taku sugimoto | opposite (1998)

1997 was a pivotal year for Taku Sugimoto. He recorded two more albums in the first half of the year, further honing the gentle aesthetic he’d been increasingly exploring on his other recent projects. Though the electric album Flagments of Paradise was released first, Opposite, which featured Sugimoto solo on both acoustic and electric guitars, was recorded a couple of months earlier, in April 1997. The album, Sugimoto’s definitive statement up to that point, also became one of his most widely known. The Swiss jazz/avant label Hat Hut put it out in 1998 on their shortlived hatNOIR imprint – alongside somewhat similar work by underground guitar legend Loren MazzaCane Connors – giving Sugimoto his first real exposure outside of Japan.

Like some of Sugimoto’s other work from the era, Opposite‘s 20 tracks encompass a wide range of styles and techniques, from warm, rich strumming to high-pitched electric tones to minimalist pieces where solitary notes are surrounded by chasms of empty space. Unlike those oft-tentative early works, though, Opposite is fully realized and coherent, a dazzling and confident display of understated virtuosity, with not a note wasted or out of place.

What’s most immediately striking about Opposite is how inviting and, frequently, beautiful it is. Each piece is an evocative miniature on which Sugimoto toys with melody and song structure without ever allowing his rambling to fully cohere into recognizable forms. He retains a sense of abstraction even at his most melodic, and vice versa: the result is this incredible feeling of being perfectly suspended and still, in the midst of music at once aloof and alluring, perfectly structured and structureless.

The disc maintains an overall mood throughout, but Sugimoto varies his approach quite a bit from one piece to the next. On “Midnoon,” softly cascading electric guitar tones wash over one another, creating a sensation like careful footfalls in shallow water. The brief next track, “Opposite,” features harsh, spiky plucking, while “Subtle” is one of the most melodic and straightforward pieces here, a lovely little tune that represents one of Sugimoto’s closest ventures toward more Connors-esque bluesy territory. Later, on “Paris,” Sugimoto returns to the high-pitched, popping, crackling electric tones that he’d earlier mined on pieces like “Kira” from Myshkin Musicu for Electric Guitar.

The always restless guitarist never sticks to one mode for long. But where his restlessness had seemed like uncertainty on earlier albums, here it’s evidence of an artist who has cultivated a wide palette of effects and is applying it, judiciously, within the confines of a comparatively narrow aesthetic. There’s plenty of space here, as Sugimoto frequently allows moments of silence to stretch out, only playing again when the previous note’s reverberations have fully subsided. The result is music that feels calm, patient, even when Sugimoto’s bending his strings more forcefully and plucking out harsher sounds. Even the spikier pieces feel deliberate, each “wrong” sound carefully placed.

The result is a very curious album, this beautiful work that’s quietly gnarled with tension inside. Even when the music approaches lyricism, as it frequently does – Sugimoto’s playing can be downright gorgeous – there’s this distance to it, this chilly sensibility that suggests the guitarist archly eying each note as it drops from his instrument, watchfully ushering it into its proper spot. The music, though so outwardly gentle, resists being fully embraced for its beauty alone – one has to also accept the moments when scratchy little pinprick tones ring out, or when the strings jangle from being plucked too abruptly. The second track “Bells of…” is a perfect encapsulation of Sugimoto’s prickliness. Between long gulfs of quiet, with only a steady bed of tape hiss, Sugimoto suspends a variety of single tones: sometimes a warm, rounded note; sometimes a sloppily strummed chord with his fingers squeaking against the strings at the end; sometimes a sudden burst of buzzy noise.

Though the music is slowly paced, utterly patient, and generally quiet, tracks like this unsettle the surface calm with the unpredictability of their details, rewarding close attention by unveiling the wealth of nuances and variety within Sugimoto’s playing. He gets so much texture out of such seemingly simple tones, all these little quavers and incidental buzzes from fingers lightly brushing strings. The acoustic tracks, especially, are extraordinarily tactile, and the lovingly detailed recording helps call attention to each touch.

It’s been over 20 years since Sugimoto recorded Opposite. In some respects he’s become a very different artist in the intervening decades, heading down some unexpected paths. Still, the patience and the craft he mastered here have very much remained vital to his sensibility through all his transformations, and Opposite‘s tense, oft-prickly beauty remains a key text in understanding his music. Even more importantly, the years have not at all dulled this music’s subtle power.

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taku sugimoto | myshkin musicu for electric guitar (1996)

Taku Sugimoto’s second full-length solo guitar album (following 1988’s very different Mienai Tenshi) finds him moving more conclusively towards the spacious, searching sound that would come to define his playing through the early years of the 2000s. The 3″ EP Alto had been mostly a catalogue of approaches, and there’s still a bit of that on Myshkin Musicu for Electric Guitar, but Sugimoto seems to have found his voice, even though he’d soon go on to state these ideas more completely and confidently on subsequent albums.

This album is for sure a bit of a patchwork, compiling tracks recorded in late 1995 and early 1996 with a couple of live performances from a little later in the year. Sugimoto’s electric guitar tone is warm and rich, sounding gentle high notes that quietly decay into empty space. Pieces like the lengthy “Marguerite (More Slowly)” are undeniably lovely, with each quiet guitar note or prickly little cluster seeming to emerge without a ripple from the surrounding stillness and fade back into it just as easily. By later Sugimoto standards his playing here is quite active, rarely letting more than a handful of seconds pass by without a note, but the sense of restraint is still palpable. “Bateau” is equally patient in its pacing, but with more of a jangly, nervous energy, with lots of thin, metallic-sounding string-plucking surrounding the occasional warm, rounded tone.

“Bell” is certainly the most extreme piece on the album, a 7-minute exercise in patience and stillness. Sugimoto plays mostly very similar-sounding tones that sustain and fade gradually, sometimes trembling and vibrating between pitches as they recede. The gaps left in between are filled with distant traffic hum, squawking bird calls, and the creaking noises of the guitarist shifting in his chair as he waits to play again.

The opener, “Kira,” is possibly the standout in this general vein, though. Sugimoto sticks to very high, clear tones here, each one hitting with a sharp attack and then gently softening into a warm ringing haze. The clarity and precision of his playing is really something, especially as the first thing heard on his first album in a new style: he’s already a long way from the dense, unappealing improvisations of his cello album Slub or his early distortion-clogged rock guitar music. This piece, not as spacious as the longer tracks, toys with melody but doesn’t quite embrace it fully, instead letting the skeletal structure rest beneath the surface, just barely driving the track forward.

There are also a couple of tracks here that suggest Sugimoto was continuing to research other possibilities alongside this new style. On “Guitar Amp II,” fuzz, distortion, and feedback create a foreboding dark cloud of noise that slowly builds and threatens to explode into a raging storm but never quite does. Instead, it crackles and sputters, falling into regular cycling rhythms and periodically swelling in volume a bit. Early on the moody slow build is compelling, but it soon becomes tedious, a dull rhythmic throb with all the tension dissipating unspent.

One of the more fascinating elements of this disc is the 11-minute “Improvisation,” which as a documentary piece captures an important moment. In July 1996, Sugimoto visited Chicago with friends and bandmates Tetuzi Akiyama and Atsuko Ohno. For the piece recorded here, from a live performance, the trio was joined by Chicagoans Kevin Drumm, Brent Gutzeit, Michael Hartman, and Michael Colligan. It’s an early indication of the cross-fertilization of local scenes that would be a crucial factor in the development of this music over the next decade. Sugimoto and Akiyama would return to Chicago again, and Drumm would be an important collaborator for Sugimoto in the next few years. Together they’d release a split album announcing their overlapping visions, and a pair of proper duo collaborations.

As actual music, though, this first encounter is unsurprisingly a mess, with little cohesion and no sign of the developing aesthetic kinship between Drumm and Sugimoto. Drumm and/or Gutzeit unleash harsh shards of noisy debris, Colligan plays skronky sax solos over the top, and Hartman and Ohno contribute nervous bursts of percussive clatter at the edges. It never quite explodes into the all-out chaos it could, but the tentative meandering of the large and varied ensemble is somehow worse because it feels so obviously aimless. Sugimoto plays in the warm, spacious style familiar from the rest of this album, which mostly relegates him to a background role, quietly ambling away unperturbed as the rest of the group launches their various assaults around him. Only towards the end, when some of the noise subsides and things seem to be winding down, does his gentle playing ring out clearly.

Aside from this oddity – and the two short, unrewarding “Madarkam” pieces – Myshkin Musicu is Sugimoto’s first complete, satisfying album and his first work to have a really strong continuity with his subsequent music. His play with sound and silence isn’t as assured or developed as it would shortly become, but much of this disc is quite enjoyable in its own low-key way, and as a sign of things to come it is invaluable.

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taku sugimoto | alto (1995)

After 1994’s Slub: Unaccompanied Violoncello Solo, Taku Sugimoto stopped playing the cello, to which he’d devoted the past few years, and returned to the electric guitar. The resulting 20-minute 3″ CD, again released on Sugimoto’s own Slub Music label, was a turning point for the young musician, the first hint of the approach he’d refine on the series of solo guitar records he’d release in the subsequent few years. Where the lengthy Slub, with its dense, squeaky cello assaults, was an ear- and patience-trying listen, Alto is compact, airy, and spacious, the work of a musician starting to discover that he needn’t carpet every available space with noise in order to be heard.

It’s also, in its brief length, far more varied than the monolithic Slub. Sugimoto is obviously trying out a catalogue of approaches here, exploring different textures and to some degree dedicating each of the tracks to a single technique or type of sound. On the first track, single guitar tones resonate in a hissy void. There’s space, but at only three minutes long, never that much space, and there’s a multitude of little clicks and semi-accidental string brushing in the silences between each tone. Sugimoto varies his attack, sometimes sharply plucking out a strangled note, other times holding a warmer tone for a few moments as it naturally fades back into the quiet.

Sugimoto initially continues in the same restrained vein on the longer second piece, but gradually starts building a twangy, circular groove that serves as a center point for ambling digressions. It’s almost bluesy but Sugimoto keeps letting the pulse collapse, attacking its steady momentum with shards of rapid Derek Baileyesque abstractions, inserting little squiggles and asides at every opportunity but returning to the bluesy chords just often enough that the underlying sensibility just barely manages to carry through it all.

The third piece finds Sugimoto experimenting with the zither instead, gently rubbing the strings to create delicate low-volume textures, juxtaposed with sharp wooden rapping noises and occasional metallic interjections. It’s somewhat aimless in comparison to the guitar tracks, but still provides an early indication of where Sugimoto’s musical interests were heading. On the fourth piece, feedback is shaped into a piercing electronic wave, with only the occasional slight, almost incidental string noise at the edges of the pure drone providing a reminder of the guitar’s presence. It’s not a sound Sugimoto would return to much in the coming years, but here it seems like one more tool he’s trying out, another sound-making possibility briefly auditioned.

Around the same time as the recording of this EP, Sugimoto was playing a lot with his friend and fellow guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama, forming the duo Akiyama-Sugimoto and recording a handful of tapes. The duo also showed up on the Gentle Giant compilation The Miracle of Levitation, joined by drummer Atsuko Ohno for a rather straightforward psych-blues jam that seems to point back to Sugimoto’s earlier music rather than what he was working on in his solo work. Akiyama, though, would become an important collaborator with Sugimoto into the early 2000s, and he shows up as a second guitarist on the very brief final track on Alto, which is appropriately drenched in distortion and noise, with both guitarists creating squalls of noise and chunky rhythms formed from static.

Alto‘s variety and brevity make it seem like a sampler of Sugimoto’s musical thinking at the cusp of his real creative breakthroughs. None of these tracks delve very deeply into the ideas he’s exploring, but what’s apparent already is that Sugimoto is jettisoning past approaches and thinking seriously about how he’s going to make music from here on. This of course would be a continuing thread throughout his work. A restless musician, Sugimoto has seldom been content to settle into a single mode of playing or creating long-term. His trajectory has included several sudden reversals and reinventions, of which the transformation displayed here from rock maximalist to thoughtful experimental minimalist would be only the first.

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taku sugimoto | slub: unaccompanied violoncello solo (1994)

It’s hard to imagine now, but like many of the young Japanese musicians who contributed to the turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo-based minimalist scene, Taku Sugimoto did not start his musical career with the restraint and patience for which he eventually became known. Sugimoto spent his early 20s playing in noisy psych- and blues-rock bands, of the type that flowered in the Japanese underground in the ’70s and ’80s. In 1988, he released the solo guitar LP Mienai Tenshi, which from available excerpts sounds like a dense, raw, incredibly loud slab of guitar pyrotechnics, poorly recorded and drenched in distortion – and frankly not very good. Sugimoto himself must not have been too satisfied with his direction, because by the early ’90s he’d given up the guitar altogether, and for the next several years would dedicate himself to the cello. The sole recorded result of this phase was Slub: Unaccompanied Violoncello Solo, the first release on Sugimoto’s own Slub Music imprint.

Recorded over the course of a year from 1993-1994, at the very end of Sugimoto’s cello phase, Slub is certainly very different from the guitar histrionics of Mienai Tenshi, but the general sensibility of Sugimoto’s rock music, with its carpets of noise, is still legible here. This is mostly very dense music, with Sugimoto rarely letting up. Though he does little to truly abstract his instrument’s sound, the barrage of scraping, droning, clattering sounds he unleashes is impressively varied. It also quickly becomes exhausting, especially since the album is jam-packed with 8 lengthy tracks adding up to over an hour of cello excess. It’s clear that this early in his career, Sugimoto was still very much trying to find his path, and there’s little trace of the interest in silence and space that would become so central to his later work.

The most obvious kinship here, rather, is to atonal modern composition and the European free improv scenes of the ’70s. This is busy music, always skittering about, with Sugimoto leaping between harsh upper-register squeals and pulsating low drones. There are passages that opt for more restrained dynamics, with little flutters teasing around a delicate central drone, but overall the samey textures and limited sound palette make it difficult to enjoy even the brief sections that aim for something a little different.

Maybe the only really notable moment is the brief fifth track, on which Sugimoto sharply plucks and twangs at the cello’s strings, making it sound almost like a shamisen. In contrast to much of the rest of the disc, this piece is spare and spacious, with each note clearly separated from the others by a hissy silence. Indeed, in the open space between each dry plucked tone, traffic noise can be heard faintly in the background: the whisper of a car passing by some distance away, the squeak of brakes. If anything here is a hint of where Sugimoto would be heading later in the decade and beyond, this, in its humble way, is it.

Other than that, Slub is at best a curiosity for Sugimoto’s admirers. It’s arguably the first step towards the far better LPs he’d be making within a few years, but it’s a small step indeed. Here, he abandons rock and starts his own label (still running to this day), but his first real musical breakthroughs were yet to come.

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michael pisaro | shades of eternal night (2018)

shades of eternal nightThe second of two new releases on Michael Pisaro’s revived Gravity Wave imprint, Shades of Eternal Night is far less startling than its companion piece – Étant donnés, on which Pisaro builds tracks around Curtis Mayfield, John Carpenter, and Dmitri Shostakovich – but the somewhat more familiar pleasures it offers don’t suffer at all from the lack of shock value. Here, Pisaro is also sampling, but his source material is a suite of piano chords recorded by Reinier van Houdt during the 2015 recording sessions for The Earth and the Sky, a 3-disc set of Pisaro’s piano compositions. Similarly to how the various “found” samples of Étant donnés are deployed, Pisaro uses van Houdt’s recordings, alongside field recordings made in Greece and electronic sounds, as building blocks in constructing these pieces. Continue reading

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michael pisaro | étant donnés (2018)

etant donnesMichael Pisaro’s Gravity Wave label has been dormant since the release of 2014’s 3-disc Continuum Unbound set, although the composer’s prolific output has hardly slowed in the intervening years. Nevertheless, this year finds him reviving his own imprint starting with a pair of fantastic, contrasting new albums. Étant donnés is the odder of the two, a seeming outlier in the composer’s catalogue, but only on the surface. Viewed from another angle, the fascinating thing about it is how much it reveals about Pisaro’s core aesthetic. By applying his familiar techniques to unexpected materials, this disc provides an especially clear window into the structures and processes that form the heart of Pisaro’s body of work. Continue reading

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evan parker / derek bailey / han bennink | the topography of the lungs (1970)

topographyofthelungsThe Topography of the Lungs is one of the crucial early documents of European free improvisation. Recorded in July 1970, this lively, inventive trio record introduced a decade in which European free jazz would increasingly splinter from its American progenitors, developing a new branch with fewer overt roots in the jazz lineage. The album brings together British improvisers Evan Parker and Derek Bailey with Dutch drummer Han Bennink, cross-fertilizing between two of the most prominent national scenes that were pushing towards this attitudinal and aesthetic change in the late ’60s. Continue reading

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max neuhaus / john cage | fontana mix-feed (1966)

fontanamixfeedTechnically, this LP consists of four realizations of John Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix, an indeterminate graphic score originally intended to be used for a tape piece, with or without additional instruments. To say that, though, is not really to capture the unique nature of this music, or the unique nature of percussionist and electronic music pioneer Max Neuhaus’ take on Cage’s material. In the mid-’60s, Neuhaus approached Fontana Mix with an interpretation so radical that it became a new piece altogether, a combination of Cage’s ideas with Neuhaus’ own. Fontana Mix-Feed, the resulting composite, wasn’t just a reworking of Cage, but a revolutionary step forward in electronic music that remains an exciting listen even though Neuhaus’ innovations have long since entered the musical lexicon as common elements. Continue reading

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fraufraulein | extinguishment (2015)

extinguishmentAnne Guthrie and Billy Gomberg have been playing together as Fraufraulein for years now, and have recorded a number of albums, but this is my first encounter with the duo. Guthrie is a French horn player, Gomberg plays bass guitar, and both musicians also work with field recordings and electronics. According to an informative interview, Extinguishment is based on improvised performances, collaging together studio sessions with live recordings from a 2014 tour and other materials. The result is a rewarding album that deals in some interesting, at times surprising ways with sounds and textures that are somewhat familiar from the last decade-plus of improvised music.

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radu malfatti | one man and a fly (2015)

onemanandaflyRadu Malfatti has covered a fair bit of ground over the years, from his early post-jazz/free improv playing to his ’90s reinvention as a Wandelweiser composer to his various collaborations with Mattin, Keith Rowe, and many others. One thing he’s apparently never done before, though, is release a solo improvised album; One Man and a Fly, recorded in June 2012, is his first. The trombonist/composer has documented himself solo playing his own compositions, and documented his improvisation in small combos (mostly duos) but this marks the first time he can be heard improvising solo on trombone.

It’s a welcome addition to Malfatti’s legacy, and doubly welcome for signalling the resurgence of Richard Pinnell’s Cathnor label, which has been dormant the last few years. This album consists of a single 50-minute piece, and as one would expect of Malfatti, it’s quiet and restrained, with the musician’s sounds melting into the ambiance of the room in which he played. And yet it’s also surprising in the particular ways that Malfatti uses surrounding noises as part of his performance. There’s a sly wit to his playing here that makes this a particularly engaging and thought-provoking example of this kind of ultra-minimalist improvisation. Continue reading

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