AMPLIFY 2002: balance
Since its inception in 1999, Erstwhile Records has become one of the most important labels in improvised music. This success is due largely to Erstwhile’s unique aesthetic. Most improv labels are small-scale hit and run affairs which do little more than document the activities of their proprietors. But under the direction of Jon Abbey, Erstwhile is ambitious in scope and unashamedly proactive. Abbey says he’s “trying to push incredibly talented musicians into territory they might not otherwise explore, for better or worse – but hopefully for better!” Keith Rowe, stalwart improviser of long standing and a shrewd observer of the contemporary scene, welcomes this approach. In his opinion, Erstwhile is the label “most in touch with significant developments in improvised music”. These developments – most importantly, the move away from discrete instrumentalists and towards electronics-drenched soundscapes, and the reduction of musical material to little more than sinew and bone – have, in recent years, obliged improvisers to reassess their working methods.
AMPLIFY extends Erstwhile’s activities into live performance. The festival programmes are carefully curated with the intention of, as Abbey puts it, “making the sum greater than the parts – that, for me, is the main meaning of the term AMPLIFY; not only that the musicians within a grouping amplify each other’s ideas, but the performances amplify each other also.” His first festival, AMPLIFY 2001: mainsine, took place at Tonic, New York City. The success of the venture encouraged him to make it an annual event. But his boldest decision was that AMPLIFY should be a moveable feast, because “this music, maybe more than any other in history, is developing on a worldwide scale, whereas most of the previous kinds tended to arise from one geographic area.”
AMPLIFY 2002: balance was held in Tokyo between 18-20 October. The enhanced scale of the enterprise was important to Abbey, as was the degree of cross-fertilisation between European and Japanese musicians. Four sets were played on each of three consecutive evenings. Some were world premiere performances. Many of the groups involved had already recorded for Erstwhile. Some have recordings in the can which the label will issue in 2003. Others – such as Astro Twin and the Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet – were non-Erstwhile groups in perfect accord with the festival programme. Jonas Leddington filmed the proceedings for release on DVD. All concerts were recorded, and a CD/DVD box set is planned.
What follows is part diary, part running commentary on AMPLIFY 2002. A preliminary version of this report was published in issue 226 of the UK music magazine, The Wire.
The plane descends through a wispy layer of cloud and touches down at Tokyo’s Narita airport. Having several hours to kill before I can book into my hotel, I take the Skyliner train to downtown Tokyo and visit the Ueno Park zoo. A fellow traveller decides to accompany me. It’s a dazzling day, very hot, humidity is high and the animals in the outdoor pens are listless. The pens themselves seem too small for large animals such as rhinoceros and giraffe. A dispirited-looking buffalo stands in profile. While chatting, we watch him for maybe five minutes. Apart from an involuntary swish of his tail, he doesn’t move a muscle. A pygmy hippopotamus sprays liquid faeces into one corner of his tiny pool. He moves to the far end of the pool, swings round, lumbers back into the bloom of polluted water.
In the building in which the nocturnal animals are housed, the pens seem even more cramped. Although the burrowing animals can root in a thin layer of dirt, they can’t burrow. Beneath the dirt there’s a bedrock of concrete.
Children peer at the animals and look distinctly unimpressed. Maybe they’re suffering from information overload. Maybe they’re just hot and bored. As we walk in the shadow of the suspended monorail, a bell tolls. Its sonorous note sends a ripple through the still air – pure sonic refreshment. The sound seems to be emanating from an Edo-period shrine, Tosho-gu, only a short distance away. This reminds me that I’m in Tokyo to write about music. Time to move on.
In my hotel room near the Aoyama-1-chome subway station, seriously jetlagged, I decide to take a 30-minute nap. Two hours later I wake to find that I’m about to miss the start of a lecture/performance at the Goethe Institute by analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and G3 electronicist Marcus Schmickler. My head is swimming. I’m exhausted. Leaving an apologetic note at reception for Jon Abbey, whom I’d arranged to meet at the Goethe, I return to bed and the inconstant embrace of Morpheus.
I’m fuddled but wide awake, unnaturally so; it’s an unpleasant variation on a caffeine high. As I stroll through the neighbourhood to clear my head, Tokyo flickers into life. I return to the hotel to find a message from Jon Abbey – would I care to join him for breakfast? In a coffee shop near the subway station we discuss AMPLIFY 2002 and the pre- and post-festival events that Toshimaru Nakamura and Taku Sugimoto have programmed. Apparently, the gigs which took place between 12-17 October were very well received. Further performances are scheduled for 21-26 October.
We congregate outside our hotel, The Asia Center of Japan, by a couple of the street vending machines that are ubiquitous in Tokyo. These two sell iced coffee and tea in almost every conceivable permutation, several brands of mineral water, a variety of soft drinks; also the delightfully named Pocari Sweat, an ion replacement drink that tastes of sugar water laced with a homeopathic dose of lemon. Apart from Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler, who are staying at the nearby Goethe Institute, we all have rooms on the third floor of the hotel. Introductions are made. I’d previously met Lehn and Keith Rowe, albeit fleetingly, but Schmickler and Leddington are new acquaintances. Headz operative Nobuki Nishiyama arrives in a people carrier to drive us to Kichijoji where the festival venue, Star Pine’s Café, is situated. Another round of introductions ensues. We set out in characteristically heavy Tokyo traffic for Shibuya, one of the Tokyo hubs (a city within a city), then work our way at a snail’s pace towards the outlying suburbs.
Star Pine’s is located on a narrow and surprisingly quiet side street, only a few yards from a busy main thoroughfare. The club occupies the basement and sub-basement of the building. Inside, the Star Pine’s staff, the sound crew and Headz co-ordinator Atsushi Sasaki (who also runs the record labels meme and Weather, and edits the magazine Fader) are hard at work. Toshi Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama, both clutching guitars, are waiting to do a soundcheck. An air of steady purposefulness prevails. Taku Sugimoto arrives, swiftly followed by Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide. Worryingly, Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, who were due to fly into Narita this morning, haven’t shown up or even made contact. Everyone else is here. I'm introduced to the journalist/photographer Yuko Zama, who is covering the festival for a magazine to be published in December by Improvised Music From Japan. We talk briefly about the Tokyo music scene. AMPLIFY 2002 is "very different, very special", she believes. As Sasaki and the crew have everything well under control, I lure Abbey to a nearby Starbucks for coffee (and an opportunity to experience Western cultural imperialism first-hand). On our return, we're told that Stangl and Kurzmann have been picked up and are on their way to the venue. Despite his apparent calm amidst these stressful proceedings, Abbey looks relieved.
The audience files into Star Pine’s. Among their number is my travelling companion of the previous day. Although he’s never heard any music of this kind, he’s keen to give it a try. Knowing how allergic people can be to difficult or extreme musics, I expect him to slink away, probably before the end of the second set. By 6.15 p.m., with a substantial audience crowding the space, the atmosphere at Star Pine’s is smoky, hot and very humid. The ventilation system is running on max, and the quietest and most spacious music of the evening gently troubles this air-conditioned ambience.
Taku Sugimoto’s Guitar Quartet consists of Sugimoto, Otomo, Akiyama and Nakamura, all playing acoustic or semi-acoustic instruments. Initially, they produce pure-toned single notes, each of which is allowed to decay before another is plucked. The success of a music such as this is heavily predicated on the placement of sounds, perhaps even more than on the qualities of the sounds themselves. But as the piece evolves, sounds begin to overlap, amplification is introduced, there's a whispery trace of feedback. Slowly, the dynamic range starts to widen, notes are articulated differently and sometimes they're damped or a little vibrato is added. From a tranquil beginning, tension builds. The music comes to seem less and less aleatoric, more and more improvised, and a very satisfactory balance of materials is achieved.
By comparison, Cosmos – the duo of sinewave manipulator Sachiko M and vocalist Ami Yoshida – is not so much quiet as intimate. Having heard Sachiko M’s sine wave music only on CD, I had a mistaken impression of how it should be listened to. I’d assumed that, like Phill Niblock’s pieces, her music should fully occupy the space in which it’s played. Consequently, I’d always played it LOUD. The moment that she and Ami Yoshida (originator of the so-called “howling voice”) begin their set, I realise my mistake.
Misunderstanding is one thing, but a more fundamental problem is that I found Tears, the recent Erstwhile disc by Cosmos, hard going. Nor had I particularly enjoyed the F.M.N. Sound Factory double CD by Cosmos and another of Yoshida’s groups, Astro Twin. But context is everything, and in the context of AMPLIFY 2002 Cosmos makes perfect sense. At low volume, Sachiko’s delicately modified sine waves, and Yoshida’s austere vocal productions – often no more than the play of air drawn back over her vocal cords – are a far richer experience than I’d anticipated. I’ll return to those recordings with fresh ears.
While Yoshida produces sounds that are a curiously compelling mixture of retching and birdcalls, Sachiko makes microscopic adjustments to her instrument and creates textural play with a contact microphone wrapped in elastic bands. I notice that many of the seated members of the audience are leaning forward, eager to catch every nuance of the performance. The effect is spell-binding.
Yoshida has stated that she “strives for a barely audible sound that is perceived as sound itself rather than as vocalization”, but she doesn’t always achieve this. Near the end of the set there is, by her standards, a lapse – a series of plaintive cries, the hint of an ululation – that alerts us to the fact that this is a human voice, and a rather extraordinary one.
The chairs in Star Pine’s Café are buttock-numbing, the tables are crammed together, and during the brief lull between sets members of the audience get up to stretch their legs. I chat briefly with Tetsuro Yasunaga (of Cubic Records, the label that has just brought out Vehicle, a new solo CD by Toshimaru Nakamura), then I stroll around Star Pine’s and sit back down. My travelling companion comes over to exchange a few words. I expect a tone of polite disengagement, a few platitudes – but, no, he’s enthusiastic. He makes pertinent comments about both sets – the gradually interlocking components of the Sugimoto Quartet, the quietly stark drama enacted by Cosmos. He’s travelling the world to gain, and hopefully enjoy, new experiences, and it would seem this event qualifies on both counts.
Drama of an altogether more robust kind is provided by the trio of Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler. This isn’t a first encounter; they’ve recorded a session for Erstwhile, to be issued early in 2003. The set begins loudly and lopsidedly, with Lehn assuming a soloistic role, piling sound upon tumultuous sound, maintaining tensile drones, furiously twiddling knobs and momentarily ramming a soundcard into a slot on his synthesizer to disrupt the sequencing. This is exciting stuff, although at first it restricts Rowe and Schmickler to a supportive role. In stark contrast with his duo with Lehn on day two of AMPLIFY, Schmickler’s contributions are low key and largely enigmatic. Rowe, applying various noisemakers to his tabletop guitar, eventually penetrates Lehn’s barrages of sound and brings a less choppy, more linear perspective to the music. Lehn responds well to this turn of events, although occasionally he sits back and adopts the chin-stroking posture of a chess grand master troubled by the inscrutability of an opponent’s move. It is, in the end, a successful set, though someone wryly observes that all three musicians are members of the large improv group MIMEO (Music In Movement Orchestra), and often, as when MIMEO performs, chaos and disaster were only narrowly averted.
Computer trouble delays the start of the final set of the evening. G3 operator and Charhizma label founder Christof Kurzmann, together with fellow Austrian, guitarist Burkhard Stangl, are reprising material from their CD, Schnee. A screen is unfurled at the back of the stage, the room is darkened, and as the musicians begin to play, images from films by Barbara Albert (Nordrand), Chris Marker (Sans Soleil), Jean Luc Godard (Passion) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (In A Year Of 13 Moons), all drastically reworked by video artist Michaela Grill, are projected. Almost nothing of the original film-makers’ work is identifiable: it’s mere image-fodder.
The music is neither soundtrack nor commentary, it merely coexists with the visuals and moves in parallel. While Stangl strums open chords and strikes glittering harmonics from his acoustic guitar, Kurzmann provides a clicky, hissy, slightly sinister undertow laced with swelling drones and abrupt transitions. Afterwards, Kurzmann tells me that the problems he was experiencing with his computer limited what he could do. Maybe that's why, in one section, he softly blew long notes through his clarinet, and even improvised a bleak little song.
We’re in a traditional Japanese restaurant on a back street in Kichijoji, a tatami mat place where, shoeless, you tuck your legs under you and sit at low tables. All of the musicians are here, and the people from Headz – 25 of us, maybe more. The food is delicious, and subtly different from the Japanese food I’ve eaten in the UK. The textures and flavours are delicate but utterly distinctive. No sooner has each communal dish been emptied than another appears, then another, and another. The waiters must be running a relay race between our tables and the kitchen. I soon lose count of how many dishes I’ve sampled.
But everyone is in the mood to celebrate. The first day of the festival has gone extremely well. Round after round of Sapporo beer is ordered. As the gaijin (foreigners) drink, their chopsticks skill decreases, whereas the Japanese retain full dexterity no matter how drunk they get. I get into a lengthy and animated discussion with Thomas Lehn about pianism and creative interpretation in the classical field. On virtually every point we agree, and agree wholeheartedly, but I’ve drunk just enough beer to forgot almost the entire conversation by the following morning.
While equipment is being set up and soundchecks undertaken, Burkhard Stangl and Taku Sugimoto are bent in concentration over a chessboard. Each of them holds a lit cigarette he’s forgotten about. Yuko Zama photographs them from the balcony. To one side of her, Jonas Leddington is interviewing and filming Günter Müller. Evidently they’ve been talking for a while. I eavesdrop: Müller is an excellent interviewee, Jonas is getting good material. Onstage, while testing his equipment, Keith Rowe taps into a local radio station. The Japanese host drones on, at maximum volume, and Leddington and Müller can’t hear each other speak. It seems an appropriate moment to wind up the interview. But as soon as Leddington turns off his camera, the radio host stops talking.
Having completed his soundcheck, Rowe tells me that the amount of concrete in Japanese buildings, and the density of housing, inhibits certain radio frequencies. On the five occasions in which I hear him play in Tokyo, in various basements or sub-basements, he uses the radio hardly at all.
As show-time nears, Stangl and Sugimoto carefully transport the board backstage; they haven’t quite finished their game. Or maybe this is another game. Later, I ask Sugimoto, “Did you win?” “No,” he says. “Do you ever win against Burkhard?” He gives me a rueful look and shakes his head.
The temperature today may be slightly lower, but if anything the humidity is worse. There’s a crush around the upstairs and downstairs bars. Star Pine’s is bustling; the place is almost full to capacity. To get more people into the club you’d need to employ those white-gloved attendants who squash commuters into subway trains during the rush hour. In this hothouse atmosphere, Günter Müller and Otomo Yoshihide take to the stage. There’s a palpable air of expectation, to which I’m contributing. At breakfast I’d confessed to Keith Rowe and Jon Abbey that I was perplexed by Otomo; although I’d enjoyed several of his recordings, I didn’t really understand why people held him in such high regard. “You’ve never seen him perform?” asks Jon. That’s all he feels he needs to say.
To either side of Müller's table of instruments stand a cymbal and a floor tom: the deconstructed remnants of a drum kit. Arrayed between them are electronic gizmos of various kinds and a huge number of beaters, teasers and agitators. Otomo is operating a pair of Technics decks, and there's a guitar propped up alongside him. Throughout most of the performance the guitar maintains a low-volume feedback squall. Its function appears to be similar to that of the tambura in Indian classical music – to provide a reference point. In this case it’s a point from which to deviate. From time to time Otomo adjusts the pitch and timbre of the feedback by re-tuning the strings, he even bows them at one point, but mostly he works at the turntables with or without records.
Fundamentally, he and Müller layer pulses and rhythms on top of drones or repetitive material. As they continue to add levels of complexity, the music builds steadily in excitement. Otomo gets a wonderful percussive sound from one of his turntable cartridges by gently tapping it with a felt-headed beater: it's like a subterranean explosion modulated by a gong. This signals a turning point in the music. Müller's heavy beats pan across the stage from speaker to speaker like rolling thunder, and this noisy percussion duo reaches a climax with Otomo pounding one of the turntables rhythmically with his fist. Otomo and Müller were in the recording studio a couple of days earlier, and the music they made there was apparently as successful as their festival performance but also rather different. When both the studio recording and the box set are issued, it’ll be interesting to see just how different they are.
During the interval I have a quick word with Bill Ashline, an American living in Seoul. Bill, who was responsible for setting up the electroacoustic discussion group at yahoogroups.com, has been filming AMPLIFY 2002 for his personal archive. Jonas Leddington later tells me that Bill has offered him this footage for use on the DVD. It’s a very generous offer, and Jonas looks pleased.
Although Marcus Schmickler maintained a low profile yesterday evening with Keith Rowe and Thomas Lehn, tonight, in his duo with Lehn, he’s altogether more feisty. Immediacy and being in the moment are what free improvisation is about, but some musics feel more immediate than others. This music is definitely one of them. Anyone who has heard Bart, Schmickler and Lehn’s Erstwhile CD, knows that their music is hi-energy, fast paced, buffeting and bruising. There’s a massive turnover of events, and the music is relentless, exciting and loud. One wag said it reminded him of a free jazz blow-out, something along the lines of Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald circa 1973; but a more useful point of comparison is with the English electronics duo Furt. The music is so huge, and it has such a powerful presence, that when near-silences occur they seem to be carved out of the granularity of sound.
Lehn, a virtuoso performer on analogue synthesizer, an instrument which would seem to deny the possibility of virtuoso handling, is an endlessly fascinating player. He’s fascinating to watch as well as listen to. His every gesture emphasises how physical his relationship is to music, although sometimes the music seems to be acting upon him rather than vice versa. The main problem the duo has is one of co-ordination, but this becomes apparent only when they try to bring the music to a close. Schmickler, who evidently hates over-tidy resolutions and clichéd endings, rejects the first opportunity that presents itself. But after one or two stagger-on moments, they finally reach the same place at the same time and for precisely the right reasons.
The last two sets could hardly be more different from this, or from each other. Earlier in the day, Christof Kurzmann visited an electronics store in Shinjuku. He’s now replaced the faulty component in his Macintosh computer. But during the first part of his set with guitarists Taku Sugimoto and Burkhard Stangl, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his G3 had irretrievably broken down. The guitarists, sitting at opposite sides of the stage, play quietly disparate musics that take up very little space, and Kurzmann seems to be contributing nothing at all. It’s an aural illusion; his sounds are so subtle, so unobtrusive, that you feel their effect on the music before you hear (and can rationalise) what that effect might be. Nothing that Kurzmann does is showy or superfluous. Much of his music hovers on the threshold of silence. Essentially, he provides the glue which binds the guitarists together. The Polish label Musica Genera recently issued an interesting CD by the trio, but this live set suggests that their music has reached a new level of sophistication.
One of the things you can say with confidence about Keith Rowe is that he doesn’t sound like any other guitarist (except, of course, for those who’ve adopted his techniques wholesale). Another is that, of the so-called ‘first generation’ of British free improvisers, he’s the one who has most willingly taken on new musical challenges. His duo with Toshimaru Nakamura is a case in point. The music they make is without precedent in the history of free improvisation, yet it’s obviously a continuation of that tradition. Nakamura’s instrument, the no-input mixing board, is a piece of technology made to serve one purpose that’s now being put to a different use entirely. The limited palette of sounds generated by the mixing board could be approximated quite easily by a sampler, but in application it wouldn’t sound the same. The music is as it is because of the difficulties posed by the instrument; the sounds it makes aren’t wholly predictable, and they’re hard to control. The only additional devices Nakamura employs are two delay boxes, which allow him to create ‘real time’ repetitive figures. Patiently, tentatively, he coaxes the mixing board into life, and it stutters, barks and sings. Its penetrative whine cuts again and again through Rowe’s softly malleable blocks of noise like a hot knife through butter. Rowe, who has a thorough understanding of Nakamura’s stripped-down aesthetic, operates wonderfully within it. The performance is less poised, less artfully sculpted than their CD, Weather Sky, but it has an authenticity about it, the feeling that nothing in the improvisation is inevitable, that even the musicians are surprised by the music they’re making.
One of the rules at Star Pine’s is that concerts have to end by 9.30 p.m. Consequently, the sets have been slightly shorter than usual, most clocking in around 35-40 minutes. Perhaps that’s why the music seems so tightly focused.
We clamber up the stairs and take to the backstreets of Kichijoji, searching for a restaurant. It’s raining heavily – unseasonal summer rain, which soaks but doesn’t chill. Taku Sugimoto and Tetuzi Akiyama take the lead. Myself, Burkhard Stangl, Thomas Lehn, Christof Kurzmann and several others blithely follow. We’re the vanguard of the party. Our job, if I’ve understood the situation correctly, is to find a restaurant that can accommodate all of us. We then have to phone the others and tell them where we are. By the time we find a suitable place we’re soaked to the skin. No matter. Within less than 10 minutes we’re all sitting together, the tables are laden with drinks, and Otomo offers helpful advice on the food and initiates a preliminary series of toasts. The rest of the evening passes in a happy blur.
Around 1.30 a.m., back at the hotel, I interview Jon Abbey about his reasons for setting up Erstwhile. By then I’m so tired that my questions seem, and most likely are, pedestrian. Even the batteries in my voice recorder are running low. I suspect that he’d have been better off interviewing himself.
Despite being drop-dead tired, I’ve slept for little more than an hour, and fitfully at that. For want of anything better to do, I decide to take a walk. Cutting into the narrow streets behind the hotel, I skirt the perimeter of the Aoyama cemetery. Rain continues to fall, but it’s finer now, it hangs in the air like a mist. Apart from a sullen-looking tabby cat waiting on a doorstep, I don’t see another living thing until I reach Roppongi. Once there, I head towards Shibuya. The rain has stopped. Despite the lateness of the hour, some cafés are still open, and whenever someone enters or exits one of them a subdued burst of highly manicured, characterless pop music is heard. Music is one of the myriad networks of activity which bind human society together and make large cities viable. But random bursts of Westernised pop are, thankfully, only one aspect of Tokyo’s rich musical life. I’m looking forward to this evening’s concert at Star Pine’s. Of Tokyo’s twelve million inhabitants, probably less than a thousand know about AMPLIFY 2002. Pop music may be ubiquitous but it’s everywhere largely ignored, whereas the comparatively small AMPLIFY audience is attentive to a fault. I try to draw some kind of conclusion from these observations, but what I come up with is feeble, a banality: AMPLIFY and pop music touch people in different ways. As I turn into the street where the hotel is situated, birds begin to sing loudly, in competition with the early rush hour traffic. This brings Messiaen to mind, which doubles my pleasure.
While Jon Abbey and I discuss AMPLIFY 2002, and Jonas Leddington films us, Taku Sugimoto hovers in the background. On day one of the festival I asked Sugimoto whether I could interview him, and, somewhat reluctantly, he consented. Since then, he’s been friendly but elusive.
The main problem is there’s no-one to translate – no-one with time to spare, that is. My Japanese is almost non-existent, and Sugimoto is uncomfortable with the idea of expressing himself entirely in English. His ideas about music are complex and deeply felt, and understandably he doesn’t wish to express them badly. Despite these difficulties, we’ve made a tentative arrangement to talk this afternoon. I try to catch his eye, to indicate that it’s our turn next, but by the time Abbey and I have wrapped up our conversation Sugimoto has, yet again, disappeared.
To create a music for voice that is stripped of vocalizations is an almost impossible task, but that’s what Ami Yoshida is trying to do. When Astro Twin, her duo with synthesizer player Utah Kawasaki, takes to the stage on the last day of the festival, what’s immediately apparent is how little material she’s allowing herself to work with, and how much she’s capable of doing with it. Her position is almost as ambiguous as that of the singer in Kafka’s story ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’. Josephine, we are told, has to put “such a terrible strain on herself to force out … we can’t call it song … [because] any music there may be in it is reduced to the least possible trace". And yet, "Anyone who has not heard her does not know the power of song." Yoshida is in danger of painting herself into a corner. But tonight it’s not a problem, she still has room to manoeuvre.
Her audience, however, is faced with a problem of different kind. It’s hard to accept what she does simply as sound, and not bring to the listening experience unhelpful analogies and spurious metaphors. Sometimes she makes sounds that are, for example, reminiscent of harsh bird calls or metal grinding on metal, but to apprehend the music in this way blunts its emotional directness. Perhaps for that reason alone, the set’s best moments occur when her voice blend almost imperceptibly with Kawasaki's electronic twitters, grumbles and crackles, and referentiality is lost.
Although the Astro Twin performance seems less suspenseful and less tightly focused than that of Cosmos two days earlier, it has strong characteristics, and I suspect it will transfer well to CD. Some musics require repeated listening to appreciate them fully. This may be one of them.
The duo of Burkhard Stangl and Günter Müller is an AMPLIFY 2002 world premiere. At first glance their working methods seem antithetical. Müller's performances often contain long, unbroken spans of music, whereas Stangl is particularly interested in the fractured architecture of silence and sound. This is borne out during the first few minutes of the performance: Müller dictates the pace and shape of the music, and Stangl struggles to find points of intersection. But suddenly Stangl seems more comfortable. He embellishes the music with soft guitar chords, widely spaced, repeating the same ones again and again. In terms of 'traditional' free improv, this approach may seem semi-detached, perhaps even sterile, but in terms of what the music requires it's pertinent and selfless. It’s almost as though Stangl is anticipating points of intersection some minutes hence, whereas Müller is dealing with the music on a moment-by-moment basis.
Müller and Stangl’s set turns out to be a AMPLIFY highlight. A highlight in what is already a festival of highlights. When I ask musicians and members of the audience which performance they found most satisfying, this one receives the most nominations.
One would expect the home crowd to be blasé about a set by Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura, but the atmosphere at Star Pine’s is heady with anticipation. As both players have extensive discographies, it’s tempting to predict what the music will sound like, and I succumb to temptation – I make a handful of preliminary notes against which I expect, during the performance, to place a tick, and perhaps add a word or two of refinement. But my notes remain unchecked. Instead, fascinated, I put down the notebook and listen. The music, for the most part, consists of charged silences punctuated by clicks, crackles, truncated drones and blips. Some of the ultra-high-frequency sounds trick the ears; they begin long before you become aware of them and seem to have a posthumous life. Nakamura and Sachiko’s concentration is formidable; they hardly move a muscle during the performance, and neither does the audience. What’s difficult to understand is how a music that consists of so little can have such a powerful impact on the listener. But quantity is irrelevant; the quality of musical judgement is what counts. Sachiko and Nakamura seem almost miraculously attuned, their judgement is virtually flawless.
Keith Rowe has played every night of the festival, and on two of those occasions he’s been among the headliners. Tonight he’s joined by Günter Müller and Taku Sugimoto. In 1999, this trio made one of Erstwhile’s most bankable CDs, The World Turned Upside Down. Since then they’ve played together several times more, and the music has undergone a number of changes, the most significant of which is Sugimoto’s considerable refinement of musical language. He, like trombonist Radu Malfatti, considers most improvisation much too strident and garrulous, and as time goes by there are fewer musicians he finds it satisfactory to work with. Even within this trio there are signs that he’s not altogether comfortable. But although Sugimoto plays sparingly, he also plays with great sensitivity to the music and the moment.
If anything, it's Günter Müller who has the greater problem. He's used up quite a bit of his material during the second set of the evening, and now he’s keen to avoid déjâ vu. But this self-enforced limitation seems to trouble him hardly at all. Although it’s noticeable that he plays much less forcefully than during his two previous AMPLIFY encounters, and his music seems less busy here and less densely layered, what he does perfectly complements Sugimoto’s delicate note-spinning and Rowe’s sympathetic drones. It’s a perfect example of how improvisation can transcend all manner of difficulties, to create a music of rare invention, one that probably couldn’t have been achieved by any other means. This set provides a fitting end to AMPLIFY 2002.
I interview Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, separately, in an underground coffee shop in the Aoyama station complex. Burkhard and Christof sit far apart, so they can’t hear each other being interviewed. This allows me to repeat some of the more basic questions – such as, ‘What were your first musical influences?’ – without embarrassment. Luckily, neither of them sticks to the point. The answers, ranging far and wide, give rise to a more imaginative line of questioning. Soon we’re just talking, having a lively conversation, while the tape machine motor drones on.
Jon Abbey and I meet Yuko Zama outside Starbucks, Shibuya. She’s taking us to a screening at a gallery cum performance space called Uplink Factory. The work we’re going to see is entitled Tiny Miracles in the Daily Life, a series of brief, poetic films by video/sound artist Takagi Masakatsu. The slow motion water-based pieces, ‘Eau’ and ‘Water Fall’, are especially good, although I agree with Jon when he notes a discrepancy: the music is generally less compelling than the visuals. The films are, however, haunting, like dislocated memories of childhood.
We take a train to Sangenjaya and enter a side street near the station, searching for Grape Fruit Moon, where a post-AMPLIFY concert, ‘The Guitars’, is scheduled to take place. Struggling to find the venue amidst a warren of obscurely numbered buildings in narrow streets is, for we gaijin, part of the fun, but Yuko, a Tokyoite in love with the logically numbered, gridlike streets of Manhattan, who frequently gets lost in her home town, is exasperated. Having a map doesn’t seem to help. We abdicate responsibility and tease her remorselessly until she manages to find the venue.
Downstairs, the musicians are testing their equipment. There’s a mahogany bar to one side of the room, and seating in the main area for no more than forty people: an intimate space. Jonas Leddington has situated his camera at the far end of the bar, well away from the beer taps and the till. The first piece is a Taku Sugimoto composition performed by the full group, but the only person who seems to be doing anything is Toshimaru Nakamura. Nakamura’s electric guitar lies face-up, the strings untouched. For several minutes he tweaks the parameters of a feedback drone using almost nothing but the volume and tone controls on his guitar and amplifier. “No-fingered guitar table,” he later quips. It’s a pure exposition of Sugimoto’s minimalist aesthetic.
For the second set, Nakamura is joined by Sugimoto, Tetuzi Akiyama, Otomo Yoshihide, Oren Ambarchi, Burkhard Stangl and Keith Rowe. They perform pages 82-84 of Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’. The music is consistently interesting, but whether the performance is faithful to Cardew’s score is, as always for the listener, hard to determine. Rowe, a Cardew associate who has played ‘Treatise’ on numerous occasions, seems satisfied – perhaps that’s the best indication.
The final set, an imaginative, meticulously controlled and thoroughly satisfying improvisation by all seven players, rounds out the evening. If any of the pre- or post-AMPLIFY performances ends up on CD, I hope this is one of them.
Afterwards, as the audience files out, Taku Sugimoto and I sit down to talk. As expected, he politely refuses to say anything about his history, and most enquiries about the current state of his music elicit a stock but perhaps not inappropriate response: “You decide”. After almost a week of playful evasion, neither of us is in the mood for serious Q&A. Grinning, thwarted, I shake his hand and we head for the bar.
For some reason, the seating has been turned round to face the back wall. I have no idea what’s going on until the room is darkened and a video of a live concert is projected. It’s one of those incongruous mix ’n’ match line-ups that suggest good publicity rather than good music – a ‘supergroup’ performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, or perhaps Montreux, circa (at a guess) 1972 or ‘73: Buddy Miles, Jack Bruce, the wonderful Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and three or four other musicians who look and sound familiar but whose names disobligingly won’t come to mind. Christof Kurzmann and Oren Ambarchi prove to be the experts in this field. Between them, they name all of the aforementioned musicians, as well as the hitherto unidentified Stephen Stills, Rahn Burton and Buddy Guy.
Totally against the odds it’s a terrific concert, in which the ensemble is tight and everyone is given a chance to shine. Otomo and his friends particularly enjoy aspects of Buddy Miles’s drumming: thunderous forays around the kit which end with a simultaneous crash of bass drum, snare and hi-hat. It’s theatre, pure and simple. But there’s more to Miles’s playing than that: he’s so in-the-pocket it makes your heart skip to a different beat. We watch the video, drink beer, yack like jackdaws, and only just remember to catch the last train home.
The weather has changed once more, and for the better. A stunning day: brilliant sunshine, low humidity. Strolling towards Shibuya, I take photographs as I go. I venture into the narrow and winding backstreets, and view the ornate facades of the surprisingly decorous love hotels (Greek temples in miniature, etc.). After quickly checking out the reggae sections at HMV and Tower, I catch a train to Kichijoji. I’m running late. GOK Sound, my destination, is just around the corner from Star Pine’s Café. In a cluttered basement studio, Oren Ambarchi, Keith Rowe and Toshi Nakamura are about to begin a recording session for Yoshiyuki Suzuki’s label, Improvised Music From Japan. Jon Abbey is sitting cross-legged on the floor, writing notes. Jonas Leddington is packing up his equipment, preparing to leave. The session should have started well over an hour ago. Proceedings have been delayed because of a change of studio suite and a persistent hum on a piece of Ambarchi’s equipment. Eventually, the session gets underway without the fault having been remedied. From whispery beginnings the trio constructs a thickly-layered drone which peaks, around the twenty-fifth minute, with a disruptive outburst from Nakamura’s no-input mixing board.
Back in Shibuya, Jon and I meet with Nobuki Nishiyama, who takes us to the Headz office. There’s a vast, slithery mountain of CDs in the middle of the floor which threatens to avalanche at any moment. Piles of unsorted paperwork litter every available surface. Surprisingly, despite the air of terminal chaos, real work appears to be getting done. While Jon chats to amiable Headz mainman Atsushi Sasaki, I visit the room across the way. It’s a store selling books (art and music) and CDs, stocked with almost nothing but obscure and covetable items. Given the parlous state of my finances, it’s a good thing I left my credit card back at the hotel.
Next stop, Shinjuku station. We’re meeting with the AMPLIFY crowd, then going to a Korean restaurant. Nakamura and Rowe, who’ve come straight from the recording studio, say the session went well; another, much longer piece was taped. On the way to the restaurant I fall in with Patrick Boeuf. Patrick is writing about AMPLIFY for the French quarterly revue, Peace Warriors. Despite bumping into each other several times a day during the last five days, he and I have exchanged only a few words. We discuss performance ritual with Yuko Zama en route to the restaurant, and when we reach the restaurant we discuss, inevitably, food. After a few Sapporo beers (and sips of a peculiarly flavoured and very potent milky liquor, a Korean traditional drink I didn’t catch the name of), the discussion widens to include Thomas Lehn and our other tablemates, and the topics become numerous and diverse and almost impossible to recall except as deliciously free-floating fragments.
Narita Airport, Terminal 1: I’m waiting to board an 11.00 a.m. Virgin flight to London. Curiously, in the entire complex, there can’t be more than a hundred passengers. Airline staff and security guards are notable by their absence; but as I stroll along the mall, roving security cameras monitor my progress. There’s no muzak, no voices, no hum of activity. Almost none of the cafés, shops and restaurants are open. For want of anything better to do, I end up nursing a black coffee in an empty MacDonald’s and wondering where everybody is. Not the airport personnel – I mean the people I’ve spent time with in Tokyo, everyone who contributed to the success of AMPLIFY 2002.
To all of you, and to Jon Abbey in particular, I say:
It’s been a considerable pleasure.