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Friday, April 15, 2016

Taku Sugimoto - Septet (Ftarri, 2015) ***½

By Nicola Negri

Rebecca Lane – flute
Michael Thieke – clarinet
Johnny Chang – viola
Koen Nutters – contrabass
Derek Shirley – cello
Taku Sugimoto – electric guitar
Bryan Eubanks – sine-tones

Guitarist Taku Sugimoto is usually associated with Onkyo (sound), a style of improvisation that developed in the early 2000s around “Off Site”, a gallery and performance space in Tokyo. A style based on pure sound, low volume and a massive use of silence, whose proponents were more concerned with the act of listening than with producing any intelligible musical statement, a sonic dimension in which music simply happened.

This approach was not exclusively Japanese, of course, and the same aesthetic approach can be traced in other contemporary improvisational communities, most significantly in the Echtzeitmusik scene in Berlin, still active to this day.

Sugimoto was one of the first among those improvisers to seek new grounds to explore beyond the experience of Onkyo, and this new record is a good representation of his interest in composed materials and a more conspicuous sound presence.

Septet consists of a thoroughly composed piece that fills the entire record, for a total of 38 minutes.

Sugimoto’s usual attention to detail and timbre is focused on long tones and slightly shifting durations, sacrificing silence for a musical piece saturated with sound, and improvisation for a strictly determined formal structure.

The composition is conceived as a double concertino for clarinet, flute, and small ensemble (formed by musicians of the Wandelweiser Group), where the two main “soloists” repeat a single tone throughout the entire piece, while the other instruments (viola, cello, contrabass, guitar, and sine-tone generator) produce a deceptively narrow spectrum of microtonal variations beneath them.

There are recurring pauses in the composition, and the slow, relaxed pulse gives the illusion of a living, breathing organism. Clarinet and flute do their best to keep every iteration identical to the preceding one, letting the inherent character of each instrument to slightly color the sound. The other musicians work on a determined set of microtones that gives the impression of almost motionless waves of sound, with the exception of Sugimoto himself, whose single guitar accents, slightly displaced on the formal grid, discreetly come to the fore by virtue of this apparent disjunction from the ensemble.

At first the compositional idea at the base of this record may seem more interesting than the actual performance, but repeated listens reveal a surprisingly rich sonic environment, with complex dynamics and carefully chosen timbres. The end result is a peculiar aural experience, and in a sense is both a development and a reminiscence of Sugimoto’s first works, inviting the listener to almost forget the general outline and to focus instead on every single sound produced, exactly like those improvisations at “Off Site” fifteen years ago.