A friend of mine vehemently despises purely improvised music. She refers to free improv as “that genre that refuses to die.” Furthermore, she has predicted that “free improvisation will ultimately be proven to be the gimmicky and cliché-ridden beast that it is as it dead ends with Western practitioners resorting to non-Western instruments to realize their feeble aims.” (Whew...this lady doesn’t mince words, does she?)
Thus, as a fan of improvised music, it was an unnerving coincidence to read the following statement by composer/bassist Tetsu Saitoh in the brief essay which accompanies this disc of improvised music by a trio using traditional Japanese instruments (with two members being North Americans of non-Japanese heritage): “When Western civilization comes to a dead end, it turns to Asia and Africa.”
Fortunately, Satoh doesn’t pronounce the impending doom of Western civilization and culture. Instead, he provides intelligent, thoughtful, and fascinating insight to the future of improvised music. His tone is speculative and hopeful as he writes of the performers: “It is very interesting that these musicians share a common theme of improvisation...In particular, as these artists have chosen means of expression from outside their own race and culture, there must be things which they can only see from that perspective, and surely that originality will provide them with a new point of departure and new possibilities.”
INDISTANCING consists of four improvisations performed by the trio of Brett Larner (koto), Shoko Hikage (koto), and Philip Gelb (shukahachi). In relation to Satoh’s comments, Larner and Gelb have gone outside their race and culture by immersing themselves in the study and practice of Japanese traditional instruments and music. Conversely, Hikage has gone outside of her race and culture by playing improvised music on a traditional instrument.
The performance recorded on this disc was part of a tour by Mr. Larner. The trio met face to face for the first time a mere 30 minutes before the performance began. In that light, the four pieces which comprise this disc are notable for their fluidity and assuredness. The sound is natural and unforced.
The first track, “Confluence” which is also the longest at 15’32, sounds the most traditionally Japanese due to the kotos being tuned in a standard fashion. For that reason alone, this track could be argued to be the least interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that this approach seems to have allowed the musicians to warm to each other by quickly establishing a common ground. For example, Satoh notes that Gelb adapts his style in reaction to the traditional tuning.
The remaining three tracks, which clock in between 9 and 10 minutes apiece, allow for much greater experimentation. The kotos were retuned, presumably in an unconventional fashion, and are certainly played in a non-traditional way. Fans of Derek Bailey or Fred Frith may find many fascinating moments here, especially as the two kotos are recorded in separate channels (Larner in channel right, Hikage in channel left) which make distinguishing the individual contributions easier.
The final two tracks are the most fun to listen to as the performers take advantage of an unexpected water leak and seemingly add it to the proceedings as a fourth member. Although my aforementioned friend might dismiss this as being hopelessly hokey, it is a good example to the free improvisation initiate as to how musicians can react with, adapt to, and incorporate environmental aspects into the whole. It’s also noteworthy to point out that the resulting music, although played on Asian instruments, are not entirely distanced from a trio consisting of saxophone and acoustic guitars. This is not to imply that this trio is attempting to emulate these instruments, but rather that this disc should not be shunned as being alien, unnatural, or difficult to get into due to the instruments employed.
In conclusion, INDISTANCING is a good and enjoyable recording. It may not convert those opposed to free improv, it may not even be a landmark recording. But it certainly is a worthy listening experience, will reward the inquisitive set of ears, and does suggest that possibilities for innovation and experimentation still exist within the (aging ?) genre of freely improvised music.