Improvised music poses a considerable critical challenge. It now takes in such a wide variety of styles — from jazz to minimalist electronica, from contemporary classical music to rock — there is no one absolute set of criteria by which to judge it.
What is good? What is noise or, indeed, what kind of noise is good noise? What is pointless meandering? And the biggest quandary, what pointless meandering, through some quirk, is a moment of brilliance? In an age where anyone can coax sounds from a computer and call it music, it is difficult to judge.
To sum up the sprawling 10-CD “Improvised Music From Japan” is, therefore, a near impossibility. The instruments range from shamisen to iMacs. The approaches are just as diverse. There are spare pieces where silence is the primary instrument and others in which the dense collections of sound are, for lack of a better word, noise.
The set was released to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the equally expansive Improvised Music From Japan Web site. The site meticulously records the varied improvised music scenes in Japan, complete with musician biographies, extensive discographies and live dates.
Initially, Web master Yoshiyuki Suzuki was not a fan of the improvised music that flourished outside his field. As a jazz writer, he was introduced to the genre by his editor at the influential magazine Jazz Critique. The construction of the Web site, inspired by a similar site devoted to European improvised music, became his own education.
While the improvised-music scene at home is limited to a handful of small clubs and galleries, Japanese improvised music receives a lot of attention abroad, particularly in Western Europe. European new-music festivals regularly include musicians from Japan, and the music press in Germany and Britain probably give a better accounting of recent releases and concerts by Japanese improvisers than the media at home.
“I’d like to know why,” says Suzuki from his office in Tokyo. “Do you think Westerners think this music is exotic?”
With Japanese improvised music, a kind of Orientalism does appear to take hold of many foreign reviewers, suspending their critical faculties. Masami Akita (Merzbow) could fart into a microphone and The Wire — purveyor of music’s cutting edge — would applaud it as musically groundbreaking. By the same token, a diverse group of musicians that take unique approaches to improvisation are continually treated as a homogenous group because of their nationality.
Still, this CD set finds its roots in Japanese tradition. Even the paulownia wood box (the most beautiful record packaging and design in recent memory) conjures up images of onsen baths and traditional sake cups — not to mention that paulownia is the material that traditional Japanese instruments are made of.
The koto, generally regarded as the staid instrument of well-bred young ladies, is, for example, cast in an entirely new light. Michiyo Yagi’s reinterpretation of a traditional, mid-19th century koto piece with her koto ensemble Paulownia Crush is beautiful, yet reassuringly accessible. Improvisation, here, acts as a means of pushing the boundaries of an already defined genre.
Brett Larner’s koto and laptop computer improvisations pose a bigger challenge to the listener. The pieces relocate the instrument to a totally new musical environment where the familiar plucked strings float in unstructured, dissonant sound.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Kyoko Kuroda’s two selections with guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi are in a different tradition entirely. Sounding at times like a Bertolt Brecht song, at others a vocal piece from John Cage, they are astonishing. The music unfolds in such a flowing, easy way, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a score. The conjunction of Kuroda’s voice and Uchihashi’s guitar is so natural, it almost seems psychic.
Without the security of a song or a score, musicians are forced to depend on their fellow players, a situation that one improviser has compared to the intimacy of sex.
Some of the approaches on the “Improvised Music From Japan” CD challenge even this truism. Take the piece “1998 yori” by noted improviser Kazuo Imai’s group Marginal Consort. While Kuroda and Uchihashi play with an uncanny familiarity, the players on this piece seem entirely disconnected. Indeed, they were positioned so that they couldn’t see one another; one wonders if they were even listening to one another. If the collection of sounds hadn’t been defined as a piece of music, the listener might assume that it was some sort of warm-up or tuning exercise.
It makes for uninspired, difficult listening, but at the same time it raises important questions about the whole project of improvisation: the relationships between the musicians and the definition of musicality.
Perhaps Imai is making a bigger artistic statement about social alienation, one that transcends the musical piece itself. Perhaps the “unsuccessful” nature of the piece was deliberate.
The piece also brings up another of improvisation’s paradoxes. Imai points out in the liner notes that the sounds of the audience can be heard in the background and that the audience was free to move around during the performance. The recording, then, doesn’t provide a complete picture of the artistic event.
Improvisation is very much an “in the moment” happening, influenced by the personalities of the players, the audience and — as Yumiko Tanaka implies in the title of her piece “Music for a Four-and-a-Half-Mat Room” — the venue. A recording, even the best recording, will always be at best a secondhand reproduction, like a second- or third-hand dub of a favorite album.
That said, there are still enough intriguing moments on “Improvised Music From Japan” to make it worth the hefty 20,000 yen price tag. Unfortunately, that and the sheer number of artists will scare many possible converts away. This is a pity. Few records are as musical and intellectually challenging.
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