Listening to Sachiko M

Listening to Sachiko M
By David Grundy

“Of all the extraordinary musicians to have emerged from that scene (and there are dozens whose work I love), none has affected me more than Sachiko M. Something about her conception of strength and beauty is absolutely in sync with me and I almost always find her music utterly entrancing no matter how severe it gets. And that part of it, her amazing willingness and persistence in limning out extreme areas, of staying with one thing for inhuman lengths of time. I love it and am thankful for it.”

Brian Olewnick, ‘Just Outside’

A few months ago, I decided to listen to the complete Sachiko M discography, and form my impressions into some sort of extended piece of writing. My reasons for doing so are still not quite clear to me: though I was no doubt consciously or sub-consciously inspired by Richard Pinnell’s various schemes of this kind, involving work by Jeph Jerman and Luigi Nono; and also, by the fact that the reviewing of discs tends to encourage a particular kind of listening, garnered towards ‘up-to-the-moment’ reviews, that misses out on the kind of attention one is forced to pay when one chooses a particular artist to focus upon, when one consciously decides to start really delving into their work.

I should qualify my initial statement at this stage: I decided to listen to selected recordings featuring Sachiko M, rather than the complete discography, which is pretty crowded, and which contains quite a number of releases in which she plays a supporting, or background role (for example, the appearances on numerous Otomo Yoshihide sessions, where she may tend to get submerged within a large ensemble). Consequently, I realise that this will be far from a complete overview of her work (in any case, as so much is done in live performance, the notion of ‘repertoire’ or of charting artistic evolution through a series of fixed points becomes problematic); instead, it will be a personal response to music which, by now, should have managed to shake of its reputation for being wilfully extreme and of conceptual interest only. As other critics have pointed out, it is music that is, at times, very physical in terms of the way it encourages one to perceive space (for instance, the fact that a sine wave appears to change ‘shape’, or sound quality, if one moves around the room), and very sensuous in its timbral content (though there are people who simply can’t stand these sort of high, tinnitus-type pitches, however hard they try to listen – and this is fair enough). Once one has accepted its parameters, and provided one does not have the aforementioned aversion to sine waves, its apparent extremity becomes almost warm and inviting (in a slightly masochistic way), forcing a focus that is rigorous for both listener and musician, but which also unites them in an intimate and even ecstatic kind of shared experience. At the same time, harshness, roughness, and a sense of risk are a major part of its appeal (as with the solo work of Toshimaru Nakamura; the sense of machines that evade the grasp of total technical control (one invents one’s own techniques as one proceeds, with an object not originally designed to be played as a musical instrument)). Sachiko may have famously described herself as a ‘non-musician’, but the attention to subtle shifts, patterns, changes of details in her work, that sculpting of organized sound, marks her out as an artist with a clear sense of what she wants to do and how she wants to do it, even as she leaves crucial space for the unexpected and for failure.

Otomo Yoshihide / Sachiko M – Filament 1 (Extreme, 1998)

Sachiko began her musical career playing samples in Yoshihide’s jazz/rock/punk noise band Ground Zero; as she explains in an interview for JaME (, this very much entailed working within parameters set by Yoshihide, sometimes using sound sources that he himself had chosen. It was really only after the group had disbanded, and she had begun to work solo (using the sampler’s internal test tones exclusively) that she began to develop a recognisable sound, but her collaboration with Yoshihide continued and has, in some ways, been the most important of her career. Despite her claim that “I can also take pleasure in playing with others, but I have this habit of always saying no,” she’s adapted (probably not quite the right word) her sound into Yoshihide’s avant-jazz bands, where it can tend towards ornamentation or background effect behind more obviously emotional or narrative saxophone solos; evidence, perhaps, of the distance she’s willing to travel, in musical terms, to work with him, and evidence, too, of his respect for her craft and her refusal to compromise her style and way of working to suit different generic contexts. In any case, Filament has been a continuing presence for what is now well over a decade.

The record itself (released on the aptly-named ‘Extreme’ label) begins with a constant dull thump, like the thud of a heartbeat, and turntable white noise (the sound a record makes before the music starts, when one has just dropped the needle and it catches some flecks of dust on the vinyl surface). These two simple elements, joined at the end by a couple of discrete beeps, suggest something of a prelude; letting the listener in with gentle, barely-there pulses that mimic the beats inside a human body, while at the same time stressing their otherness, their machine quality. (I think, in fact, that this is a solo Yoshihide track; what appears to happen here is that the musicians alternate solos, rather than playing together, for the first half of the record at least.) But the second track is prime Sachiko: a single high sine wave, an immovable object, something that is just there, yet somehow seems to wave (as befits its name), to waver, to dip up and down along with the involuntary movements of one’s own head. While some might describe this as ‘sadistic’, ‘non-musical’, as something which disregards or is actively hostile to the poor audience, it might perhaps be more accurate to see it as a dialogue between music and listener, in which the listener is forced to assume the more active role (or chooses to try and match the lack of activity they are hearing; quietening the mind, stilling the body as one tries to enter the music’s own stillness). When one gets to this level of listening, the smallest change (if one’s attention is focussed at that point) becomes a major event, and here, the immovable wave skips a total of thirteen times (I counted), as Sachiko introduces the minutest element of variation to provide some sort of climax, a sense of acceleration before a brief silence that still seems to echo with the memory of that unshakeable wave. The process (or lack of) on this piece is a small-scale version of what happens on the solo ‘Bar Sachiko’, recorded five years later, but its placement as the second track on a record of five-minute pieces gives it a different impact: the pieces on ‘Filament’ feel like miniatures, studies, etudes, exploring particular aspects of both musicians’ set-ups in a focussed and almost low-key way. ‘Bar Sachiko’, by contrast, with its extreme simplicity of means coupled to what, given this simplicity, seems like an extreme extension of length, is a much more obviously challenging work, so conceptually simple that one could hardly call it conceptual at all – instead, it’s a study in listener perception and performer patience, something which can’t be taken lightly and which it’s clear, as one listens, isn’t going to change any time soon.

Back to ‘Filament’, piece three (Yoshihide) consists of various forms of the sharp, buzzing blare that one gets one pulls the end of an audio jack out of its output socket; great to hear that so much can be got out of that sound in five minutes, but it’s not a sound that I’m particularly fond of when it appears in electro-acoustic work (and it does crop up from time to time). Nothing more than personal preference, but there we are. Sachiko’s next piece blares out sharp beeps over a skipping low drone, like foghorns calling to each other across a dark expanse of water. Despite the ostensible harshness of the beeps, the effect becomes rather soothing, that gentle rocking, lulling, underlying tone creating a kind of alien lullaby, comforting precisely because of the lack of change. The following piece is hers as well: a pulsating high pitch (presumably causes from the interference patterns created by the near-conjunction of two almost identical waves – i.e. ‘beating’ effects), this one not really all that different from a smoke alarm in timbre. But once again, as on the second track from the album, the introduction of minimal change towards the end (done by the tiny twist of a switch) – a slight, seconds-only speeding-up in the rhythmical pattern – provides a nice, sharp ending, a reminder that the music one is hearing does involve some sort of human agency, however apparently slight. Yoshihide, back for the sixth track, is on a glitching-CD trip – Yasanao Tone territory (‘Solo for Wounded’ came out the previous year), and somewhat similar to recent work done by Korea’s Balloon and Needle collective – the sound of everyday electronics malfunctioning, machine language, or code, punching out messages that no one can understand, like a lost tongue that has only just been invented. Track seven finds Sachiko back with more, lower-pitched beating frequencies (feedback feeding back on itself), going in little cycles, rising up and then subsiding; eight is harsher, with grinding bass tones laid under whines and squeals reminiscent of those one sometimes hears in radio white noise when one’s searching for a station. Nine is perhaps the most eerily beautiful of all the record’s tracks, barely-perceptible samples from a record merging with the trademark high tones, suddenly cutting out to leave a single sine at the piece’s end. Ten is twice as long as all the other pieces so far, and is somewhat surprising, given the way that one’s adjusted to the record’s path so far of held tones and occasional rhythmic patterns: intense silences are peppered with little blops and bleeps from the sound vocabulary of 1980s computers (with a mini-power-drill half-way through). Depending on one’s frame of mind, this is either going to come across as soporific and eminently ignorable, or as edge-of-the-seat stuff (the latter more so if one is listening with a group of other focussed individuals, rather than distracting oneself with the internet or the hum of one’s laptop fan or the view out of the window.) It certainly feels radical, even if I can’t say that I really like it, or even that it works: but that kind of risk-taking, that tendency to do things that sometimes simply fall flat on their face – a kind of bloody-mindedness, or just perversity – is one of the things I most admire about Sachiko’s work.

Toshimaru Nakamura / Sachiko M – Un (Meme, 1999)

One can say that the main difference between Sachiko’s solo performances and her group collaborations is that the solos – at least, in their most extreme manifestations – tend to erase the difference between foreground and background: they may consist of little more than a single tone, or perhaps a couple of tones, with no melody, no harmony, no accompaniment, and very little actual rhythmic change (apart from the ‘fake’ effects created by one’s head movements). By contrast, the presence of another musician, or a group of musicians, necessarily creates a counterbalance, a counterpoint, another layer to offset and complicate the simplicity of the sine waves. This is to generalise; throughout the solo work, there are elements of change and (as we can hear on, say, track four from ‘Filament 1’) of setting up two interacting layers roughly equivalent to solo and accompaniment, or melody and supporting voice.

The duo with Nakamura is quite different to that with Yoshihide, the two musicians appearing to bring out in each other concerns with concision and clear structure, their sounds at times even leaning towards a techno / electronic-pop tinge. (Though needless to say, it’s not a tinge that would bring in anyone accustomed to beat- or loop-driven electronica.) For me, the record has a quirky, almost humorous side to it which marks it out from the rest of Sachiko’s work (avant-pop group Hoahio excepted). The first track, a fifty-seven second dialogue between what sounds like the electronic equivalent of slide whistles, sets the tone; while the eighth, ‘Unplaced’ has a bouncing synth-bassoon type melody merrily bouncing its way through sliding pitch descents: these ease into some sort of tense equilibrium over a cd-skip effect, before the ‘bassoon’ comes back and the track quickly cuts off before it can do any more damage. Some might find this sort of thing rather cheesy, in an early synth FX kind of way, but I find the playful element it conveys rather charming: Raymond Scott without the tunes and with a predilection for noise. And if, as I’ve said, ‘Un’ is something of an anomaly in Sachiko’s catalogue, something of its slightly manic edge does carry over onto her first solo recording, ‘Sine Wave Solo,’ released the same year.

[Picture] Sachiko M & Toshimaru Nakamura Live at Super Duluxe, Tokyo, 2004

‘Modulation #1’ [on Otomo Yoshihide, ‘Cathode’ (Tzadik, 1999)]

[Picture] Still from footage of a performance by Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M & Jim O’Rourke, April 2009 (released on the DVD ‘Ensembles 09: Pre-Opening Live at Shinjuku Pitt Inn’)

The tone chosen here makes everything music around it: muffled clanging sounds on the recording itself (those you’ll hear inside any artsy modern concert space, part of the building’s ambient hum), the sound of my fingers typing this now, the car passing the open window outside the room where I am listening to this track. The tone amplifies, emphasizes the sounds, the rhythms and pulses inherent in environment – makes them stand out against itself, rather than drowning them out; it isn’t, though, the virtually un-modified tone of ‘Salon de Sachiko’: this one swells out, puffing out its chest, breathing in and out, seeming to dip ever so slightly before resounding back, that slight variance, quaver, hesitation, dip, giving it a somehow human edge, if you want to see it that way. Harsh gratings now, as more tones join to make the first shudder and wobble, tinnitus high pitches sprinkled over the top, barely perceptible low hum below the central tone; density and ferocity, amped to the max, the other tones dropping out, back to the original, loud in itself. One of Sachiko’s most deliberately ‘harsh’ tracks, it seems to me. Ko Ishikawa’s sho – I suppose one would call it a mouth organ (a wind instrument, made of bamboo, that actually sounds like a real organ, as opposed to the Bob Dylan variety) provides additional tones here, though it meshes so completely with the sine waves that one may have a hard time distinguishing the two. Proof, though, that Sachiko’s sound isn’t merely a reflection of hyper-modernity, the 20th and 21st-century machine: these dense clusters, these ‘unearthly’, ‘inhuman’ sounds date back to AD710, originating as an imitation of the sound of the phoenix (or heavenly lights), and are an important part of traditional gagaku music, providing gradually-moving ‘aitake’ (tone clusters) to accompany the melody. One might see this track, then, as an updating of traditional musics, removing the ceremonial/ritual/rhythmic/melodic elements of court performance and concentrating instead on the basics of the sho’s sound. As a western listener, a tendency towards ‘Orientalism’ no doubt asserts itself – a tendency to hear such sounds as ‘exotic’ or ‘avant-garde’ in themselves, rather than as part of a continuum or culture (hence, the early twentieth-century modernists’ embrace of African art as ‘primitive’ or ‘(nobly) savage’ – shocking the bourgeoisie while reinforcing their racist prejudices about non-white civilisations – or the use of gamelan-like textures as exotic ornament in the work of Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, and Francis Poulenc.) So it’s probably best for me to leave the cultural ramifications alone – and, truth be told, I’m not best qualified to write on the sho’s history; nonetheless, on the simplest level, we can say that this is a fusion of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ that works far more organically than the tired attempts at musical fusion that so often grab cheap headlines,1 and provides a somewhat unexpected alternative perspective on Sachiko’s art.

Debris (F.M.N. Sound Factory, 1999)

1999 saw the recording of three twenty-minute EPs, each on different labels, each curtly titled with single words beginning with the letter D, each a concentrated study of a particular area of sound, rather like an extended version of one of the ‘Filament’ tracks. ‘Debris’ consists of two pieces, the first opening with spaced submarine sonar beeps which alternate with sharper, higher tones, Sachiko gradually playing with the speed and elongation of both sets of tones, the hint of a human hand amongst what might otherwise come across as sound effects from ‘The Enemy Below.’ The occasional fizz or tinnitus whisper spurts and sprouts over the top, though never developing into ‘climax’: each parallel layer moves along on its own level, in its own time. It’s all careful and rather beautiful, the repetition giving it a sense of structure which renders it somewhat more accessible than that work from the more austere range of her vocabulary.

On the second track, ‘Half-Moon’, we come across the first appearance of Sachiko’s work with contact mics: an occasionally deployed sub-stratum of her main set-up, for which an entire solo disc was once in the works, but which seems not to have been something she felt she could work with in any extended sense (a solo set at Amplify 2008 was apparently notable for its almost completely experimental approach, structure as such jettisoned for the most abrupt and clanging of transitions, the most nakedly bare tonal palette – an event in and of itself, but almost impossible to take further – perhaps. (More here– Technically, this is more connected to the physical means of producing sound than the empty sampler, but in terms of effect, it’s even further from ‘music’, from consistent rhythmic organisation or clearly delineated sectional material. Crackly, prickly, like masticating mouths or burrowing, ferreting animals or insects in undergrowth, it’s not, I have to say, my cup of tea, exactly: what does strike me, though, is that Sachiko’s speciality is to have taken areas of sound that have formed elements within wider canvases, wider arsenals of technique in the work of others, and to have really pared them down, concentrating on microscopic detail, expanding such detail out to fill the whole sound-scape. Whether this is ‘of sufficient interest’ or drama to provide compelling listening is barely even a consideration – this, however, doesn’t derive from a kind of ‘who cares if you listen’ mindset (though most people would probably rather listen to Babbitt than Sachiko, if you gave them that tough choice), but rather from a more ‘amateurish’, unselfconscious approach, at once entirely open to accident and abrupt change and capable of extreme, tight control.

Werner Dafeldecker / Franz Hautzinger / Sachiko M/ John Tilbury– Absinth (Grob, 2002)

Tilbury’s piano is the key voice here, its luscious bell-rings slotting into the electronics much as it did with AMM for many years (and has done, subsequent to the group’s split, in duo with Rowe). It’s interesting, in fact, to compare the way Tilbury interacts with Sachiko’s more piercing and unadorned sine waves, as opposed to Rowe’s then more fuzzy radio and drones.2 Rowe and Tilbury might be the ‘classic’ combination, and probably the more musical and memorable one, but sometimes getting outside those kind of well-established partnerships gives one on a new twist both on what makes them tick and what more could be brought to the table. (That said, I’m not arguing that we should listen to this as a mere AMM substitute.) Dafeldecker and Hautzinger have both gradually moved away, like many free improvisers, from their initial start in jazz and rock – in Hautzinger’s case, post-Miles and Bill Dixon melancholia leading onto studies in breath and spittle, quarter-tone variations, austerity and control; in Dafeldecker’s, early work with the raucous Eugene Chadbourne giving way to an association with Malfatti and the ultra-minimalists established through the semi-composed work of Polwechsel. But dividing the musicians up into boundaries and camps isn’t, perhaps, very helpful, despite the fact that Sachiko’s philosophy of – or, let’s say, her practical approach to – group improvisation tends to emphasize, rather than smooth over, differences in approach. She’s not one of those players who will simply slot in, as if imitation were the highest form of flattery and mimicking your duo partner was somehow a means towards real dialogue; and yet she’s not really interested in finding a ‘third way’, either. One senses that, like Keith Rowe, she’s interested in, or at least comfortable with, failure, lack of polish, with seeming arbitrariness or ‘wrongness.’3 (One must also ask, though, if this interest in failure is simply a means of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; rejecting, perhaps, ‘taste’ as socially or economically determined, but, rather than criticising or analysing narrow or elitist categories and assumptions (especially as they relate to one’s own listening experience4), simply replacing them with an ‘anything goes’ approach that leads to quietism and impotence (and that mitigates against the total mental and physical dedication to the music abundantly manifest in the music of a John Coltrane or a Cecil Taylor). Given this, it might help to provide an example of un-interesting failure: Tilbury’s one-off performance with Ami Yoshida, an important collaborator of Sachiko’s and one who seems to share her sometimes perplexing approach, was, by all accounts, a case of rather dull mis-communication, of things simply not gelling.5) In any case, the pairing of Tilbury’s piano, which always suggests more conventional harmonies, tonal centres and movements, sparse though it is, ; the result being that the more abstract playing of the others tends to come across as background to the piano, rather than being fully enmeshed with it.

Andrea Neumann / Sachiko M / Kaffe Matthews – In Case of Fire Take The Stairs (Improvised Music from Japan, 2002)

Whereas ‘Absinth’ featured Sachiko in an otherwise all-male group, here, there’s not a man in sight or sound. I wouldn’t want to get overly didactic, theoretical or essentialist here, but let’s consider, for a moment, what interpretative possibilities could be opened up if we considered ‘In Case of Fire’ as specifically female improvisation, a change from the traditional macho bluster that sometimes crept into European free improv, via, no doubt, American free jazz6 (suffice to say, with the exception of vocalists like Vanessa Mackness or Maggie Nicols, or now-defunct ensembles like the Feminist Improvising Group, it would be, and still is, highly unusual to go to a typical free improv gig and find a woman on stage.) That the proportion of male to female seems somewhat higher in the more electronic/ minimally-based ‘EAI’ scene is, perhaps, due to the fact that it is a music which does not place a high premium on macho swagger, bluster, or technical display: not to imply that female musicians are not, or cannot be, fearsome virtuosos (check out, for starters, Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweizer, Joelle Leandre, and Karen Borca, who coaxes incredible nuances from the unwieldy bassoon and should be far better known), but perhaps there is something about the porousness and unassuming nature of EAI that made it more attractive to those not enamoured of male tribalism. I do realise that I may be getting close to David Keenan’s ridiculous, and controversial piece in The Wire a year or so ago, in which ‘sexy’ cock-rock guitars and energy bluster were contrasted to ‘de-sexed’, grey (female?) EAI.7 And, while projects such as the duo with Ami Yoshida (to be discussed next) do engage with a specifically feminine, even feminist tradition of electronics and voice (viz., Delia Derbyshire, Yoko Ono, Patty Waters, Diamanda Galas, et al), you’d be hard-pressed, on a blindfold-test, to say whether the performers on ‘In Case of Fire’ were male or female. Joining Sachiko are Andrea Neumann, whose work with a specially-modified version of the insides of a piano brings to mind, of course, Keith Rowe’s table-top guitar, and Kaffe Matthews, whose live-sampling laptop renders porous borders between instruments. To some extent, then, we have a reach to the edges of ‘musicality’, an interest in the edges and the insides of instruments, modifying them to suit purposes other than that for which they were intended. The disc’s title suggests a parody of the ‘fire music’, ‘volcanic’, ‘explosive’ metaphors which litter free jazz criticism and album titles, as well as a kind of deadpan, diurnal attention to the details of place (presumably, the words come from a fire exit sign at the venue where the music was performed). Indeed, the first, and longest track is relatively subdued, all quiet pop, click, hiss – or as Olewnick puts it in his review, ‘pings, clicks and throbs’ (those words which inadequately describe an area of sound-making that has not yet developed its own technical vocabulary – that exists, perhaps, outside the question of ‘technique’ as such). The second is louder and more ‘traditional’, perhaps, in its drone associations, though this isn’t of the ecstatic La Monte Young variety, nor, even, quite, of the doomily raw stuff we get on AMM’s ‘The Crypt’; rather, in its own sweet, sleek, raw way, it winds its way out of the speakers and makes the space its own. And that’s a vague critical comment, certainly, and the last track is an exquisite coda, to which I won’t do justice either, but, as a whole, this is certainly a very fine album – marking, I think, the only time the three musicians played together. Perhaps a reunion might be in order…

Cosmos (Ami Yoshida / Sachiko M) – Tears (Erstwhile, 2002)

“I think with these musicians, focuses are on hearing the sound, not physically playing musical instruments,” Sachiko concludes. “Sometimes the instrument is an obstruction. They just want to listen more to the sound.”

Clive Bell, ‘Sachiko M: Sampler Amnesia’ (The Wire, April 1999)

In his recently published ‘Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener’, David Toop describes his fascination with the disembodied, uncanny nature of sounds: hearing is the first sense to develop, inside the womb; a state of aural innocence in which the developing foetus has no idea that the sounds it hears might ‘mean’ something, might signify something other than themselves, might have any other significance than mere presence. Once we emerge into the world of sight, however, a sense which allows one to get a clearer fix on things – I know that something is there because I can see it – hearing becomes less trustworthy, relegated to the domain of music – moments of aesthetic pleasure within certain defined, delimited boundaries (sometimes even tied to sight, as with the case of the music video) – or registered on the periphery of the audible threshold as annoying, briefly interesting, as background sound or ignorable environmental chatter. Given that hearing is no longer connected to the struggle of survival –it might be useful to listen for the sound of approaching cars when crossing the road, or to notice the shrill of a fire alarm when the building is set ablaze, but we do not need to listen for approaching predators round every corner – it becomes easy to ignore, and, despite the fact that our lives are made up of a myriad of different sounds, hearing can become ambient in a way that sight less often does, or does to a lesser extent. Perhaps this tendency to ignore sound comes from a fear that it is easier to trick by means sound than by sight – sound, as something immaterial, instant, temporary, gives us no sense of permanence or stability, nothing certain to latch on to: even recurring sonic patterns (the sound of a rain shower or a thunderstorm, the roar of an accelerating car) are never quite the same in each repeated instance. When we cannot tie what we hear to what we see, it becomes doubly difficult to evaluate the significance of a particular sonic event: to filter out peripheral noises and to concentrate on those that might offer us immediately relevant information. This is the basis, as Toop points out, of the classic trick purveyed in horror films (and in horror fiction before that): we hear something, maybe several things, but cannot tell its source or what it is ‘meant’ to signify. Removed from their usual contexts, sounds become uncanny: canned Light Music floating down the corridors in ‘The Shining’, the sound of a harp when none is physically present in ‘The Haunting’.

One might draw Ami Yoshida’s use of the voice into this discussion: uniting natural and technological in an uneasy blur that perhaps reflects our experience of an increasingly complex, technologically-based world. For Clive Bell, “[Yoshida’s] raw vocalisations are “cries”, like animal voices or birdsong, and often sounds electronic.” A line from Roy Fisher’s ‘City’ springs to mind – “The society of singing birds and the society of mechanical hammers inhabit the world together, slightly ruffled and confined by each other’s presence” – though perhaps things are more integrated in Yoshida’s voice-scapes. In some ways they are more extreme, extremely human than Ute Wassermann’s ‘bird-talking’, though they lack the basis in song and in ‘funny noises’ that gives Phil Minton’s dada-clown-gymnastics their humorous edge; bringing a broader range of possible reference than Sachiko’s sine waves, they are nonetheless to hard to pin down into any particular cultural context, into any recorded history of conventionalised expression. One associates the voice with song, or speech: in the case of Schoenberg, with an uncanny union of the two; in the case of James Brown, with the sung/shouted exhortation, a rhythmic punctuation and addition to the onward thrust of instrumental propulsion (as also with Charles Mingus’ moans, whoops and hollers of encouragement to the members of the band, demonstrated most conspicuously on the 1962 recording ‘Oh Yeah!’). Electronic manipulation has turned the voice into a manipulable device in a limitless arsenal of sounds – to be put through filters, (satanically) reversed, chopped up (Burroughs), stretched, smeared, distorted – from the ‘high art’ of works like Stockhausen’s ‘Gesange der Junglinge’ to the creation of robot voices for Dr Who’s Daleks in the BBC Radiophonic workshop. And Ligeti’s clustered sound masses, as popularized in ‘2001’, brought to the fore a treatment of the voice that didn’t really on the ‘correctness’ and ‘precision’ of the western tempered scale –similar in content to the mass chorales of sacred harp singing of Scottish pibroch. The voice, then, was being melded into new shapes by a combination of technology and shifting aesthetic attitudes – instruments becoming more ‘voice-like’ (Ornette’s saxophone, ‘like a person laughing…or a person crying’, Dolphy and Mingus’ ‘talking’ duet on ‘What Love’), voices becoming more textural, less ‘natural’, in the manner of extended instrumental techniques. But Yoshida avoids the connotations of both speech and song that are present in almost all of these innovations and revivals (even Ligeti’s dissonances have a certain movement to them, and the sound of massed voices evokes the familiar roar of communal singing, from the enthusiasm of untrained church congregations to the grandeur of Tallis’ ‘Spem in Alium’). Similarly, Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang’, however much it distorts it source (the voice of a boy chorister), clearly derives from it; Yoshida has it the other way round, creating something similarly disorienting out of her purely acoustic voice. The sound is familiar enough to be recognized as a voice, and thus doubly disturbing because of the way it departs so far from what the voice is ‘supposed’ to do. On ‘Pink Noise’, a duo with Mattin’s computer feedback, Yoshida’s fellow Japanese experimentalist Junko uses what is easily identifiable as a scream throughout – and that recording arouses a strong feeling of discomfort – but Yoshida’s self-described ‘howling voice’ is not quite a whisper, not quite a scream, though it contains elements of both: sounds made, often, from the back of the throat, creating sound by drawing air in rather than expelling it out – an interior sound, quiet – in live performance, she grips the microphone close, her eyes shut – not singing to herself, and not singing to you. If Sachiko claims that she and other musicians in her circle are interested in listening to sounds rather than getting tangled up in the mechanics of making them, Yoshida’s vocal techniques have an unavoidable physical effect – in one video, we see her taking an enormous gulp of water after making them, for example. Her voice doesn’t ‘humanise’ Sachiko’s electronics, but sounds equally alien to them, making them if anything, more stark: what is emphasized here is the broken up, ‘blip-blop’, insectoid nature surrounding the ‘purity’ of the sine tones. Yoshida doesn’t exactly fill the field with a multitude of events, but she does prevent it from coalescing into any sort of timeless drone state: it is a voice, and it remains at all times on the edge – of audibility, of song, of screaming – even of being a voice. 8 As, perhaps, this disc remains on the edge of being music: treading that line, tearing the temple veil in two.

[Picture] Cosmos live at the Vancouver New Music Festival, 2004 (Photograph by Robert Kirkpatrick)

Keith Rowe / Oren Ambarchi / Sachiko M / Otomo Yoshihide / Robbie Avenaim – Thumb (Grob, 2002)

A short album, this feels like part of a larger whole; presumably, it’s an edit from a longer live performance. There’s no clear sense of beginning – instead, we just launch straight into a dense, yet somehow rather wispy slab of sound made up of continuous tones, with assorted crinkles and crackles round the edges (some of which we can identify as the sharper, extreme high-pitched pops and hisses that Sachiko tends to use in group situations); a fairly undifferentiated electronic mass, with occasional sounds of an amplified string being struck to remind us that three of the five participants are still, nominally, guitarists. Around the twenty-minute mark, higher pitches begin to dominate, swirling around like slowly-decaying alien whistles: the Clangers with robot voices. The impression is of sounds that have some sort of physical presence: they attach and detach themselves from each other, from some sort of undefined centre, clinging and sticking and then floating free. Overall, things are never as massive or inexorable or droney as, say, the Rowe / Nakamura / Sachiko / Yoshihide three-disc set on Erstwhile, and this transparency does have a certain appeal. As the Grob label write-up puts it: “Thumb [is] about something like “absence in presence,” about, well, the artsy trick of improvising like a quintet and sounding simply like a duo.” This seems about right – and, of course, notions of simple climax or linear narrative could hardly be expected in the post-AMM lexicon. Nonetheless, there is rather a sense at times (particularly during the middle section) that the music isn’t really ‘going’ anywhere, is content simply to drift along, almost as EAI wallpaper, as ambient background (though, following that mid-session dip, there is an immediately-following constellation of collective focus around a particular set of sounds (perhaps generated by Ambarchi?), which sets up the high-pitched ‘finale’). Why the whole concert wasn’t included on the release is anybody’s guess, and that ‘excerpted’ feel perhaps doesn’t do the music many favours (it already seems slightly unfocussed simply by being arbitrarily faded in). The tendency of treating particular records as touchstones, or ‘major releases’ is one that improvised music, as continuing practice rather than an industry devoted to the production of masterpieces (despite Rowe’s frequent comparisons of his own work to classical music and landmarks of western visual art), should lead one to be wary of affording particular discs particular places in the canon. Yet, in a sense, ‘EAI’ (if we accept that term in its broadest sense), may be the most documented form of improvised music yet in existence: every subtle change, every move in a particular artist’s development, is mapped out, captured in pristine stereophonic detail, on immaculately-packaged discs, written about at great length on online fora; analysed, dissected, packaged within an inch of its life. (And perhaps that sense of debate and community is one of the vital forces which keeps things fresh and self-critical; EAI is certainly nothing if not thoughtful about its own methods, practices, forms, ideologies, sometimes to a near-absurd extent9). This comprehensiveness, though, does make some sort of discrimination or evaluative placement necessary, if one is going to get through all the music available without suffering information overload; and so it is important to say that, in the end, the aforementioned Erstlive disc contains more interesting music than ‘Thumb’ – rather like comparing an average Blue Note blowing section with one of the label’s true classics like ‘Maiden Voyage’ or ‘Speak No Evil.’

Bar Sachiko (Improvised Music from Japan, 2004)

“When producing sound, even if one reduces as much as possible what is called “self-consciousness,” one can never completely eliminate it. This is because the “I” that produces, decides to produce, and thinks about producing sound and the “I” that listens to, decides to listen to, and thinks about listening to sound are always there. The minimal “I” performing minimal “listening” and “sound production,” possessing a minimal “will”…

Atsushi Sasaki, ‘The Oscillating “Will” and the Flickering “Self” ’
(Liner Notes to Filament, ‘20902000’)

There is always a human decision prefacing this music: at its simplest, the choice to turn the machine on and select one of its test tones is a human decision, and the decision not to alter that tone, or only to alter it very gradually (for example, a performance in Auckland in which a single tone was slowly faded out), is also a human decision. In fact, one is arguably far less passive than in a more traditional musical situation: though, as an audience member, one is not clapping every five minutes after the completion of a solo or a particularly agile display of virtuosity, one is made aware of one’s own presence, of the presence of everyone else in the room, of the space one is in – a heightened atmosphere in which the inescapable presence of the sine tones is the sound of reality, of the here and now, even as it is also a state far different to that of our half-aware, flickering everyday consciousness. This is not a blissful, meditative moment of the kind created by such drone pioneers as Eliane Radigue or La Monte Young – it has none of the religious baggage, and seemingly, is less related to a particular cultural moment. While 1960s ultra-minimalism can be said to emerge from interests very much of that time – concern with altered states and non-western belief systems, a desire to break away from the clipped three minutes of the commercial pop song – it would be hard to place Sachiko’s work into the same kind of zeitgeist-y narrative.

Perhaps, in forty years, we may be able to do so, if we so wish, but, certainly at this stage, that lack of contextual baggage is refreshingly open, honest (as well as leaving the musician open to charges of charlatanism – you have no programme behind your music because you don’t know what you’re doing, there is no intent to your work). The lack of ‘context’ is, in large part, due to the fact that Sachiko has given little in the form of interviews or written commentary on her work (at least, in English); like Toshimaru Nakamura, she seems more interested in making sounds and letting them float free, than in trying to tie them down with explanations or programmatic statements. Hence, the functional or brusque song and album titles – ‘Sine Wave Solo’, ‘Do’, ‘Sinewave 3’ – hinting at certain images or situations (‘Half Moon’, ‘Salon de Sachiko’, ‘Don’t Touch’) – but avoiding any kind of wording which would shoehorn critical or listener reaction into a particular way of reading the music. One recalls her comments about switching from sampler to sine waves: “Sampling must be composed largely around a meaning, conveying a message, where as sinusoidal waves are nothing more than sound. I think also that this is the reason that I quit sampling, as it was too difficult and trying.” That sounds practical and a little self-deprecating, but it’s also a philosophical stance, an argument for the creation of meaning without the need for an ever-proliferating array of signs and wonders, spectacular and excessive pile-ups of events and actions. In this way, a space is opened up for performer, listener, and music, as three separate entities (yet three entities in oscillating relation) to move outside prescribed categories, to perceive as a creative act. Merleau-Ponty argues that

“each perception…re-enacts on its own account the birth of intelligence and has some elements of creative genius about it: in order that I recognize the tree as a tree, it is necessary that, beneath the familiar meaning, the momentary arrangement of the visible scene should begin all over again, as on the very first day of the vegetable kingdom, to outline the individual idea of this tree.”

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Phenomenology of Perception’) –

but the most minimal of Sachiko’s music goes further than this, for there is nothing so familiar as a tree, a natural or human object, to recognise in it. Yes, we know that we are hearing a sine wave: we know what a sine wave is, what it sounds like, and what it looks like in a sound editing programme. But it does not ‘mean’ anything as concrete as a tree – does not signify, as other sounds do, the presence of something related to information which we can process and use to make decisions. The sound of wind alerts us to changes in the weather, to possible dangers or changes to our immediate situation; it also ties in with nostalgic childhood reminiscences – a breeze stirring through trees bringing back memories of sitting outdoors on a summer’s day – or suggestions of particular places where the wind was particularly strong or frequent. By contrast, a saxophone is a machine, designed for purely aesthetic purposes; and yet, those aesthetic purposes are very much connected to meaning, if in more oblique ways. Over the past hundred years or so, then, the instrument has cumulated emotional and cultural resonances which allow us to hear it as signifying particular things – the ‘spiritual intensity’ of a Coltrane solo, the smooth dinner music of Kenny G or Grover Washington, the lewdness of a bar-walking ‘honker’. In comparison with the wind, or with a saxophone, sine waves – most familiar to people as the ‘test tones’ heard during the interruption of a TV transmission – seem to have far less specific ‘purpose’, far less connection with any specific cultural, emotional, or otherwise meaning-centred experience. They simply are what they are – a near tabula-rasa. As Nakamura puts it, “I wouldn’t say I like my music, I would just say my music is very comfortable to me and very natural to me. It’s not really important if I like it or not, it’s just there.” And again: “A couple of days ago, a guy came to me after a concert in Nantes, and told me; “I read you don’t want to express your emotion but I think your music is very emotional.” So I told him, “It’s you who find it’s emotional. It’s your emotion, not mine. I don’t try to spray my emotion to the audience.” “So, can I say it’s an emotional music?” “Please enjoy your own emotion.” […] Sorry to keep repeating it, but my music is just happening. Maybe listeners want to make some association with something else and then want to understand more deeply. “OK, he is from Japan so their must be some relationship with his tradition.” Maybe in the air and in some part of my body, yes, but it’s not my intention and I don’t know anything about it.”

“Here, the meaning of “listening to sound” is more important than that of “producing sound.” (Otomo: “What is the relationship between listening to sound and producing sound?”) The first thing one does is strain one’s ears and attempt to grasp the sound that is there. It makes no difference whether it is “I” or “you” who produces the first sound.”

Atsushi Sasaki (‘The Oscillating Will’)

Given all this, how does one listen to ‘Bar Sachiko?’ Reviewers have tried different tactics: Bill Ashline analyses the physical shifts and illusions created when listening to the record in his apartment, while Brian Olewnick compares the process to that of a Barnett Newman painting, in which a vast expanse of the same colour comes to contain multitudes of hue and shade and variation as one enters more and more into the work, as one makes that perceptual shift necessary if one is to see it as more than just a blue rectangle with a line down it. I suppose the trouble is that there is very little to actually describe in the music itself – here is one sine tone, lasting for so many minutes, joined by a second tone, possibly consisting of three tones, with the third almost beyond the range of hearing. Thus, the focus is, as already noted, placed squarely back on the perceiver, the spectator, the receiver (the listener): what can one hear in this music, how is one hearing it, how should one hear it? For all we talk about ‘active listening’, and the importance of the audience member as more than a mere spectator, pandered to by showbiz cock-rock gimmickry or lectured or ‘improved’ at by the edifice of ‘classical’ culture, it’s not very often that we are placed so squarely in the driving seat. It’s not that Sachiko is doing nothing – for the decision to play a tone, when to change it, when not to change it, requires great patience and confidence, a real lack of fear; to answer the questions, ‘shouldn’t I be doing something more?’, ‘shouldn’t I be doing something more ‘musical’?’ with a simple ‘no’, or ‘not yet’. It is the listener, too, who asks, ‘what the fuck should I do? how should I listen?’ And the critic is left to chronicle their own experience of this kind: no longer the educated, informed individual passing judgements and dropping hints to others – ‘this is what’s going on here, this is what you should be listening out for’ –they have to hold their hands up and say ‘I don’t know what’s going on here – I can’t tell you how to listen’. Of course, that first statement is, in some sense, untrue – it’s obvious what’s going on here, any idiot can hear that for themselves – we are being presented with a single sine tone – but knowing and understanding, or knowing and somehow fully engaging with a situation, rather than looking at it from outside the goldfish-bowl – really being in there with a creative process, a mode of interaction – that’s hard – that, you can’t fake.

So what do you talk about? Make comparisons, place the work in the context and community of other work going on around it, fit it into a socio-political frame? Done and dusted. What now? The beating in my ear, the grumbling in my stomach, my eyes glazing on the wallpaper in front of me, or staring into the dark murkiness of my eyelids – seeing, perhaps, the flickerings of a Stan Brakhage movie as light hits and drifts through the skin. What now? Perhaps that question is your answer – as in that beautiful last poem of Beckett’s, its title, that phrase repeating, again and again, ‘afar away over there’, that phrase, ‘what is the word’ – simultaneously question and statement, inflexible yet variant, the knowledge that there is nothing beyond the question, perpetual questioning not as madness or total scepticism but as a state, almost, of wonderment, of continually discovering, knowing – something – nothing. Not that one should not engage, should not desire to change, should not wonder, should accept everything without question, thrust into order from above, thrust into systems of injustice. But, for the moment, to listen, unsure how, unsure why, unsure whether one ‘gets’ what’s going on or if it’s worth the effort; not an ‘innocent’ listening – the impossibility of that – so, a mode of listening that brings with it all the person’s cultural baggage and personal bullshit; but as innocent as it can be, as one can be, alive to that experience so many of us had the first time we heard whatever it was turned us onto improvised music or music beyond the contours of what was expected by the taste-makers and those whose tastes they make: yes, maybe, the words of another, ‘the sound of surprise.’ That moment where one says – where I say, not, ‘I get this’, but ‘what.’ The silence of not knowing what to say. Not knowing where one is. De-centred. The fragility of that moment. The honesty of it. The terror. “If someone had asked me a question, I’m not sure I would have remembered how to speak.”10

[Picture] Empty sampler as Art Object: part of Sachiko M’s 2005 installation, ‘I’m Here, Trois.’

Keith Rowe / Otomo Yoshihide / Toshimaru Nakamura / Sachiko M – Erstlive 005 (Erstwhile, 2005)

So, the big one: four musicians, four hours, the fifth release in Erstwhile’s live series. Of the different musicians’ contributions, one might say that Sachiko and Rowe have both moved on to less ‘pure’, more abrasive, broken-up sounds since this was recorded. At the same time, it’s clear that those two dimensions have always existed in Sachiko’s work – particularly in combination with other musicians, and when using contact mics, she tends to stress the unpredictability, the sudden jolts, inherent in her instrument of choice. And, in any case, to take the extreme paring-down and ‘purity’ of ‘Bar Sachiko’ as a template is somewhat inaccurate – rather, I would characterise that disc as an extreme manifestation of a particular aspect of her work (just as 4’33” is an extreme piece for Cage – its ramifications perhaps spreading to other pieces, over many years, but more a kind of necessary provocation than as a template with which to compare everything else). Rowe, meanwhile, was going through what we might term a ‘drone phase’ when this was recorded – the phase that yielded such albums as ‘Weather Sky’, with Nakamura – though he has since moved away from that (not that drones and held tones are not still present, crucial elements in his vocabulary). Yoshihide, on guitar and turn-tables (though the non-guitarness of the guitar is more Rowe-ian than normal), seems to be tying himself down here, or at least, exploring a different side of his musical personality – the music can get loud, but not in the ferocious sense we associate with his more emotionally-driven free jazz and orchestral music; while Nakamura, as ever, combines moments of stasis with jarring and even perverse extremes of pitch, sharp jolts and blurts that suggest disruption of the laminar surface even as they manage to fit within it.

Let’s say that, overall, there’s not much stop and start; there’s a continuous web and mesh of sound you can get lost in. (That’s not to suggest that is by any means background music – while the attention can wander, inevitably, during the four hours (or perhaps I haven’t been practicing meditation enough), a crucial sense of development, of something shared unfolding over time, can be lost if that attention wanders too far (into another room to make a cup of coffee, for example)). In any case, it’s perhaps the finest recorded example of this kind of music-making, simultaneously stark, and, because of the presence of four musicians, always filled with sound, if not sound that immediately signals itself as ‘activity’. An apparently monochrome group sound reveals itself, as one adjusts oneself, as the music makes one adjust to itself, to posses numerous dimensions and overlaps. Some have said this is the four musicians dissolving into one, that Cageian, ego-negating, quasi-Zen stuff. But while that is important, the more you listen to this stuff, the more you start to put together, to follow and trace the individual musician’s approaches, meshing and merging, yes, adapting to each other, yes, but still there as individuals, together. Not the unwavering togetherness of a choir (forced anthems, false communalism as imposed from without) but the ragged togetherness of an unforced communalism, in smaller and more intimate space. This is what I’m trying to say, this music of small spaces and quiet places and attentive audiences, this is the creation of a community, through the tenuousness of music – not a political model necessarily, though maybe there is an element of that, but I won’t get into that here, won’t impose it onto this music, as I’m sure the participants would not wish (Rowe excepted, maybe). But we don’t all have to be card-carrying communists or theoretically-aligned anarchists or whatever to make music in this way, togetherness in the room and with intentness and purpose, a way of working in all seriousness but with room for mistakes, the unknown, humour even, this is what brings us together; ‘us’ as those playing, and ‘us’ as those ‘merely’ listening as well. Yoshihide: “One thing I can say for sure is that the boundary between listening to this CD and playing this music is totally dissolved, and there is only a difference of time and space where the sounds are heard.”

Nakamura, in his liner notes, stresses patience, the everyday, acceptance, through contrasting descriptions of two different four-hour periods. The first, in one sentence, is described simply thus: “Played a concert with Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide and Keith Rowe at Backfabrick in Berlin.” The second takes up several paragraphs, and yet is a description of various activities seemingly far more banal than making a work of art – monosyllabic conversations on the phone, preparing food, ironing a shirt, taking a nap. The writerly inheritance here is Cagean – specifically, perhaps, ‘Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?’. What Nakamura is suggesting is not so much that these activities are more important than making the music, but that the music evades descriptions – ‘words don’t go there’, as Fred Moten says of Cecil Taylor’s poetry. Nonetheless, there are obvious, and obviously intended, parallels – the careful preparation of the food with the unforced, careful attention of the four technology-fiddlers in the room, a certain attitude to going about things with scrupulousness and care, but also with a kind of bloody-mindedness or counter-intuitive reasoning. One event occurs, a distraction, something else, a lull (the nap), then that initial event comes back (the second phone call), the response being similar, but slightly modified (the answer ‘maybe’ turns to ‘no’). Of course, the way Nakamura answers all his friend’s telephoned enquiries with “maybe” and then “no” might suggest the way those used to more established forms of free improvisation react to the apparently non-dialogic quality of the playing here; just as posing a question does not always yield a definite answer, so one musician’s musical suggestion may not be taken up, may be ignored or actively worked against through a deliberate non-listening. And yet, still, that sense of community, of something being worked on and worked towards, together (audiences and listeners included): that transition noted by Messrs. Olewnick and Pinnell, from the more fervently questing, noisier moments of the second disc to the…let’s call it ‘emptying out’, of the third disc: “that bleak and beautiful plateau.”11

Time passes, then – how could it not? and not be felt, extending long beyond the three minutes of the standard pop song, the three to thirty to sixty minutes of a concert-hall work, the ninety minutes or two hours of a film. Four hours is a long time – an investment, if you will, time which could easily otherwise disappear into a vacuum of ‘leisure activity’, the blank vagueness or ennui that exists as a reaction to the strict parcelling out of time during hours of work: the factory bell or horn (well, perhaps that’s a distant memory, in our globally outsourced age), the eye always kept on the clock in the corner of the office, and so on. That concept, of duration, of endurance, is, therefore, a statement in itself, before we even hear the music: as with Feldman’s Second String Quartet, time itself is a crucial aspect of the work, and, as with the Feldman, a vocabulary has to be developed so that the material employed over the course of the four hours does not seem moribund or repetitive or unnecessarily stretched. (One recalls the honesty with which Nakamura cut short a proposed lengthy solo concert after forty-five minutes, feeling that he’d exhausted his options, that to continue would be in some way dishonest, a curtain drawn over the transparent fact that there was nothing more to say.12) So here, minimal events occur in overlapping waves and blocks, difference felt or sensed in slow transition rather than obvious signalled cut (as, too, in Eliane Radigue’s infinitesimally-shifting drones). And yet, while I’ve stressed the importance of the four-hour duration – the work itself signals the importance of time –once one gets into really listening there is almost a sense that time is being negated: not in easy transcendence, a nirvana taking us comfortably out of this world (like new age music), but a sense of being made intensely aware of the moment one is in, of the present; and also, an acceptance of boredom or willingness to let things unfold not at the coked-up, whizz-bang pace of illusory super-knowledge and technological ‘progress.’ Of course, though this is done precisely through technology, through alien electronic or ‘hi-tech’ sounds, whatever you want to call them: through getting inside the machine, tweaking the leavers, bending it to other purposes than the utilitarian ones for which it was intended.

Press play. Ambient sound, the distant echo of piped shopping-mall music (my hallucination perhaps: some kind of phantom melody). Footsteps, the unnatural echo of cold, large spaces – bunkers, the underground; or the hum of machines in nuclear bunkers, technological support after the technology above ground (progress-making bombs, the motion of history) has had its say. OK. These are fantasies, irrelevancies – cold-war logics buried now in acres of fuzz, distortion, ‘the end of history’. Is it 1 minute 25 seconds before the music starts? Sine wave, Sachiko, Rowe coming in underneath almost straight away to adorn, to complement, his buzzing suddenly switched off before the drone becomes too comfortable. Jolts, clangs – electronic, acoustic, hard to tell, both merging into indeterminate similarity in the echoing space – Nakamura’s deliberately jolting, ‘non-musical’ bursts, as yet restrained, the drone building, louder, lower swellings, volume building, simultaneous ephemerality and enormity of the edifice (all it takes is one of the musicians to twist a knob, flick a switch, pull out a cable, and the thing will collapse – like removing one of the foundations from a building and then building again from the collapsed structure, the ruined edifice, a new building in itself. And they are all perverse enough not to care about ‘success’, to be entirely willing to build and re-build in this seemingly irresponsible way – cut out the drone if it becomes too comfortable, too beautiful.) But thus far they are building, sine wave still sounding, tho’ almost merged into background as little bursts of white-noise static and those Roweian tinkles, sounds with just the barest connection to the string-and-fret sound of a guitar. The dull buzz of an exposed cable-end, the inscrutable ‘om’ an amplifier makes when you plug in, before you put sound through it: its speaking voice drowned out by your own, by guitars and whatever else, by rock music and noise (the hidden pulse beneath all of that, like John Cage’s blood and nervous system singing in the anechoic chamber). Nothing happening, nothing doing, still that sine wave, sudden exposed string, as if Rowe’s struck it by mistake. To you it all sounds like equipment left to run, stasis, background noise, but now, as if anticipating your dissatisfaction, slowed-down shamanic wail, taped voices, manipulated (these are guesses), groans, volume on the rise, again, bass ripping, vibrating ear, a new sine wave, more piercing, to replace, drown out, that one we’ve been aware of for the last however-many minutes; and that fades, a new combination, two waves together, dipping and themselves swelling, feedback’s contour, yes, a (sound) wave in its contour like the sea. But nothing breaks here, no crashing on shore, no stormy climax; now they disappear, the sine space filled instead with – now, nothing? This might be the signal somewhere else for applause, the comfortable twenty-minute set (free improv’s equivalent of the three-minute pop song), but we’re in the presence of patient people here. Was there a silence, a pause, a dip? I didn’t notice, I was too busy adjusting my controls, selecting another sound. The first appearance of Rowe’s radio, a woman’s voice, newscaster stiff, World Service, perhaps? An Englishman in Japan. Words unclear. Accent without direction, voice as halo. I’ve forgotten that Yoshihide is playing here too. His contribution less clear than the more typical sounds of Rowe, Sachiko, Nakamura (typical in the sense that they bear the particular musician’s particular stamp – not so much as jazz ‘licks’ – timbres, perhaps, Barthesian ‘grain’); typical of his unwillingness to be pinned down, his trickster-switch from noise-turntables to noise-guitar to Mingus-covering keeper of the free jazz flame (Jojo Takayanagi’s heir apparent). Things are perhaps stiffer, firmer, now, the sounds not bending and dipping and waving and ducking so much, those queasy, near-nauseous moments where the musical ground seems to be ceaselessly shifting beneath your feet: like walking on water, the musician as jesus lizard, or, less dramatically, that slight rolling I sense beneath my feet as I type this on the seven-hour ferry (it’s the ideal opportunity: four hours out of seven, plenty of time to take in the whole of Erstlive 005 and then stand on deck for another three hours to get the grit from my ears, to re-accustom myself to the sound of wind, human voices). Volatility, feedback threatening to scream-shard us into covering our ears; imperceptibly shading into almost ambient loops, the murky comforts of repetition overlaid with repeated fizz and sizzle (as when Lee Patterson dissolves tablets into amplified, fizzing glasses of liquid). And, once again, that super-low frequency – sounded once, then cut. And the loops, cut. Contact-mic cracks, thuds. Splotch. Squelch. Discrete events, as if to make up for, or contrast with, the previous thirty minutes’ droning. One of those transitional periods. At the crossroads (with Robert Johnson). Roads not taken; threads picked up, dropped. That focus on transition, change, un-hurried non-stasis, as a moral imperative. Don’t ever get comfortable; as if in four hours you could ever become comfortable – that time limit (a limit in reverse, expanding out, rather than cutting off, hemming in) demanding that you be in it all for the long haul, that you carry on beyond the ‘natural’ swell, beyond the ‘natural’ pause.

You can see how this sort of thing could go on for ever. I mean, does it ever really end? That kind of dedication, that kind of attention to sculpting sound and being in a space is a life-long task, and not one you can just pick up and throw away over the course of a twenty-minute set, over the course of your latest album. The project goes on. How to end this particular one, right now, is by moving onto the next item in our discographical survey…

Salon de Sachiko (Hitorri, 2007)

Here we have the long-form setting of ‘Bar Sachiko’ applied to the more rustly, relatively ‘busy’ activity of some of the EPs from five year earlier: thus, rather than constant continuous tones, we get short beeps and even sections of fairly straightforward rhythm, interspersed with silences and rustling contact mics. Somehow that feels more ‘difficult’ to me than the monotony of the sustained tone – it’s flickering, unsettled and unsettling, a little like Nakamura’s ‘Maruto’, I guess, though the play there is actually between the two approaches – the somewhat ramshackle, abrupt, ‘non-musical’ white and brown and pink noises, pings of feedback, hives of activity, and the near-unbearably elongated drone. Onward…

[Picture] Still from Episode 4 of ‘Subsonics’ (Broadcast on SBS, 2003)

Chooi Joonyong / Hong Chulki / Sachiko M / Otomo Yoshihide – Sweet Cuts, Distant Curves (Balloon and Needle, 2008)

Balloon and Needle’s work might be seen as a new off-shoot (OK, I’ll say it, rhizome) from the aesthetic established by Yoshihide, Sachiko, Nakamura et al in the late 90s: and while their use of malfunctioning devices recalls Voice Crack’s ‘cracked everyday electronics’ (see Sachiko’s collaboration with them on Poire Z +), the actual sounds are less obviously ‘musical’ than Voice Crack. Focussing on a vocabulary of harsh, loud and juddering skips and clicks, from miked-up turntables, CD players and computer hard drives, one might call their work ‘noise music’, but it doesn’t have the sense of release and catharsis suggested by that moniker – instead, it feels precise, considered, the work of amateur scientists carefully and rather gleefully setting off little experiments in chaos and seeing what results. Sachiko and Yoshihide’s work as Filament, despite its similar concentration on ‘peripheral’ machine noises, white noise, pops and jumps, has a greater sense of structure in comparison: Balloon and Needle almost seem unconcerned as to whether the sound they make appears as music or as an experiment that happens to be conducted in sonic form. Putting the two duos together ensures that the set is fairly abrasive, never something one can slip into – sharp, prickly, perhaps a bit meandering. In terms of the Sachiko ‘ouevre’, it’s hard to know really where to place this, and it’s far easier to listen to it as a product of the very distinct music made by musicians in the Korean scene – a music I don’t feel I’ve sufficiently grasped, certainly not enough to make any really coherent critical comment on it. And again, onward…

Keith Rowe / Sachiko M, ‘Contact’ (Erstwhile, 2009)

A big one, this – or marketed as such, by Erstwhile; that sense of the Rowe industry, of the desire to create ‘great cultural monuments’ very consciously asserting itself against the garden-shed, take-it-or-leave-it anarchist eccentricities of certain British improv scenes. (I’m not going to judge between them, I can take or leave both, and we can ignore the packaging or presentation, can’t we.) Included on the double-disc are the live performance this duo give at the Amplify festival in Tokyo in 2008 (here titled ‘Oval’, the first disc’s second track), coupled with three more tracks recorded two days later in the same space. The title would seem to refer to the ‘contact’ between the two musicians; also, more materially and specifically, to the physical contact generating the sounds on Sachiko’s contact mics; and to Rowe’s use of the disembodied guitar as a similar point of contact with which to set off amplified touch-signals – as a vibrating, squelching or harshly metallic surface. Points of contact.

Because he’s playing with Sachiko, no doubt (compare this to the way he modifies his approach in the recent duos with Radu Malfatti, also on Erstwhile), Rowe’s playing is very much restrained: on ‘Square,’ rustles and crackles that fade away almost as soon as they’ve begun, frequent but unobtrusive, like a small animal ferreting at the edge of Sachiko’s unbending single sine wave. 11:40 – Sachiko lets out her first other sound, a quick beep, to which Rowe responds (though that word suggests something more straightforwardly dialogic that what actually transpires) with a slip, as if he’s brushed his hand onto the guitar body and his hand’s slipped off; semi-willed accident as the appropriate move (this something I’ve noted in Angharad Davies’ playing too, in concert), dimmed, dipped out once again – cut short, curtailed. Then swarming back up (I guess the volume pedal was under close control here), activity still reduced to the faintest whispers, any suggestion of a change or climax for the moment postponed. Those bumps and clangs, almost accidental, the white noise hiss that fuzzes up with them as that volume goes up and down. Another tone joining Sachiko’s first, compressing the sound slightly, then back to the first, itself quieter now, disappearing now, judder and buzz into a prickled bed of silence. Very little…almost nothing. Sine tone back down, and up. These things, barely there, there bare and stark. How monotony’s avoided: a sense, always, that things must change, that these tiny bursts (it would be wrong even to use that word to describe them), these little fiddly patches of sound must build themselves up to something, that the sonic picture must fill out – that tension, then, but also a sense of tension’s reduction, an acceptance of these two parallel courses set up, and then hardly changing, miniscule movement almost un-registered (though this is far from a La Monte Young-ian trance, exists at a kind of sub-level rather than filling everything in Dream House swell: Sachiko sine-ing or silent, Rowe turning the volume up and down. (For all we know, he was making sounds the whole time, but, with that volume manipulation, choosing to broadcast only, say, 50% of his activity – which would be a nice indicator of the kind of restraint he practices, even if it’s not, um, true)).

Plastic bag rustle/ zip and unzip. I’ve said that Rowe was restraining himself, but it would seem, from ‘Oval’ (the first meeting, the live track) that Sachiko was restraining herself equally. It’s a different kind of restraint to that practiced on ‘Bar Sachiko’, though, centring more around silence, around what seems to be a deliberate lack of event, the absence of any real focus to encourage attention. There’s nowhere for one to get lost – so things feel more constrained than on ‘Bar Sachiko,’ and when a sine wave does come in, bright and hard and unwavering as ever, it feels like something of a relief. And then it just cuts out, after a few seconds. Huh, I guess I can’t say I love this music (though ‘Square’ is a fascinating exercise) – compared, to say, ‘Filament’, it feels terribly bare, and I feel my own listening become, at times, listless with that bareness. How to deal with that non-narrative stopping and starting – successions of sounds and silences that don’t feel like incidents, or actions, or events, but like aural hallucinations, those prickles of sound or light that whine and flash out at you as whispers on the edge of sleep. No doubt, there’s a real focus needed to make that kind of music (one review suggests that it’s as if there are sounds going on in the silence – the silences are never resting places or pauses, are always packed with possibility, with the same kind of intensity as the sounds, perhaps even more so). So of course it would be unfair to fall back, as I must admit I am tempted to do, on all the old descriptors used to slam down Sachiko’s work (that it’s boring, colourless, emotionless, whatever). What I can say is that I admire ‘Contact’ rather than ever really feeling that I have, or can, engage with it. Sachiko’s art, I guess, treads such a knife-edge between boredom and concentration, between revitalising focus and impermeable blankness, that, for me, it does sometimes fall over on the wrong side of those categories.

More often than not, though, I’m forced to realize that it is worth making the effort to engage with even the work of hers that I just don’t get on with: there is time I will willingly make for it to unravel itself, or, more accurately, for me to adjust myself to it – whilst maintaining the frisson of that original encounter which is a large part of its unique quality. I don’t think I’d ever be happy if this music became, uh, comfortable: and maybe the work that I find hardest to get along with is, perversely, the most valuable of all, in that respect.

[Picture] Photograph from the ‘erstwords’ blog: Amplify Festival, 2008.

Time to round things off. I’ve never managed to catch Sachiko live on those few occasions when she’s played here in the UK over the past few years – a large dimension of the whole experience no doubt missing there – and I haven’t heard the most recent solo material, ‘I’m Here…Departures’, a mini-CD released to tie in with an art gallery installation (the reviews indicate that it’s something of a crafted summation of the various techniques she’s developed over the years, somewhat fuller, busier, more filled with electronic sound than her, I guess we could now call them, ‘classic’ works.) So, to end, the most recent material I’ve been able to access is a murky video fragment from a 2011 live performance which finds Sachiko in duo with the ‘feedback drums’ of DeAthAnovA ( – about whom I can find out pretty much zilch, but whose feedback swells and occasional struck bell or cymbal giving the piece a kind of see-sawing, sea-sick swell that has imparts a much more upfront sense of drama than we’d maybe expect from Sachiko. I like it; I like the balance between that drama and a more static, ritual quality –though Sachiko herself seems to slip in between the cracks rather than staying up front, occasionally adding a sharp fizz or flutter that actually adds colour to the percussive thumps, even acting as percussion in its own right. On the face of it, then, she’s very much the backing partner, the percussionist in the 70s jazz fusion band, the colourist whose fills and shadings could be dispensed with without losing the central narrative thrust or overall momentum. But I’d like to think of that reticence as a strength: and the more you listen, the more you realize she’s doing – a high held tone towards the end acting as a wire-strung tension-builder, overlapping and meshing with the feedback and with the drum thump and clatter in a beautifully drawn-out way; filling up the space, un-noticed, choosing the right time to drop out, to select another sound, to let up a jacking rasp or one of those alien electronic whines. For all the talk of being a ‘non-musician’, she’s a master at what she does, formally: that balance between deliberate naivety or ‘wrongness’ and the most delicate craft, the most apt and fitting ‘rightness’, and I’d say she’s done as much as anyone in changing the way we listen, over the past ten years or so. Stan Brakhage titled his film of autopsy footage, ‘The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes’; and while I’m in no way comparing the experience of listening to Sachiko M to the experience of watching the disassembling of corpses, there is that same sense of intense focus, of refusing to blink or look away from what is difficult, what is intense, what we might otherwise dismiss as too uncomfortable to dwell on. Not, ‘The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes’, then, but ‘The Act of Listening With One’s Ears’; of cleaning out and cleansing those ears so that the world sounds again, and sounds differently, outside the haze. At its best, listening to the music of Sachiko M teaches us how to listen anew.

[2] See, for example:
[3] Recently, Rowe appears to have begun working with a much sparser set-up and sound palette (at least, he had when I saw him live earlier this year (see the reviews section of this issue)).
[4] A point of comparison here might be Keston Sutherland’s discussion of ‘wrongness’ in poetry: Sutherland, ‘Wrong Poetry’ (Textual Practice 24 (4), 2010, pp.765-782 (available online at (See also: Rowe’s comments on failure appear in Kurt Gottschalk, ‘Keith Rowe: New Traditionalism’ (New York City Jazz Record 1 (113), 2011 p.9 (available online at:
[5] In this regard, consider Carl Wilson’s attempt to write about Céline Dion in ‘Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste’ (Continuum, 2007).
[6] Though there were mitigating circumstance: the third musician, Seymour Wright, had been mugged the day before the gig. For discussion, see:
[7] See the final chapter in Valerie Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’
[8] See the discussion at ‘I Hate Music’: Keenan’s original review can be viewed here:
[9] Ed Howard believes that “Yoshida’s goal, even if she does not always achieve it, is to produce sounds which could not be identified as emanating from the human vocal cords.” (Review of Astro Twin/ Cosmos split at
[10] Though perhaps this is more of a ‘Berlin scene’ trend – witness the group Phosphor, who, after performance, gather together into a huddle to discuss the ethics of what just happened – in contrast to the more gnomic pronouncements of, say, Toshimaru Nakamura or Sachiko M herself. Then again, that appearance of reticence, or some quasi-Zen quiet wisdom, might be a product as much of the language barrier as of any conscious programme: Japanese musicians having to communicate in cryptic or compact English because they don’t have enough acquaintance with the language itself to express themselves more fully in it. Of course, this illusion accounts for at least part of the music’s appeal, but it does remains a whole or partial illusion. There is a strange balance, though, when trying to talk about work such as Sachiko’s, between a kind of (over-)intellectualisation (parts of this article included) and a rather flat, basic critical vocabulary: once one’s taken on board the initial assumptions and qualifications necessary to spend large parts of one’s life listening to this kind of music, itself a difficult task, and then resorted to the kind of judgements anyone might make about a Top 40 Chart hit. ‘I like it’; ‘I don’t like it’; ‘It was nice’; ‘It didn’t quite feel right.’ I guess that’s part of the experience of actually being a musician and making music – certain elements of the creative process, of formally putting something together, become clearer than they would be to a non-musician, but certain instinctive, gut value judgements remain in some way inexplicable, un-theorizable. This bit probably shouldn’t be in a footnote.
[11] Stewart Lee, ‘Epiphanies: Stewart Lee on Morphogenesis’ (originally published in The Wire; now available online at
[12] See: (ignoring, of course, the ridiculous name-calling in the comments section – the kind of name-calling and reductivist, bone-headed argumentation that seems to characterise all online discussion for a the lower one scrolls down the page…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s