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2010: Miki Kaneda

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Dusted Japan correspondent Miki Kaneda looks back on 10 of her favorite things from 2010.

2010: Miki Kaneda

I like lists. To do lists, lists of books, place names, popular food trucks... When it comes to listing favorite albums though, it’s complicated; And more so when the idea of “albums” excludes a bunch of important musical activities in other realms. I thought about memorable musical happenings of 2010 — a live improv session with Yamamoto Tatsuhisa and Adachi Tomomi perform live to an audience of five in a tiny basement at Nanahari in Tokyo, listening to tracks by the Kishibojin Fumin Girls on MySpace, receiving a link to the Gregory Brothers’ “Double Rainbow” — and none of them are albums. The improv session may become an album, but the recording won’t reproduce that sense of awe of being under the stairs that Yamamoto climbed and started banging on. Yes, the Gregory Brothers have a CD, but a large part of what makes them amazing is their connection to all the other real-time madness on YouTube. As Dusted writer Ben Tausig mentioned last year, albums are not the only way people listen to music. Albums serve a specific purpose: They are standardized in form in keeping with technologies of reproduction, marketing, categorizing, archiving… They are end-products that leave only traces of the actual people or places involved. No need to repeat his argument further here.

So my list — a muddled bunch of notable musical recollections of the first half of 2010 in the U.S., and the second half in Japan — consists mostly of albums (since that was the original purpose of this particular list), but I’ll start with a few other musical incidents that left a deep impression on me in the past year.

When so much of the academic composition world is inundated with tired reincarnations of standards set by European avant-garde composers since the 1950s and 60s, it’s extremely refreshing to hear Noriko Koide. Still a student, but with prestigious composition awards under her belt, she’s firmly rooted in the academic composition world. In November, I heard a premiere of her new work, HANAMACHI GIMMICK for solo percussion at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. That was followed by an evening of crawling the web to find out about her other project, the weird burlesque show named the Kishibojin Fumin Girls, a duo performance act with Niimi Keiko. Her musical world is a strange one, co-inhabited by demon goddesses, crafty geisha girl stunts, South and South East Asian music, bossa nova, electronics and a host of others. It’s an ode to the Taj Mahal Travelers, and a very welcome antidote to John Williams’ music for Memoirs of a Geisha — darkly sassy music executed with impeccable skill.

The most memorable improv performance of the year was by Yamamoto Tatsuhisa with Adachi Tomomi, Inada Makoto, and Ikeda Takumi at Nanahari, Tokyo. Still in his 20s, drummer Yamamoto Tatsuhisa has made the rounds, playing with in the progressive hardcore experimental jazz group the Natsumen, Otomo Yoshihide, Jim O’Rourke, Fujii Satoko, Senju Muneomi, Kahimi Karie and many others. I’ve been pretty excited about his recent releases with Senju and Machida Yoshio. His ability to casually handle complex polyrhythmic patterns on the drums as he rattles on a piece of junk off to the side is audible in the recordings, but in a live performance, there’s another magic that happens as he channels the situation into collective improvisation.

The time of YouTube travels a lot faster than the time of CD lists. A CD that came out in July is still pretty new in December, but a YouTube video that came out then feels like it happened a decade ago. Still, I’ll never think of a rainbow in the same way after this one.

Label: Drag City | Release Date: February 23

The yeat’s much-hyped album worth more than the hype. From the beginning, there was a lot of press, both from the Drag City side and from the receiving end of things. The press releases shrouded it in mystique, while debates went on and on about how grandiose, dense, long, and ambitious the album was — as if the world had never seen a triple-disc album, or heard a harp or orchestra on an indie rock album before. Ignore all that though, and what you have is a world of beautifully crafted songs that are as simple or as complex as you want them to be.

Label: Cantaloupe | Release Date: September 14

The medium is the message: If there’s one album that reclaims and renews the significance of the “album” as its own thing, it’s Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony. At first glance, it’s cute package design: a handmade electronic circuit glued on to the CD jewel case. But then you realize that there is no CD. To listen, you plug in to the headphone jack on the CD case. What follows is a dazzling symphony made using 1-bit audio (think, early 1980s videogame music).

Label: Avex Entertainment | Release Date: May 26

The year’s notably un-heroic retrospective. Few musicians have been as active and important in different realms of music as Yuji Takahashi. In the 1960s, he was the darling of European and Japanese avant-garde composers, as he quickly rose to fame after a basically perfect performance of Xenakis’ Herma for piano, which pianists in Europe had declared impossible to play. Since then, he continued on a path of innovation as a performer, composer and improviser. After a half-century of achievement, it wouldn’t be that unfitting for a portrait album to be a retrospective collection of the composer’s grand accomplishments over the last several decades. Instead, the portrait is a live recording of a 2009 concert consisting of works for solo piano, or for piano and one or two other instruments. What’s more, many of the songs are offerings of consolation, dedication and remembering for others, and almost half the album consists of pieces written in the last five years. There’s very little of the heroic or the celebratory here. Instead, it’s a deeply philosophical portrait of the composer’s here and now that goes far beyond the scope of sad “best of” albums by so many established artists who can do little more than cash in on their glory of decades long past.

Label: Important | Reissue Date: August 24

The reissue of Matthew Bower’s 2005 Hototogisu release is swirly, dazzling and all that you ever wanted from psychedelic drone. And yet, the bursts of lucidness and an odd sense of balance amidst the sea of letting sounds be set this album apart from others.

Label: World Circuit | Release Date: February 23

This dream team collaboration already has the perfect formula for a world music department hit, but whatever the scheme, it’s a gorgeous album of guitar and kora music that I found myself listening to over and over again.

Label: BounDEE | Release Date: October 6

I’m skeptical of monk collaborations. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have bought this album if I knew it was going to be Buddhist monk chanting with some avant-garde jazz and Mahavishnu Orchestra music mixed in. But one of the reasons I like this album is that there’s no attempt to jazzify monks, or orientalize jazz. Yamashita’s solution, then, is to just go for it: Monks chant and make their sounds on one side of the room, Yamashita’s ensemble does their thing on the other — the Cage and Cunnigham way. The best moments happen when it’s no longer certain which side succeeds. While I’m still not entirely convinced that this always works, I’m thrilled to have (belatedly) heard the joyful sound of Yamashita’s Tatum-meets-Taylor playing. For me, that alone was a great revelation.

Label: Columbia Music Entertainment | Release Date: August 4

Gagaku, Japanese court music that boasts a continuous history of a couple of millennia, has been dangerously close to becoming extinct in the last century or so. It’s not that I’m a particularly keen preservationist, or believe in the continuation of unchanging tradition (and anyone who plays gagaku will obsessively tell you about differences—not the sameness—between one teacher and another). Still, the compilation contains high quality recordings of contemporary players performing styles of classic repertoire originating in China, Korea, and Japan. With helpful liner notes too, it’s a great comprehensive introduction to both the music and the history of gagaku, performed by the top players of the Reigakusha and Tokyo Gakuso ensembles.

By Miki Kaneda

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