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Monday, July 17, 2017

Toshimaru Nakamura and Martin Taxt - Listening to the footsteps of living ones who are still on the ground (Ftarri, 2017) ****½

By Connor Kurtz

In this reviewer's extremely biased eyes, Toshimaru Nakamura is one of the most important electronic musicians of the 21st century. Toshimaru Nakamura is best known as the man behind the no-input mixing board[1], and one of the earliest and most prolific names in onkyo-style improvisation[2]. What might be easily glanced over on the packaging of his new full length collaboration with Martin Taxt, Listening to the footsteps of living ones who are still on the ground[3], ends up being the most important aspect of what makes this a standout in Nakamura's recent discography: Nakamura is not credited on no-input mixing board, but simply credited on mixing board[4]. I'll explain the importance of this shortly. Martin Taxt is a young Norwegian tubist, best known for his work on the SOFA label which he co-founded. Earlier this year he performed as a member of the excellent EAI trio Muddersten, where he unleashed a huge array of electroacoustic tuba goop.

Although Nakamura began in the historically quiet onkyo music scene, his recent music has been taking a surprisingly unsurprising turn towards the noisy. On his most recent solo album, No Input Mixing Board #8, a duo with saxophonist Katsura Yamauchi and one previous duo with Taxt[5], Nakamura has made this stylistic turn obvious. These albums were certainly an enjoyable disturbance of the ears, but Listening feels like a step forward, perhaps a culmination in this maximalist style. Not just is the music harsher[6] than any of these earlier albums, but it is also more dynamic, more exciting and more progressive.

Let's get back to Nakamura and his mixing board. When they say that he is performing on a mixing board rather than a no-input mixing board, one would think that he must be using a some-input mixing board, which is indeed the case; and that some-input is nothing other than the tuba of one Martin Taxt[7]. What this means is that Taxt improvises live, and his output is then manipulated by Nakamura live with his some-input mixing board[8]. A wonderful idea – and what makes it even better, is that the dry single of Taxt's tuba is completely absent (meaning that we exclusively hear the output of Nakamura's mixing board).

The system for improvisation that these two have constructed is wonderful, because it completely changes around how duo improvisations are meant to work. They typically work by having both performers listen closely to each other, and basing what they play off of that. There's an element of counterpoint. One school of thought is to pay attention to nothing and play solely what your heart says to play. Either way, the name of the game is intuition – but the listener will always listen to the two performers separately, and try to understand them as a whole (and the performers are aware of this). In this new system, intuition remains king, but the context is completely different. I see there being two different ways of this being performed: 1) Taxt's tuba is led into Nakamura's mixing board which is led into headphones which Nakamura wears. In this system, Nakamura can only hear what's coming from his mixing board and Taxt can only hear what's coming from his tuba, so they can only respond to their own outputs, although Nakamura's is still determined by Taxt's. 2) Taxt's tuba is led into Nakamura's mixing board which is led into an amplifier. In this system, both performers can hear Nakamura's amplified mixing board and Taxt's live (acoustic) tuba, so Taxt can improvise off of how his Tuba sounds after manipulation and Nakamura can improvise off of what Taxt is currently playing. Another possibility in the second situation is that the amplifier could be turned up loud enough to provoke feedback from however Taxt's tuba is mic'd; this could explain some of the album's harshness. Either way, the listener exclusively hears the output of Nakamura's mixing board. So, to us, Taxt's improvisation is lost and only becomes used as a source for Nakamura's. Then an easy question occurs – is this really still a duo album? Well, I'm not sure, but I do know that I like when an album leaves me with a question that I don't know how to answer.

Taxt's improvisation is something that I have little to say about, simply because it's mangled beyond recognition before it even reaches my ears. Sometimes we get glimpses of the loud, full and deep sound of the tuba bursting through the electronic glob of noise, but more often than not we're stuck with something that I doubt even Taxt could identify as a tuba. So then, what of Nakamura's improvisation? Well, I'm glad to state that he is in top form here. On albums like Good Morning, Good Night and Between[9], he mastered a minimal style which was focused on analog electronic snaps, crackles, and pops, as well as simple drones resembling test tones. Even before that, he experimented with simple IDM-lite rhythms and melodies on his early solo albums which would make up the earliest entries in his No-Input Mixing Board series. As I previously said, his style here is blatantly maximalist, and perhaps takes from the rapid-fire madness of Japan's own noise scene. Sounds are distorted and pushed deep past the thresholds of clipping, and they're constantly mutated in high enough speeds that it will sound constantly moving[10].

It is generalizing to say that Nakamura's improvisations are always like that, this is just where they are most easily memorable (read: shocking). The album works in three tracks: two 10 minute pieces sandwich a 16-minute centerpiece. They are all named after the Japanese cities in which they were recorded. The tracks all have their own improvised themes and modes, making them all delightful distinct from each other. On Osaka, the opening track, Taxt's acoustic tuba can most easily be heard. He operates in slow but full patterns and rhythms as Nakamura gradually adds noise and pushes the track closer to clipping and eventually past it. The track is very linear, making it easy to take in and follow, but on Kagoshima things lose all predictability. It kicks off with some light percussive sounds. Feedback grows and noise overcomes, and the listener is dropped face first into a maze of electroacoustic textures and walls of electronic noise. Album closer Okinawa is an even deeper dive into the harsh noise maelstrom. In this track, it's often hard to tell that there was ever even a tuba at play, as the listener is lost in the void of sheer hellish miasma[11]. The album ends with a tuba howling like a foghorn before a full fade to black.

So all in all, this album thoroughly subverted all of my expectations in a way which I find to be both interesting and a joyous pleasure to listen to, and that's exactly what I want from this kind of album: it's one thing to give the listener something that they want, but it's another thing to give them something that they didn't know they wanted. There's an immediate level of novelty that the album grants from its pure noisiness, but there's deeper levels of enjoyment as well that keep me coming back over and over. The three track structure works flawlessly, allowing the listener to directly juxtapose the three. What we're left with is a great noise album that doubles as a great free improvisation album, and one that I'm certain will end up as a highlight of Nakamura's 2010's discography.

[1] No-input mixing board refers to when a musician plugs a mixing board's output into its own input, rather than connecting to any outside sources. This creates an internal feedback loop, which can then be manipulated with the levels on the mixing board.
[2] Most notably, Nakamura was involved on the now infamous, although in my opinion quite lovely, 2004 Erstwhile Records double album Good Morning, Good Night alongside Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide.
[3] The title is so lovely that I almost feel bad that I'll simply be referring to it as Listening from now on.
[4] This is so easily glanced over that Nakamura is still credited with no-input mixing board on the album's RateYourMusic entry at time of writing.
[5] Nakamura and Taxt's Pan on Fire, released on Monotype Records only a year and a half prior, could easily be seen as a precursor to this.
[6] There are moments on Okinawa where this music could be mistaken for the soul-shaking electronic noise of Incapacitants or Merzbow!
[7] If you are anything like this reviewer, you should be bouncing in your chair in joy at this realization.
[8] Some-input does feel more realistic than just-input, because I am very confident that the mixing board's output is still being processed by itself to construct feedback loops.
[9] Between is another Erstwhile Records double album, this time from 2006, by Nakamura and Keith Rowe. I personally consider it to be the masterpiece of the 00's EAI scene.
[10] This is assisted by the fact that there are two improvisers moving at once, so this ends up sounding like double speed.
[11] I wouldn't usually make a note to point out a reference, but the situation here is slightly different. Sheer Hellish Miasma is a famous album by American noise titan Kevin Drumm, and if you can make it through Okinawa with a smile I'd highly recommend that album.


Eyal Hareuveni said...

One correction: Taxt is Norwegian:

Connor said...

Embarrassing, I'm sure I knew that deep down!

Anonymous said...

Please reconsider the excessive use of footnotes in your reviews. It's an affectation that does your readers no favors, and many will not bother. That would be a shame, as you're clearly able to write well and think critically about the music.

Connor said...

Hm, I've tried to think of it as a way to add some additional information which may have been seen as fluff in the original review - so it's an easy way to expand on thoughts which may not be crucial to the actual review, but I think may still be interesting. I hope it to be something that many would ignore, and those looking for more information or explanations would read.

I appreciate the criticism though, and will keep it in mind :)

Paul said...

Corrected in the text.

Anonymous said...

Actually I would like clarification on one of the footnotes... why exactly is the album good morning goodnight considered inFAMOUS or controversial? I'm not really aware of the critical opinion of this album but I love it very much so I'm really curious. Thanks!

Connor said...

Good Morning, Good Night has become quite popular on the internet, perhaps over the past half-decade or so. For example, on RateYourMusic the album has nearly 10 times the number of ratings as Between, the Rowe / Nakamura album I mentioned, does. I believe it stems from the album gaining some notoriety on 4chan's music board.

But it's become more-or-less known as the EAI/Onkyo album to hear, and since it's an album with such a niche appeal, there are many many people who have heard it and have strong negative opinions towards it. Going back to RateYourMusic, you can see several aggressively negative reviews there.

Of course, this has little to do with the music. I'm a fan. It's just that it's been put into a situation where many curious people who may not be interested in that style of music have heard it.

Jon Abbey said...

hahaha, I never saw that RYM GMGN page before.