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Hiroshi Kawani - Flashback

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Artist: Hiroshi Kawani

Album: Flashback

Label: PSF

Review date: May. 26, 2003

Mysterious, Unsettlingly Personal Sounds

This one is indeed, as they say, a puzzler. It's quite difficult to know what to say about this release. A political activist, multi-media artist, avant-garde musician, writer, and editor, Hiroshi Kawani has been an integral part of Japan's cultural landscape for over 50 years. In 1982, he started a series of improvised vocal performances with Toshi Tanaka, entitled Mouthpiece. As part of his preparations for these performances, Kawani would practice at home and record himself on a cassette recorder. This CD consists of a recording from May 9, 1983, unedited, with no overdubs.

Kawani produces sounds using items on his desk, such as rubber bands, painting knives, bottles of water, dice, scissors and paper.. Listening to this is a combination of audio archeology and sonic detective work, one can't help but try to make mental pictures of what's going on. Is that a rubber band? Is that something that's made of wood? Are those vocalizations words, or just sounds? Does it matter?

On one hand, it's fascinating to listen without attempting to wrap the sounds in any particular pattern. But it's difficult, as there's a natural tendency to want to apply logic and intellectualize the proceedings. There are no clues about whether Kawani himself intellectualizes these recordings, so it's anyone's guess whether his music is poetry -- that is, that it's "supposed to mean something" -- or whether it's pure sound.

In either case, the results are somewhat intimidating, ominous and mysterious. Parts of Flashback could be a Hell House soundtrack, a recording of an unhinged person at battle with personal demons. There's something dark about it, claustrophobic; perhaps it's the intimacy of the sounds. Everything sounds very close, and larger than life.

The flip side is that under different conditions, these sounds can also seem absurd, certainly Dadaist, strange and amusing. That might also be Kawani's aim -- perhaps it's supposed to be funny. It's hard to tell. Certainly the picture of someone leaning over a cassette recorder with a piece of paper or scissors making small, fragmented sounds and babbling into the microphone could be funny. But that's not the final impression that I get from this. These recordings, by the end, seem somewhat oppressive and nearly overly personal.

Flashback isn't an easy listen, and it will appeal to a very small audience. But late at night, there's no telling how you'll react as you listen to this, and that's unusual, isn't it?

By Mason Jones

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