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Friday, August 18, 2017

Ryoko Akama - places and pages (Another Timbre, 2017) ****

By Connor Kurtz

Rating or reviewing conceptual music raises a difficult question: and that is, what am I really rating here? Should I ignore all conceptual context and rate the music on its own, in terms of how it affects me as a listener, or should I think of the concept and score and how it intrigues and inspires me? I'm brought to Alvin Lucier's 1981 conceptual classic I Am Sitting in a Room, which consists of nothing more than Lucier playing back a voice recording into a room, recording it, and repeating until nothing more than the natural resonance of the room is heard. What interests me most, something that Lucier mentioned in his book, is that he decided to use text of him describing the experiment, rather than a poem as initially planned – this was so that the listener would gather no artistic power from his words and would simply focus on the concept. What is left is a wonderful concept resulting in a slightly boring album which I'll likely never revisit – and this seems to have been Lucier's intention. Now the quandary – how do I rate an album like that?

places and pages is a massive work of contemporary conceptual music, reaching nearly 3 hours over 50 tracks. [Only 45 of the tracks could fit on the 2 CDs, so the remaining 5 are made available for free download here: – for those of you who would like to view these as 5 sample pieces, let me remind you that there was a reason that these were the ones left off of the album…] Many potential listeners may be deterred by this, I'll admit that I nearly skipped this one myself, but please hear my argument before you close the tab. places and pages was initiated by composer Ryoko Akama and Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear, who are both members of the wonderful ensemble which I will get to soon. Akama explains the concept underlying the composition as follows: "a score that would concern location, situation, time and environment in terms of performance, and that somehow would erase a boundary between 'performance' and 'installation'." [Source:] The score takes the form of 50 pages in a notebook, each with their own brief text score which is equal parts simple, cryptic and concise.

When I listen to avant-garde music, I typically prefer longer tracks – I like to submerge into a soundworld, and stay for a prolonged period of time. places and pages contains fifty tracks, ranging from a few seconds to 9 minutes, so this becomes a much more difficult listen than other similarly long releases. Each track requires heavy concentration; otherwise you may miss what makes them so enjoyable. When I first heard the album, I planned on doing some reading while listening, but to my surprise I was constantly distracted from my book and looking at the tracklist. My advice for listeners is to take this in in several sittings. The tracks all exist as their own independent statements, and there's little to be gained from hearing them in a row.

places and pages is performed by a wonderful international ensemble, which includes the composer, Cristián Alvear and four members of the Swiss INSUB. music collective. The tracks use many different combinations of performers, creating a vast range in the possibilities for realization of the score. All 50 tracks are really quite diverse, so I've decided that the best way to detail this music would be to take the microscope to just a few tracks – those being the five which I've seen the scores of.



'none to six'"

#6 was realized by Ryoko Akama, Cyril Bondi and Christan Müller, and is 1:13. The piece was performed by the trio all standing around a bass drum, which they create a simple rhythm on with their hands (a picture is included below). They seem to all try to stick to the same rhythm, but it's very sloppy – and that slop is what I like about this piece. Certain hands strike the drum milliseconds after others, so rather than creating a bang-bang-bang rhythm, it sounds more like petite bang clusters in sequence. It sounds like a malfunctioning delay effect; it's broken in a very human way.


"two leading objects and

eight following objects"

#28 was realized by Ryoko Akama, Cristián Alvear and d'incise, and is 8:23. This piece was performed on droning instruments, which I assume to be Akama on an electronic instrument and Alvear and d'incise on bowed percussion instruments (there may be a melodica in there somewhere). The three drones always move together, creating sparse pulses where one introduces and the other two follow. The three drones are all distinctive enough that no natural harmonies are created, so it feels more like being serenaded by three sources at once (as these drones are quite beautiful).The piece is one of the album's longest cuts, and the longest of which I'll discuss, and it seems to be the perfect length – longer would certainly become tedious, as it is such a simple idea, but it is nearly awe-inspiring, and even relaxing, at its current length.


"thirty-nine (systems) (sticks)"

#39 was realized by Cyril Bondi, and is 0:53. This piece is a very brief performance on snare drum, with two drumsticks. Bondi plays single notes, short sequences and tiny rolls. What this piece makes me think of more than anything else is the uniqueness of the snare drum. There are few instruments with a more succinct sound than a snare drum; the instrument's decay is nearly immediate, but the voice is rich and complex. All sound, and all evidence, of the instrument fades in an instant, so even when a couple of seconds are left between sounds it feels like ages. The piece feels like a lowercase composition on an incredibly small scale.




#44 was realized by Stefan Thut, and is 1:38. This piece is an outdoor field recording, where
deceptively little is happening. It feels like any day in the city, but it's texturally rich and full of humanity and personality. We hear birds, a garbage truck filling up, conversations in the distance and people walking. It's no surprise that this piece was a realization from one of the Swiss performers, as the album was recorded in Switzerland and this feels like a document expressing love of one's home.


"fifty overlaps"

#50 was realized by Ryoko Akama and d'incise, and is 6:24. This piece is an electronic duo, where the two performers play sine tones and noises which overlap over each other to create complex harmonies. The piece is surprisingly fast moving, making it sound much shorter than its relatively long runtime. It's hard to say what's more surprising: the size of the arsenal of sounds, or the high pace and absence of silence. In seconds the piece will move from comforting to alarming, and it's all surprisingly shocking and exciting.

Each of the album's tracks could be looked at and enjoyed on their own. What we're left with is 50 bite-sized scores, concepts and realizations, each one thoroughly enjoyable, and each one carrying a distinct message. Listening to the entire album feels more like a slideshow than an individual film: several wonderful photographs which are held together quite arbitrarily. The individual power of the tracks is likely the album's best quality, but its inability to exist as a single artistic statement, as all albums should, holds it back from being a truly great album.

The album does have its own over-arching conceptual questions though, what is the role of the composer in contemporary music, and what is the role of the performer? The composer gives little more than instructions, and I'm often praising the performers for their intuition, rather than their ability to follow instructions. However, it is the scores and the work of the composer which inspired these realizations – they would not exist without the composer. This brings me back to my initial question: am I rating the concept, or the outcome? The album gives no answers, but it provides me the tools to enjoy both simultaneously.

places and pages is an album that requires patience and attention, containing at least 50 complex concepts which will surely take multiple listens to absorb and understand. What results from this is a wonderful multifaceted release, which gifts something new to be heard on each consecutive listen. The fifty pieces all carry their own intrigues, all present their own sound phenomena and all influence in distinctive ways, but when the listener looks at the bigger picture they will find even bigger questions. It's easy to look at Ryoko Akama as a child of the Japanese Onkyo movement and the international Wandelweiser movement but, places and pages confirms her as a unique creative being.