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Ami Yoshida / Toshimaru Nakamura - Soba to Bara

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Artist: Ami Yoshida / Toshimaru Nakamura

Album: Soba to Bara

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: May. 5, 2009

A quick glance at the Erstwhile “upcoming releases” page many months ago left me very eager to hear this recording, from two unfailingly provocative improvisers. Given the intensity with which Toshi Nakamura has crafted his voice on the no-input mixing board (a process which is richly paradoxical when considered in a certain fashion), with its flinty exactness, and given vocalist Ami Yoshida’s remarkable restraint and focus in Cosmos (her duo with Sachiko M), my expectation was that I’d be treated to long-form, slow-developing, high-end, edge-of-audibility music that resists revealing its starting point and conclusion.

On this single 48-minute performance, my expectations were marvelously flouted. Imagine the basic layer of sound they create as a piece of paper, and then imagine it slowly rended, crumpled into a ball and kicked around, taped together, and sent to you with unfamiliar writing all over it. Soba to Bara gets off to a far rougher and gruffer start than you’d imagine, with buffeted static from Nakamura and the sound of cracked desperation from Yoshida. Over the course of the piece, the pair continually evade the expectations that might accrue to their meeting. The unexpectedness and variety of the sounds invite cataloguing and descriptions. Some passages sound like a guitar string, slowly scraped (and while it’s not listed, it often sound like Nakamura plays guitar here, as there are several passages with very lush-sounding feedback). Elsewhere, there are soft, almost sexual breath noises in danger of being consumed by machines that spring to life as if in response. There are drones, frightened animals, brown-note interruptions and blenders. There are low muffles, crystal bells, soft laser fizzles, croaks, coos, static and helicopter blades.

And most of the time, it’s not easy to tell which musician is making which noise. Not only is there a lot of layering, but there’s also contrast and density in a way that Nakamura has been getting more comfortable with of late. Yoshida is just remarkable here, her voice a hybrid of turntable cartridges, metal machine music, and unknown avian species. (What she does in the very final minutes is pretty stunning, a demon beast grunting and convulsing, both defensive and slavering.)

It’s over before you know it. The music moves so quickly, with ideas and cells bubbling up and bursting, like a continuous movement through a graphic score. Dynamics, pace, and register change continually, even as the sound seems to emerge from a single place or angle of vision. You would never know that Nakamura and Yoshida recorded their contributions separately. That’s almost hard to believe with results so cohesive and intensely good. Whereas the pair is often associated with music wrongly considered austere, this record is live, active, and at times even rough compared to the very small music these two have created elsewhere. While some of what used to be called “onkyo” music sought consciously to withdraw, to create an alternate way of listening (and knowing, and possibly being), Soba to Bara strikes me as more comfortable with not so much fitting into the din around us but coexisting. But never on anything less than its own terms.

By Jason Bivins

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