A piece I did on Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide for Frieze is up, here. This is what I said …
Mid-December saw a three-night residency at Café Oto in East London for several giants of the Japanese experimental scene: Reiko and Tori Kudo, of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and Yoshihide Otomo and Sachiko M, who play together as Filament. The Dalston venue’s Keiko and Hamish Dunbar, who regularly curate collaborations, told me that, ‘Although these two couples are kind of opposites, we thought there might be an overlap point in their approaches to sound.’
Stephen McRobbie (of Glasgow band The Pastels) once called Maher’s music life-changing – ‘hopeful, original, unyielding.’ Watching them on stage is disconcerting: the ten musicians enjoy themselves, the audience often laughs and, though Tori is clearly the beating heart and the speeding mind of the operation, he smiles and jumps without a hint of pretension. Maher started in Tokyo in the 1980s, with many musicians, including Tenniscoats’ Saya and Ueno, passing through. ‘I like to play with young people,’ says Tori. ‘And I’m always glad to see them standing on their own two feet. Maher isn’t really a band. It’s like a theatre troupe. They are actors and I’m the director.’ At Café Oto, Tori started off a song by humming and counting out an off-kilter beat with handclaps. He ended another by suddenly turning around, waving his hands and shouting at everyone to stop. The tune came to a stuttering halt. Tori is a pierrot, a clown, turning songmaking on its head and causing you to see it again, as for the first time.
The second night saw each artist do a solo set. First up, Tori played florid piano to Reiko’s linear singing. She thinks of herself as a stenographer, recording what happens around her. ‘I wait until the words sink down to the bottom and come up again. Only then can I sing. Tori has music inside him, I only have words going up and down.’ During her last song, Otomo joined in. Hearing his piercing notes, she smiled broadly then crouched, a tiny folded figure fully occupying this wide space between two fierce entities. It was a beautiful moment.
Sachiko M was mesmerizing. She triggered pure tones with sine-wave generators; her set was 14 minutes of chilling austerity. She sat still, her hands moving with the precision and elegance of a 50s typist. She rarely played more than two sounds at once and these single elements deposited aural afterimages. They hit you in exactly the same way, time and time again, so many variations on the relentless humming of a device on standby. Otomo started his set with a folksong, his guitar and amp placed next to an up-turned snare drum with an EBow creating a sustained rattling. Feedback arcs of the guitar were thickened, as booming, jagged notes countered the gently sung phrases. Full and thin, it was startling, and it ended with a timid thank you.
The final collaborative set started with Tori leaning into an opened baby grand, playing stabs of mouth piano as Otomo scratched out rhythms on a snare. Sachiko sat in the middle, calm and tense. Reiko started talking about Otomo and Sachiko arriving from Sweden where it was minus 18 and the ladies around the corner who made her happy, then a cat, and would it be OK to sing a cat song. This spoken-word piece comprised rhythmic phrases that repeatedly ended with ‘ee-te’. Afterwards Tori told me: ‘She doesn’t know about her ability to improvise. She should be a rapper!’ While Tori has played with Otomo and Sachiko M before, this was the first time for Reiko to meet them. ‘It’s nice to widen myself,’ she says.
On the last night, Filament premiered a new work. Founded in Tokyo in the late ‘90s, and following mostly Sachiko’s lead, the duo is a constant challenge to Otomo to remain open, free of vocabulary: ‘It’s not about particular tools, but rather about escaping from meaning, from words, and making a sound map in my brain with the real space.’ Sachiko and Otomo sat back to back, with four speakers on stands facing outwards. She used a number of generators, he a modified turntable. Although your experience of the piece changed as you move around, few did – silence and minutiae are as integral as loudness. Every tiny movement was audible. The set was exactly 70 minutes of sonic investigation and insistence, vast distances covered despite the restricted instruments the two have at hand. After the show, Otomo told me that Filament is the most extreme side, ‘the most influential work in everything I have done,’ comparing it with his current exhibition Ensembles 2010 at Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki. Both are about a working space in which each collaborator does their own thing. ‘We wait, we don’t need to control.’