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Friday, March 2, 2018

Ftarri Fifth Anniversary

By Connor Kurtz

In 2012, the acclaimed Tokyo-based music label Ftarri opened a CD shop / performance space, and in 2017 it celebrated its fifth anniversary. In that short amount of time, Ftarri has secured its place as one of the most important buildings in contemporary avant-garde music, hosting a huge variety of Japanese experimentalists, both young and old, as well as renowned musicians from all around the globe. To celebrate their fifth anniversary, Ftarri released four new albums on their Meenna and Ftarri imprints, all focused on showcasing their lesser-known and younger performers and composers, demonstrating what might be expected in the future from Ftarri.

Ftarri after Tomorrow (Meenna, 2017) ***

The first of the releases is a compilation which is accurately titled Ftarri after Tomorrow. The album compiles music from four performers. Since the material of each track shares very few similarities, I'll have to take it track by track.

First is an electronic composition by Hideki Umezawa titled Multiples. Multiples appears to be the sounds of multiple analog synthesizer recordings collaged together to create one cohesive 10-minute voyage. We get plenty of tones, modulations and cracks, recalling the Tokyo scene's earlier synth musicians like Taku Unami and Utah Kawasaki. What really makes Umezawa stand out, however, is his method of composition. The music has an awkward flow to it, which seems to jitter from movement to movement, creating a wonderfully off-kilter listening experience.

Second is an improvisation by sisters Yoko and Wakana Ikeda, titled Confirm the Difference between Instrument Performance and Other Actions. The piece questions exactly what the title suggests – why is the sounds of an instrumental performance different than the sounds of any other action? This is hardly a new question in this scene of music, but the siblings take a new direction by attempting to harmonize instruments with objects, as well as maintaining a periodic flow between performances on different objects as the other plays on their instrument. To me, the most memorable moment comes during a section where Wakana plays her flute and Yoko plays, what sounds like, the zipper of a duffel bag. There's an incredibly odd sense of harmony and interplay, which almost seems natural in this very unnatural context.

Third is another electronic composition, this time by Yoichi Kamimura, titled Evaporation. A large part of the piece consists of recordings of water in different states, primarily pouring or dripping at various rates. The recordings are accompanied by an electronic clicking sound, which the rate of seems to flow with the water sounds.  It makes for a wonderful soundscape, but a massive transition occurs 7 minutes into the piece when a gorgeous all-encompassing synthetic drone appears and begins to harmonized with the flowing water which has greatly increased in intensity. After a few minutes, the piece returns to the clicking texture for a few more minutes before fading away. This is my favorite piece on the disc – it's beautiful, original and provocative.

The last two tracks are improvisations by acoustic guitarist Takashi Masubuchi, titled El and Bow. The music is patient, meditative and beautiful. Masubuchi repeats soft folk-inspired melodies, improvising subtle variations on the theme as he goes. The music is soft and blissful, certainly the easiest listen on the disc, but also leaving the least to contemplate or write about.

Ftarri after Tomorrow is my least favorite CD of the bunch, but that hardly means that it isn't worthy of a listen. All tracks are appealing, emotional and original in their own ways. All artists on this set will likely be worth following in the future, but the various ~10-minute pieces leave me wanting something larger and more developed.

Ftarri Jam (Meenna, 2017) ***1/2

The second disc is titled Ftarri Jam – it is a group improvisation including drummer Masashi Takashima, electric bassist Yuma Takeshita, drummer Yuji Ishihara, electric guitarist Atsushi Arakawa and electronic musician Fiona Lee (who also appears on Ftarri de Solos).

Ftarri Jam is exactly what the title implies – the quintet got together for a one-time jam at Ftarri on May 5, 2017, and it lasted little over a half hour. The improvisers are all relatively young and inexperienced with each other, and, for better or for worse, it does sound that way. Fans of interplay or obvious technical ability may find little of interest here. Instead of those traditional aspects of improvisation, Ftarri Jam offers 5 performers spontaneously doing what they feel like with little to no interest in what anyone else is doing in a given moment. The result is a complex and unique sound-mass which constantly mutates in incomprehensible ways.

The abstraction of the improvisation is surely what will make or break it for listeners. The music doesn’t ebb or flow, it doesn’t even breath. Instead, if it wanders through accidental movements aimlessly, like an awkward strut guided by a dysfunctional GPS. What I find remarkable about music like Ftarri Jam is how alien it sounds when gazed at under any musical context, but when momentarily glanced at, perhaps superficially, it sounds unmistakably human. There are ideas, simple emotions and concepts being thrown around constantly – five at once, in almost all moments. Ideas and sounds exist in a constant state of conflict as they bounce off of one another free of context. The result may be little more than an ungraspable sound-mass, but it makes for some very interesting intensive listening.

To say that this music is completely original, that it all sounds nothing like anything that's come before, would be a lie. There are plenty of reference points: early AMM, the electroacoustic reductionism made popular by Erstwhile Records, musicians like Toshimaru Nakamura, Eddie Prévost and Günter Müller. The old concepts and inspirations collide with new ideas and experiments, several times over, layering into something wonderfully complex. Whether Ftarri Jam is an essential document is up for debate, but I can say for certain that it's managed to capture my interest and curiosity over several listens where many albums can't.

Ftarri de Solos (Ftarri, 2017) ****

The third disc, titled Ftarri de Solos, compiles two improvisations by female sound artists: one by suzueri, and one by Fiona Lee (who also appears on Ftarri Jam). Although the two tracks seem to have little to do with each other, I believe Ftarri de Solos to be the most essential of the four releases.

Elico Suzuki, who performs under the moniker of suzueri, plays upright and toy piano, self-made instruments, and objects. I first heard suzueri in a trio and quartet format on 2016's wonderful Live at Ftarri (with Tetuzi Akiyama, Makoto Oshiro and Roger Turner), where she added a wonderful element of periodic melodic sound to the otherwise abstract set (not entirely dissimilar to John Tilbury's work in trio-era AMM). In the group format she was fantastic, and she's even better solo.

suzueri's piece starts with the mindless clatter of objects, recalling Japanese sound artists like Takahiro Kawaguchi and Makoto Oshiro. It repeats steadily but unevenly, recalling the sounds of broken clockwork. Soon enough there's a single piano chord. Every 10 seconds or so it repeats, over and over. We hear the sound of the movements of both objects and people, the sounds of friction across the performance space. Whether this comes down to intentional sounds of the artist's self-made instruments or objects or if it is simply the sounds of preparation becomes unimportant – it is all a part of the performance, and this is something that suzueri is surely aware of. The constantly buzzing objects sound to be a stick quickly spinning, smacking off of glasses and bowls at a quick enough pace to create the concept of tone.

After several minutes, suzueri brings in her toy piano to be played simultaneously with the upright piano. The piano plays its note, then the toy piano makes a high-pitched click that sounds more like a cash register than a piano. And then, of course, they repeat over and over. Through the piece there are odd interjections and repetitions to remind the listener that this is an improvisation and not just a loop. The objects fade out as suzueri begins to bust out a rhythm on her toy piano which not just replaces the objects, but instantly recalls them. In all this time, the upright piano maintains, and spontaneously breaks, its awkward pattern. In the final minute, suzueri loudly plays a simple melody on the piano – it's nothing short of gorgeous.

This is, in my opinion, one of the best solo improvisations I've heard in a while. What makes it so special comes down to atmosphere and its conceptions: the sounds of clockwork are so natural, simple and understandable. They are something we can easily imagine, without mistaking them for natural musical sounds. Similarly, the piano is one of the most memorable instruments in the world, due to its long history and soothing, but unique, timbre. The repetitions place the listener in a musical world, in a room, which they can very easily understand – and suzueri modulates that world with great nuance. She doesn't have the listener in great confusion or have them grasping for words, but she does play with their expectations and conceptions in a way which feels surreal. It's because we can understand what and why makes the music feel natural while simultaneously understanding what makes it feel unnatural but not understanding why that it manages to perfectly incapsulate this surrealist feeling. In addition to this, it manages to maintain a sense of beauty and elegance, coming much closer to a daydream than a nightmare.

In direct opposition, we have the longer piece by Hong Kong native Fiona Lee. This piece is completely abstract, primarily focusing on simple electroacoustic percussion-oriented drones. The sounds are, for the most part, obtrusive, uncomfortable and ugly. We hear the low-end sounds of metals scraping and bending and the high-end sounds of objects being dragged around a bowl – they do not harmonize.

There are similarities in the two pieces. Although they are both live performances by solo musicians, we are almost always hearing multiple sound sources at once, to the point where one might assume that there are overdubs or loops (suzueri actually pulls hers off in a situation which looks something like this: They are also both concerned with long repetitions and subtle progressions, finding dignity in stagnation. But the execution, the emotional output and the purpose are complete opposites. I stated that suzueri's performance is remarkable for its beautiful and off-kilter atmosphere; Lee's piece has none of that. I also stated that suzueri's performance won't leave the listener grasping for words, which is exactly what Lee's does. It is so committed to its abstraction that it leaves the listener with practically nothing of traditional emotional or aesthetic value. Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing; ugly music has a purpose. The music raises, and refuses to answer, the classic questions of "what" and "why", giving the listener little more than that to chew on.

A less common question that the music provokes is "where", as in "where might this music become suitable?" The music is faintly industrial, and human enough to be fearful and alarming, so what nightmare might this accompany? It's clear that the two pieces may make an allusion to day and night, good and evil, but it's hard to imagine what exactly a night that sounds like this may look like. In this way the music can be seen as a theoretical soundtrack to a film which could never exist. Another reading might be that the music could be yet another atmospheric piece, but now to an uncertain, imaginary and impossible atmosphere.

These two pieces are intriguing, and complement each other in a way which is as odd as the music. Both of these artists will surely be worth following in the future, but suzueri is the clear standout. It provokes something both conceptual and emotional that I've never heard in music, building off of the music of previous avant-garde music by injecting them with a personal core. I can't recommend the piece highly enough. If any of the four discs are worth picking up, it is surely Ftarri de Solos.

Scores at Ftarri (Meenna, 2017)  ****

Scores 1200 is a composition by Hiroyuki Ura, performed by himself on the VSS-30 Sampling Keyboard and Drums, Satoko Inoue on Piano, and Kenichi Kanazawa on Steel Square Tubes and Hammer. Kanazawa created a series of metal sculptures, which are described as "vertical aluminum square tubes with numerous notches carved into their surfaces." Ura then took the positions, widths and depths of the notches and used them to notate a semi-traditional score. The score is in 10 6-minute parts, each with 1,200 measures. A live recording made in October 2016 at the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma was released on Meenna in February, 2017. It was my favorite album of 2017. A new version, recorded at Ftarri in January, 2017, is the fourth and final disc of the Ftarri Fifth Annviersary series.

This new version is more-or-less the same as the original, as the score is relatively straight forward. Because of this, I won't go into too much depth on the specifics of the score or the performance, as I've already written about the original album, but I'll include a few sentences for those who have not read my review of it. Scores 1200 is slow, subtle, and gorgeous. On each six-minute mark the score moves to a new part, and the instrumentation changes – allowing the music to vary greatly in sonic density, while never growing far beyond soft minimalism. The music is original, creative, and experimental, while still being emotional, lush, and traditionally pretty. Strong focus on the score and its lack of progression will reveal something challenging and modern, but it never forfeits its surface level listenability – allowing the music to work wonderfully as both foreground and background listening.

Since the performances are largely the same (equally wonderful, that is), the difference comes down to the performance space -  a popular museum vs a small concert hall. From that statement, one would likely assume that I'm referring to the acoustics of the rooms, which is partially correct. The sounds do resonate quite differently here. In the, what I assume to be, large open room at MoMAG, the notes of the piano and tubes rang beautifully, with long gentle decays. At Ftarri, they sound momentary and immediate, fading out as instantly as they began. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but it is important when understanding the main difference: the true difference between the two rooms.

If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm referring to the sounds of the room themselves. In the MoMAG, the environment is loud – there's people conversing in the distance, footsteps, children, air conditioning. This was one of my favorite things about the original Scores recording. The world felt like a beautiful backdrop, like a near-silent orchestra giving life and meaning to the soloists. And that was just what made it special – although the performance was pre-written and meticulous, the world was alive and completely improvised. At Ftarri, things are much more quiet and respectful. All we hear is the sound of a relatively small group of adults sitting quietly, listening and paying attention to the same thing as us. In the occasionally sparse waits between sounds, we hear nothing. This is where the lack of natural reverberation becomes important – because of it, the music is even more sparse than before.

So, the difference between the two recordings is largely conceptual. There are slight differences in the performances, most notably in Ura's drum performances (which I assume to be largely improvised), but the differences will likely go unnoticed on initial listens. So, if the difference between the two is so slight and conceptual, is it really worthwhile to release both? To me, the answer is yes. I find it very interesting that even though the differences are so subtle, the emotional difference is huge. The original Scores felt meditative, it was like a one-hour slice of bliss. Scores at Ftarri largely leaves me confused, much in the vein of the other releases in the Fifth Anniversary series. I spend much more time paying attention to the nuances of the score here and how things evolve, while on the original I often took things in more superficially.

Although I enjoyed listening to this and have to decided it to be a worthwhile release, the harder question is if I should actually recommend this. The short answer is no. I think that there are exactly two reasons to buy Scores at Ftarri: You're a big fan of the original Scores, like myself, and enjoy taking in music conceptually; or you're a new listener and the original Scores is sold out, but this isn't. If you've made it this far into the review and you haven't heard either recording, I very highly recommend you look into the original Scores. It's simply some of the most beautiful, powerful, and contemplative avant-garde music to be released in recent years. Even if you're unsure about this style of music, I'm still convinced that you'll find it to be a treat.