far more complex than anything we can produce with sound

Here is the piece I wrote for the February issue of The Wire.
I am posting two versions: the first is the longer, with the musician’s quotes intact; the second is the version published in The Wire.
Thanks, as always, for reading.

The heading is a quote from composer Michael Pisaro – Music is far more complex than anything we can produce with sound.

=========================================

In Clive Bell’s 2003 Wire piece on the Tokyo-based improvised music scene coalescing around a small venue called Off Site, he quotes Toshimaru Nakamura’s observation about guitarist Taku Sugimoto: “Sugimoto is like a cat…pouncing when excited. Then when he doesn’t like something, he’s off, never says goodbye.”

In the decade since Sugimoto, Nakamura and others formed their ongoing, five year series of performances at Off Site [a scene generally described by the ambiguous placeholder onkyo], Sugimoto has indeed taken off without a goodbye. His indifference to the sort of improvisation he was an integral part of creating for a brief but catalytic period was clear by at least 2001. That was the year Sugimoto inaugurated a composed music series at the venue, dubbing Off Site “a tiny academy of the onkyo order”, and the year he experienced an epiphany while attending a performance of Wandelweiser composer Antoine Beuger’s five hour, silence-laden calme entendue (Spinoza). It would be several years before Sugimoto articulated the “bizarre sensation” he experienced as a unitive one, a sense that the Wandelweiser composer had integrated musical form, structure and materials in a way that made the onkyo aesthetic seem, by contrast, stagnant and self-referential.

While Sugimoto gradually shifted the distillation of his musical concerns from the realm of improvisation to composition, he has retained some old fashioned values. “I have a different idea than Keith Rowe. The guitar must be a guitar for me. I never lay the guitar down, because the guitar has a history.” This retention of the guitar qua guitar is heard to lovely effect on b minor, the only piece on which the duo engages in an old-fashioned guitar duet [if you count the nuanced integration of sine tones and e-bows as old-fashioned]. The pair further confound expectations of the avant-garde by basing their collaboration on such radical notions as pulse and pitch.

Composer Michael Pisaro, a long time Wandelweiser mainstay, had concurrently developed an approach to composition that privileged within his musical structures sine tones, noise, silence, and the performer making choices about specifics as essential as pitch and instrumentation. In the same year Sugimoto called free improvisation a “grave,” Pisaro was saying “Notation is not a form of communication, but an incitement to action [or non-action].” On the core value of music-making that unified the Wandelweiser and onkyo approaches, silence, they were completely simpatico. “There is almost no distinction between improvisation and composition in accepting silence”, Sugimoto wrote in 2003. Two years earlier, Pisaro had written, “silence is [for me, anyway] far more complex than anything we can produce with sound.”

You might expect, then, that the three pieces co-composed by Sugimoto and Pisaro will have a preponderance of extended silences and compositional gravitas. Upon learning that the pieces were created without the pair hearing each other’s contributions, each adhering to a few basic ground rules [they would work independently and combine the results later, they would each write three 20 minute pieces organized around the concepts of pulse, pitch and wave], you might further imagine another work in which the concept trumps the musical results.

Instead, Pisaro and Sugimoto have, by dint of their aleatoric method and whatever magic obtains, created three pieces that integrate the best aspects of their respective last decades of shedding the extraneous and drilling down to the essential. As Taku Unami, one of Sugimoto’s collaborators who has himself shape-shifted since the early days of onkyo said, “I am interested in saying, this is the only kind of sound I could have made.” Exacting, but hardly prescriptive; the three pieces are as distinct from one another as one could hope for.

There is an improbable aura of minimalist suspense akin to Sugimoto’s duo with Malfatti [2 seconds], an updating of the embryonic guitar tones and astonishing melodic and harmonic beauty both musicians have offered in previous works [b minor], and the knitting together of samples, sines and steady-state drones [wave] characteristic of Pisaro’s finest releases of the past couple of years, July Mountain and a wave and waves.

What magic does obtain in a process of collaboration in which neither of the guitarists could hear their partner’s contribution? The fruition of Cage’s life-long exhortation that musicians and listeners alike risk trusting chance processes; Pisaro and Sugimoto’s trust that the listener will hear for themselves whether the pair reached each other across an enforced silence, distance and personal history; and as I have elaborated above, that the musicians years ago planted their work as much in silence and emptiness, as sound; and perhaps, for this listener, a willing suspension of that reflex that opposes the elegance of flux, to grasp after explanation.

Every sound counts to these two. At the conclusion of b minor, a deceptively simple, naive chord progression Sugimoto repeats for the piece’s 20 minute duration, he resolves the dark, minor-keyed exercise with a major chord. An aleatory second after, Pisaro hangs a pure, dissonant note in the air to decay. As much as any music I have heard in a long while, this is a perfect moment that resists explanation.

=========================================

In Clive Bell’s 2003 piece for The Wire on the Tokyo improvised music scene coalescing around the venue Off Site, he quotes Toshimaru Nakamura’s observation about guitarist Taku Sugimoto: “Sugimoto is like a cat…pouncing when excited. Then when he doesn’t like something, he’s off, never says goodbye.”

In the decade since Sugimoto, Nakamura and others formed their ongoing series of performances at Off Site (a scene generally described by the ambiguous placeholder ‘onkyo’), Sugimoto has indeed taken off without a goodbye. His indifference to the sort of improvisation he was an integral part of creating was clear by 2001. That was the year Sugimoto inaugurated a composed music series at the venue, dubbing Off Site “a tiny academy of the onkyo order”, and the year he experienced an epiphany while attending a performance of Wandelweiser composer Antoine Beuger’s five hour, silence-laden calme entendue (Spinoza), which integrated musical form, structure and materials in a way that made the onkyo aesthetic seem by comparison stagnant and self-referential.

Composer Michael Pisaro, a long time Wandelweiser mainstay, had concurrently developed an approach to composition that privileged sine tones, noise, silence, and the performer making choices about specifics as essential as pitch and instrumentation. On the core value of music-making that unified the Wandelweiser and onkyo approaches, silence, they were completely simpatico. “There is almost no distinction between improvisation and composition in accepting silence”, Sugimoto wrote in 2003. Two years earlier, Pisaro had written, “silence is [for me, anyway] far more complex than anything we can produce with sound.”

You might expect, then, that these three pieces co-composed by Sugimoto and Pisaro will have a preponderance of extended silences and compositional gravitas. Upon learning that the pieces were created without the pair hearing each other’s contributions, each writing three 20 minute pieces organized around the concepts of pulse, pitch and wave, working independently and combining the results later, you might further imagine another work in which the concept trumps the musical results. Instead, Pisaro and Sugimoto have, by dint of their aleatoric method and whatever magic obtains, created three pieces that integrate the best aspects of their respective last decades of shedding the extraneous and drilling down to the essential. The aesthetic is exacting, but hardly prescriptive; the three pieces are as distinct from one another as one could hope for. 2 seconds carries an improbable aura of minimalist suspense; b minor updates the embryonic guitar tones and melodic and harmonic beauty both musicians have offered in previous works, and wave knits together samples, sines and steady-state drones in the manner of of Pisaro’s finest releases of the past couple of years.

What magic does obtain in a process of collaboration in which neither of the guitarists could hear their partner’s contribution? The fruition of Cage’s life-long exhortation that musicians and listeners alike risk trusting chance processes; Pisaro and Sugimoto’s trust that the listener will hear for themselves whether the pair reached each other across an enforced silence, distance and personal history; and perhaps, for this listener, a willing suspension of that reflex that opposes the elegance of flux, to grasp after explanation.

Every sound counts to these two. At the conclusion of b minor, a deceptively simple, naive chord progression Sugimoto repeats for the piece’s 20 minute duration, he resolves the dark, minor-keyed exercise with a major chord. An aleatory second after, Pisaro hangs a pure, dissonant note in the air to decay. As much as any music I have heard in a long while, this is a perfect moment that resists explanation.


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