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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sam Sfirri & Taku Unami - zymology (Hibari Music, 2017) ****

By Connor Kurtz

"Zymology, also known as zymurgy, is an applied science which studies the biochemical process of fermentation and its practical uses."

After a long five years, Japanese avant-garde musician Taku Unami's Hibari Music has finally returned with a digital release: an improvised set by Unami with American Wandelweiser composer / performer Sam Sfirri titled zymology, recorded on November 20, 2017 and released on the same day. The artwork shows a guitar and a piano, even though the two are credited as only playing bass and piano. As ironic as this might be, it's ultimately irrelevant as the two instruments are no more relevant to the recording than the ceramic butter bowl.  A typical improvised duo performance may be described as a musical conversation. I'd describe zymology as musical cohabitation.

At the beginning of the album, we hear the sounds of machines ticking and rhythmically buzzing. We wonder if this is a sound being made a performer, or just the sounds of the noisy performance space. Once we begin to understand its prominence and importance in the piece, we wonder what the origin of the sounds even are – could it be the sounds of machines found in the house (although it is not stated anywhere, I believe that this was recorded in a house rather than a recording studio, and I will continue that assumption for the rest of the review), like an oven or an air compressor? Could they be found sound devices that Unami brought along with him, or machines he created himself, serving no purpose more than to obnoxiously click? These are all questions that Unami first asked on his 2015 collaboration with Éric La Casa, Parazoan Mapping, where sounds of found machines and live settings were juxtaposed against Unami's home-made sound devices, combining their contexts into something more confusing and ambiguous. On zymology, Unami advances the argument by making these sounds the soul of an improvisation. The machines are stripped of all original context, existing as nothing more than a contributor to the album's cumulative sound mass. Sound devices or home appliances, bass or guitar, amplifier or newspapers; although you may be asking yourself these questions at the beginning of the album, it will not take long for you to realize that things don't matter within the world of zymology.

In the world of zymology, all that matters is sound. Who's to say that a piano melody is more interesting than a refrigerator opening or closing, or water dripping into a cup? A notable point of reference is Seijiro Murayama and Éric La Casa's 2009 duo Supersedure, released on Hibari Music, which had La Casa play previously recorded environmental sounds while Murayama improvised on his snare drum. The album raised the question of what sounds are musical in an improvisation, and are they still musical when presented alongside proper instruments. The main difference here is that all sounds are created live, proving intent behind every action, and allowing one to follow sounds in a sequence. Towards the end of zymology part iii, Sfirri improvises on his piano while Unami crumples paper. What's so interesting about this interaction is that the two improvisers were simply making whatever sound they thought that they should be making in that moment, and to find that sound Sfirri needed a piano while Unami just needed paper.

For fans of either of these artists, it probably goes without saying that zymology is pretty quiet. Despite the one day turn around, zymology is recorded and edited quite well, allowing the hundreds of small sounds to be heard clearly. The performers seem to travel around the house while they perform, forcing the sounds they make to vary greatly in the listener's perceived dB level. This results in a very dynamic soundworld where the listener has to work to take in certain sounds, as other sounds may be much closer to the mic. This also results in certain sounds being far more prominent in certain channels, while other sounds are more centralized, resulting in a strong headphone experience. There is a peculiarity in the editing of the last track. Firstly, the track is 11:59 while the rest are 12:00. This is possibly an accident, but I'm doubtful. The track cuts off at 10:30. At 11:58, one second of sound fades in. If we loop the album, we find that the track flows perfectly into the first track, meaning that the improvisation actually starts at the last second of the last track and then loops over. I am not going to make an attempt to make sense of this, and I highly doubt that fans will ever know why Unami decided to release the album this way; but still, it's something interesting to think about.

A more interesting peculiarity occurs in the track titles themselves. There are five tracks, and they are titled as follows: zymology part i, zymology part ii, zymology part iii, zymurgy part i, and zymology part iv. When one first hears the album, they will likely notice this and think nothing of it, assuming that the album was just cut into 12:00 tracks for convenience and assigned goofy titles by Unami.  On multiple listens and closer inspection, one might notice that the tracks seem to have a vague form to them. At the beginning of the tracks, the performers almost always stop what they are doing, which leads to a moment of silence before they start a new task. My suspicion is that the zymology i-iv and zymurgy i are scores, possibly written by Sfirri, likely of a very indeterminate nature, and that this album is actually a recording of 5 realizations played in succession, rather than being the different parts of a performance as once might suspect. Whether that's true or not, it's an interesting thing to consider as it raises the question of what would a score which results in music like this even look like?

I earlier referred to this album as musical cohabitation, and that's not just because of the sounds of washing machines and vacuums. There is very little interaction in this music. The performers acknowledge one another's existence, but they do not react to it. The instrumental improvisations sound more like somebody practicing or warming up than a serious musician recording a professional improvisation. I think that this is meant to represent the life of the two artists, presented musically and modestly. It's common for improvised music to be called "alive", or "breathing", but that description feels truer than ever with zymology. I've never lived a life that has felt like Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun, but I have lived a life that has felt like Sam Sfirri and Taku Unami's zymology.

One of my favorite things about keeping up with Taku Unami is how his albums seem to follow an order. It's easy to see how albums may be a continuation of each other, and how they may land in different streams of releases, confirming him as a musician who's constantly moving forwards. The Whistler, a collaboration with Graham Lambkin released earlier this year, can easily be seen as a successor to Parazoan Mapping and Species pluralis. In the same way, zymology feels like the long awaited follow-up to Teatro Assente and Motubachii, and it absolutely lives up to the high standard placed by those two landmark albums. Welcome back, Hibari. You've been missed.