Takuroku: Viola Torros, Orazbayeva, Duplant

Tuesday 28 July 2020

My personal setbacks from coronavirus have been trivial compared to others. One of the disappointments has been the second missed chance to see Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb’s Viola Torros Project performed live. Their double CD was one of the outstanding releases of 2018 and I was looking forward to hearing them at Counterflows in Glasgow this spring. As a small consolation, Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has now given us Preliminary Study for V.T., a sketch exploring pre-mediaeval musical styles across Eurasia. While the Viola Torros pieces use spectral augmentation through reverberation, subtle feedback and voices, this Preliminary Study features just Chang and Lamb in a viola duet, recorded back in 2017 and reworked into a piece this year. It’s starker and more subdued, of course, closer to first principles that make it seem as much a distillation as an embryonic version of the music’s later, more developed forms. The interweaving violas play modes derived from Arabic, Byzantine and Indian music, all within a very narrow range of pitch and dynamics that brings attention to small changes in the grain of the instruments as much as their intonation. I did not give much attention to the musicological implications of the finished works at the time, as the material by that time had been transformed into a vehicle for broader timbral exploration. On the Takuroku recording, the material is heard more clearly, making it a useful addition to what I hope is a continuing series of V.T. works.

I listened to Aisha Orazbayeva’s Music for Violin Alone a couple of months ago and have come back to it repeatedly since then. Her Takuroku release Slow Change continues in a similar vein of home recordings for solo violin. Two of Orazbayeva’s exploratory works sandwich one of Orlando Gibbons’ viol fantasies, which is here played with a deliberately light touch to produce and fluting, breathy tone; Gibbons’ Jacobean sense of impeccable order faintly outlined in what Cage would call “empty” sounds. The Fantasia carries over from the first piece, in which Orazbayeva plays with paper threaded between the strings, muting and distorting the notes. For the title piece, she has created her own answer to James Tenney’s Koan from her previous release, a gradually evolving tremolo whose sonic metamorphosis is brought about by imperceptibly guiding the bow from bridge to nut.

It’s easy to describe features of Bruno Duplant’s music but he’s still hard to pin down. In his earlier Chamber and Field Works there are musicians and there are the environments they occupy, where each are present but neither makes demands of your attention. Each frames the other, with emergent properties. His Covid lockdown piece insaisissable(s) instant(s) is a piece about time, where time is an empty space upon which competing emotions and thoughts may intrude unbidden. There is a piano, sometimes, and the outside world can be heard, but at a distance. The piano’s silence becomes the subject, speaking of withdrawal indoors, moving back and forth between contemplation and impatience. As for ambience, the piece is measured out in regular domestic squeaks and thuds from around the room with a steady insistence of overfamiliarity that threatens incipient cabin fever. An electrical hum comes and goes, which may or may not help to relieve the tension. Who said this stuff is relaxing?

Alvear plays Sugimoto; Sugimoto plays Duplant

Wednesday 28 March 2018

I went a Taku Sugimoto gig in a community centre in Footscray about fifteen years ago and he didn’t do shit. For an hour or so he sat there, guitar on his lap, adjusting the volume knob on his amplifier once or twice. We were all partly listening, partly waiting, straining to hear if there would be anything to hear. We watched to see if anything was happening that we hadn’t heard and so we listened to hear if anything was happening that we didn’t see*. He’s playing tonight with the singer Minami Saeki at a club a few blocks away from me but I’m not going, mostly because it’s miserable out and I’m a bit hungover and will be impatient and inattentive. He’s playing in Sheffield tomorrow night and you should probably go.

Instead, I have been listening to two new recordings of him playing. On one, he plays Bruno Duplant’s composition lEttEr to tAku. On the other, he is joined by Cristián Alvear for a guitar duet composed by Sugimoto. On paper, both pieces may well look much the same: single notes, scattered here and there. For lEttEr to tAku, recorded in a Park in Tokyo last year, Sugimoto is credited with “guitar, small amplifier, bow, park”. Guitar notes are played and heard, in what would be a splendid isolation from each other. As at that Footscray gig, there is an attentiveness, a precision in how he plays and in how he doesn’t play. Is he responding to the sounds in his environment? Duplant says “Taku played a lot with them while respecting the score” (emphasis mine). It seems that the piece is a field recording, with the sounds of the park and the surrounding city taking up most of the attention. Yet the guitar is always present, as much in its anticipation as its sound. The guitar sounds themselves are gentle, but pure and clear against the indeterminate tapestry of sounds. The guitar defines the context, allowing the city to become a musical accompaniment, but also acts as a frame, elevating the background noise to the foreground of attention. It’s like an aural work of urban environmental art, a small intervention that transforms the substance of a piece of everyday life.

Sugimoto’s guitar duet, simply titled h, is closely related to his songs with Minami Saeki which I’m not hearing tonight. h was also recorded in Tokyo last year, but indoors, at a concert. The piece is essentially one of Sugimoto’s songs, with the voice part transcribed for guitar. He and Cristián Alvear each play slow, wandering melodies that weave an irregular counterpoint between the two instruments. (Alvear’s playing has that same quiet, imperturbable patience as Sugimoto, as heard on his recordings of Sarah Hennies and d’incise.) The voice part plays in harmonics, against the more fully sounded notes of the other guitar. Both parts have sufficient lightness as to almost merge and colour each other at times. When the two overlap, tiny differences in intonation emerge (the guitar’s frets enforce a type of equal temperament, at odds with the harmonic overtones). Halfway through it feels like it’s about to outstay its welcome but it never does. The colouration, unpredicatble melody and irregular exchanges and overlappings between the two instruments holds a sort of quiet fascination.

* This is another example of seeing and hearing music.