CD Reviews

Saturday 27th August

August 27, 2011

Today was a hectic day at work, so it was good to pick something extremely calm and gentle to listen to this evening, and though the phone wouldn’t stop bleeping at me and running various attempts to listen through tonight’s CD uninterrupted, I very much enjoyed spending time with a new release by Mitsuteru Takeuchi and Manfred Werder recently released on Takeuchi’s Futow label. The disc appears to be a realisation of a Takeuchi score named 々. Now in case your browser didn’t display that title correctly, it appears to be some kind of four pointed star shape, the meaning of which I have no idea. Fortunately these days I write a blog rather than present a radio show like I used to, pronouncing that symbol would had been even more difficult again. Perhaps then (as maybe we might expect) this is a very quiet, and somewhat unusual work.

At the Futow website Takeuchi also presents the brief score to this piece, which is made up of a brief, somewhat confusing set of three mathematical calculations and then an even more confusing explanation of the same calculations. It can be seen here. How these calculations relate to what we hear on this CD, I have no idea, but I will admit to enjoying listening to the disc a great deal. From the minute we press Play, the first thing we notice, once our ears, and the volume dial are adjusted to the very quiet nature of the recording, is the sound of a room, in which presumably the musicians sat. For the most part we hear nothing in the room but the gentle clouds of room tone created as the microphone picks up the natural frequencies of the space. Then we hear distant, very distant trains, and the vague sounds of a city. There is some evidence of movement in the room, maybe a chair creak, maybe papers turned, but no more than that, what we mostly hear when we really peel back our ears are those urban sounds, thinned out to such a degree that much of the detail is missing. It is very hard to tell whether the sounds are being picked up from outside the room on the microphones used to record the musicians, to whether they are played back into the space by the musicians themselves as recordings.

After seven minutes or so it does sound like the sounds get a little louder and clearer as footsteps are heard, a train seems much closer, which makes me wonder if indeed we are hearing a recording played back in to the room rather than just the sounds of the city captured live. My thoughts on this are amplified at the fourteen minute mark, just about half way through the CD, when the urban sounds suddenly cut dead and all we are left with is the toneless hiss of a microphone left recording nothing obvious. From here on, for the final fourteen minutes I found myself turning the volume right up so I could inspect every second of the white noise for clues about what we are listening to. Nothing gives though, and despite a few false alarms when I actually heard things in and outside my room here and mistook them for blemishes on the recorded silence, there is nothing other than that grey hum of microphone gain for the rest of the disc.

So to summarise- fourteen minutes of very distant urban sounds and maybe, just maybe some kind of close-to-hand human activity clouded by the hum of mic gain, followed by the same amount of time of nothing but the hiss. There is no obvious sign that anything obviously musical takes place, and the score is equally as baffling. Spending time with this CD then requires a lot patience and a temperament that does not get riled when nothing much happens. My first run through the disc was a baffling one, but subsequent listens have been more rewarding, a chance to sit and listen to (next to) nothing after a day of listening to just about everything.

This music provides no obvious answers of explanations, but to me its about listening, listening carefully to what is presented, and then trying perhaps to continue to listen once it has been taken away, subtracted. The first half of the disc encourages us to listen closely, pick out familiar sounds and then listen hard for anything extra we mightn’t expect. We listen for some evidence that this is a musical performance- we struggle to hear anything that might pass off as an instrument- we don’t quite know if we hear anything like this or not. So then the second half of the piece suddenly begins and all that is left is that hiss, which we barely miss without headphones and the volume dial cranked up. if the first half seemed to be preparing us for something, what we get is nothing. The lull before the storm turns out to be the lull before the even bigger lull.

Presenting this work as a CD is a bold, original move. We have heard quiet CDs often before, and the sound of room tone isn’t original by any means, but what strikes me as so unusual about this disc is the way it behind with little, but instead of building into something, it just stops and gives us nothing. Not just for a moment or so either, for half the disc, fourteen minutes or so. Clearly I do not understand the score, and I have no idea what role the musicians play in this piece, what they are doing, if indeed they are doing anything. I can then, given my ignorance of so much, only really enjoy the CD for what it is- a very quiet disc with an unusual structure. The act of listening to it, trying to work it out is rewarding in itself. I like a good puzzle. The sounds of the first half are actually really beautiful though as well, and when the silence feel for the second half they remained with me, like the coloured shapes left on our retina after staring at bright lights. So, as confusing as it may be, something about 々 remains very beautiful, and somehow alive and very present. One for the hardcore fans of this area only maybe, but then I’m one of those, so it pleased me a great deal.

Comments (2)

  • duif

    August 28, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Richard, in Japanese 々 is a kanji iteration mark, referred to as ‘dōnojiten’ or ‘noma’. If the same kanji appears twice in a row, the second time you can use this character instead of drawing it all over again (for instance 時々 = 時時). Maybe this explanation sheds some light on the music on this disc?

  • Richard Pinnell

    August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for that David. I’m not sure if it sheds any light… maybe. Interesting all the same.

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