Posture of Reality
Asian Improv AIR 0065

Spool LINE SPL 122

What exactly constitutes so-called ethnic music, or for that matter, ethnic instruments, are the questions raised by these two sessions.

Each features one American musician playing a Eurocentric string instrument — the violin in one case and double bass in the other — partnered with one non-American —in both cases Oriental — musician playing a traditional instrument. Yet while Chinese-born Wu Man may play pipa on one disc and Japanese-born Shoko Hikage koto on the other, the resulting sounds are pretty far away from those found on the average disc shoved into the record store World Music ghetto.

Not only are both women virtuosi familiar with improv as well as more traditional musics, but their playing partners have the sort of multifaceted backgrounds that introduce new ideas as well. Chicago-based bassist Tatsu Aoki, who plays with Man, is not only heavily involved with Asian American music, but also often partners local experimental jazzmen like tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Famoudou Don Moye. Hikage’s helpmate is violinist Jonathan Segel, who is a guitarist in post-rock bands like Camper van Beethoven and Sparklehorse and has recorded with other non-pigeonholed musicians like bassist Joëlle Léandre and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne.

Although Man is best known in North America for her performance of works by contemporary composers such as Lou Harrison and Phillip Glass, many tracks here are reminiscent of bluegrass and the blues. While the later is another specialty of Aoki, who is part of the band of a local Japanese blues singer, the ringing output of Man’s pear-shaped axe with its four strings stretched over 12 frets often sounds as if you’re listening to an Oriental Earl Scruggs.

Interestingly enough, as further proof of music’s universality, two of the tunes that most closely resemble Occidental forms are in fact inspired by traditional music. Both feature Aoki walking his bass with as swinging a pulse as he would behind a jazz soloist, yet on “So-Ran-Like” Man’s single-string fills and melody elaboration have definite tenor banjo overtones. “New Eight Beat” finds her using bottleneck-like sliding fret lines, with her flailing improvs commingled with the Oriental theme.

It’s not only banjo tones that the pipa suggests to Western ears. On “Letter”, a theme for a performance work, her sound, which seems to result from finger picking high up near the tuning pegs, arrives midway between that of a dulcimer and a dobro. As long as she’s constantly rolling across her strings, Aoki alternates between dark-toned plucking and distinctive deep bowed tones. This approach is intensified and mixed with traditional slap bass straight out of Wellman Braud on Aoki’s solo feature “Lacquer”. Here he manages to produce both theme and accompaniment timbres from his four strings.

Other tracks on this nearly 72-minute, mostly recorded live CD, find her slurred fingering making references to the patterns of Bollywood dance music and American Indian rhythms, plus creating distorted single notes that could come from a rock guitar. In the same number Aoki sounds as if he’s introduced a horizontal stick between his strings for additional woody resonance. Most of the time, though, he restricts himself to double stopping in pizzicato mode and bowing that in higher pitches takes on cello or violin qualities.

Segel’s real violin is featured on GEN, which despite track separations is really an almost 63-minute instant composition. With its use of the some 200 scales in Japanese music and up to 21strings plucked with a tsume or ivory plectra, the koto is capable of even more textures than the pipa. Hikage is master of most, having studied the instrument from her youth up to the master’s level and having worked as a teacher herself for many years.

Not that the CD is in any way academic, though. Bent a certain way the koto’s strings bring up bluegrass inferences, played others and you can hear a Hawaiian guitar tremolo, clavichord-like tones or even Mingusian bass thrusts. All this is on display in sections like “Part 8”. With Hikage’s koto sounds flailing every which way, Segel boomerangs from Weberean abstractions to lush, swelling intonation.

However, as on “Part 12”, if his legato fiddle stylings threaten to get so out of hand that they retreat into 19th century classicism, Hikage will introduce folk-style flat picking which gets faster and more percussive until it nearly drowns the other sounds. With the tsume clearly striking individual string parts, Segel’s attack gets more staccato and higher pitched, until he’s banging on the four string as often as bowing them. After both instruments reconstitute themselves as hand percussion, the violinist reintroduces a definite screechy line that ends with a protracted descending chord.

With polytonal themes and counterthemes moving from one stringed instrument to the other, the vibrations bouncing around the studio range from pure scrapes, scratches and bangs that could come from either instrument to more particular timbres. Among the classically oriented, double-stopped pizzicato glissandos and jazz-like fills from Segel an Old-Timey fiddle lick will sometimes appear. Meanwhile, when Hikage isn’t applying a particular emphasis to approximate pre-modern clavichord strokes, she can mirror Scruggs banjo picking as well as the expansive timbres that arise from an acoustic 12-string guitar. Like Man, and despite her traditional soundboard, her expositions at times sound American bluesy or European atonal rather than any way Oriental.

When she does come up with piles and piles of splayed koto notes she quickly switches to downstroking, clawhammer-style percussive banjo-like strokes and body thwacks. Other times her ostensibly traditional tones burlesque Segel’s European impressionism and gets him to toughen up his harmonics or even provide her with an ostinato.

The entire program ends with both performers percussively beating out a simple, line that could be a children’s round or an early Appalachian fiddle tune. Rushing from diffuse and scratchy output, back to the theme, then speedily deconstructing the melody again, the dissonance inflates the melded tones.

Consider either of these sessions proof for the reality that so-called ethnic instruments can be used for a lot more than ethic music — most notably if played by experienced improvisers.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Posture: 1. Reality 1 2. Letter 3. New Eight Beat 4. Reality 5 5. Song of the Gong and Drum 6. So-Ran-Like 7. Lacquer 8. Reality 8 9. Stick Journey 10. Reality 10. 11. Reality 4 (Studio Version) 12. Reality 1 (Studio Version)

Personnel: Posture: Wu Man (pipa); Tatsu Aoki (bass)

Track Listing: GEN: 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 5. Part 5 6. Part 6 7. Part 7 8. Part 8 9. Part 9 10. Part 10 11. Part 11 12. Part 12 13. Part 13 14. Part 14 15. Part 15 16. Part 16

Personnel: GEN: Jonathan Segel (violin); Shoko Hikage (koto)