Here’s another challenging, provocative album from the recent Erstwhile Records batch. Like a lot of records in this area of late, it’s a tricky blend of styles and approaches, seemingly highly conceptual in nature but without spelling out what its concepts are. That makes it an enjoyably confounding and surprising listen, an album that keeps revealing new pleasures and new details every time I put it on.
Parazoan Mapping consists of 15 untitled tracks, all of them fairly concise (the longest is the first, at just over six minutes). There’s a great deal of variety here, and the sound field often shifts abruptly, but the tracks nevertheless flow seamlessly into one another as a fluid collage. The CD sleeve credits the musicians jointly with “recordings” and “devices,” which makes sense given their respective histories: La Casa works primarily with field recordings, while Unami is an unpredictable figure who, among other things, has assembled handmade motorized noisemaking gadgets. Unami is as always tough to pin down, and in addition to providing recordings of his own may be responsible for any of the odd, often unclassifiable sounds that work their way through the mix across these tracks.
The overall form of the album, with various mechanical or quasi-musical sounds intruding upon or blending with processed and unprocessed field recordings, is pretty familiar from lots of other experiments, both recent and not. But the particular slant that La Casa and Unami take on this aesthetic lends it a freshness, humor, and thematic depth that make this album stand out from any number of superficially similar field recording projects.
That uniqueness becomes apparent early on, though not necessarily during the first track. The longest track here, it’s also the most conventional: a gray, blurry drone of tape hum, unidentifiable rustling, faint insect buzzing, a bus coming to a stop, hints of piano so subtle as to be subliminal. It’s lovely, with surprising nuances packed within its layers of nature sounds and urban bustle, but it’s also precisely what many listeners might expect from an album of field recording collages. Perhaps that’s why this tranquil soundscape gives way, with the second track, to the harsh repetitive pounding of one of Unami’s mechanical gadgets. It’s a jarring transition, but the initial grating repetition soon morphs into a fascinating stop-and-start assemblage of machines warming up, hammering, grinding, buzzing, and jangling. The sound is dense and industrial, like some kind of primitive robot factory; these gadgets, whatever they are, sound more robust and scary than the miniature devices Unami was using the last time I saw him years ago, or else they’re just more closely mic’d and amplified.
Unami has been fairly quiet for the past few years. After a decade of prolific recording, experimenting, and searching, the restless guitarist/composer/sound artist reached a pinnacle with the 2011 masterpiece Teatro Assente (recorded with Takahiro Kawaguchi) and has fallen nearly silent on record ever since. His only albums in the intervening years were a live disc with frequent collaborator Radu Malfatti (recorded around the time Teatro Assente came out) and a sideman slot on Hontatedori with Taku Sugimoto and Moe Kamura. Parazoan Mapping is thus Unami’s first major statement since Teatro Assente, and the new album finds him and La Casa extending and tweaking that predecessor’s destabilizing abstract theater in some unexpected directions.
I’m not trying to slight La Casa in focusing on Unami’s role here, I’m simply less familiar with La Casa’s career. Most of what I’ve heard him on is rather old at this point, but I have enjoyed his work. He’s always struck me as a conceptually sure-footed sound artist. Here, I assume he’s responsible for many/most of the location recordings, both processed and untouched.
The recording situation itself seems to be one of this album’s subjects, which is why I’m trying to work out just how this odd music was made, but it’s not so easy. The CD sleeve is more forthcoming than most recent Erstwhile releases. The recording was done in June 2014 in a number of public and private spaces in Tokyo, including Kawaguchi’s apartment, a sports center (for reasons that will become clear below if you haven’t heard this yet), and performance spaces like Pool Sakuradai and Higurashi-Bunko. An enigmatic “last day of the Unami/La Casa recordings” photo on the Erstwhile site shows Unami perched atop a ladder with a few onlookers clustered below and La Casa, presumably, hunched over something on the ground. This suggests similarities to Teatro Assente, a high-concept session with a great deal of physicality.
That physicality is especially interesting because the album is so dominated by recordings of various kinds. The use of field recordings alongside interjected musical improvisations or additional sounds creates fascinating juxtapositions between different levels of reality. This is, after all, a recording of musicians playing recordings, probably with even further levels of remove nested within. Unami and La Casa’s conceptual shenanigans are a way of reintroducing spontaneity and presence, injecting sounds that exist outside the captured, static sounds of the place recordings – even if, instantly, these new sounds are also captured, rendered static, layered into the tapes.
That interplay between what’s on tape and what’s “live” persists throughout the album. The second and third tracks are dominated by Unami’s motors and machines, but some of the gaps when the motors wind down are filled by birdsong and fragments of speech, suggesting that these sounds are continuously there, unheard beneath the rattling din. On the fourth track, the machines are switched off, but instead the undercurrent of tape hum is overcome by urban noise: vehicles, heavy objects being moved, a fan’s wobbly blades, lively but unintelligible conversation, the sounds of clinking plates and silverware in a restaurant. The rub is figuring out – or figuring out if it matters – which of these sounds were “native” to the room recording and which may have been added by the musicians, either in the moment of the recording or at a later time, reacting to the played-back recording. I find myself thinking that the fan sounds pretty suspicious, that it must be one of the musicians adding that in, and then I wonder why or if it matters. Echoes of Unami’s noisy gadgets can be found in a fan’s whir or a car’s motor, and the heavy footsteps and decontextualized thumps and bumps of Teatro Assente primed listeners to hear ordinary sounds as the theatrical stagings of the musicians.
There’s a rich back-and-forth here between sounds heard for their own sake, as documents of a place, and sounds that are complexly referential and freighted with meaning. The seventh track opens with the rapid slap of a knife on a cutting board, which is a natural analog for the hammering mechanisms from the earlier tracks. A subsequent suite of tracks locates another echo of those mechanical sounds in the slap of a basketball on a wood floor, soon joined by the drill sergeant-like chanting of a gym instructor as footsteps race across the sound field. This is soon supplanted by an even more insistent pattering basketball rhythm, a twin for the loud barrage of stiff beats that was so jarring on the album’s second track. The recording is allowed to play unedited for a bit, before getting spliced and chopped, sections looped so that the bouncing balls take on a stuttery, syncopated rhythm.
Implicitly, such moments question what it means to make music, making connections between Unami’s homemade “instruments” and the similar rhythms that can be found in domestic activities like chopping vegetables or in the frenzied activity of a group sport. Moreover, those near-musical rhythms can be found in the truest sense, recorded and left as is, or they can be manipulated into new forms. And does it matter if a rhythm is arrived at by a musician playing an instrument, by a musician composing through recording and editing, by a natural event, or by an activity not intended to be musical in any way? In this context, does the inclusion of some frantic scribbling and rifling of papers (on the sixth track) refer back to the related concerns of Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin’s 2013 Erst Making A, which consisted of the sounds of the musicians drawing? That same track features some distinctive clattering noises that might be more of Unami’s gadgets, a guitar being tuned and plucked, the keys of a reed instrument being fluttered, electronic noise, or none of those, merely a vague signifier of some musicianly interference with the background chatter of a public space.
Again and again, these questions about intention, musicianship, materials, and sound bubble up to the surface of this spiky, playful music. They’re basic questions, some of the standard framing questions of 20th Century art music and its descendants, but Unami and La Casa deliver these queries with such charm, curiosity, and humor that they seem fresh again. This is lively music from a pair of artists who take great delight in presenting the rhythms of basketball and tennis games alongside mechanically stomping robots, audio documents of prosaic activity, and noisy drones like the thick clouds of uncertain origin that flow through the album’s final few tracks. This duo makes a gleeful game of playing, and playing with, these recordings, and the result is as irresistibly fun as it is thought-provoking.
Available from Erstwhile Records.