Still point
Rossbin RS 007

Confront 12

Silence and the overtones associated with near silence are the guiding factors of these CDs, which both include British cellist Mark Wastell. With textural space on show and protracted electro-acoustic wheezes characterizing many of the abstractions here, neither of the two chamber-style quartets could be confused with conventional jazz, rock or New music ensembles. Neither sounds like the other either. All of which proves that there are as many variations of near silence as there are types of noise.

Part of the growing coterie of younger performers wedded to understated near-inaudibility as a style, the London-based cellist is featured here in one very familiar and another literally alien setting. Assumed Possibilities (the band) is a working group filled out by Britons Chris Burn on piano and toy piano, violinist Phil Durrant and harpist Rhodri Davies. Each of the string players has a long history with one another, having intersected in a variety of groups as well as in bands with other sonic experimenters like saxophonists John Butcher and Evan Parker and bassist Simon H. Fell.

Antithetically, FOLDINGS is a live concert recording from January 2002, which mates the cellist with three local performers at Tokyo’s Off Site gallery. Many like-minded Japanese and European musicians have improvised in this setting since no-input mixing board specialist Toshimaru Nakamura, first organized the series in 1998. Resident collaborators are customarily guitarist Taku Sugimoto, best known abroad for duets with, British tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe and Swiss computer specialist Günter Müller; and Tetuzi Akiyama on turntables and air duster, a former guitarist who concertizes with saxophonist Masahiko Okura and synthesizer manipulator Utah Kawasaki as well as Sugimoto.

To really appreciate the output on either of these discs, turn the volume knob of your playback system up, probably 25 per cent louder than usual for STILL POINT and about 40 per cent for the other disc.

During the course of the nine pieces that make up the first CD, the most identifiable sounds that emerge from the droning vibrations and textural gestures of the four are Wastell’s cello and Burns’ toy piano tinkering. On “Tyrin”, for instance, abrasive scratches on the cello’s strings and a later percussive bass line vie for sonic space with what sounds like a shrill, two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistle, a galactic screech from the violin and an unidentifiable buzzing tone.

Sharing the characteristics of a xylophone on the Wastell-composed “Related Activity”, the toy piano creates protracted glissandos and tinny keystrokes that to produce volume must have demanded more than usual finger pressure from Burns. Allied to that sound are pedal point cadenzas from the harp and intermittent cello plucks. When all the chamber ensemble strings are plinking out notes in unmatched and untempered patterns, the pianist produces a quasi-authentic clog dance on the sides and top of his veritable plaything.

All instruments here are acoustic, but somehow among the low frequency vibrations of the keyboard and the ghostly overtones from manipulated strings, the four also manage to come up with sounds that in other contexts would arise from electric instruments or at least sampling. Minimalist followers can identify when a bow takes a few swipes at a cello strings, or when a fingernail scratches taunt nylon. But surely no musician was stretching cellophane across the studio until it tore or ringing a tiny bell as some sonics suggest. Definitely too, the airplane motor drone you hear on one track, as well as the short wave radio static, police siren and reverberation of a subway train entering a station don’t result from the presence of any of these objects.

FOLDINGS, recorded almost exactly a year later, can be heard as Ur-minimalism. In fact, as the sounds on the two long improvisations move in — and more frequently out — of aural focus, the Tokyo quartet starts to make Assumed Possibilities sound like Grand Funk Railroad or Motley Crue. Even with a volume boost much of the first track is almost out of earshot. There’s the crackle and drone of static, indeterminate cricket-like buzzes and the whining scrapes of what’s probably Akiyama’s air duster — at least the performance space must be lint free. Less than isochronal flick of guitar strings and fuzzy cello strokes are also sometimes heard.

With suggestions that musical movement is taking place just outside of hearing range, this sound field isn’t expanded until roughly midway through almost 29½ minutes of the second track. Wheezes and rumbles arising from Akiyama naked turntables and Nakamura’s no-imput mixing board start to move into human hearing range as does the extreme pitches produced by Wastell’s cello. Soon, what could be the sound of crickets chirping in a field is superceded by what’s likely the cellist deliberately hitting his contact mic. At last, a whippoorwill cry is succeeded by the sounds of some guitar flat-picking, a buzzing amplifier being turned on and off, and the feel of the bow bouncing against stopped strings. Textures created by a mechanized assembly line are prominent for a moment, as are intermittent string plucks and a complete chord from one of the string players. Then almost complete silence.

It may be redundant to say so, but a strong commitment to the principles of space and texture, plus an appreciation of the silences associated with microtonalism and minimalism should be brought to these discs, especially the Tokyo session. They certainly put the lie to those who characterize all abstract improvisations as noisy and ear splitting.

Whether the two groups succeed in producing microscopic sounds isn’t up for discussion here. These CDs should be heard — if you can do so without straining you ears, that is. But the question still remains if this type of monochromic structure can’t be mixed with other sound sources to produce experimental music that offers more sonic colors along with the same intellectual rigor.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Still: 1. Kett 2. Tronig 3. Related Activity 4. Still Point 5. Starwyte 6. Needle 7. Tyrin 8. Ut 9. Riwe

Personnel: Still: Chris Burn (piano, toy piano); Phil Durrant (violin), Mark Wastell (cello); Rhodri Davies (harp)

Track Listing: Foldings: 1. First Fold 2. Second Fold

Personnel: Foldings: Taku Sugimoto (acoustic guitar, preparations); Mark Wastell (cello, preparations, contact mic, amplifier); Tetuzi Akiyama (turntables and air duster); Toshimaru Nakamura (no imput mixing board)