The events organized in the course of the monthlong Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo have run the gamut from tired to inspired. This breezy, entertaining evening of improvised music at the Showa-era Shinseiki dance hall in Uguisudani slotted happily into the latter category, while putting the current class of RBMA participants where they belonged: at center stage.
For “Chaos Conductor”, two well-known figureheads from the Japanese avant-garde took turns to lead ensembles of RBMA freshmen.
First up was Boredoms leader Eye, who perched on a swivel stool ringed by 17 musicians, all of them playing laptops that appeared to be running the same music software. Twirling on his seat and using a variety of hand movements — sweeps, points, sign language, air doodles — he coaxed the group into building layers of rumbling, oscillating bass tones that swelled and ebbed away, occasionally starting to spit and burble, like sonic magma.
In much the same manner as a Boredoms performance, Eye played the group as if it were a giant, multi-limbed instrument. The music itself wasn’t always completely riveting, but it was an intriguing spectacle all the same.
When Yoshihide Otomo took over, it was clear that the audience was in for something very different. The veteran composer and improviser was joined onstage by the entire 30-strong RBMA class, this time wielding a ragtag selection of instruments ranging from drums, guitar and keyboard to clarinet, violin and even koto. Using a vocabulary of gestures to indicate how each musician should play, in the vein of the late Butch Morris, Otomo proceeded to lead the throng in a carefully controlled improvisation. Riffs and melodies emerged so quickly and freely, it was hard to believe that the whole thing hadn’t been pre-rehearsed.
The biggest surprise, though, came early on: after conducting one “piece” himself, Otomo stepped down and let one of the RBMA participants take over. Later, audience members were invited to give it a try, with up to four conductors at one time.
“Are there any children here?” Otomo asked, apparently oblivious of the event’s 20-and-over age restriction. “No? Any really old men or women?” (When a female audience member responded to the latter request, she turned out to be the mother of one of the participants, Albino Sound.)
This was all enormous fun to watch, even as the amateur conductors began to resort to using the same limited selection of gestures — orchestral stabs and sweeps, it seems, were far easier to master than conjuring more intricate melodies. So it was a relief when Otomo returned to the podium at the end of the night and took tighter control of the chaos. By zeroing in on particular players and seizing each moment of musical serendipity, he swiftly whipped the rabble into what sounded like a genuine orchestra.