Ryuichi Sakamoto & Taylor Deupree – Live In London – Back In the Moment

The expectations one brings to a live performance can be complicated. There’s straight-up fandom – being in the same space as the person whose work you love, seeing them in the flesh and maybe having them see you. There’s the hope that the pressure of performing live will pull something special out of the artist, some thrilling technical mastery or virtuosic singing or playing that they might not reach in the confines of a recording studio. Then there’s the built-in evanescence of a performance, the unrepeatable, one-time-only element that gives any show an additional charge. Finally, there’s the experience of watching someone believe in themselves for you, seeing someone live out the dream you maybe can’t get to on your own.

It’s no wonder then that live recordings are so often disappointing. So much of them have to do with the physical presence of both performer and audience – something that can’t be manufactured.

Live In London from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Taylor Deupree was originally released in 2016 but only as a double LP. 12k, Deupree’s label, has seen fit to make a digital recording of the entire concert available, and if you’re at all familiar with the work of either of these forward-thinking and boundary-stretching musicians, then you should definitely check this out.

There’s palpable tension running beneath the placid surface of this pristine recording. Deupree starts things off by laying down a benevolent, pulsating layer of tones and, almost immediately, Sakamoto can be heard strumming on the strings inside the upper register of his piano, producing a brittle, glassy sound as both a counterbalance and means of introduction. He further explores his instrument, playing the body of it both inside and out while only occasionally playing an actual note or two. Deupree’s backdrop is anything but static, however, as it acquires richer tones and overtones while continuing its steady throb. The two artists quickly and impressively establish a harmonious synchrony, a connection they maintain and deepen throughout the fifty-five minutes of their performance.

About eight minutes in, Deupree’s reclusive backdrop takes a somewhat sinister, alien turn, as elements of hiss encroach and an intermittent rumble trades places with a soured, atonal buzz. Sakamoto abandons notes almost entirely in this stretch (except for an obsessive, repetitive, surprisingly humorous march of low-end strikes on the keyboard) in favor of the solidly percussive, continuing his attack on the piano body itself. When the low-end march is done, we’re suddenly at the edge of a field steeped in fog. The soundtrack composer in Sakamoto appears, sawing and bending his piano strings against Deupree’s ethereal sonic mist, and together we move forward into the unknown, as Deupree and Sakamoto fuse their approaches and styles into something exploratory, cautious, and pleasingly immediate.

What comes through so forcefully in this recording is the sense of shared commitment from Sakamoto and Deupree, not to self-expression per se but to the creation and exploration of the work at hand. This is music about disappearance, about erasure of the artist’s ego, about surrendering of the self to what the given moment offers. There are no blistering solos, no spotlight-on-me moments. Instead there’s curiosity and patience, movement and discovery, music and sound. Given the distilled results of the work, it’s no surprise that Deupree and Sakamoto are both relentless collaborators, the two of them individually having worked with, among others, David Sylvian, Richard Chartier, P.I.L., Simon Scott, and more recently Alva Noto. (The two of them also recorded an album together on 12k in 2013 called, appropriately enough, Disappearance. I strongly recommend it.)

On Live In London, the idea of time gradually dissolves and is replaced by sound. Deupree unfurls a breathing canvas against which Sakamoto splashes an array of multi-colored chords and prismatic idea fragments. Silence arrives, is considered and afforded small spaces between notes, but is never allowed to settle in. More space is opened, accompanied by a frozen, leaking sound, as if a small hole has been torn in the universe. Everything gets slowly sucked toward that opening, so much so that when I hear an audience member cough and I’m suddenly back on earth, I’m not disappointed so much as amazed at how far away I’d managed to get.

And we’re only halfway through at that point.

Collaborations between formidable talents don’t always yield the most vital results. One listen to Live In London, however, and you’ll understand why this was re-released. This is a live recording that feels absolutely alive. It’s special and deserves a new audience.

Michael Grigoni & Stephen Vitiello – Slow Machines – Catch the Drift

Looking for something to clear your head in these days of media glut and radical uncertainty? Check out Slow Machines from Michael Grigoni and sound and installation artist Stephen Vitiello on the 12k label.

The gist of Slow Machines seems to be one of drifting. Of letting go of any kind of rigidity or formal structure to float away to a looser, unfettered dimension. Grigoni’s languid yet precise playing on his dobro, pedal, and lap steel guitars works to conjure images of an eternal Southwestern landscape while Vitiello’s electronics, field recordings and effects (as well as his application of clicks, ticks, and scratches from the Tinguely-esque kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson on the first track) keep the music grounded in the physicality of the here and now. Together the two artists strike a lively balance that suggests vast expanses of space and time without explicitly referencing the celestial.

“Arthur Ganson”

Grigoni’s gentle picking and strumming on most tracks creates a spare pointillist specificity that hovers over Vitiello’s beds of glowing, swelling effects. “Purpling Cloud” finds them slowly building up the sense of a gathering storm, with a kind of breezy playing from Grigoni buttressed by softly distorted growls from Vitiello. The piece ends in a rainy patter of notes, bringing with it a feeling of dry heat and the peppery smell of petrichor.

“Purpling Cloud”

The rain suggested in “Purpling Cloud” reaches land and seems to float in the distant background of “A Clearing,” but the track never lapses into an ambient cliché of dreamy stasis. This is thanks to Vitiello’s subtle intrusions and ruptures as well as Grigoni’s muted, wordless vocals, which both echo and harmonize with his playing. The closing track, “Transparent as a Hanging Glass” throbs with a more pronounced bass sound while reversed guitar notes and glinting harmonics throughout add new textures and dimensions.

Each track on Slow Machines is part of a larger mood, yet the album is never monotonous. It’s packed with intriguing details and ideas, and plays out in a fresh and surprising fashion. I find it both a much-needed antidote to our current craziness and a source of solace. And if you like it as much as I do, check out Grigoni’s earlier 12k release, Mount Carmel. It’s a beauty.

While I’m suggesting other work by these artists, check out this new release from Vitiello, And the room into my buzzing head. With just an open window and an Aeolian harp – a harp that’s played by the wind blowing across its strings – he’s captured a rich and lovely recording of both the lulling swells of the harp and the vibrant sounds of life outside his window. From a startling array of birdcalls to the muffled thrum of drowsy insects to the evocative, heralding call of a distant train. It’s a surprisingly emotive variant on John Cage’s “4’33” and a soothing sonic strategy for these self-quarantining times.

Simon Scott: Harvesting Sounds

At this point, eight years down the road from the initial release of Simon Scott’s 12k debut, Below Sea Level, it’s ritual that when the first hot days of summer arrive, when the early mornings are submerged in a bit of haze and it’s quiet enough outside my city windows to eliminate distraction or worry, I play the album and luxuriate in the shimmering bliss of it. I know the critics’ favorite word luminous gets pasted over every last person, place, or thing as if they all were emanating some kind of holy spiritual glow, metaphorically speaking at least, but I think this music is actually deserving of it.

Below Sea Level was recorded in part at the Fens, a vast area in England covering nearly 750,000 acres that serves, among other things, as a vital hub for the production of food, owing to its rich, peaty soil. Scott (who also plays with Slowdive) lived near the Fens as a child in the 1970s, and in 2010 returned to it while searching for a new approach to his music making. Over the next two years he wandered the area, laden with recording equipment, capturing everything from the sounds of bird life to ringing echoes inside a drain tunnel to the erratic rhythms of a metal cage around an electrical box buffeted by the wind. He then blended these field recordings with guitar and effects in a studio, then re-recorded those recordings in the fields of the Fens, picking up another layer of ambient sound over mixes played on portable speakers. The result is a fantastic immersion in – and an interpretation of – place, as well as an investigation of music and sound and where the two cross-pollinate.

Sealevel 1

Scott went back to the Fens and came up with a new take on Below Sea Level. Where the first version radiates a bucolic haze around itself over seven tracks ranging in length from five to seven minutes, the update is one extended 34-minute piece that conjures up an uncertain terrain of menacing voltage buzz and whispery static, shot through with clips of staccato bird calls, chittering insects, and the echoing crepitation of trickling water. The presence of humans is more apparent in the new recording (the panning splash of a passing car, the footsteps of Scott himself on dry reeds, the drone of an overhead jet, even the palpable breath of someone’s dog), and it creates a kind of tension that’s markedly absent from the original. It’s the same Fens but from a different point of view, and Scott suggests with both works that a phrase like “the same Fens” doesn’t actually mean much; that in fact it’s too vast, too diverse, too changeable to ever be one single, knowable, quantifiable place. He ends the new version with a return to more of that hazy, insulated, luminous music found on the first recording and it makes for a lovely, dreamy exit.

Cut to the recent conflagration in Australia. Or the continued, rapid disappearance of the polar ice caps. Or the recent floods in Indonesia. It’s clear we’re killing the planet. What can you do, as an artist, with that information in your consciousness, in the face of such an enormous crisis? Keep on doing your art. Especially now.

Scott’s new piece, Emergency Exit, put out on the Touch label, is a haunting two-track EP that’s brief but no less powerful for its brevity. Once again, Scott has gone to the Fens for inspiration, this time to record the sounds of flood waters there as well as the crackle of fire and the warning, echoing cries of birds. Any notion of the “musical” is nearly absent in a conventional sense from Emergency Exit. But the evocation of mood and place is potent. A coarse, corrosive wind blows through, buttressed by hard-to-identify rumblings and elongated moaning sounds. The human presence from before has been replaced by a post-human absence.

Scott is making a point here about the climate crisis and ecological ruin and what stands to be lost as the planet collapses beneath its human burden. The end of the world may have already happened. Like the Fens, it isn’t reducible to a single event. It happens gradually here and there and then all at once and everywhere. Emergency Exit is a document of the process of the ending and of the end. It’s recorded at the Fens but you and I, wherever we might be, are in it too. Give it a listen and get involved.