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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