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Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide - ErstLive 005

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Artist: Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide

Album: ErstLive 005

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: Jul. 14, 2005

In 1929, Kaikusru Sorabji published Opus Clavicembalisticum, a monumental piano piece sprawling over some 250 pages and lasting about four hours in performance. Its musical language is thornily virtuosic and sometimes impenetrably modern, but always intensely and overwhelmingly emotional. When something so superficially banal as simple major triads appear, the effect is simultaneously disturbing and beautiful.

This new mammoth ErstLive three-disc set works along similar lines. The fifth in a series of concert documents that have been comparatively brief, 005 documents a single four-hour show from May 14, 2004, at the AMPLIFY festival in Berlin. The package is novel in terms of length, but also for the breadth of its constituent sonic components. By turns spare and lush, angular and amorphous, it isn’t for nothing that Erstwhile boss Jon Abbey now calls it “the indigestible document.”

While this jocular appellation – a reference to AMM’s The Inexhaustible Document from 1994 – is an applicable point of comparison, too much of the discussion surrounding this release has been centered around its long form and the underlying multivalent drone. True, the minimal approach to pitch present in Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide’s Filament collaborations are a crucial element to 005, but even Filament’s typical aesthetic pervades such a huge spectrum that Bruce Russell’s favored “maximalist” music seems more appropriate. While comparisons to other indigestible documents by La Monte Young and Morton Feldman are as apt as they are unavoidable, they only speak to half of this concert’s aesthetic.

From the very first moments of Disc 1, the listener is plunged into a world that is both strange and simplistically familiar: general room noise, some high-pitch sounds gradually encroaching, deep resonant footsteps. Everything speaks to a fairly large room, in contrast to several of the earlier ErstLive releases, which sport a much more intimate vibe obviously born of club interaction. Glimpses of sound begin to emerge from what sounds increasingly like a vast space, finely honed razorblades of quasi-pitched light punctuated by occasional glacial rumblings. Gradually, Sachiko’s sine waves and some gentle tonal guitar feedback begin to fill out the texture.

The well-balanced placement of essential sounds is one characteristic of music that certain Japanese improvisers have now ceased calling “onkyo,” but I was continually surprised by how many musical identities become palpable as the concert progresses. Over the stark, spare and seemingly minimalist clarity of M’s sign wave generations and Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixing board, blinding bursts of static ricochet off of Yoshihide’s turntable abstractions – exaggerated pops, clicks and cracks even more pronounced and ominous than on the two-disc Good Morning, Good Night recorded for Erstwhile by the same group minus Rowe. These seeming imbalances pile up before Disc 1 comes to a meditative close, a long stretch of what Stockhausen called “colored silence” that offers no sense of conclusion.

If Disc 1 presents many isolated jarring moments, Disc 2 opens with an absolute barrage of musique concrete juxtaposition – bits of almost recognizable tunes and snippets of pure noise in a dizzying swirl of sensory overload. In fact, the middle section of this concert sports some of the most effectively noisy utterances I’ve heard from these musicians, even out-harshing Rowe’s seminal Harsh. Extremities of frequency are both piercing and nauseating, the huge span of space between them never empty and often crowded by what can be described as organized sound. Only in rare instances are individual instruments readily identifiable – a guitar plucked, the lower frequencies of the sounds transformed into dull echoing thuds before disappearing again into the miasma.

The final disc not only explains the previous three hours, it justifies them. There is a settling, a merging, such a complete melding of identities that the exact moment of evolution is still elusive after many listenings. The music that follows is not beautiful, not harsh or sad or reflective; I can only describe it as radiant and transcendently ethereal. There are no new sounds save one, a luminously vague but insistent three-note motive repeated, worried, stretched and augmented. Who is it? What is it? “Love for Sale?” “Tangerine?” Maybe neither. Beyond this, maybe partially because of this, the blend of previously established material seems fresh, egoless and pure. I was reminded of Sorabji and of Clavicembalisticum’s final pages, where all the themes employed throughout the work are drawn together in an astonishing display of counterpoint. As he did last century, these four musicians have given us an epic for our time, all the more impressive as it is fully improvised.

005 is far from indigestible if taken on its own terms. It is a testament to temporal study and expansion, to the fruits of long-term collaboration and to the power and invigoration engendered by a single gargantuan performance.

By Marc Medwin

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