Radu Malfatti, Taku UnamiNovember 27, 2012
A live recording then of a meeting of two of my favourite musicians, though in the case of one of them, Taku Unami, one wonders if musician is still the apposite term. By the time these two performed together in New York in September 2011, Unami had primarily stopped working with anything that could traditionally be described as an instrument and had taken to building constructions with empty cardboard boxes, string, lights and those metal automatically retractable measuring tapes. I witnessed him work with these tools on a few occasions around the time of this performance and found it incredibly enchanting, and thoroughly musical, but the event was a thoroughly visual experience. There were hollow cardboard crashes when constructions came tumbling down, either deliberately or otherwise, and the sound of one of those tape measures zipping back into its little case has always been a secret pleasure of mine, but while the sound element in it all was important, the performance could only be described as incomplete without the visual element.
So even before playing this disc I wondered how on earth this release would pan out as a document of the event. Having played it a few times and listened carefully I like it a lot, but still have no idea how well it represents the evening. In some ways it is always an intense pleasure to listen to Radu Malfatti play. Clearly this isn’t a solo, (he does have a solo improvisation on the way early next year) but hearing him play in this situation, presumably responding to events around him that are not necessarily audible here is an interesting experience, as if all of the other parts in a group improvisation had been muted, leaving his contributions alone. There are plenty of other sounds on this disc. Voices can be heard often, in or around the small venue, there are the usual coughs, chair creaks and passing sirens we expect from this kind of recording, and the performance is topped and tailed by chatter. At the start we hear the audience talking, some voices close to a microphone. This goes on a while, and not being the biggest fan of the American accent it gets a bit tiresome after a short while before, quite beautifully, the room falls silent in an instance, presumably as the performers took their positions. At the end we hear Malfatti bantering a little about whether the performance has finished or not. Everything in between is beautiful, but whether what I hear and piece together in my head as beautiful is anything like what actually occurred is anyone’s guess.
The question then is partly whether this recording is really representative of what happened in that small room a year or so back, but then also whether this really matters or not. If I had not seen Unami perform in this way myself elsewhere, what would I make of this disc? While Malfatti is obviously listed on the liner notes as playing trombone, Unami has nothing written against his name. Left with just the audio to listen to, what would someone who wasn’t aware of Unami’s antics, who hadn’t read any of the many accounts of the performance placed online make of this disc? I am reminded of Derek Bailey’s duo recording with Min Tanaka. In the sleevenotes to that release Bailey went to great lengths to state that the music was made by a duo, even though all we could physically hear of Tanaka’s contribution was the occasional padded footstep nearby. Thinking about it in the same way, then everything we hear here is created by the duo. Even when we seem to only hear Malfatti his playing is influenced by Unami. The placement of the boxes then, the tape measures, and who knows what else almost form a score for the master trombonist. The almost incidental sounds of the tapes snapping shut, the boxes tumbling could then perhaps be considered in the same way as the rustling of paper as a traditional score is turned on a music stand, but that would be unfair to Unami, as the few sounds his constructions do make are clearly an intended part of the performance. Reading Brian Olewnick’s take on this CD, given that he was present on the night, clearly much more happened on the evening that could never be understood just from this recording, no matter how hard you listen. So as a document of what was doubtlessly a wonderful event, this release, for me only does half the job. As a separate object though, and if you try and make yourself ignorant of the little you know of the live performance and just approach it as a piece of work on its own, its a curious, and often quite lovely affair.