Fresh Excitement on the Scene: A Unique Melding of Electronics and Improvisation
A Report on the Erstwhile Festival AMPLIFY 2002: balance

AMPLIFY 2002: balance, a music festival curated by Jon Abbey of New York's Erstwhile Records, was held October 18 to 20 at Star Pine's Cafe in Tokyo. During the festival, 13 musicians, most of whom have releases on the Erstwhile label and all of whom are at the forefront of the worldwide improvised music scene, performed in various combinations. The label's focus is on the possibilities of collaboration between musicians using new techniques and often combining electronic and acoustic instruments. Since its launch in 1999, Erstwhile has released recordings by an unprecedented array of talented musicians on the worldwide improvisational scene, and has garnered much international attention for its innovative approach and exquisite balance of fresh sounds. The festival's lineup was: Keith Rowe, from England; Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler, from Germany; Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, from Austria; Günter Müller from Switzerland; Otomo Yoshihide, Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, Tetuzi Akiyama, Sachiko M, Ami Yoshida and Utah Kawasaki, from Japan.

AMPLIFY opened with Taku Sugimoto's guitar quartet, made up of Sugimoto, Nakamura, Akiyama and Otomo. The set began with a long, perfect silence, followed by a single note from an acoustic guitar. After the lingering sound of that first note disappeared, another note was cast out, followed by another perfect silence. The silence held a powerful attraction, and listeners found that they heard each silence slightly differently, just as one hears changes in the flow of music. Despite the fact the silences are often much longer than the stretches containing sound, the music created by the four artists is overwhelmingly substantial. Most of the music is inaudible in a physical sense, but in it one can undeniably "hear" the musicians' inner worlds. This super-quiet quartet opened listeners' ears wide, and prepared their minds to hear the ensuing music better.

Cosmos started its set with Sachiko M's barely audible, high-pitched sine wave, which penetrated the air like an invisible line. Then Ami Yoshida added quiet, subtle, extremely high-pitched vocal sounds, clicking her tongue and throat in a singular way. Yoshida's sounds are, of course, generated by a human body, but they could almost be electronic noises, completely free of human emotion and a human's heavy sense of being. Although the duo uses extremely high frequencies, their care and sensitivity enables them to produce well-balanced music.

On the first day, Keith Rowe, Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler performed as a trio. Lehn's analog synthesizer - which creates an impression of solidity, as if one could physically touch the sound - cast a vertical sound into the thin, flat digital tone generated by Schmickler's synthesizer. Like a surging wave, the thin digital tone slowly grew into a mass of low-pitched sounds. Into this vertical and horizontal soundscape, Rowe suddenly sent a sharp-edged noise, perfectly timed, from his tabletop guitar. While creating an image of a vast space, expanding from zero to infinity, the trio simultaneously conveyed the feeling of entering a microscopic world, by carefully subtracting chaotic elements from the space.

Christof Kurzmann and Burkhard Stangl started their duo set with a video projected onto the back screen. As the blue photographic video images dissolved, Kurzmann generated a low-pitched, soporific tone on his computer, and Stangl cast intermittent acoustic guitar sounds into Kurzmann's digital wave. The music remained very quiet and peaceful throughout, but revealed deep, sharp edges in the transition points between sounds and photos.

Otomo and Günter Müller, in a world-premiere duo, created a stimulating electronic whirlpool using a continuous sine wave and deep low-frequency rhythms. Although Müller's electronic beats were so heavy they caused the walls and floor to shake as if in a storm, the music never felt the least bit loud or noisy. Its texture, in fact, was rather soft - more like the heartbeat of a living creature than like the noise of machines - creating a melting feeling of unity, as if the boundary between the people and the air around them no longer existed.

Lehn and Schmickler's duo on the second day was much more intense and energetic than their trio with Rowe had been. While Schmickler produced edgy electronic sounds, Lehn shot out fast, intermittent pulse tones from his analog synthesizer. Despite the powerful intertwining of their sounds, resulting in something like electronic free jazz, there was no destructiveness or violence in the music. The contrasting analog and digital sounds felt like two opposing forces stretching the space in different directions with incredible power.

Next, Sugimoto, Stangl and Kurzmann performed an extremely quiet set that contrasted beautifully with the whirlpools of wild electronic noise in the two previous performances. Within a perfect silence, subtle sounds were generated like tiny bubbles from the acoustic instruments and computer, and floated through the air. The club was filled with serenity.

The duo of Rowe and Nakamura was a focal point of this festival. Through his no-input mixing board, Nakamura generated a subtle, low frequency that softly prodded the consciousness, evocative of a futuristic insect chirping out electronic noise. The super-quiet music carried listeners to a new, previously unknown realm of imagination. Occasionally, after a silence, Rowe would produce a sharp, vertical noise, ripping the air like a flash of lightning. The music contained both a particularly sharp-edged alertness and an overwhelming calmness and tranquility.

The final day of the festival opened with Astro Twin, a subtle, quiet duo combining Ami Yoshida's "howling voice" and Utah Kawasaki's analog synthesizer. The duo, whose sounds are very close to electronic, produces an amazing range of tones, from extremely low to extremely high. Though sharp and piercing as a needle, their music never hurts the ears; rather, it relaxes the mind and induces a state of calmness. Stangl and Müller performed another world-premiere duo. Müller's echoing, repetitive, low-frequency sound swung like a heavy pendulum, with incredibly delicate, beautiful textural transitions. While evoking an image of a huge mass of rocks rolling in from a distance, the sound conveyed a feeling not of fear, but of peace. Stangl's acoustic guitar sounds were extremely simple and real in combination with Müller's dreamy electronic sounds. The contrast was fresh and stimulating.

Nakamura and Sachiko M began their duo set in a perfect stillness. With long stretches of silence between notes, Sachiko's sine wave and Nakamura's controlled tones were carefully placed, making one even more aware of the silence.

The last set of the festival was the trio of Rowe, Müller and Sugimoto. From the beginning, the musicians reacted to one another's sounds in a very sensitive way, like a single living creature. The surrealistic fusion of electronics and acoustic guitar resulted in a listening experience that felt simultaneously macroscopic and microscopic. This profound musical world could not have been created by a solo artist, but only by this particular combination of musicians.

The music heard in these 12 performances over the course of the three days had some interesting things in common. Each musician has his/her own unique realm of sound (and silence). The music, which was often fused with subtle environmental noises, filled the space in a substantial way. In that unrealistically quiet atmosphere, one's ears became extremely sensitive, and one came to feel that each subtle noise had its own significance. It was quite exciting that no one in the club - neither the musicians nor the audience members - knew in what direction the music might develop. The musicians inspired one another, and the same musician would create a different soundscape in each new grouping. None of them knew exactly what would happen, yet all of them were connected to one another by the same strong wavelength, based on confidence. While is it likely that few of the sounds exist in the natural world, the music seemed to harmonize closely with nature. In that space, where the audience members listened attentively and were careful not to disturb the serene atmosphere, there was no human ego, no disquieting emotion on display; everything seemed equal inside a safe, perfect peacefulness. This brought home the true meaning of the festival's subtitle, "balance."

Some pre-festival question/answers between Yuko Zama and Jon Abbey:

ZAMA: What made you decide to hold this festival in Japan, "AMPLIFY 2002: balance"?

ABBEY: AMPLIFY 2002: balance has two main purposes. Most importantly, it's a label showcase festival. Secondly, it's my attempt to pay tribute to the Mottomo Otomo festival, which Otomo Yoshihide curated in Wels, Austria, in late 1999. It was a really important event for me, and for improvised music. It's where I met many Erstwhile musicians from all over the world, and where I learned a lot about how to program a festival of this kind. It helped me focus on a clearer idea of what I wanted Erstwhile to become. At the Otomo festival, the format of total immersion was very intense. There were two stages - a main one, and a smaller room behind that main stage. The festival was three nights long, and each night [the music] went on for six or seven hours, basically nonstop. Also, I learned a lot there about sequencing sets so that they make each other better (which is part of the meaning of AMPLIFY - the sets are designed to amplify one another, as the musicians amplify one another within each combination). For instance, the Rowe/Otomo/Sugimoto superquiet guitar set served as a prelude, opening the audience's ears to the superb poire_z set that followed. AMPLIFY 2002 isn't as broad in scope as Mottomo Otomo was - it's much more focused. But it's my way of trying to follow up on that festival three years later. My plan is for AMPLIFY to be a series of international festivals. The first was at Tonic [in New York City] last May, the second is in Tokyo, the third will be at Tonic in February, and the fourth will probably be in Berlin.

Z: How did you select the musicians for the festival?

A: There are 12 groups in the three nights, and eight of them are actual Erstwhile projects, either already released ones or future releases. The other four are groups I was interested in seeing at the time I programmed the festival about a year ago. One of the reasons it's subtitled "balance" is that of the 12 sets, four are all Japanese musicians, four are all Europeans, and four are mixed. The Tokyo musicians who are featured in AMPLIFY share an important characteristic: they try to strip instruments and sound down to their bare essence. I think this is a crucial idea in the development of the music I work with, and has become increasingly influential in other scenes around the world.