Artist Profile
Taku Sugimoto
Tokyo, Japan

for just under a decade, Tokyo-based guitar improviser Taku Sugimoto has been elevating the intimate detail to the level of high drama. Under his fingers, the former “accidents” of guitar playing – fizzles of amp hum, the light dragging of fingers across strings, stray pickup grit, muffled thumps and half-muted pings – become the focal point, a miniature procession of tiny explosions and gentle pinpricks wrapped in fragile silences. It is music of the quietest intensity, rich in detail and infinite nuance, poised and self-assured despite the constant threat of encroaching crowd chatter and environmental noise. Quiet as a dropped pin and yet tough as nails, Sugimoto’s brand of elegant minimalism places him at the forefront of Japan’s burgeoning “onkyo” school of small-gesture improv and secures his place as a pioneer in the post-Cage world of silence/sound interaction.

Silence, however, hasn’t always been Sugimoto’s trademark. Under the influence of American psychedelic rock and blues, Sugimoto took up the electric guitar in high school. Like many other Japanese improvisers, Sugimoto’s experience in Japan’s jazz kissas would lead him to the free jazz, European free improvisation, and avant-garde classical music that would guide his guitar pursuits. In 1985, Sugimoto formed a raucous improvisational psychedelic band with future Ghost leader Masaki Batoh; under the name Piero Manzoni, they played a brand of noise-heavy rock that split the difference between the Velvet Underground’s lengthy drone workouts and the MC5’s fuzz-and-feedback assault. Following the group’s dissolution in 1988, Sugimoto turned to studio session work and solo pursuits – his first solo record, the now-unavailable 1988 LP Mienai Tenshi, reflected his continued explorations of heavy guitar noise.

In 1991, Sugimoto completely abandoned the guitar in order to focus solely on the cello. Between ’91 and ’92, Sugimoto joined alto saxophonist Hiroshi Itsui and guitarist Michio Kurihara in the high-volume chamber improv ensemble Henkyo Gakudan. After two self-released cassettes, the group disbanded and Sugimoto went on to pursue a brief stint in Ghost – his cello can be heard amongst the acid-folk experimentation on the band’s Temple Stone – and in the Hikyo String Quartet with his longtime collaborator Tetzui Akiyama. The 1994 release of Slub , a collection of solo cello improvisations, marked the end of Sugimoto’s cello phase and a return to the electric guitar – and to the invention of a radical new sound.

Through his guitar duo performances with Tetzui Akiyama, Sugimoto explored the possibilities inherent in extremely low dynamics and silence as he developed an improvisational method that merged Satie-influenced chiming with Derek Bailey’s fractured lyricism. In his collaborations with other like-minded improvisers – including Toshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Yoshihide, Keith Rowe, and Kevin Drumm – Sugimoto offered a splintery melodic counterpart to minimal machine noise, bringing out new levels of sensitivity and attention to detail from his improvising counterparts. In 2001, Sugimoto reduced his playing to extremes that are even more microscopic and adopted his current palette of micro-gestures derived from the exploration of the guitar as resonating body. Metallic preparations, gentle taps on the guitar body, harmonics summoned by yarn beaters, and Styrofoam scrapes against the guitar neck coalesce into intense inner dramas between brittle sounds and an all-absorbing silence. Such emphasis on the minute has focused worldwide attention on Sugimoto and his delicate sound sparks, as recent collaborations with Keith Rowe, Gunter Muller, Burkhard Stangl, and Annette Krebs will attest. Sugimoto’s live performances, as documented on discs such as the outstanding Italia , have ascended to legendary status – focused explorations of the minute, couched in the silence of a rapt audience bound by the theatrics of absolute stillness and the drama of the delicate.

Gauged by decibel count alone, the music of Taku Sugimoto barely exists – yet its influence on the international improv community has been more than substantial. By turning the spotlight away from the intense volume and bustling activity of the “old avant-garde” and forging a new partnership with silence, Sugimoto has quietly turned the world of free improvisation on its ear. The influence of his playing ties together the disparate camps of Japanese onkyo, shades the whispers of the Berlin reductionism movement, and echoes throughout the ubiquitous microsound scene. Sugimoto offers challenging, invigorating music that is at once resilient and fleeting, proof that silence is still the most confrontational dynamic of them all – tremendous music on an atomic scale.

Quick Facts:

Location: Tokyo, Japan

Style: Free Improvisation (guitar, six-string bass guitar, cello)

Labels Appeared On: A Bruit Secret, hatNOIR, Boxmedia, Meme, Slub, Rossbin, Sonoris, Erstwhile, Grob, Reset/Improvised Music from Japan, For 4 Ears, Alcohol

Major Releases:
Italia (A Bruit Secret 2001)
Opposite (hatNoir 1998)
Eine Gitarre ist eine gitarre ist eine gitarre ist eine gitarre.... (with Annette Krebs, Rossbin 2002)
Den (with Kevin Drumm, 2000)
Ajar (with Keith Rowe, Otomo Yoshihide, Alcohol 2002)
The World Turned Upside Down (with Keith Rowe, Gunter Muller, Erstwhile 2000)
The Improvisation Meeting at Off-Site (with Toshimaru Nakamura, Tetuzi Akiyama and guests, Reset/Improvised Music from Japan 2002)
Slub: Unaccompanied Violincello (Slub Music 1994)

Starting Point: The Improvisation Meeting at Off-Site (2002)

Essential: Italia (2001)

By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01
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