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.