedule, Müller had been more or less completely immersed in collaboration with his Japanese colleagues for over a week prior to the festival. His early arrival was based on a certain eagerness to visit and commune with the nature and culture of Japan, as he notes in his accompanying essay to the AMPLIFY recordings. He mentions "passing a couple of amazing green and blue lakes" and "admiring the famous 'color-change' of the maple-tree woods," an enthusiastic, vivid account of the natural state of Japan in October, no doubt reflected in Yuko Zama's photographs that adorn the box set.
Müller: tint with Toshimaru Nakamura: Müller's early arrival was also based in a slated recording session, where Abbey assigned a duo with Toshimaru Nakamura, attempting another combination between Müller's composite improvising and Nakamura's distinctly firm and sobering high-pitched tones. Perfectly titled, tint is one of the strongest releases in the Erstwhile oeuvre, a meditation on the gradations of both presence and timbre. tint's cover simultaneously reflects the abstract photographic covers of the other releases and Müller's account of his hike on Mount Bandai, echoing the blue and green lakes and the yellows, reds, browns and oranges that signify the maple trees.
Yet, despite the subtlety and carefulness, the concept and design, tint is striking because it is so absolutely raucous. Rather than Nakamura accommodating Müller, or playing under Müller's canopy, Müller seems to be following Nakamura's lead, matching abrasive tone with abrasive tone. Like the Rowe/Nakamura release, this is the sound of two intensities overlapping, producing a unified sound, no longer reducible to individual parts.
Müller and Nakamura, both often delving into experiments with repetitive rhythm in what is often a particularly sparse form of music, seem to perfectly interlock on this level on tint, small looping patterns fade in and out, like a cartoon character walking through the frame. The patterns are often buried, or lapse into different degrees of caustic, palpable sounds - high frequencies, extreme rumbles, pools of reverberating clicks and squeaks. If tint were not such an achievement on a collaborative level, it would still be an outstanding record based on the unique timbres and formal arcs that seem to saturate the record in overriding complexity and detail.
Yet, if neither of the above two elements existed, tint would still work as a conceptual record. Tracks 1 and 2 are mixed by Toshimaru Nakamura, while Tracks 3, 4 and 5 are Müller's territory. Not only do these performers improvise together, but the act of arranging and assembling the improvisations (dare it be called "composition"?) becomes a collaborative function too. Nakamura and Müller become responsible for creating a cohesive album, while simultaneously retaining individual approaches to the pieces. For instance, Nakamura focused his energy on two five-minute segments, where Müller opted for a more epic approach, giving each piece 10-plus minutes to develop.
Müller: Duet with Otomo Yoshihide: Perhaps due to the success of working in a decidedly abrasive mode during tint on Oct. 13, Müller felt a bit more adventurous in his collaboration with Yoshihide six days later. Like much of the music played over the course of the weekend, the Yoshihide/Müller set is marked by a certain boyish rowdiness, an exception that proves the rule by the nature of the festival, despite its numerous conflicts with the undisturbed, meditative nature of the music. Funnily enough in face of this "boyishness," the female faction of AMPLIFY, the duet between Ami Yoshida and Sachiko M, is a clear standstill: the most focused, deliberated set of the festival, unrelentingly ordered and surgically precise.
Müller and Yoshihide's set is one of the most successful, and like many of the sets, is not, in-and-of itself, necessarily indicative of the usual Erstwhile M.O. Where any number of Erstwhile releases are sandblasted to perfection - smooth, flawlessly executed in design and concept, seemingly mistake-free - the Müller/Yoshihide set underlines the human aspect of this music. AMPLIFY displaces the Erstwhile hierarchy of music first, improv second; this is improvisation, all dangers and susceptibility fully intact.
Perhaps the best way to convey the sounds of this set is through the gestures. Müller and Yoshihide are particularly interesting examples of improvising musicians because their set-ups are some of the most versatile; Müller has any number of aids in his percussive playing, and Yoshihide might approach a performance with any configuration of turntables, guitars, electronics and processing devices.
The sounds range from a record wobbling in the air, shaken by Otomo's hand to Müller's resonating bowls. Müller has an ensemble of drum heads without resonant chambers, and both musicians have a proclivity for bowed metal. In a particularly clever turn, Yoshihide implements a small Dictaphone recorder, discreetely recording his voice and playing it alongside the surface noise of a record he is simultaneously spinning.
These gestures culminate over the 40-minute improvisation. At one point, Otomo percussively presses down on a cymbal placed on his table - not a particularly resonant tone. Much later in the performance, this timbre returns, only this time Yoshihide uses only his fist, perhaps letting on a bit of frustration with the set-up. A split second later, Müller responds, tapping several times on a larger, somewhat resonant drum. Yoshihide responds in turn and it triggers one of the most memorable moments of the entire festival. Yoshihide and Müller exchanges pounds and taps against their respective equipment. There is a sense of frenzied humor that comes from seeing these sounds come to life; what might not be entirely understandable as audio is highlighted by Leddington's film footage.
At the performance of "Treatise," Sugimoto, again, is dressed to the hilt. Another suit and hat, alongside of compatriot Tetuzi Akiyama, who is wearing similarly formal regalia, with a red rose in the lapel. Sugimoto has a cigarette constantly drooping from his mouth - an early jazz anachronism, recalling Al Casey's days with Fats Waller or Django Reinhardt; a stately, elegiac nod to a musical form that is unrelentingly condensed as to hardly exist beyond the vaguest, most disembodied timbral reference points in Sugimoto's playing. No other player seems to be particularly concerned with this improvisatory heritage, the rest clearly more interested in 20th century experimental music, as this performance of Cardew's significant graphic score suggests. The other guitarists are dressed in t-shirts and jeans, practical work clothes, functional and neutral.
Sugimoto, despite only having one other release in the Erstwhile catalog, is decidedly one of the stars of the festival, performing every night, and probably trumping Rowe for total airplay on Balance.
What seems to surface in this performance of "Treatise" more than anything else is just how indispensable the electric guitar is to this field of music. There are any number of reasons for its appeal: it has a conceptual veneer; it is a popular icon, as Rowe has gone to great extents to point out. This element of populism ties the electric guitar into an almost anti-European classical sentiment, a sense of rebelliousness directly linked to rock n' roll culture. Tetuzi Akiyama, in particular, has been vocal about this influence; his Don't Forget To Boogie album is a significant melding of gritty blues rock and La Monte Young. Yet, more than simply anti-classical, the guitar is pro-folk, it is about oral tradition, simplicity and accessibility. It is an instrument that - as a stroll through any college dorm will demonstrate - anyone can play. This is an instrument that deals largely in visible, decisive manipulation, almost in opposition to the hermetic secrecy of people like Toshimaru Nakamura. For whatever reason, judging from these recordings, the guitar seems to be the only traditional instrument that has survived the 21st century.
The Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet that opens the AMPLIFY festival confronts this survival head on. Featuring Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide, the first performance of the festival is dominated by pure silence. Between four guitarists, all known to venture into resolutely assertive territories, the amount of hesitation and tension is unparalleled. Minutes of absolute blankness pass between each note, rife with contemplative uncertainty. The entire set is not included in the released recordings, but a visual document on the DVD seems to serve a sufficient display.
Müller comments at one point on the DVD, "I understand the music much more as a field or as a canvas, or even as a space," continuing, "And I can move forward, can go back again, can change directions. A texture there, a color there, a line in this place, repeat this line in another angle, in another corner of the canvas." While this, of course, is one decisive element of the festival's aesthetic, the other element, the issue of music as a temporal space, is something that is most pronounced in the Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet. In a given frame of time, say 10 minutes, imagine only four or five notes. After the 10 minutes has elapsed only those four or five notes are discernable, the blankness has contracted, memory sequences the successive notes without a pause between. At the end of the timeframe, the silence ultimately serves as an absolute transparency, indistinguishable and egoless.
Summary: Improvised Music in Japan. Oct. 2002 Vs. Improvised Music from Japan 2001-2002 The recordings of the festival that comprise the AMPLIFY 2002: Balance box set are available in a limited edition of 800. Seven CDs and one DVD provide what is ostensibly one of the more comprehensive documents of a musical zeitgeist in recent history. When putting this together, Abbey drew from the relative success of the Improvised Music from Japan box set, a critically-acclaimed project, now out-of-print and fetching prices several times its original list price. Yet, Improvised Music from Japan was a compilation, often eclectic to a fault, lacking visual documentation, and often seeming undiscriminating about the material. Erstwhile, as always, envisioned a far more concentrated approach.
If Terry Riley were able to release recordings of his entire eight-hour night flights instead of excerpted 40-minute chunks; if the recordings of Woodstock went beyond a movie and a couple of LPs, these would be releases that aimed for the same kind of artistic consistency as the Balance box set. Granted, either of those excerpted records might have proven to be more valuable in terms of social influence than this Erstwhile release, but this box set is essentially a near-complete audio document of the event and its surrounding events, and for what it lacks in mass appeal, it certainly makes up for in thoroughness.
The comprehensiveness of this set has to do with more than just the included recordings. AMPLIFY throws these musicians into a timeframe, showing their constant state of mutability, pinning down what is the ultimately fluctuating aspect of this music. This box, in spite of its humbly stated aim to merely present an event, is in fact a definitive view of the mechanics of this musical field. It shows the festival; it shows the surrounding events; it shows the actual visual aspect of performance; it shows the more honed and refined process of creating an album. This is, hands down, the closest a listener can get to this music through current media technology. Perhaps one day, scents and multiple interactive perspectives and personal interaction with concert attendants (Abbey, after all, met his fiancée at this festival) will all be possible, but until then the AMPLIFY 2002: Balance box set does the job brilliantly.top ^
Various Artists: Amplify 2002: Balance
by Ed Howard/Joe Panzner/Mike Shiflet
This box set presents a unique experience for fans of electro-acoustic improvisation. Over the course of seven CDs and a (phenomenal, educational, brilliant) DVD, this set meticulously documents and recreates the experience of Erstwhile Records' 2002 AMPLIFY festival, held that year at Tokyo's Star Pine's Café. The music contained within this gorgeous, elaborate package - featuring lovely photos from the events by Yuko Zama - is nearly without exception some of the finest material these performers have to offer; rough, raw, lacking perhaps the clarity and precision of a studio recording, but very much possessed of those elusive qualities that can make good improvisation something almost magically affecting.
Although, as Erstwhile's Jon Abbey rightly points out in the accompanying booklet, nothing can completely recreate the experience of seeing this music live, this set goes a long way towards capturing the sounds, sights, personalities, and emotions that doubtless made the original event so worthy of documentation. Essays from the participants range from the humorous (Taku Sugimoto's gloriously ambivalent reaction) to the anecdotal (Günter Müller's hiking trip) to the mouth-watering (Oren Ambarchi's analysis of Tokyo eating establishments). These insights into the surroundings of the music - along with the wealth of fascinating DVD footage - provide a valuable glimpse into the context in which this music should be absorbed. It is, fittingly, a very human atmosphere, dependent on complex relationships between the musicians and a spirit of true exploration: musical, philosophical, and interpersonal.
Ultimately, this sense of context is what makes the box work as a whole experience. Although most of the actual musical performances are good on their own merits - and a few are particularly noteworthy - the cumulative effect of the box is far greater than that of its constituent parts. Placing these performances into this broader context reveals (for the first time to many listeners) some of the broader implications of electro-acoustic improv, bringing this largely abstract music fully to life. Indeed, from beginning to end, this box is brimming, bristling with life and activity, a celebration of music and community that is as vibrant and exciting as the musicians who are represented here.
Disc One - Outside Shows
The four sets culled for the opening disc capture highlights from the shows before and after the festival - intimate affairs more relaxed than sets from the main event but no less focused. Modeled after the Meeting at Off Site series, the four lengthy engagements documented here center around no-input mixing desk wizard Toshimaru Nakamura, with one track featuring fellow Off Site regular Tetuzi Akiyama on amplified acoustic guitar. Recorded in the quiet confines of Gendai Heights, Appel, and Off Site itself, the sparse musical language and somber tone on display bear the hallmarks of the Tokyo scene of recent years - sharp ticks, clicks, and feedback fissures spark in the spaces between almost tangible silences.
Thomas Lehn and Nakamura open the disc with a hushed assemblage of dry squeaks and twitters, before settling into a rich purr of feedback punctuated with reverb pops and sputters. While Nakamura's whistles and grainy snaps feel oddly familiar to listeners attuned to his previous work, Lehn's nuance-laden palette of low-volume sounds is likely to surprise those more familiar with the twitchy synth wizard's high-velocity fare. Hovering just below Nakamura's fragile feedback webs, he coaxes a wealth of variations from low-level electric hum and rattled reverb tanks, arranging them into flickering constellations of interference and static. The trio of Akiyama, Nakamura, and Günter Müller stretches out into more lengthy drones atop Müller's minidisc loops and treated percussion. Müller works up softly throbbing drones and quasi-melodic loops while Nakamura channels slivers of feedback that stand in contrast to Akiyama's earthy guitar interjections. After pursuing disparate directions at the onset of their performance, the trio settles into a common grammar at the ten-minute mark, coalescing into a relaxed exchange of sustained tones pocked with gritty interjections.
The pairing of Nakamura and Viennese laptopper Christof Kurzmann adapts the languid pacing and bass-heavy rumble of the latter's recent solo effort to the duo setting. Kurzmann dictates much of the pacing and texture with subdued yet meaty drones, leaving space for Nakamura's loops and sparkles to crackle in subtle, rhythmic counterpoint. Like the previous sets, the duo's offering hits its stride after a brief bit of groping, but the rolling collection of buzz, sub-bass growl, and sferics that gather in the final minutes are well worth the initial frustration. The final trio of Lehn, Nakamura, and guitarist Taku Sugimoto, however, offers nothing but continual pleasure from the first wiggles leaking from Lehn's synth. Sugimoto abandons his recent tendency to stretch silences to tedious, unrewarding lengths in favor of languidly paced playing that balances lingering moments of concentrated silence with sensuous, complex guitar tones. He conjures glowing bell-tones and ringing bowed drones as Lehn and Nakamura trade glitches in the background, and the group's interactions grow increasingly patient with each rapidly passing minute. They recede into silence after thirteen scintillating minutes, leaving the ear keenly tuned to the demanding, high-concentration music in the discs to come.
Disc Two - tint
Conceived as a regular Erstwhile release within the AMPLIFY box set, tint teams Toshimaru Nakamura and Günter Müller - both of whom represent master collaborators in their own right. Working in other groupings, Müller and Nakamura tend to lead from behind by gathering pressure behind the musical gestures of their partners. Together they create well-balanced dialogues of reciprocal interaction, pushing and pulling sounds into a blended whole that is every bit as subtle - and perhaps a little more forceful - than one might expect from players known for seeping into the sonic canvas. Like the blurred photographs of neon lights against a dark backdrop that adorn its sleeve, tint alternately shines and smokes as it leaps between grainy noise flashes and deep, unsettling drone. Recorded in the studio five days before the festival proper, it's a crisply produced document of an inspired first meeting, one that deserves individual release after the AMPLIFY box is no longer available.
Nakamura mixed the first two tracks, which aptly reflect much of the character of his own music: edgy, mutating loops that intersect with sharp blasts of noise and gurgling metallic pulses. Fizzles and pops abound, marked by the characteristic rounded click of tweaked delay devices and are often blown into drifts of static and silt. Müller's "selected percussion" (credited as his third instrument, behind "iPod" and "minidiscs") sink beneath the bubbling sonic tics and twitches at the surface, yet his array of processed loops push processed voices and unidentifiable instrumental tones into a subliminal rhythmic framework. Paired with Nakamura's almost dub-like echoed feedback hiccups and clicks, Müller's forward-driving electronic squelches imbue these tracks with surging momentum and enough doses of scratchy noise to dispel any notions of an ultra-polite outing from a pair of team players.
The latter three tracks, mixed by Müller, are darker and more slow-burning affairs that revel in a particularly saturated low-end drone that has its nearest aural equivalent in smoldering coals. A weighty hum marks the first of these tracks, gathering in woofer-shaking intensity until diffusing into a fog of jittery, almost-funky rhythms and otherworldly peals of wobbly feedback. The following track finds the duo reprising the formula by placing Nakamura's mixer in the foreground and accreting flecks of noise and swells of bass around an unraveling static strand. Always hinting at a full-fledged noise climax that never quite arrives, Müller and Nakamura stretch the threat of speaker-wrecking calamity to delicious extremes, allowing the snaps and sputters of overloading signals to take on an ominous life of their own. Tint concludes with a stellar medley that ties the previous musical threads into a tightly-wound knot; Müller's scraped cymbal and floor tom feedback prod Nakamura into tightening spirals of click-heavy squeaks, culminating in a majestically dense signal storm and its subsequent dispersion.
Delivered with the care typical of Erstwhile's studio releases, tint makes for an ideal entrance point for music from the festival itself - it's as distilled and potent as Cosmos' brittle moonscape and as immediately gratifying as the rambunctious fare from the Lehn/Schmickler or Rowe/Nakamura sets. Rich in detail and filled with subtlety and surprise, it's a particularly essential component to a well-conceived whole.
Disc Three - Cosmos & Rowe/Lehn/Schmickler
The duo of Sachiko M and Ami Yoshida - collectively known as Cosmos - begins the festival proper in the absence of the set from Taku Sugimoto's guitar quartet, a group whose sparse plinking loses its stark theatricality in the transfer to CD. While the quartet's colored silences (best appreciated on the included DVD) surely made for a challenging open to a festival marked by relative accessibility, its demands seem slight compared to the ascetic gasps and whines loosed from Cosmos' sine-wave sampler and strangulated windpipes. Compared to their Erstwhile studio release, this twenty-minute gem is harsher and more vertical - Sachiko's sine waves hang unbroken, like frozen electrical arcs, throughout the set while Yoshida harmonizes with eerily vulnerable squeaks pulled from the throats of tin birds. Astoundingly, this third recorded performance from the duo finds them uncovering yet another austere world crafted from their barest of materials.
Mixed reports followed the Cosmos performance at the time of the festival, and it's not difficult to see how their quietly devastating music could go unnoticed or unappreciated on the first pass. Their music brims with activity, but its cut from materials so pure, faint, and dry that they're easily absorbed by slightest disturbances in the room - perhaps the only thing that requires more concentration than actually making such difficult music is listening to it. On record and in the privacy of a quiet room, however, the music comes alive; its whisper-thin tones and cracked exhalations teem with inner life and intersect at odd angles, its sharpness and purity turns from repellent to magnetic. Tiny events become monumental as the ear gradually attunes to the severity of the materials - one becomes acutely aware of the varying density of events and the introduction of new elements, as when Sachiko's rubber-band-bound contact mike crackles like a miniature earthquake midway through the set. Cosmos works like alchemy, turning the raw and base to the sublime by equal parts stress and calculated combination.
The trio of Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn, and Marcus Schmickler offers considerably more immediately accessible, visceral thrills as they reprise the three-way blowout of 2003's Rabbit Run. Arguably one of the most versatile groupings in the electro-acoustic improv kingdom, the trio offers a considerably darker and more foreboding workout than their recorded work, preferring here to swell storm cloud drones into high-energy vortices rather than spluttering like a malfunctioning reactor core. Lehn's agitated synth work dominates the opening while Rowe and Schmickler harmonize his "ping-pong ball in a reverb tank" outbursts with creeping growls and muffled metal-on-metal scrape. Eventually the trio takes a more egalitarian stance, with Rowe's steel wool scrapings and restless abrasion trading jabs with Lehn and Schmickler's livewire twitching. Bristly events stretch back into cavernous drones that the trio trails back into silence, troubling the already uneasy calm by lobbing spiky chunks of debris through the murky amp hum and digital mist. As densely textured as the Cosmos' set was stark, the Rabbit Run crew's encounter provides a physical, dramatic foil to its intensely cerebral counterpart.
Disc Four - Yoshihide/Müller & Lehn/Schmickler
AMPLIFY 2002 marked the world premiere of the duo of Otomo Yoshihide and Günter Müller, who recorded the lush and grainy Time Travel for Erstwhile just days before their festival appearance. Whereas their studio work featured impressionistic, subliminal interplay between shifting layers of crackly textures and dangling guitar notes, their intense thirty-six minute live duel traces out more conventional and dramatic narrative arcs that owes much to Yoshihide highly visual performance style. Lashing out at turntables with mallets and fists or hunched over his bowed guitar, Yoshihide pushes Müller into his most physical - and most overtly percussive - playing of the festival. For a festival devoted to granulated, atomized, and processed, the Müller/Yoshihide pairing bubbles with decidedly analog intensity, all warm gritty smears and dark thudding beats.
Opening with the scratchy, muffled wail of bowed guitars and cymbals, the duo quickly seizes on a collection of itchy turntable scratches and disembodied thumps from Müller's processed percussion. The tide of crackles and thumps rises to a torrent before receding suddenly into dry crackle and fizz, under which Müller strings together an industrial march that grows more menacing with each passing repetition. Müller and Yoshihide explore a groove of errant buzzes and looped percussion to a point just shy of exhaustion before reaching a natural caesura near the exact midpoint of their set. From the brief silence emerges more propulsive pacing and a more rigorously physical host of sounds - Yoshihide draws metallic depth charge booms by pounding cymbals on tone arms, Müller draws overdriven feedback from his drums and hammers his headphone mics to nerve-rattling effect. The fist-pounding climax draws blood, both figuratively - there's no moment more dramatic on these seven discs - and literally from Yoshihide's mangled hands. Again, Müller defies expectations, pulling out gripping new textural and formal schemes, never lapsing into comfortable habits or clichés.
Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler bring another sort of intensity to the festival; too fractured and frenetic for even the suggestion of narrative, their firestorm volleys and knob-ripping synth wrangling succeeds on the merits of its own unstoppable, hyperactive energy. Like frazzled supercomputers spluttering out hunks of ingenious code, they tumble through more ideas in minutes than many groups do in years without losing focus or degrading into senseless blurting. Saw-toothed waves dash from channel to channel, sprinting over absurd belches of fuzz and clatter before lurching to breathtaking stalls and stutters, only to reform in new and often startling configurations. Which is not to say that Lehn and Schmickler are strangers to lower extremes - much of their dialogue thins to almost-delicate exchanges between wrecked modems and high-tension power lines. Their gentler wobbles and warps, however, work best when juxtaposed with their hell-bent flurries and rapid-fire pointillism, casting their manic energy as hilariously violent and more than a little unsettling. Like all mad scientists, the experiment draws to an apocalyptic close - an ear-bending drone heaved from silicon guts, melting to a buzzed slur and then staggering to a fizzled stop. Simultaneously more refined and more warped than Bart, its studio predecessor, this incarnation of the Lehn/Schmickler synth explosion turns oddball syntax and fractured logic into something both frantic and enduring.
Disc Five - Sugimoto/Stangl/Kurzmann & Rowe/Nakamura
The disc opens with a barely audible static hum, over which float scrapes, chiming notes, and other sounds that seem inextricably tied to the guitar, though also several paces distant from anything traditionally associated with the instrument. As guitarists, both Burkhard Stangl and Taku Sugimoto have long stood astride this odd dialectic, always pushing the limits of their chosen instrument while simultaneously retaining a fondness for tonality and recognizable string plucking that tabletop guitar practitioners like Keith Rowe have all but abandoned.
On this set, the pair's explorations have the familiar crisp, spacious sound - half sound, half silence - of much onkyo guitar music, while Christof Kurzmann's gently murmuring laptop fills in the spaces and keeps everything tied together. But even with the constant presence of Kurzmann's long sustains, this music hovers on the limits of audibility, creating an ambient wash of sound that could easily trickle away in the background like a gently bubbling stream. In keeping with Sugimoto's increasing preference for silence over sound, the interaction between him and Stangl is significantly more open than their comparatively busy (though also quite sparse, in absolute terms) Old Fashioned Duet on Slub. The addition of Kurzmann - though his contribution could at first easily be mistaken for tape hiss - adds a subtle, abiding presence to the mix; his drones are a blank canvass onto which the two guitarists throw their light, splotchy noises. There's a point at around five minutes in which the pair comes close to establishing a forward-moving groove, with Stangl (presumably) producing a rhythm of scraped strings, against which Sugimoto provides some percussive accents. For much of the set, however, their conversation is a much more intermittent affair, as short, sharp statements by one guitarist are answered (and sometimes overlapped) by a similarly brisk reply from the other. The duo of Toshimaru Nakamura and Keith Rowe is much more fluid. Of course, considering Rowe's working methods, it's also a lot more difficult to pick out who is producing which sound here; Rowe's electronics-augmented guitar rig is capable of producing sounds very similar to the rough, grainy feedback loops of Nakamura's no-input mixing board. Their half-hour set revisits the territory of their previous Erstwhile release Weather Sky, with long drones dominating the sound. However, Rowe makes his presence known a great deal more than he did on that album, punctuating the crackling soundscape with his familiar bevy of rattles, buzzes, and occasional pure tones. These contributions are never nearly as prominent as his often abrasive, frantic playing with more loquacious collaborators, as on his AMPLIFY-closing set with Günter Müller and Sugimoto. Instead, Rowe is entirely attuned and sympathetic to Nakamura's peaceful mood, keeping his sound stable, a parallel comment on his collaborator, the two partners' music smoothly running together into one all-encompassing drone. Pulsating rhythms take hold momentarily and then dissolve, and the harsh clatter of Rowe's guitar occasionally bursts up from the fog, but overall this is not as intense and oppressive as the overwhelming, room-rattling Weather Sky.
Disc Six - Stangl/Müller & Nakamura/Sachiko M
The final of the four festival discs opens with a "world premiere" from Müller and Stangl, and it's rather surprising that this pair, who seem like such a natural fit for each other, had never played together as a duo prior. Just as Stangl treats his guitar somewhat more conventionally than most of his electroacoustic peers, Müller is one of the few improvisers who doesn't shy away from rhythm and pulse: not just rhythmic looping like Nakamura, but an active forward drive that's seldom heard in the generally abstract, beat-less world of electro-acoustic improv.
This 33-minute set slowly drifts through a spectrum of moods and tones, from the meditative interlude towards the middle of the set (Müller's looping industrial rhythms and gurgling noises provide a base for Stangl's clanging guitar) to the foreboding mood that hangs over the end of the performance like a black cloud. Towards the very end, Müller creates a hesitant rhythm from bits of static shrapnel, beating out an ear-knifing pulse over Stangl's scraped guitar tones. Müller tends to keep the music - though consistently on the quiet, subdued side - dense with nuance, always moving and is always ready with something to contribute. In contrast, Stangl seems to carefully ponder each note for a long moment before he plays it, savoring the silences in between his sounds; he's not nearly as extreme as Sugimoto has become in this respect, but he's still a much more measured and quiet improviser than Müller.
But the wonderful thing about Müller as a collaborator is that his tendency to fill up the soundfield never becomes overbearing, and on this set he crafts subtly layered rhythms as a gentle background for Stangl and himself to engage in a fluent conversation. Even when the track briefly begins to build up steam around 18 minutes in - with fusillades of contact mic taps from Müller dueling against Stangl's steady tones - the energy never disrupts the balanced tension of the performance.
A far different duo features the Japanese onkyo stalwarts Nakamura and Sachiko M. Their high-pitched, low-key explorations of sonic extremes have been well-documented elsewhere - not least on their Erstwhile duo release do - but seldom has either musician been quite as fastidious and carefully honed as they are on this stark, minimalist recording. Rather than being pitched against one another, Nakamura and Sachiko's sounds are joined in contrast against the hushed, expectant silence of the room; only against such a profound stillness could these austere sounds seem as full and rich as they do. Sachiko's sine waves whistle and twist through the barren air, retaining a distant beauty that is only deepened when joined by Nakamura's rough-edged scrawls of feedback and gentle tapping rhythms.
The audience throughout is blessedly quiet, but the fact that this music was played in front of a filled room of people, all with ears straining to catch each delicate bit of noise, adds a subtle tension to the recording. In the long spaces between sounds - chasms much wider and emptier than anything previously heard from either performer - there is a clear sense of patient waiting, especially since the improvisation progresses over its course towards ever-shorter blips with longer gaps. It's an endlessly fascinating and rewarding set, one of the strongest (along with Müller and Nakamura's tint and a few of the outside-festival shows on the first disc) in the box. Both Nakamura and Sachiko have long been inexplicably capable of making meaningful, compelling music from the starkest of means, so it seems only logical that by stripping their collaboration down even further, they've come up with their strongest statement yet.
Disc Seven - Seven Guitars
The final disc of balance was recorded the day after the actual festival ended, with the six guitarists who had been featured during the festival plus Oren Ambarchi, who'd arrived primarily as a spectator. The septet split their 70-minute set into three parts. The two documented here were the final two: a rendition of three pages from Cornelius Cardew's graphic score Treatise and a subsequent free improvisation - though, methods aside, the two pieces don't actually sound much different.
The box's DVD has an enlightening discussion with Keith Rowe on how best to interpret Treatise, and this segment enhances appreciation of this group's performance, especially since the "score" itself - a sparse collection of sweeping lines and symbols that presumably represent notes - is hardly apparent in the music that results. The group's 38-minute version of pages 82-84 of the score sounds a good deal like what you'd expect a free improv session from these guitarists to sound like: dark, moody, and free of clutter despite the presence of seven players. Because of the variety of approaches - from Keith Rowe's tabletop set-up to Taku Sugimoto's un-augmented acoustic to Otomo Yoshihide, who appears (on the DVD) to be bowing a spring that's threaded through his guitar strings - traditional guitar tones sit comfortably next to electronic twitters and slow-building feedback. The diversity of the sounds, and the easy way they all fit together, makes this a gorgeous and somehow logical piece, never sounding like a random assemblage of guitar-like sounds. Whether that is a result of Treatise's subtle innate structure or merely the intuitive improvisatory skill of the musicians involved is nearly impossible to determine.
However, the second track on this CD, which is a free improvisation, does suggest a tentative answer to that question. Although, of course, any such evaluations are subjective, this track somehow feels less structured than the preceding Treatise performance. The elements are all the same - atonal guitar plucking, wavering feedback drones, and electronic interjections - and the track even sounds, on its surface, like the previous one, but the layering and juxtaposition of the different guitar styles doesn't seem as natural or as meaningful this time around. Here, the seven guitarists, after a lovely and understated introduction, slip into some aimless meandering towards the middle of the piece, with too little of interest happening; there's none of the tension or sense of progression that characterized Treatise.
Balance Beams DVD
Ah, seeing is indeed believing. While Keith Rowe's theory about approaching the guitar and Günter Müller's extremely rich accent are both quite interesting, they are little more than parsley compared to the full meal that is Balance Beam's visual representation of the elite artists Erstwhile fans have been enjoying on disc for so long. Extremely tight shots of Otomo's turntable, Sachiko M's samplers, Rowe's hands and the accessories he prepares his guitar with; these are what really make the disc worth repeat viewing. Erstwhile's history is practically built on seamless editing, but here the visual cuts are sharp and blatant. Sets are offered in short segments and it is made purposefully clear where they have been trimmed. Not surprisingly, the audio still flows magnificently and, were the visuals not making it clear, it'd be quite the task to pick out the splices.
The Cosmos, Rowe/Lehn/Schmickler trio, and Yoshihide/Müller sets are the highest of the numerous peaks on the disc. Though all three performances are fully represented elsewhere in the box, the visual element brought new insight to each. The duos of Lehn and Schmickler and Astro Twin are also favorites. The only performance I could do without is Taku Sugimoto's Guitar Quartet. Mercifully excluded in its entirety, even the six minutes shown are an endurance test.
Besides performances, the feature is filled with incidental footage of everything from performers mingling to the Tokyo subway. Sometimes these work really well, but when they cut in mid-set, I can't help but wonder what I'm missing, rather than focusing on what's actually being shown. Jonas Leddington work overall, though, is exemplary.
The other highlight of the few extra features is definitely the Seven Guitars portion, in which Rowe goes into great detail explaining his good friend and occasional collaborator Cornelius Cardew's Treatise to his fellow performers and (indirectly) his audience. The playful pairing of "Old-fashioned Duet" Burkhard Stangl and Taku Sugimoto and "New-fashioned Duet" Christof Kurzmann and Toshimaru Nakemaru is both visually and audibly pleasing in nine minutes of comparison/contrast. 5.1 Surround mixes of the Rowe/Schmickler/Lehn and Yoshihide/Müller sets are also available. I'd like to comment on them, but I can't afford to. Based on the rest of the DVD and the box as a whole, it's hard to imagine them as anything short of detailed perfection.
by Nirav Soni, Bagatellen
I've long been interested in the Degas painting, "Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass". It's one of his paintings of young ballet dancers in training, at rehearsal. Maybe it's the shape of the canvas that draws me; it's a long, rectangular frame, panoramic, more familiar to this century as CinemaScope. When I think of CinemaScope, I think mostly battle scenes and Westerns, so it surprises me that such humble subject matter fits in that frame so comfortably. It's not what you expect from Degas; the colors aren't as pronounced as in his portraits of folk dancers in this painting, the tones are much more muted, brown abounds, in the floor, and in the double bass that stands in the foreground.
October 2002: Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records holds a festival in Tokyo of new improvised music. Its lineup includes many of the Japanese and European standouts of a niche community, some of whose roots lie alternately in free-jazz and modern composition, two poles of the avant-garde whose difference rests on a structural issue. Modern composition makes structure external, its methods are intelligible - at least in theory they are - and visible, where in free-jazz the structural mechanics are all internal and accessed as such through the intuition (that "brewing luminous," in the Cecil Taylor sense). This new improv (third generation free improv?) takes the material concerns of new music avant-garde, and applies to those materials a method derived in part from the legacy of jazz. The festival proper is three days long, with satellite shows (which included the only non-Japanese or European improvisor on the set, Australian Oren Ambarchi) running before and after through the surrounding days. Out of the festival emerges this boxset.
The subject matter of the Degas painting speaks about the project of which it is a part. 19th Century painting was, in many ways, an attempt to explain mimesis in terms of the perceptual mechanisms of the viewing subject. Those are the "impressions" that make up the doctrine of Impressionism. They aren't necessarily emotional impressions, they are the literal imprint that light leaves on the eye in the form of retinal afterimage (take a second, blink hard, and watch those colors; Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer, would say that the discovery of afterimages predicates the disjunction between Romantic and Enlightenment era artworks), and thus about the way the body itself shapes one's image of the world. In the Degas painting, young dancers-in-training are a way of representing this. In their betweenness, they celebrate the materiality of light, and the pleasures that it affords. They become a particularly poignant metaphor for the pleasures of materiality. In that they haven't mastered their discipline, they still offer to a viewer some of the untutored, simple pleasures of the movement of the body. This is a casual, as opposed to a rigorous and specifically disciplined, attitude towards material. It is casual in the sense that it is, in part, unshaped by the area in which it will be employed. It is like paint that first appears as paint, rather than as part of a figure in a painting. The dancer in training allows one to see the seams in what will eventually be a seamless performability, and in their awkwardness is a trace of what is unformed and wild still within them.
AMPLIFY 2002: balance is comprised of seven audio cds, and one DVD, a visual document of the festival by Jonas Leddington. Six of those audio cds are live recordings, made on location, in front of the audience attending the festival. And there's "tint", a studio recording from Toshimaru Nakamura and Günter Müller, carefully constructed, as all of the recordings are on Erstwhile.
If we would take a leap, and classify the variety of music that is documented in the AMPLIFY 2002: balance box, as "expressionistic", we immediately run into a problem. Abstract Expressionism, in particular was, in part, about the subtle interaction of eye, hand and brush. All mimesis was drained from the act of painting, and gesture was abstracted therefrom. It was, in many ways, a recording of a particular subjectivity, a recording of interior vision. Expressionism is about singularity, about one brain, one heart, and one object. But, in improvised music, solo performances are the exception, rather than the rule. Interaction with another being, whether it be the audience or a room, seems to be a necessity. But with expressionist painting, especially of the abstract variety, the idea of a collaborative piece between two artists seems preposterous. What would a collaborative painting between both Phillip Guston and Mark Rothko look like? Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollack? The mind rebels against the prospect. We then need a way to describe how a pluralistic expressionism would work.
The Degas painting brings to my mind one of the beauties of mimesis, especially of portraiture. Portraits are a collaborative work: there is the painter, and then there is the person being painted. This is most commonly seen as a subject/object relationship, in that the painter is expressing their subjective view of the object before them, which is a person whose likeness is rendered on canvas. But, it always strikes me that there is work being done by that person as well. They too are expressing, in that they are reflecting (in Renoir's portraits, one would say "radiating") light to the painter. They are exerting the force of their being upon the artist, and in that way, it is the painter's duty to transform that force into an image on canvas.
In this boxset, we find the following means being employed: acoustic and electric guitars, turntables, analogue and digital synthesizers, laptops, a no-input mixing board, an "empty" sampler, an ipod, a minidisc player/recorder, percussives, voice and the occasional intervention of a clarinet. But, this is not the totality of what we are talking about when we say "material." Those that know me must be tired by now of this Cardew quote by now, but I'll repeat it again:
"...it is impossible to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually derived from the room in which it is taking place - its size, shape, acoustical properties, even the view from the window..."
- Towards an Ethic of Improvisation
This is one of the primary pleasures of Jonas Leddington's DVD visual document, "balance beams", that is included in the boxset. It offers its viewer "the view from the window". In my immersion in this music, I can't decide whether the instruments themselves are completely irrelevant, or if they are the only thing. When we talk about John Cage, we're talking about a movement towards an "egoless" composition, new relationships to authorship. The Onkyo doctrinespecifies negation of the instruments themselves (no-input mixing board, no memory sampler), but that has little to do with "egoless" sound, rather, it speaks of a clarified relationship to an instrument. Or, perhaps, a casual one? One explores the edges of the instruments, their seams, their endpoints, their edges.
Then if there is an ethics to the relationship between the painter of a portrait and its subject, it would be something like friendship. Both the painter and the subject of a painting are engaged in a project, creating a third term between themselves, which is an image. If we consider the sound field that is created between musicians in this abstract variety of improv, then the connection becomes evident. The music remains abstract, in that the facts of gesture are what the music is built out of, but the essence that underlies the music is friendship and its reciprocal relations. This is the pleasure of the mimetic act, but abstracted from representation. The performance becomes a celebration of material, of which the audience itself is a part. "'How do you prepare for a performance of highly abstract music?' I think you begin by preparing yourself. It's not in the manipulation of the instrument...it's in the perception of how you see the performance, or how you view performance. I'm really honest when I say....when [at] a performance I put my guitar on the table, I get it all working, I go off [and] do something and it's eight o'clock and it's time to play, and I kind of look at the guitar in absolute horror at that point, and I really don't have a single idea. I'll go further and say, when my hand descends to play the very first notes of a performance, I still don't have any ideas. As the hands or the fingers are just beginning to touch the strings, ideas begin to come, and you just take it from whatever begins to happen at that stage....I think what a performance is, is basically focusing on what is happening in front of you. In order to focus, and to have something worthwhile within you to be reflected, that comes from constantly observing what's happening around you and scrutinizing your work...looking very, very quickly...."
- Keith Rowe, from "balance beams"
Viewed from the perspective of the listener though, this form of interaction is invisible. We see only the external manifestations of this form of interaction, this relationship as extending into materiality. In that we hear something like music, we're hearing a precipitation of all of those material events described. Electronic improvised music, "balanced improv", as Abbey once referred to it, grows climactically. Weather and pressure become a metaphor we can use to describe this external blossoming of the image, in that there is no set form prior to each concert to adhere to. The musical results are predicated exclusively on the interactions of material conditions. Each set is a grouping of conditions, which, through the mediation of the artists, plays out within the venues. What prevents this from being cold and sterile is the depth of character of each of these musicians. Their discipline must be enormous, to be able to keep their heads in the midst of this complex "unfoldment". It feels like something alchemical.
This box, then, becomes a course in the combinatronics of the musical climactic instability. Credit Abbey as the one of the chief meteorologists of this music, in that through his study of it, he is able to bring together circumstances in such a way as to allow the beauty and profundity of this music to coalesce. We have thirteen groupings of musicians, which span the range from sparse and quiet (Cosmos) to dense and loud (Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler.) The specific content of each set of music mirrors the diversity of weather phenomena, and so, rather than being puzzling, the vast diversity in the music makes sense. The unyielding heat of summer and the brittle chill of winter seem diametrically opposed, but they are united in their both being the result of air pressure and the Earth's position relative to the sun. Leddington's DVD is a report on the conditions of the festival, mainly on its visual peculiarities which are normally invisible to the listeners of improvised music. But, it is a peculiar variety of report. Leddington makes no attempt at objectivity, which is made perfectly clear in the liner notes to the box. He attempts something very audacious, which is to attempt to match visuals to the music. Each set in the festival is presented in a style particular to it; watch the cutting in the Lehn/Schmickler set, and the delicate movement of the frame in the Cosmos set, which mirrors the subtle shifting of Sachiko M's sinewaves. That he does not always succeed speaks less about his capabiliti es, and more about the difficulty of representing this music in a medium which is, in part, foreign to it.
Among the many joys of the DVD are the short glimpses of after parties and pre-concert preparations. To be honest, it humanizes the musicians. When you see Taku Sugimoto with a big grin on his face, twirling his hat on his finger, the yawning valleys between notes in the Sugimoto Guitar quartet seem less about austerity, and more about humility, as per Günter Müller's comments.
As it is tied to the circumstances of weather, the variety of improvised music documented on this box defines itself by the atmosphere it creates. We seem to experience abstract music as we experience climate, in that we are reacting internally to external changes in pressure. Abstract music does not have the cognitive currency that music that employs melody does. One imagines that there is basic pattern-recognition taking place, but nothing on the order of perceptual gymnastics that occur when listening to complex melodies and harmonies. Atmosphere, as precipitation, is not just its outward, visible facts. There are hidden relationships, which are not only mechanical; they are felt as much as they are seen. It is not just the rain that we enjoy, it is the accompanying wind, the smell it brings from the soil, the way clouds dim the sun, the humidity, etc. In a similar way, the dancers in the Degas painting are not just an occasion for paint. It is their relationships; on one level those relationships of the dancers as their physical selves, graceful and lithe, and on the other level, the hidden, invisible relationships - friendships, rivalries, affinities, disinclinations among themselves that structure their outward organization as framed and denoted by Degas. The music described within the AMPLIFY boxset offers similar relationships that are as often as hidden, and as complex as those in that painting, and in climate. The boxset offers us a picture (with well defined edges and frames, it is an image of the festival, not the image of it, one imagines that the participants and immediate spectators have memories that are quiet different than what is documented here) of a system of subtly interacting elements: room, temperament, temperature, etc. It is has a peculiar variety of organization that may be visible to those in the future. At the present, though, any sort of descriptive physics remains unwritten. It is difficult to describe where exactly the pleasure of this music arises from, but it seems to be akin to the feeling of the sun against skin.top ^
by Brian Olewnick, Squid's Ear
Jon Abbey, producer of Erstwhile, has often remarked that he approaches his label as a fan, putting together combinations of musicians that he himself would like to hear, usually in groups that hadn't previously existed. In the last couple of years he's carried this over to the programming of small music festivals in New York. In October of 2002, Abbey arranged his most ambitious affair yet, a three-day fest held in Tokyo and featuring many of the leading figures in both the Japanese and European improvisatory avant-garde. The results of this occasion, and much more besides, are lovingly and lavishly presented in this 8-disc set (including a DVD) and a major event it certainly is. Oddly enough, I think that (expense aside) it's not a bad place at all for the new listener to dip his or her toes into, offering a wide range or approaches, a generally warm and embracing atmosphere and consistently superb (sometimes incredible) performances.
The collection has an appealingly symmetrical structure: the four discs that contain the music heard at the festival itself occupy #'s 3-6 and are sandwiched between two discs of music that largely took place just before the AMPLIFY fest and a set that occurred a day later (plus the DVD). This is all sumptuously packaged in digi-paks bearing the mysteriously evocative, gorgeous photos of Yuko Zama, accompanied by a info-packed 52-page booklet (which includes remarks by the musicians involved, sometimes quite telling ones) and encased in a box that's attractive enough to qualify as an art object all on its own.
The very first thing one hears sounds almost like a whistle or an avian ululation, an "Attention!" heralding the set. Disc One contains three performances that took place in the week prior to the festival proper and one that occurred afterward, all including Toshimaru Nakamura (in duo with Thomas Lehn, trio with Tetuzi Akiyama and Günter Müller, duo with Christof Kurzmann and trio with Lehn and Taku Sugimoto). Though all have their rewards, my favorite of this bunch is the trio with Müller and Akiyama. Müller, as is his wont, leavens the proceedings with a sly smoothness that highlights both Nakamura's ethereal abstraction as well as Akiyama's rich, delicate strummings.
If the studio disc, Nakamura and Müller's "Tint" had been released as an individual recording, it surely would have ranked as one of the very best of the year. As is, it's a major highlight of this set, a perfect pairing of talents. The music, in five tracks, throbs and bristles with energy and barely controlled power, ranging from the quiet control of the first two Nakamura-produced tracks to the explosive abandon of the final three mixed by Müller. The last cut in particular, ".....tint", is one of the very finest improv pieces in recent memory.
Amazingly, the set that begins the festival itself might go Müller/Nakamura one better. The duo of Sachiko M and Ami Yoshida (Cosmos) offers what I think is the highlight of the collection, a blindingly intense, effervescently beautiful creation melding icily pristine sine waves and static with the most wondrous voice working in this genre today. Sachiko, employing an attack she's been working toward for several years, concentrates her tones into narrow, perfectly balanced stria, decorating them sparingly with nearby pitches or dustings of noise, providing a seemingly gauzy but quite solid framework for Yoshida to dance within. Yoshida's voice, almost entirely ultra-high peeps, sputters and strangulated cries is in perfect apposition, not as any kind of glib contrast but as an equal partner, larynx and sine-wave: made for each other. Anyone who enjoyed their earlier Erstwhile release, "Tears", will be knocked out by this one.
The remainder of that disc and the next one include a darkly rich, relatively restrained performance from the trio of Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler, a powerful and surprisingly violent and percussive one from Müller and Otomo Yoshihide than melts into a deep, deep hum and a wild, 40-minute romp stuffed with blistering, burbling back and forths between Schmickler and Lehn.
Discs 5 and 6 capture the close of the festival with four sets that alternate quiet/near-melodic with quiet/severe. Both of the former feature guitarist Burkhard Stangl who has become something of the John Tilbury of his instrument, tending toward tonally beautiful strummings placed with exacting care in the musical space. In the first piece, he plays alongside Taku Sugimoto (who, at the time of this festival, was going further and further toward his ultra-minimalist stance of hardly playing at all) and Christof Kurzmann, who takes out his clarinet to supplement a somewhat malfunctioning G3. They begin tentatively and maintain a certain delicacy throughout, but gradually create a softly flowing pastoral feeling that's very enchanting. Stangl's duo with Müller is, unsurprisingly, undulating and luscious, Müller setting up rolling, heaving swells for Stangl to navigate with the well-chosen chord, ultimately resulting in a totally beguiling, dreamlike atmosphere.
The remaining two festival sets reprise duos who had prior releases on Erstwhile, Rowe/Nakamura and Nakamura/Sachiko M. By this point, Rowe and Nakamura were operating with a telepathic degree of compatibility and their set, essentially a single, endlessly complex and fascinating drone, sounds like the work of one mind. Around this time, Rowe was remarking that he had reached the stage of not having to actually touch his guitar during a performance and that may indeed almost have been the case here as one hears the flutter of his handheld fans and various controlled feedbacks and hums far more often than anything reminiscent of guitar strings. The bubbling patterns that Nakamura calls forth midway through provide a more vociferous and roiling substream than had been present on 'Weather Sky'. A glorious set.
The festival proper closes with the duo that created the epochal 'do' a couple of years earlier. As with Cosmos, Sachiko narrows her focus sublimely, her pure sine tone acting as spine for Nakamura's staticky grafts. The relatively short piece becomes a sonic tendril, a sparse shoot with a simple surface appearance belying hyper-complex, interactive strata.
The day after the festival closed, Rowe gathered six of the musicians (including Oren Ambarchi who was in Tokyo to hear the music) and formed a unique guitar septet. They perform two pieces here, an interpretation of three pages from Cornelius Cardew's 'Treatise' and an improvisation. The Cardew is relatively uncluttered and open, but the differing intonations and timbres of the guitar make for a fullness that belies the sparseness. Things get more dense and resonant in the concluding improvisation, sustained, ringing tones engaging in conversation with harsh ones, the seven guitarists forming an impressively uncrowded and consistently engaging whole.
But wait, there's more! Filmmaker Jonas Leddington gives us a DVD of the festival and surrounding activity titled 'Balance Beams' that succeeds on several fronts. Despite varying his visual approach from fairly straightforward naturalism to high degrees of abstraction, Leddington manages to never upstage the music or draw unnecessary attention to himself, no small feat. On several occasions, the audio-visual pairings are stunning and ingenious as when a Rowe/Lehn/Schmickler performance suddenly shifts gears musically and the image wrenches from a stage shot to video of the lower limbs of Tokyo pedestrians. Secondly, the portions of performance sometimes provide a valuable additional element, allowing contextual understanding of an event that might be difficult to grasp with only aural input. This lets the new listener have greater appreciation for Cosmos, for example, and most impressively, lends enormous weight to the otherwise undocumented show by Sugimoto's guitar quartet, wherein the four musicians play only the barest handful of notes over ten or twelve minutes. What might be a too spare and ethereal audio experience becomes fraught with delicious tension. Additionally, there are several "extras" including musician discussions and Surround Sound versions of two of the sets (Rowe/Lehn/Schmickler and Müller/Yoshihide).
There is really nothing even approaching a weak set in this box, which is saying something considering both its ambition and sheer volume. Several of the performances capture these fine musicians at or near their peak as of this date. 'AMPLIFY 2002: balance' will no doubt be a landmark event in the history of this music - forget the price and go for it. You are guaranteed not to be disappointed.top ^