Toshimaru Nakamura and John Butcher – Dusted Machinery + Skogen – Ist gefallen in den Schnee

These two albums are linked by commonalities in tonality and the key contributions of Japanese onkyo musician Toshimaru Nakamura.

Nakamura has been recording since 1995. In the first of these albums, both recordings sympathetically captured in studio sessions, Nakamura is a guest performer with a Swedish electro-acoustic ensemble; on the second he duets with British saxophonist John Butcher.

Having abandoned the guitar that was once his principal instrument, Nakamura focuses solely on his mixing board. He connects the input of the board to its output, and then manipulates the pitch and timbre of the resultant audio feedback. The rich variegation of sounds he produces from such an apparently minimalist setup, and the acute empathy he exhibits with his various collaborators, makes any project that bears his name worthy of attention, but even so, these two releases are outstanding.

Skogen – Ist gefallen in den Schnee (Another Timbre)

Another Timbre is arguably the go-to label for quiet, immersive listening at the interstices of improv, electronic, and contemporary chamber music. Its titles are invariably demanding but beguiling works that take time to assimilate. But this album, by the Swedish group Skogen (with guest contributions from Nakamura and Welsh violinist Angharad Davies), is one of the most immediately compelling.

Recorded in a Stockholm studio in November 2010, Ist gefallen in den Schnee is a composition by pianist/bandleader Magnus Granberg that lasts just over an hour, but sounds more like a meticulously conducted group improvisation.

At first, the pleasurably penetrating sine waves emanating from Nakamura’s no-input mixing board are occasionally indivisible from the thin, ringing tones of Henrik Olsson’s bowls and glasses. Their mostly pure, sometimes almost subliminally skeletal tones combine to provide the music with a spine. During the opening ten minutes, his rarefied tonalities produce threads around which the string trio of Davies, Anna Lindal (violin) and Leo Svensson Sander (cello) twine lines. Later, the minutiae of electronic, acoustic and contact-mic’d percussives (small objects plus vibraphone and crotales) play their part in agitating this long-line static development.

The piece builds slowly, through a midsection of portentous subterranean rumbling, via complex post-classical meta-stasis reminiscent of Gavin Bryar’s Sinking of the Titanic, to an eerie passage for Granberg’s piano, seemingly played with preparations that chime with his group’s various microsounds. Short string strokes herald a tense, disjointed climax bolstered with raw audio from either Nakamura or Wästerberg’s mixing desk that leaves the listener in a tenebrous state, on a psychological knife-edge. The chocolate-box cover art by K.E. Bjurberg does nothing to indicate the unsettling power of this music. But it has been chosen for sound reasons.

In an interview published on the Another Timbre website, Granberg reveals that the piece was inspired rhythmically by Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, and tonally by an unidentified jazz song, but concedes that these are only perceptible as “subtexts”. Skogen, he says, translates as “The Forest” or The Woods”: “I (had) an idea that the music should be like an environment, perhaps a forest in which inhabitants with different characteristics could move freely in accordance with the environment and their own and each other’s properties and abilities; the piece, the time and the space could be the forest and the musicians its inhabitants.” As composer, he said, he provided the octet with “different pools of material (pitches, rhythms, timbres, melodic fragments, chords etc), suggestions regarding how to treat the material, and a temporal structure which regulates which pool of material should be used when.”

The effects are as unsettling as they are beautiful, the music characterised by an occasionally icily crystalline clarity.

Toshimaru Nakamura | John Butcher – Dusted Machinery (Monotype)

Dusted Machinery, recorded in London in March 2009, pits Nakamura against John Butcher’s improvisations on soprano, tenor or ‘feedback’ sax. The duo were reunited during sessions contributing to David Sylvian’s Manofon album, and this subsequent studio date documents their first collaboration since the 2002 Japanese concert recording Cavern with Nightlife.

In the way he shies away from the conventions of his instrument – in particular, he disdains the stylistic tropes of jazz – and focuses on the minutiae of gradations in breath sounds and instrument noises, Butcher is an immensely sympathetic partner for Nakamura. Listeners can focus on his exhalations and contact sounds, and trace their projection into sustained tones and musical ideas, just as they can hear the control Nakamura exercises over the modulation of raw electronic sound. But these four mid-length pieces (each between 10 and 12 minutes long) are not ‘ambient’ in the strictest sense. They are quiet and require attentive listening, but also edgy and raw-sounding.

In track 2, “Maku”, Nakamura cedes a degree of tonal control to allow his feedback to gain in density. He does this in order to match Butcher’s constricted, high-end tenor sax emanations, which layer tones over a bed of flutter-tongue ripples. For “Knead” Nakamura falls back on sine-tones and stressed, high-pitched electronic sustains as Butcher chimes in with minimalist soprano sax figures that seek to provide counterpoint and suggest melodic potentialities. But then, at the track’s midpont, Butcher lets loose a squall of saxophonics that’s comparable only to an unknown mammal’s weirdest vocal ululations, and Nakamura responds with correspondingly, jarringly distressed mechanistic sounds. The album is well titled.

The closing duet, “Nobasu”, features Butcher playing “feedback sax”. Here he controlls feedback by adjusting his saxophone’s relative proximity to its mic, and occasionally produces ripples of percussive clicks and pops by manipulating his temporarily unblown saxophone’s keys and valves. Nakamura plays at the most rarefied sonic altitudes, allowing the duo’s controlled feedback to resolve itself as aural desiccation. Then, at around the 7 minute mark, there’s an uncharacteristically jarring analogue tone, and it’s remarkable how quickly the duo control and assimilate this presumably unintended development; and invigorating how they then choose to recapitulate it with more deliberation. The pleasures of the listening here are all in the subtle nuance of tone and the tension between chaos and control.

Related Posts
Album: John Butcher and Mark Sanders: Daylight
Live: Freedom of the City 2012
Live: John Butcher and Gino Robair at The London Review Bookshop
Live: John Tilbury and Marcus Schmickler + John Butcher at Cafe Oto

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