Surprise is a dubious pleasure, cultivated in the search for musical forms that take the listener into realms of impossible/imaginary. Then suddenly, after decades of searching, the surprises diminish in quantity, often in quality, leaving an unavoidable sense of melancholy, mixed with the treacherous air of nostalgia.
The antidote is to recognise that ‘new and unfamiliar’ has become stale; the truly new and unfamiliar has opened up regions that feel somehow incomprehensible or distasteful. Aesthetic proclivities become old, just like the bodies that shape them.
I was surprised to be surprised, then, hearing Ami Yamasaki perform with Charlie Collins at Iklectik. Charlie plays a low-lying drum kit and his contributions to this duo were correspondingly low, as in subtle. As interventions they added a halo, a subterranean murmur, a transient glow. At times they gave Ami occasion to smile, in itself an unusual event in improvisation, given the more familiar seriousness of facial expressions.
What was the cause of this experience, through which at times I questioned what I was hearing, or my interpretation of it? Her voice is high and powerful, nothing surprising about that, but its relation to her body is strangely ambiguous. At times, this unearthly voice seems to emanate from somewhere around her body, close to but detached, sometimes corresponding to lip movements and mouth opening but at the end of phrases drifting out of sync. It reminded me of sections in the Béla Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky film, The Man From London, in which dubbing goes adrift in such a way that questions about production difficulties or deliberate dislocation battle each other with a clamour that threatens to overwhelm the course of the film.
She also uses, or seems to use, the ventriloquist technique of projecting her voice, creating the illusion of a voice closer to walls or surrounding air than its original source. All of this is a form of echo-location, commonly used by people who are sight-impaired yet hearing enhanced. Human potential, in other words. She becomes a wolf-woman, then holds a conversation with invisible others in which the words escape into themselves, as if holding their contours within the world of sound without symbolic function. You could say she sounds like a bird but birds exist in their own universe. A video on YouTube – Signs of Voices – shows her stroking the fur (made from paper) of an improbably long animal, singing in a whisper as if speaking directly to its unknown consciousness. There’s a relationship to ASMR, reflected in the YouTube comments, but unlike ASMR, which hovers in an intensely private/public space, her voice addresses itself to space itself, and whatever inhabits space (as if a bat locating otherwise invisible moths by the energy of directional sound).
As the set at Iklectik progresses her vocal techniques become more familiar – some ultra-low vocal fry, Mongolian and Tuvan style chord singing, whistling with added melody – but the way she uses them is otherwordly, as if she is experimenting with non-human identities. She strikes her chest, as if shaking loose a sound from its resonating cavity. Of course I’m reminded of other great improvising singers – Elaine Mitchener, Ami Yoshida, Sidsel Endresen, Sharon Gal, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg, Yifeat Ziv and more – but her demeanour is so calm. No visible wrestling with the emotional/physical effort of extreme voice production; just emanation, as if by a charm.
Ami Yamasaki and Charlie Collins performed at Iklectik creative space, London, SE1 7LG, 17.11.2019, alongside O Yama O, Beatrix Ward-Fernandez, Derek Saw and Lauren Sarah Hayes.
Ricocheting as a 1960s teenager between blues guitarist, art school dropout, Super 8 film loops and psychedelic light shows, David Toop has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This practice encompasses improvised music performance (using hybrid assemblages of electric guitars, aerophones, bone conduction, lo-fi archival recordings, paper, sound masking, water, autonomous and vibrant objects), writing, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera (Star-shaped Biscuit, performed in 2012). It includes eight acclaimed books, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), Sinister Resonance (2010), Into the Maelstrom (2016, a Guardian music book of the year, shortlisted for the Penderyn Music Book Prize), Flutter Echo (2019) and Inflamed Invisible (2019).
Briefly a member of David Cunningham’s pop project The Flying Lizards (his guitar can be heard sampled on “Water” by The Roots), he has released fifteen solo albums, from New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments on Brian Eno’s Obscure label (1975) and Sound Body on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label (2006) to Entities Inertias Faint Beings (2016) and Apparition Paintings (2020) on Lawrence English’s ROOM40 label. His 1978 Amazonas recordings of Yanomami shamanism and ritual - released on Sub Rosa as Lost Shadows (2016) - were called by The Wire a “tsunami of weirdness” while Entities Inertias Faint Beings was described in Pitchfork as “an album about using sound to find one’s own bearings . . . again and again, understated wisps of melody, harmony, and rhythm surface briefly and disappear just as quickly, sending out ripples that supercharge every corner of this lovely, engrossing album.”
In the early 1970s he performed with sound poet Bob Cobbing, butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii and drummer Paul Burwell, along with key figures in improvisation, including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Georgie Born, Hugh Davies, John Stevens, Lol Coxhill, Frank Perry and John Zorn. In recent years he has returned to collaborative performance, working with many artists and musicians including Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki, Max Eastley, Tania Caroline Chen, John Butcher, Ken Ikeda, Elaine Mitchener, Henry Grimes, Sharon Gal, Camille Norment, Sidsel Endresen, Alasdair Roberts, Thurston Moore, Jennifer Allum, Miya Masaoka, Extended Organ (with Paul McCarthy and Tom Recchion), Ryuichi Sakamoto and a revived Alterations, the iconoclastic improvising quartet with Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack and Terry Day first formed in 1977. He has also made many collaborative records, including Buried Dreams and Doll Creature with Max Eastley, Breath Taking with Akio Suzuki, Skin Tones with Ken Ikeda, Garden of Shadows and Light with Ryuichi Sakamoto and co-productions (with Steve Beresford) for Frank Chickens, the 49 Americans and Ivor Cutler.
Major sound art exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London (2000) and Playing John Cage at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (2005-6). In 2008, a DVD of the Belgian film – I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Portrait of David Toop Through His Records Collection – was released by Sub Rosa, and in 2017 his autobiography – Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound – was published by Du Books in Japan. His most recent records are Dirty Songs Play Dirty Songs (Audika, 2017), Suttle Sculpture (Paul Burwell and David Toop live, 1977, Sub Rosa, 2018), John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano with Tania Chen, Thurston Moore and Jon Leidecker (Omnivore, 2018), Apparition Paintings (ROOM40, 2020), Field Recordings and Fox Spirits (ROOM40, 2020), Until the Night Melts Away (with Sharon Gal and John Butcher, Shrike, 2021) and Garden of Shadows and Light (with Ryuichi Sakamoto, 33-33, 2021).
He is Professor Emeritus at London College of Communication.
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