Keith Rowe/Sachiko M/Toshimaru Nakamura/Otomo Yoshihide
t is exceedingly difficult to address the concept of time in the limited medium of the audio recording, which is probably why so few recordings ever really address this fundamental aspect of existence in a meaningful way. There are exceptions, of course, primarily in more long-form works like Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 or the massive Well-Tuned Piano performances of LaMonte Young. Likewise, this newest installment in Erstwhile Records’ live series was, from its very inception, conceived as an exploration of time in improvisation. Made in Berlin during last year’s AMPLIFY festival, this three-disc, four-hour recording features Erstwhile mainstay and tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe joining the trio that made last year’s phenomenal Good Morning, Good Night: Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide.
As with the above-mentioned Feldman and Young works, the dominant feature of ErstLive005 is time, as reflected in both the music and the conceptually stark packaging. Sitting down to nearly four hours of high-pitched, minimalist music can be somewhat overwhelming, but this is unquestionably the way this set is intended to be approached. The music of all four of these players has always been exceptionally focused on small details, on slowing down the normal timescale of music listening so that each discreet event is emphasized. In Sachiko M’s solo pieces, for example, there are often only a handful of changes, and the long stretches in between become indeterminate periods of expectation and contemplation.
Here, the music is necessarily much more active and the scale much larger, but this lengthy set is still a perfect example of the territory these musicians are currently exploring. Over the course of these three hours, the quartet ranges through a fairly thorough examination of the musical area they’ve charted for themselves. Absent, of course, are the more brutal noise extremes that Rowe and Yoshihide sometimes veer into, but even within the narrow boundaries of the prototypical “onkyo” sound on display here there’s a lot of room to maneuver.
The first disc is a slow, protracted build-up, though it is much more assured and coherent than you’d expect from musicians heading into the daunting prospect of a four-hour set. Even early on, all four players enter into tight, natural interplay, creating an extended mood of taut suspense. Fuzzy static from Rowe’s radio forms a warm backdrop for Sachiko’s ghostly sine tones, and there are numerous small crackles, bass drones, and scratched objects grating against the surface of the more constant tones. Otomo picks up his guitar early on for a few hints at traditional playing—a small handful of perfectly toned notes hanging in the abstract hiss—and this will be one of the set’s few concessions to more traditional music. There is a very natural ebb and flow throughout the first disc, a slow building up and then dispelling of tension, periodically marked by the floor-rattling bassy hum of Nakamura’s mixer feedback.
There is something surprisingly intimate about this music. If Good Morning, Good Night struck me as very emotional despite its spartan sounds, this set seems, not emotional per se, but more simply human. In the liner notes, Nakamura chooses to comment on this music by juxtaposing two different uses of four hours. In one four-hour span, he tells us, he plays this concert in Berlin; in another four hours, he cooks dinner, snubs some friends over the phone, washes his clothes and dishes, and naps. These two situations, he implies, are equal because both are human uses of time, both examples of communication and non-communication, both ways of passing time. And listening to ErstLive005 is likewise a way of passing time, and a way of communicating—even if, because of the nature of the recording medium, that communication is one-way towards the listener. While getting lost in this recording, the passage of time becomes very clear, measured by crackles and tiny gestures. Both the music contained in this set and the time that passes while listening to it can be well represented by the graphical appearance of the sine wave itself, a rhythmic, curving rise and fall, serene and steady, marking time off into smaller segments that are filled with life and vitality.
The second disc continues from the first’s buildup in a mostly more active vein, characterized by a somewhat faster, stop-start pace that shatters this group’s usual Zen serenity with a flurry of squiggles, glitches, explosions, and bursts of noises. For a while, with short little bursts presumably ripped from Rowe’s radio, it sounds more like a sampladelic orgy than the usual pulsating sheets of sound these musicians produce. Things quickly settle down again, but the warm bass pulses, jangling guitar noises from Rowe, and short bursts of interrupting noise make this disc seem much livelier in comparison to the rest of the set.
This midday burst of activity fades out into the final disc, which in stark contrast seems to hover mostly just outside active consciousness. This disc is dominated by Sachiko’s feathery sine waves, though “dominate” is really a poor word to describe the way her pure, crystalline tones drift subtly in and out of hearing. Nevertheless, she is unquestionably setting the mood here, smoothing out and settling the atmosphere of this performance into a long, tranquil fade into nothing. Early on, Rowe and Yoshihide provide bursts of gritty turbulence to disrupt this serenity, but soon they too are consumed by the silvery purity of Sachiko’s high tones, and the music drifts off into a hushed denouement.
ErstLive005 is certainly not the best place for the uninitiated to start with these musicians, since it is perhaps some of the most challenging and distant music these performers have set down. And it’s lacking in the raw emotionality and diamond-sharp precision that made Good Morning, Good Night the masterpiece of this style. By its very nature, this is a far more sprawling and unfocused offering from these musicians, and its sparseness and length means that there are occasionally stretches of less-than-absorbing music. But for those, like myself, already enamored of these musicians and their by-now-familiar aesthetics, there will surely be a lot to absorb and enjoy here.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2005-05-20