CD Reviews

Sunday 23rd August

August 23, 2009

Today was nice. Much of it was spent sat in the garden with Schubert and Mahler struggling more than usual for some reason with yesterday’s Guardian sudoku (I got there in the end) and then this evening we had dinner at a 15th Century pub on the Thames, wondering how baby swans know which mummy swans to follow when they all look the same and watching narrow boats pass by until it got too dark to see anything.

package_2(fix)So after such a tranquil day it seemed fitting to listen to the new Noid / Taku Unami disc again ;). The CD has the typically awkward name of ¬ + : * and is a recent release on Ryu Hankil’s excellent The Manual label from Korea. Noid is the non de plume of the Austrian cellist Arnold Haberl who has played from time to time with Unami in the past, though I think this is their first released recording together. I like this release quite a bit, mainly because it sees Unami working with his amplified devices in a fluid, freely improvised manner rather than anything too conceptual. The majority of the music that makes up these six pieces involved drilling, rattling, woodpeckery percussive sounds, with the question of  which musician is responsible for which sound often very pertinent. Unami rattles things in bowls by passing low bass frequencies through them, or similar semi-erratic processes. Noid (is the name short for No-ID?) mainly makes similar sounds with his cello, playing it often (I think) with a handheld fan (in the absence of a handy woodpecker) placed against the body and/or strings of the instrument. Other sounds do appear, the occasional strumming of the strings or an audible tone from the laptop that drives Unami’s objects, but in the main the music is formed from these machine-like percussive reels.It is all mastered quite loudly as well, do that often small sounds rattling may sound like a pneumatic drill. There is little silence on the disc, so in theory this recording should be a tough listen.

The thing is, it isn’t really. It struck me after listening to this a few times that ¬ + : * is actually one of the most straight-down-the-line fluid improvised releases that Taku Unami has been involved with. What throws you is the instrumentation, that unmusical mechanical drilling. The sounds here sound unlike the instrumentation we have come to associate with improvised music, be it of an electroacoustic variety or not, but the way they are used is actually not that different to a traditional improv session. Sounds are allowed to run, with others interacting with them, the two musicians stop and start playing in tussles with each other, there are tense momentary silences and other sections of all out noise. These descriptions could be applied to a Derek Bailey duo just as easily. What throws us as listeners is the choice of sonic palette used.

So this is actually a really engaging recording, that, if you are able to accept the sounds we hear as just as musical, or potentially enjoyable as any other pulls the listener along nicely. Although the sounds seem to not change much across the entire album they actually do. There is plenty of subtlety there, good use of sudden changes in dynamic and often the ambiguity over who is playing what adds a further level of intrigue. The music is conversational though, a discussion between two sensitive musicians using slightly more unusual methods to carry it out. Though really when we think about it, is playing a cello with a fan any more odd than playing it with bow? Is a big hollow wooden ox not as suitable for percussive sounds as it is tonal? Maybe its just our training through music’s history that leads us to think of one way of playing as right and another as wrong. The same could be said when relating ¬ + : * to other improvised music. So not too many improv records sound like they were made using closely miked bits of old clockwork, but is it so necessary to focus on this surface element, when the real music comes through the way the sounds are allowed to engage with each other to become a third entity again.

For me ¬ + : * underlines just how good an in-the-moment improviser Taku Unami actually is, something often overlooked, and not often captured on CD. Here alongside Noid he has found an equally adept, sympathetic partner. The combination of musicians is of course very important. Compare this CD to Unami’s intriguing release recently with Keith Rowe, and it is immediately apparent that Noid and Unami set out from a similar starting point and follow this through, while the disc with Rowe involves a great deal of searching for a way forward. As a well-formed, complete work ¬ + : * is therefore a more solid statement then, though the history and background informing the disc with Rowe adds a further degree of interest to that particular release.

So this CD (I’m not typing that bloody title again!) is not one for those only interested in Unami’s quieter moments, and might even disappoint those expecting something as conceptual as both he and Noid have released in the past. It is though a damned good release of improvised music, albeit one more suited to fans of the hammer drill.

Some great Ryu Hankil cartoons of the two musicians on the sleeve as well!

Comments (6)

  • jon abbey

    August 23, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Arnold Haberl, not Albert. I don’t really know, but possibly Noid is a shortened version of Arnold.

  • Richard Pinnell

    August 23, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Corrected thank you.

  • simon reynell

    August 24, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Sounds intriguing; I’ll have to get this one.
    But I’m even more enthralled by the typo when you ask:
    “Is a big hollow wooden ox not as suitable for percussive sounds as it is tonal?”
    Now that’s a performance I’d travel a long way to hear.

  • lukaz

    August 24, 2009 at 9:30 am

    there is still a little conceptual thing going on in this ‘drilling, rattling, woodpeckery percussive sounds’ manufacture, since Taku told me via mail that: ‘noid played cello with mechanical devices which are
    controlled by myself’ … which is why the sounds are probably so tight together and fluid (i was impressed by this but was kind of suspicious that some of the sounds from cello’s body and strings may be or not controled by Taku, that’s why ai asked him) so in a way Unami found at least half of the ‘sympathetic partner’ in himself:)

  • Richard Pinnell

    August 24, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Simon- well spotted… A few too many typos have slipped through recently but that one is certainly the funniest….

    Luka – Damn, it looks like I’ve been fooled again! What you say makes sense now when I think about it, and maybe I should have thought of that… So maybe the devices were placed on the cello by Noid but switched on and off by Unami? There must be some input from Noid or this just becomes an Unami solo?

  • lukaz

    August 25, 2009 at 11:01 am

    ‘So maybe the devices were placed on the cello by Noid but switched on and off by Unami? ‘ I would guess so that this is the case and that maybe also some devices are moved by Noid to various parts of cello during playing. I would guess also he sometimes controls the strings w soft pressure, some pluckings maybe even bowing at some point. Like usual Taku was brief saying only what i quoted in previous post. Well he added ‘hope you understand’ at the end, and you can see where we are at this point still questioning things regarding this release:) …

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