Perhaps the most unique voice in the Japanese avant-garde music scene, Yuji Takahashi first came to prominence in the early ’60s both as a composer and pianist. He was the first, and for many years only, student ever accepted by Iannis Xenakis. His output is broad: orchestral, operatic, improvisatory, computer music, traditional instruments, and even popular. In 1989, at the age of 51, he was the first composer/performer in Japan to use a computer as a performance instrument in concert. Yuji’s a poet and philosopher as well as composer. His music has been issued on numerous CDs in Japan, but remains elusive in the USA, to date with just one release, on Tzadik. In recent times he has been exploring music for traditional Japanese instruments, piano, and computer.
When I was a student at CalArts one of my jobs was recording the concerts that took place under the auspices of the music department. I was scheduled to record a visiting artist who I had never heard of, a certain Sheikh Chinna Moulana, but about an hour before I was to start setting up I was told not to bother—the artist had declined to be recorded and I was free to go home. I will always be glad I decided to stick around a see the Sheik—and to this day it is one of the decisions for which I am gladdest. The performance was one of the most amazing I have heard or seen before or since. Sheikh Chinna Moulana was a master of the nagasvaram, the South Indian double-reed instrument that is used for outdoor celebrations. The instrument is about four feet long; it is like a shenai on steroids. The Shiek’s playing was animated, extroverted, almost manic; and as he played he raised the bell into the air and swung it back and forth, creating a Doppler effect in sound while hypnotizing the audience like cobras before a charmer. His music is as rhythmically complex as any in the Carnatic style, and the performance was accompanied by not one but two dueling ‘tavil’ drummers who battled it out in the last piece like Belson and Rich in 17/4.
I wish I knew more about An SookSun, the great pansori artist from Korea. I first heard her in a massive iPod file-exchange with Henry Kaiser when he was visiting Tokyo a couple of years ago. I was completely knocked out by her vocal style and still am. Pansori is the traditional Korean musical form that is epic and narrative—and An SookSun is one if its acknowledged masters. She’s got a huge range of distinct timbres and stylings—and incredible stamina. Some pansori performances can last up to eight hours without pause. Even listening for just 45 minutes can be completely immersive and almost overwhelming.
What’s the cliché?…”Needs no introduction,” at least to regular denizens of NewMusicBox. I’ve always been attracted to Nancarrow’s work since I encountered the Columbia LP that Gordon Mumma produced in 1969, at first by the obvious originality of someone who had devoted his life’s work to writing works unperformable by humans and played on mechanical instruments. Through repeated listenings one could sense the perfection of form and structure, coupled perfectly with the musics sheer enjoyablity. It was with the aid of texts from James Tenney, Peter Garland, and Charles Amirkhanian a fuller deeper appreciation could be realized. If I was on my desert island and could choose only one composer’s full canon (no pun intended), it would surely be Nancarrow’s I would want on my iPod.
Don van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)
Like Nancarrow, rhythm was the thing that first attracted me to Beefheart’s music—the loopy polyrhythms of the Magic Band’s guitars, bass, and drums playing off against the Captain’s sax and vocals could rival Ewe music or even Gnawa. I still think that Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, which came out in 1969, is an American rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece right up there with Sgt Pepper. Yet, as worked out as the music seemed to be, van Vliet’s techniques for teaching it to his musician’s would baffle most. Musician Jeff Morris Tepper told that the Captain would say things like “play that like a smoky, yellow room, make it more sulphur yellow”; or “play it like a bat being dragged out of oil, and it’s trying to survive but dying from asphyxiation.”
True story: Roland Kirk was playing down in Hermosa Beach, and he came up to Don van Vliet on the last set and said “Where can I get some ribs?” and Don answered, “The only place in Los Angeles you can get ribs this time of night, Roland, is in the Bible.”