Larner / Hikage / Gelb


Leo Lab / CD055

Brett Larner (koto), Shoko Hikage (koto), Philip Gelb (shakuhachi)

The use of “ethnic” instruments in Western free improvisation is nothing new, of course — in search of exotic or just unusual timbres, musicians have been picking them up for years. The difference here is that these are exclusively Japanese instruments, in a relatively traditional ensemble, and the musicians involved know the idioms of the music thoroughly, not just from a handful of CDs borrowed from their local library. The result is something extraordinary, something simultaneously very Japanese and entirely Euro-American.

In his thoughtful sleeve-notes, Tetsu Saitoh refers to the principle of biodiversity, whereby an emphasis on genetic purity breeds weakness. While individual musicians can choose to doggedly pursue a single narrow vision with success, it seems that genres as a whole tend to stagnate without the interbreeding which was once called “fusion”. Maybe there’s something in it; certainly contact with the far East has enriched the worrk of many Western musicians, and the influence is undoubtedly reciprocal.

This particular fusion is a very specific one. The method — free improv — is distinctly European, but the sound-world is Japanese. The title track uses fairly long silences in a manner reminiscent of composer Stomei Satah, while the harmonies will remind many listeners of Takemitsu or even, here and there, more traditional styles. Japanese music has always had a very nuanced approach to melody and timbre which makes this kind of playing sound less incongruous than if these were players with a background in, say, Chinese traditions. This despite the fact that improvisation is not a big part of Japanese musical life, especially in the silk and bamboo traditions from which this ensemble comes.

What makes this more than a genetic freak, then, is that the two parents have more in common than you might think. Influential European and American improvisors have often been influenced by the Zen philosophy which has informed Japanese music for centuries. The idea of creating an auditory space in which sounds are permitted to be themselves came through Cage to a generation of improvisors from Pauline Oliveros to AMM, and although there is a much more conventional musical agenda here, that approach clearly unifies this music too.

Gelb plays shakuhachi like an avant garde saxist, which is to say a bit like a traditional shakuhachi player. The kotoists play as a single voice, dispite having met just half an hour before they went on stage to perform this concert, and while there are some extended techniques the focus is not music-making, not gimmicks. The result is a disc of beautiful, thoughtful and exciting interaction — anyone with a liking for Japanese music will absolutely love it. Highly recommended. Richard Cochrane