the sounds of silence

a few saturdays ago i went to the onkyo marathon at the japan society. i'd been following the various adventures in modern music of the primary names in this tiny yet huge scene in the wire since their july 2003 issue. i thought i'd never get to see these musicians perform unless i went to japan, but fortunately american composer carl stone put together this program and flew over some of the biggest names in this area of music. to illustrate stone's implied concept of japan and new york coming together, he also invited two local artists who have made waves in similar areas.

i arrived as o.blaat was a few minutes into a gently shifting variety of treated nature sounds, minimal clicks, delay loops, and electronic drones that differed from her set at the video as an instrument show. since i was a bit late, i sat in the garden just outside the performance area that has a lighted pond and trees underneath a skylight, with a staircase and a view of other floors and outside buildings. the environment was a fitting combination of organically serene and architecturally repetetive surroundings for o.blaat's music.

i first heard an aoki takamasa piece from indigo rose on the excellent streaming internet radio station glowdot and was instantly captivated. i've yet to find a copy of this for a reasonable price and/or available within 1000 miles of me. even aoki later told me it was out of print and he had brought no copies for sale. his set mixed the clean, mellow, peaceful yet slightly melancholy sounds i had heard with some unexpected yet not incongruous beats, which had enough of a groove to get the head-nodding going but inventive enough to cause a few moments of minor whiplash. or as aoki himself politely warned prior to starting, "it's going to be a little bit funky." two laptops and no microphone.

the second new york-based artist after o.blaat was guitarist elliot sharp. my best friend, noise guitarist bryin dall has said words to the effect that sharp makes him feel about as tall as tom thumb. tonight i understood why. his one long improvisational piece was played on a custom-built acoustic/electric fed into a laptop, but one would be hard pressed to tell what sounds were created by which component of his arsenal. he was constantly working, running his spider-like fingers across the fretboard, pumping a connecting footpedal, and using the mouse to change settings. all this would be for nothing if the music wasn't incredible, but it was. nothing random or gratuitous about it, veering from melodic lines to dissonant chords and insane effects, but never sounding overdone. i don't even know where to begin with his huge discography, but i'll certainly see him live again the next chance i get.

otomo yoshihide surprised me on several levels. i'd read that he was involved in the quiet, minimalist off site scene and heard the sparsely avant-garde loose community CD i'd bought from praemedia. i was expecting some kind of scratchy, space-filled guitar/turntable duet requiring deep listening skills performed by a slightly-built man with a patient disposition. i wasn't prepared for the broad-shouldered, scowling, plaid-wearing brute who lumbered onto the stage with two turntables, a mixer, and several distortion boxes. he then proceeded to bludgeon us with huge slabs of noise that sounded as though they were made of granite. far from a constant punishment, he knew when to stop and vary his attack, throwing in humming ground loops, polytonal buzzing, and stabs of high-pitched sounds so sharp they threatened to take our heads off. he had augmented one tonearm with a spring instead of a needle, which he used to complete an electric circuit with his body, alternately gripping it forcefully or yanking it so far it looked as though the whole setup might snap and fly in his face. he also brought along other objects to move on the surface of the platters, but none of them were records. this may be the closest i come to experiencing a merzbow show. pure joy.

an unexpected bonus was the surprise world debut duet perfromance of sachiko m and nobukazu takemura. although it was very good, somehow it was exactly what i expected: subtle sine wave manipulation and minimal computer clicks. one interesting detail was nakamura's apparently sprained or broken finger (see above). however, part of the nature of experimental music is that it isn't always brilliant every second it's unfolding, but rewareding nonetheless. i was happy to have seen them at all, since they were scheduled only separately on the previous night (announced after i had already bought my ticket).

what was engaging the entire time was yoshimitsu ichiraku, who i'd never heard of. apparently a renowned percussionist, he started getting into MIDI and computers and created his doravideo project. each of the drums in a live kit is fitted with a trigger connected to his laptop, which affects video files that play back according to his performance. a dizzying array of clips flashed across the screen, sometimes too fast to assimilate, sometimes viciously slow and looped. singing japanese girls, war footage, reagan and bush speeches, even kiss were rocked back and forth by ichiraku's live beats as though a DJ were manipulating a record. in one amazing sequence (pictured above), jack nicholson takes about 3 minutes to chop through a door in the shining while shelly duvall's screams scraped between the speakers like a gear grinding an axle.

the final performances of the night were two improv pieces by yoshihide, sharp, and stone himself, joined by guitar/electronics wunderkind taku hannoda. this last player's mischeivous and disruptive presence was the best thing about the quartet's competent but halting improvisations. at the end, hannoda's toy whistle was so ridiculous that it had everyone onstage and half the audience trying unsuccessfully to keep from laughing. this was a nice relief from the sometimes stuffy and unnecessarily serious aura surrounding experimental music. truly a once-in-a-lifetime event i was glad to have been at.

the title of this post comes from a simon and garfunkel song.