Hidden TreasureAugust 30, 2007
This CD is not a Wandelweiser release, and its character is actually quite unlike most Wandelweiser compositions, but on the slightly dodgy premise that the music on this disc is extremely quiet I thought I’d write about it amongst my Wandelweiser explorations. This is a new release on the Meena label, which is an offshoot of the Improvised Music from Japan imprint. I’m not really sure of the purpose of said offshoot, but that’s neither here nor there. The typically beautiful sleeve includes notes from one of the musicians, Takefumi Naoshima, and also from Toshiya Tsunoda, from whom the following paragraph is excerpted:
“The question of audibility aside, the quietness of quiet sound is an unmistakable characteristic in and of itself. While playing music at very low volume has the effect of concentrating listeners’ attention, this is surely a matter of degree. When sound is excessively quiet, it’s hard to determine what one should be listening to–and the normal human reaction is not concentration, but irritation. The basis for evaluating sound volume (as in the case of the sound level meter) is the human being’s sense of hearing. At the same time, the place and conditions in which sound is produced come into play as well. The dynamic range of our sense of hearing is related not only to the energy of the sound, but also to the structure of the eardrum. When a strong vibration shakes the eardrum, which is a very thin membrane, quiet sounds occurring at the same time are masked by this large wave and rendered inaudible–just as, when a stone is thrown into a big ocean wave, the ripples instantly disappear.”
The music on this CD is very quiet. Very very quiet indeed. You need to turn the volume up just to hear anything at all. It was recorded at the Tanker studio in Tokyo with the input from the studio microphones turned up very high to capture the faint sounds made by the seven musicians, which consist mainly of little more than tiny clicks, whirrs and flutters. The list of ‘instruments’ involved is intriguing, ranging from the traditional, two guitars, a flute, and a trombone through to a mixing board, a compressor of some kind and Takehiro Kawaguchi’s ‘remodeled counters’. The musicians play very softly indeed. The effect of having the microphone gain so high is a continual hiss throughout the two tracks on the CD and every slight movement, rustle, deep breath or cleared throat from the musicians is amplified loudly and becomes part of the recorded matter, and according to the sleeve notes even external sounds from outside the studio space seep into the recording, though listening its hard to tell where any of the sounds are really coming from.
And that is just what makes this disc so interesting. The first track in particular contains very little that could be considered “musical” in any traditionally accepted meaning of the term, and so the intentional clicks and whispers merge with the unintentional rustles and scrapes, and it all reaches the eardrum of the listener as one collection of sounds, the difference between them unidentifiable. At one point a sound occurs that could eaily be one of the musician’s stomach rumbling as much as it could be a contribution from an instrument. This merging of the deliberate and accidental is a very simple idea, yet one I really am not sure I’ve encountered before. For sure I have heard many discs of quiet, even near silent music that emphasises the musical qualities of external sounds creeping in, but never one where the muscians play so quietly that all of their actions could be mistaken for the ambient sounds of the room and consumed within them. Its as if they are trying to hide their sounds as a kind of musical camoflage. This first 47 minute track is of course not the most gripping of works if you are looking for an example of fluent interactive improvisation. Its highly doubtful that even the musicians were aware of which sounds made it into the recording and which did not. As a really interesting experiment and a document of the effect that this kind of recording can have on the listener (in contrast to Tsunoda’s words I didn’t find it irritating, quite the opposite) I really like this.
The second track, shorter at just under 20 minutes contains a lot more input from the musicians. A continual clockwork-like ticking noise features for the first half of the track (possibly the remodeled counters?) and a series of extended sounds actually make for quite a nice little improvised miniature. In a couple of places a very loud note appears (this happens once in the first piece as well, near the end, be warned if you’re drinking a hot drink as it comes as a shock) and you have to reach for the volume control, only having to turn it right back up again straight after. This track works very nicely from a musical perspective. the background sounds and hisses are still there, very much so, but the musician’s contributions are more distinct, and show a sensitivity and tension that the first track could never have portrayed. Its almost as if this piece is included as a reward to the determined listener that made it through the first track. That odd pink drink you get after the dentist has finished assaulting your mouth… (!)
If you buy the CD direct from the label you also receive an extra CDR recording of the septet playing live at Mitaka Arts Centre as long ago as November 2005. (The studio recordings date from November 2006) Again the music is very quiet indeed, and the CD is mastered very low, requiring a further turn of the volume dial to bring out what is there. Although quiet, the recording is very clear, consisting mainly of traffic sounds from outside the venue. The audience are either very few in number or impressively silent, and what we are presented with is a soft, gentle hum of the city with occasional pinprick moments of sound dropped in by the musicians. Personally I can listen to this kind of thing all day, but the intriguing experiments of the studio recordings are less impactful here, the microscopic alien soundworld replaced with a familiar ambience.
There is an obvious comparison to be made here with Taku Sugimoto’s Live in Australia recordings, although with the solo guitar of Sugimoto’s releases it is clear when the musician is responsible for a sound. Here, with such an obscure array of instrumentation involved (I am assuming the same items are used as on the main CD, though this isn’t made clear) there is perhaps less tension, less personal engagement with the musician, and more intrigue. Was that sound Totsuka’s ‘compressor’ or was it a passing bus?
Like the Wandelweiser releases I imagine this release will have far more detractors than supporters, but whilst it might sound quite different to any of the CDs on that label, Septet exists partially to ask similar questions of how we sit and listen to recorded music, and challenges our perceptions of what we should hear when we press Play. I may be in a minority but I like this.