Dusted Features

AMPLIFY 2002: Balance

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Matt Wellins sifts through the seven-disc boxset documenting Erstwhile Records' AMPLIFY festival in Tokyo.

AMPLIFY 2002: Balance

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.

Pre-Festival Events
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
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 fiancé at this festival) will all be possible, but until then the AMPLIFY 2002: Balance box set does the job brilliantly.

By Matt Wellins

Read More

View all articles by Matt Wellins

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.