By Keith Prosk
Kozue Matsumoto, Patrick Shiroishi, and Shoshi Watanabe play five pieces for koto, alto & tenor saxophones, and shakuhachi on the 46’ Yellow.
This is the first time these three have released a recording together. And it is the most recent point in a line through Shiroishi’s work that grapples with racism against Asian-Americans, including Descension for solo tenor saxophone, effects, and voice, No-No / のの for alto and tenor saxophones with percussionist Dylan Fujioka, i shouldn’t have to worry when my parents go outside for multi-instrumental arrangements, and Hidemi for solo multi-tracked saxophones, the last of which was accompanied by a chapbook titled Tangled that featured perspectives on the Asian-American experience from Tashi Dorji, Jason Kao Hwang, Susie Ibarra, Amirtha Kidambi, and many others.
The titles of Yellow convey racist concepts - “Skin,” “Peril,” “Fever” - and while the notes imply a positive turn in “Gold” and “Dandelion” because the music never brightens my interpretation recalls California’s gold rush coincident with the abuse of Chinese immigrants and the weed’s use in Chinese medicine which despite a growing turn towards holistic wellness is dubiously still considered dubious in western corners. Of course, the players are not Chinese but racism doesn’t parse nuances. But rather than songs of despair or hope the notes - and I concur - guide towards a navigation of identity. Where instruments deeply rooted in folk musics like koto and shakuhachi can play with but are not shackled by the expectations around how they sound.
Shakuhachi’s hardblown shoots and ghostly vibrato appear but less often than sustained sinelike whistles and the textured pulse of breath mediated through the instrument. Koto’s characteristic clusters of strummed chords in increasing density appear too but not as much as the harmony of its reverberating decay as deep as a piano’s and textural rhythms in soundboard scratching. Maybe there can be an Asian identity draped over an approach to the saxophone too, with many Japanese players’ sometimes generalized to austere articulation and shrill registers, but again more time is in effervescent whorls of triadic spirals and a deflating moaning Maneri-like vocal multiphonic that respectively illuminate the harmonics between tones and confuse tone movement. Instrumental identities are not allowed to be leveraged against themselves and tradition is neither abandoned nor limiting but instead provides springboards for a profound excavation of the elements of sound.