Monday 11th July

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Tonight a review of a CD that comes tucked in the back of a hefty paperback book named Substantials #04. The book is published by CCA Kitakyushu, which would appear to be the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Kitakyushu, which may be a part of Tokyo, but I’m not certain. The book includes transcripts of talks and workshop speeches given by five musicians between December 2008 and January 2010 and the accompanying CD includes a piece of music by each. The musicians involved are Marcus Schmickler, Toshiya Tsunoda, Jim O’Rourke, Akio Suzuki and Keith Rowe.

I have to admit that I haven’t read very much of what is here. I read the transcript of Rowe’s talk, but found very little in it that I had not heard from him before, but as a collection of many of the best Roweian anecdotes collected into one written text it works very well. Schmickler’s piece is a heavy read, but picking at it, it seems like it be well worth the effort when I manage to find the time to spend with it. Tsunoda’s talk doesn’t really work when transcribed. It appears he spoke about pieces of his music he played excerpts from, and without these to hand the piece makes diminished sense. I haven’t looked at the other pieces of text yet. So this review will be about the music on the CD, which incidentally isn’t linked directly to any of the texts anyway, or at least it isn’t discussed so a standalone review is warranted.

The first track on the disc os by Marcus Schmickler, a composition named Pure Umbra. This is a piece of music not much like anything else I can think of, which is entirely to its credit, though I have to say I’m no fan of how it sounds. I’m not certain of the tools used to create the piece, but I suspect computer-based synths of some kind, and possibly following mathematical equations to create some if not all of the sounds used here. Despite the book of writing, nothing is written about the piece beyond the title. The piece is made up of a series of short, five or six seconds bursts of sound that all sound like sound effects from a Star Trek episode, twinkling, chime like sequences, spiralling whistles and phasers set to stun-like blasts. Gradually this all blends together into a wild swarming mass of bleeps and buzzes and scribbles. There is no attempt to disguise the digital origins of the sounds, on the contrary the piece revels in its almost fairground-like playfulness, but there is also a seriousness to the music that reminds me of the work of Florian Hecker to some degree. Its not really my cup of tea, primarily because of the set of sounds used  rather than how they are put together, but certainly its a very different and individual piece of music.

There follows a live performance by Toshiya Tsunoda that (I think) is a recording of thirty pieces of “tablewear”, (possibly cutlery?) as they are affected by a sinewave produced by a piezo transducer. As is often the case with Tsunoda, I’m not sure exactly how he made the sounds that appear here, but they are very beautiful- a kind of gauze-like thin layer of matt finished, shimmering tone that shifts and changes slightly all the time. Now and again things clearly vibrate, and sometimes shudder against the tabletop, the sound captured by the amazing recording. The sounds has an incredible fragility to them, as if one slight move would bring it all to an end. Its very lovely stuff, but sadly about ten minutes into the track a small but particularly vicious scratch on the CD stops it from playing nay further, which is a real shame as although i don’t think much of the piece remained it would have been nice to have heard it all.

There then follows a piece called 8 Pounds 10 and a biscuit tin, a great title to a somewhat flat and uninteresting solo piece by Jim O’Rourke. Again I know nothing about how or when the track was made but it seems to be made from recordings, or rather perhaps a single live recording of something metal being vibrated, either bowed or, maybe more likely having low frequencies passed through it. So we hear a continual, almost rhythmic pattern of swelling and residing metallic glow, maybe not that dissimilar to the music O’Rourke used to make with the likes of David Jackman’s Organum a good few years ago now but with a less harsh, slightly more ethereal sounding finish. Its all a bit bland to be honest, a vaguely ambient wash of steadily rising and falling sound. Perhaps if I knew how it was made I might feel different about it, but with just the sound to go by its not that interesting.

There then follows eighteen minutes of Akio Suzuki playing some of his invented instruments. Again its hard to know exactly how he made each of the sounds here but the piece opens with a performance using an instrument I have seen him work with live- a long springy cable linked to two cups into which he would sing and wail, the sound then sent off in wild, reverberating ways as it travelled down the spring. (Or something like that) We get eight or nine minutes of this performance, which is typically charming, followed by ten more minutes of what sounds like one of Suzuki’s glass harmonica pieces that uses another of his home made instruments to create a blend of billowing feedback-like tones and small, percussive rattles and chinking. The two pieces, spilt down the middle by audience applause are nice, calm little moments, but as is the case with every Suzuki CD I have ever heard, I can’t help but think that listening to a recording of the performance couldn’t ever come close to witnessing it live. While the earlier Tsunoda piece seemed made for being recorded and presented on disc, the Suzuki track feels far too alive and immediate for that, but still its a nice, thoroughly relaxing listen.

Then comes Inside, a ten minute piece by Keith Rowe that again comes with no explaining notes at all. It sounds improvised, but then so does much of Rowe’s work realising scores of one kind or another. Its an intense piece that begins with very little, just small shuffling scratches and rubbing sounds dropped into plenty of white space. Any uses of extended, droning sounds are very quiet, more tints to the background rather than driving forces in the music. Gradually the scratching and crackling extends to radio interference of one kind or another over Rowe’s guitar pick-up and the music fills out a little but the piece remains quiet and understated throughout, even when it builds to a greater array of activity later on. Silence is used very nicely to frame the sounds that appear. Its a tense, bleak affair that I like a great deal, never really reaching the states of anger and violence I have heard in recent Rowe live performances but instead creating a highly charged, oddly alien landscape of small twists and clicks and thuds that has a thoroughly alive, energetic feel to it even though the pace of the music never shifts above the slow steady pace it begins at. Great stuff.

Some details on the book can be found here, but I don’t know where it can be purchased from. I suspect getting hold of a copy may be difficult until distribution appears, but finding a copy is well worth it, for the Tsunoda and Rowe tracks alone besides whatever the book has to offer. I will get around to reading it as soon as I can, and if anything jumps out as particularly vital reading I will report back.

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