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Keith Rowe / Sachiko M - Contact

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Artist: Keith Rowe / Sachiko M

Album: Contact

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: Jan. 8, 2010

Fans of improvised music love to argue, almost as much as they love to listen. And two of the most tenacious subjects (which are also two of the most tiresome) are arguments about instrumentation and legitimacy (this is where “jazz guys” kvetch about electro-acoustic music), and arguments about staleness (this is where Bailey-ites often suggest that only first-time meetings produce music of any vitality). This release – from a concert at 2008’s Amplify festival in Tokyo – thankfully ignores both kinds of hand-wringing in showcasing the depth and texture of the long-standing interactions between guitarist/electronician Rowe and sine wave/contact mic specialist Sachiko M.

The two discs consist of four tracks, each one a kind of sculpted metal. Their titles – “Square,” “Oval,” “Rectangle,” “Circle” – certainly suggest elemental, fundamental things at work. But in fact – and in distinction to the musicians’ work from a mere half-decade ago – there’s a roiling, almost busy quality within this music. It’s not necessarily the kind of thing that’s obvious unless one is accustomed to this kind of music, as the surface can come across as being quite sparse. But it’s there, as emphatically as the very full sine tone that opens things up.

It initially reminded me of Sachiko M’s solo mini-disc on A Bruit Secret, a distilled essence, but the hive quickly rises to activity as Rowe establishes his presence with a dizzying variety of wet sounds, crackles, low animal noises, and a bevy of things scraped, rubbed, and dragged. “Square” breaks, stutters, and oscillates ever so minutely, a sound so basic and strong, yet positioned in such a way that the dry, almost organic noises that fleck here and there seem like skin sloughed off, delicate and fragile.

Yet, it’s not simply achieved by what the musicians do in response to each other. Rather, it’s also achieved by their determined transformation of their own sound. Listen closely and you can hear the subtle, almost imperceptible dips and rises from Sachiko M, sometimes presenting as dynamic shifts, sometimes as color, sometimes as density. And Rowe, too, keeps scaling things down through tiny squeaks and cries that escape. The metal layers peeled back, what’s left is only your activated ears and a rusty, faulty top moving in fits and starts across a tabletop.

“Oval” moves in a completely different direction, so dotted with pops and squeaks that it could reasonably be called contrapuntal. What begins disparately moves steadily together as the piece moves forward, the pace of the music picking up until all sound is squeezed out. Even more tension opens “Rectangle,” with barely stated pulses, gestures left insubstantial, rests and fractures, almost like the music is trying to resuscitate its dying body. But this notion belies how vital and active the piece with, with rapidly articulated and discarded ideas, a whine, a burn, a whoof, a distant alarm clock, flame. And on “Circle,” Sachiko M uses contact microphone to great effect, creating all kinds of grinding and ripping noises that sound like detached turntable tuners exploring the furniture. So as ever with this pairing, it’s both a challenge and a gas to articulate how and why there is pleasure in listening. The intensity of the musicians’ commitment to this interaction, to an extremely remote area of the music, is actually quite beautiful (the same is true of the superb Erstlive 008, a riveting duo from Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura).

The more I’ve listened to these pieces over the last several months, the more I find myself pleasantly bewildered by them. While they possess many of the qualities I’ve come to associate with these musicians and with this general area of the music – the way that the position of the head and the layout of the listening space dramatically effect the reception, for example, along with a generally marvelous attention to contrast – the music’s tough to “know,” because its very abstraction in some way demands that it be “read” imagistically (Rowe the wave, Sachiko M the rock) and also because it resists such tendencies.

Over time, what ultimately strikes me about the pieces is the way they initially come across as a refinement and distillation of this pair’s creativity, but later reveal a deep restlessness at their heart and an equally palpable tension as the performances seem to wrestle internally. That their wrestlings should be so compelling even as they make nary a concession is part of what brings me back to them. I love the perplexities of this restless sound.

By Jason Bivins

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