CD Reviews

Uncertain Times

September 11, 2007

Ryu Hankil, Jin Sangtae, Taku Unami, Mattin – 5 Modules III


I’m a little late to this extraordinary recording, having owned it a while but only just found the time to play it. However as Mattin’s partially incomprehensible sleeve notes suggest we all need to reclaim our own notion of time, this probably doesn’t matter so much. Time is definitely a central theme of this CD. Ryu Hankil is credited with playing clockwork with a contact mic, and for much of the recording the listener is removed from any preconceived notions of how time is used in improvised music, left with broken parts of a strangely unfamiliar clock ticking, long silent spaces and periodic long passages of electronic drone that do not allow for any flow, yet also somehow also avoid tension. There seems to be little connection between the sound events that occur, and whilst the rhythmic turning of odd deconstructed clockwork-like sound features throughout the piece there is little symmetry to the overall construction that jumps viciously from pin pricks of sound dropped into silence to brittle blasts of digital noise.

I’ll be honest I don’t know what to make of this CD. It falls somewhere between the emptiness of some of Unami’s past music and the raw, dirty electronic sound that is becoming synonymous with the fast emerging Korean improv scene. In places the use of mutated clock ticking and subdued laptop hum produces some interesting shapes picked out of the silence, but in other places the harshness and sheer volume of a drone and the overall ugliness of the sounds used make this a difficult listen. Here and there we are presented with long passages of repeated sounds that resemble the recordings of clockwork slowed right down, each “tick” extended into a rougher sound event. By all accounts Unami heavily edited and reworked the live recording in post production, and its possible these passages are the result of him slowing the music down, again playing with the notion of time. Its also possible that one or both of the laptops are responsible for producing these sounds in real time. There is a definite sense of uneasy imbalance thoughout however, caused in part by this feeling of slowed time.

The music is improvised but there has had to have been some considerable discussion about the shape of the music beforehand. On another sleeve note Hankil mentions that he gained a lot from the musical relationships formed between the quartet, which can be divided into two established duos (Unami/Mattin and Hankil/Sangtae) meeting for the first time. The odd, fractured feel of the entire 55 minute piece resembles more a Radu Malfatti score played with broken electronics than it does an improvisation, and it seems unlikely that this music was arrived at without either some degree of predetermined approach or massive post production treatment. If this music is indeed the result of four musicians playing together and discovering common ground then it is remarkable that they have all arrived here in this strange unorthodox place.

So a CD that has really got me thinking, the kind of challenge we are used to from Mattin and Unami. I can’t help but feel I am missing something important here, something that has caused this music to take such an alien, uncomfortable form. Its miles from easy listening, an intriguing mystery at best, downright impenetrable at its worse, but a disc that has certainly got me thinking hard about its nature, and wondering what on earth I am meant to do with it. Challenging stuff, in the very best sense of the word.

Comments (15)

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 11, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Something I forgot to mention about this disc, and all of the Manual releases so far is that they do not play on my CD player, only on my computer. I also know that I’m not the only person to have experienced this. Foe each of the three releases so far I’ve had to rip the CD to a lossless file and then burn a new CD to be able to play it properly on my stereo.

    A little annoying, but not enough to stop me being interested in the music they are producing right now.

  • Luis

    September 12, 2007 at 3:40 am

    They play just fine in my cd player. I wonder why other people experienced problems with the playing on a standard cd player.

    It’s an intriguing disc for sure – I’m with you, there’s something about the feeling of time slowed down and eerie passages that captivates me.

  • Matt M

    September 12, 2007 at 4:32 am

    Haven’t heard this yet but v keen to. Where’d you buy it from Richard? Sound 323 don’t appear to have it.
    Have you heard Kitsune-Hitori? Does it compare in any way? I’m thinking specifically about the use of the drum machine in it – one of the things I really liked about K-H was its utterly baffling and seemingly arbitrary intrusions of these deathly, rigid, dry drum machine ticks. Like a robot conductor tapping a lectern. Turned the whole thing into a kind of obsessive ritual without any demonstrable point.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 12, 2007 at 6:46 am

    Luis, they come up with the message “disc not finalised” as if they are recorded as data files rather than audio files. No biggie though, just annoying.

    Matt, yes I got Module III from Sound323 a couple of weeks back, though it was in a pile behind the counter rather on sale, not sure what that means. I know Mark had problems playing them also, so he may have sent the batch back?

    Yes I have Kitsune-Hittori, a disc I really need to hear again in light of my recent listening. K-H is quite different, much quieter, more distant and empty. Module III is often right in your face, very loud at times, and the silences are not as deep.

    To be honest I struggle to be able to compare this new disc to very much at all, as it seems to take elements from all over the place and do something really quite different.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 12, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Actually Matt, I played Kitsune-Hittori this afternoon, and the drum machine sounds you mention actually aren’t so far away from the sounds on Module III after all. Its ages since I heard K-H, and oddly I heard so much more in it here than I remembered from the lst time I played it, possibly as a result of more mature listening practices, or maybe just as I’ve been listening a lot in this area of late. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    The drum sounds on K-H are actually credited as “rhythm machine” played by Yasuo Totsuka, and I wonder if rather than a “standard” drum machine this may be a similar machine to the “remodelled counters” he is credited with on the Septet album.

    The last two days I’ve been playing the two CDRs that Luka and others pointed me to by Totsuka and Takefumi Naoshima, and after a slow start enjoying them a lot too.

  • Brian Olewnick

    September 12, 2007 at 8:33 am

    Manual #1 wouldn’t play for me though the second copy of that one and all subsequent copies have done so.

    As a few have commented here and IHM, this one certainly occupies a unique area of space. I like it a lot and, for no particular reason other than Unami appearance in each, think of it in a similar way with respect to his duo with Margarida Garcia at ErstQuake a couple years back, a performance that engendered sharply divided opinions (me on the pro side).

  • david papapostolou

    September 12, 2007 at 9:09 am

    I haven’t heard any of the Manual releases yet, although enjoyed very much the free mp3 available elsewhere and accessible from the different ‘module’ pages. So i am really looking forward to get a copy of these, especially Module II and III. I will also check out the releases on Desetxea, thanks a lot for mentioning these (btw, you are more than welcome to check mine as well, Destexeo138 :)

    Funnily, most of what i have read (very little actually) about Module III mentions the blurring between composition and improvisation, and the fact that the original recording was edited. Back in the old days the justification for improvising must have sounded like “getting away from the musical idioms”. Funnily EIA now actually is a musical idiom, and many of its actors work with compositions every so often. I have only recently discovered Taku Unami’s and Taku Sugimoto’s scores, which mainly inform the performers on when and what to play. These instructions are actually quite loose and i believe are written in order to allow something to happen that an improvised session wouldn’t generate. This might be read as a way to narrow the possibilities to a handful to be explored. But i feel like another important point is that this puts the EAI vocabulary in a new perspective by creating juxtapositions that would not be allowed in a fully improvised setting. As Richard said, neither collective improvisation nor composition seem to be able to generate this music.

    I have been working on something quite similar recently. I have written some sets of instructions that only state when to start, if the ‘sound event’ is short or long, and sometimes a rough idea of the pitch (low or high, this rough:). As i am quite interested in silent interplays too i wrote my instruction in order to make sure silence there would be. I have recorded the different parts myself, and the result is quite interesting as some unintended juxtapositions do happen, or some parts stretch way more than i would have done it if i wasn’t instructed to do so, and so on…In a way i feel like i was pushed beyond my own limitations.

    Richard also said that some of the sounds were actually really ugly. I have been quite intrigued by that too and did try to get rid of the polish as much as i could while recording with these instructions. I can tell you some of it is damn ugly :)) but i think t serves a similar aim as the introduction of rules. There use to be this distinction, possibly by Helmholtz and others, between musical sound, which as a very defined harmonic structure, and noise, which is more complex than that. I think this is what we are re-exploring there. (and again it tells us how EIA is standardized, how we have expectations as listeners and also performers on how it is ‘meant’ to sound)

    Hope it all makes sense

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 12, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Hi David

    Taku Sugimoto’s scores seem to be quite varied, ranging from the loose to the short, but very rigid. An intriguing character all round.

    Composition with EAI as a springboard for creativity isn’t new but is an area I often enjoy. Its notable that the Kitsune-Hittori disc mentioned above is entirely composed, but without the score its hard to tell to what degree.

    This comes back to other arguments elsewhere about how much a musician is happy to explain their influences etc… If I could read and understand the score to K-H it may enlighten me a little more as to what is going on, though in the case of that disc I quite like not knowing.

  • matt m

    September 13, 2007 at 7:03 am

    Looking at the Unami scores posted up by whoever it was via the IHM site, I can imagine that Kitsune-Hitori was generated by very similar instructions. It certainly sounds like it.

    One more thing:

    “juxtapositions that would not be allowed in a fully improvised setting”

    “neither collective improvisation nor composition seem to be able to generate this music”

    That might be true right now, but I don’t see why there shouldn’t come a time when musicians internalise the perversities of music such as this and reproduce it organically. (The way every musician “learns”, consciously or not, from listening to concerts and CDs.) I mean, you can always decide to give yourself your own instructions in an improvisation – you don’t have to have a Taku supplying them. An improvisation could consist of the following instruction: each musician should give themselves arbitrary rules governing when to play, when to keep silent and what dynamics to use; stick to them doggedly; resist any temptation to improvise.

  • Jon

    September 13, 2007 at 8:21 am

    yeah, this CD seems to me very much like the way that Taku U. prefers to play live these days, similar in structure to the Margarida Garcia duo at ErstQuake a few years back, as Brian said. it also reminds me a bit of Raku Sugifatti, in that it tries to reproduce a very specific improvised aesthetic by means of postproduction, and is very successful at doing so, at least for the first two thirds.

    which brings me to my main point: I don’t quite get why no one mentions the right turn this record takes about 2/3 of the way in, as I found the music up until then very good and the last third infuriatingly grating and annoying. are people really that accepting, or is this my own issue?

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 13, 2007 at 8:45 am

    The last two tracks of the eleven work fine for me, kind of the “ticking” sounds brought to play a lot stronger, and minus any other sounds until the very end. The the ninth track is obviously very hard to listen to though, the ugliness of the sounds leaves me almost nauseous.

    So does anyone know for sure to what degree Unami processed the material after the event?

  • david papapostolou

    September 13, 2007 at 10:16 am

    Hi Matt,

    was wondering if it was you actually (ie for the others, now i know :)

    Probably the main impact of scores is the way they are going to affect the group dynamic, to reconfigure the relationship between performers. This is a point i didn’t stress in my previous post but i think this is what is at stakes here. In that sense i would put “Sight” in the same bag: in this case we have an artificial group dynamic resulting from randomness.

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 13, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I haven’t time to go into detail right now David as I’m about to walk out the door, but the intention of sight was to avoid randomness. Sure the usual means of collaboration were missing, but what remains is far from random.

  • david papapostolou

    September 13, 2007 at 10:43 am

    “but the intention of sight was to avoid randomness”

    i am totally aware of that and couldn’t agree more. I think Sight is a great cd and illustrates really well the point i am making.

    Let’s put it another way then: recently it seems there have been quite a few good cds which success resulted from a re-shaping of the group dynamic traditionally found in improvised music. Agree?

    Isn’t that fascinating?

  • Richard Pinnell

    September 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    OK thanks David, that makes more sense to me yes. Sight was about trying to retain the existing group dynamic in quite extraordinary conditions, so yes I guess it worked in a similar way to the kind of open-ended composition we were discussing.

Leave a Reply