Guillaume Gargaud’s seventeen compositions for steel-string, acoustic guitar are short—none is longer than a minute and three-quarters—linked pieces of an elegant simplicity. The simplicity is more in the concept than in the sound, which can be subtly complex; each piece involves self-imposed constraints that in effect attempt to convert some of Gargaud’s improvisational gestures into etudes centered on certain pitches and pitch relationships. And this is where the complexity comes in. For despite Gargaud’s focus on a paring down of material, the often-recurring pitch relationships that make up that material and that Gargaud introduces, elaborates, and plays variations on, are harmonically sophisticated and shot through with a dissonant tension that belies the rather quiet mood in which they’re presented. While each brief piece can stand alone as a kind of tone poem complete in itself, listening to the entire sequence is like seeing an object from many different perspectives which, taken together, give a picture of the essence of the thing.
Like many artists during the past year of isolation, Slovenian guitarist Samo Salamon managed to stay creative and maintain musical collaborations through a combination of ingenuity and technology. He took the initiative of contacting about three dozen guitarists throughout Europe to record a series of virtual duets, which he’s been releasing in three volumes; in addition, he recorded two full albums of duets with one other musician on each—String Dancers with guitarist Hasse Pousen, and Unobservable Mysteries with clarinetist François Houle.
String Dancers is an album of improvisations and compositions for acoustic guitars. Each guitarist sent the other his own compositions, to which the second overlaid a part. The album is a pleasure to listen to: the compositions are intricate and fully developed, not merely simple chord progressions to solo over, and the interplay between Salamon and Poulsen is tight and exciting, even though this appears to have been their first time working together. It’s a pairing that one hopes will continue, especially once it’s possible for them to share a stage.
Unobservable Mysteries represents another successful first-time collaboration for Salamon. For this twelve-track, fully improvised project, Salamon and Houle evenly split the taking the lead. For six of the tracks Salamon recorded improvisations on acoustic guitar and sent the recordings to Houle to complete with his own contributions; for the other six, the process was reversed. The combination of clarinet (and on one track, flute) and acoustic guitar opens up a soundworld of contrasts—of range and timbre, and especially of the fundamental opposition of the wind instrument’s legato lines and the plucked instrument’s staccato voice. This latter contrast comes out particularly well on improvisations where the two weave rapid lines around each other. Unobservable Mysteries ventures more into experimental territory than String Dancers (though the latter’s track Mind Fuel explores extended techniques), though on the more conventional tracks Salamon’s playing provides a complex, atmospheric setting for Houle’s melodies, which can be pastoral, plaintive, or more abstractly refracted from brief motifs.
If one could synthesize the murmurations of the common starling into sonic form, the resulting product would invariably sound similar to the twin guitar duo of late-Aotearoa / New Zealand artist Donald McPherson and Japanese improviser Tetuzi Akiyama. Consisting of three parts culled from a 2010 live performance in Christchuch, The Kitchen Tapes Vol. 1 features some enjoyable Akiyama and McPherson riffing, with the duo crafting sonic landscapes that evoke a gamut of emotions, from splendor to pathos.
The opening segment, Part One is the longest piece on the tape, clocking in at just over 19 minutes. The side features much of what you’d expect from the pair: the playing is both prodding and prodigious, yet the listener is spared the cloying blows of virtuosity and one-upsmanship. Instead, McPherson and Akiyama weave in and out of each other’s playing and remain content in their explorations of bucolic motifs that taper off as soon as a new thematic turn reveals itself. At times the guitars are cinematic and even orchestral (5:04); at other points, the pair’s playing is evocative of flamenco (11:58). In all, Part One possesses enough whimsy and a number of (very) high points that assuage any moments in the performance that may feel awkward or too tentative for some listeners.
Part Two opens the second side and is most likely to elicit the John Fahey comparisons. While understandable to a degree, they ultimately miss the point and serve only as inchoate shorthand for those unwilling to settle in and listen to the unique artistic voices, nuance, and timbres that belong to Akiyama and McPherson, both individually and as combined as a unit. At times, a bit tedious; however, the duo never sound lost and retain their ability to engross the listener throughout. The closer, Part Three, is both the shortest cut on the album and its strongest piece by a mile. Reminiscent of Indian raga, Nick Drake, and even Neu!, the piece is vibrant and captivating and like the best of dreams, ends far too soon…
While the sparsity and relatively restrained dynamics on The Kitchen Tapes Vol. 1 may make it a bit more demanding than the pair’s 2006 Vinegar & Rum, this listener would argue the peaks surpass and outweigh any troughs from the moment you hit play on the deck. What’s more, not only does this release help mark the arrival of new End of the Alphabet / Astral Spirits collaborative spin off-imprint, God in the Music, it marks almost one year since McPherson’s death. What better way to remember the guitarist than to enjoy his collaborative work with his friend and kindred spirit Tetuzi Akiyama.
– J. Sebastien Ericsson Saheb
This set of four improvised acoustic guitar duets, recorded in 2008 in Buenos Aires, brings together Argentina’s Anla (Alan) Courtis and Japan’s Tetuzi Akiyama. Known for their versatility and diversity of approaches to improvisation—Akiyama is often associated with the constrained gesturalism of onkyo, although he also works in the noisier fields of blues-based rock and industrial sound, while Courtis has among many other things played heavy psychedelia with the band Reynols—both guitarists here work with the more-or-less conventional sounds available to the unadorned acoustic steel-string guitar.
Even given the relatively Spartan instrumentation, Courtis and Akiyama manage to explore a rich variety of sonic and harmonic material. The recording opens introspectively, its initial dissonances played out along well-spaced, lingering tones and chords slowly unraveling in a wash of minor seconds. As the set progresses the music shifts in tone and texture, with pulsing drones and scraped strings giving way to a kind of industrial pastorale embodied in arpeggios implying an alternation of minor and major thirds. Courtis and Akiyama bring things to an end with tentatively plucked chromatic patterns in broken phrases, and a tamboura-like buzz.
Here is where I post, at a frequency of about once a week, a list of the new music that has caught my attention that week. All of the releases listed below I’ve heard for the first time this week and come recommended. Don’t take the categories too seriously.
Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut – 9 Months from Earth (2009, free jazz)
Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut – The World is Unsurvivable (2009, free jazz)
Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut – Everything is Happening at Once (2009, free jazz)
Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut – The American Refugee (2009, free jazz)
James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game (2009, acoustic guitar)
Whit Dickey Trio – Transonic (1998, free jazz)
Carl Maguire – Sided Silver Solid (2009, avant-jazz)
Nicholas Bernier / Simon Trottier (2009, experimental)
Iannis Xenakis – Complete String Quartets (2009, modern classical)
Iannis Xenakis – Complete Percussion Works (2007, modern classical)
John Hebert – Byzantine Monkey (2009, creative jazz)