There are only a handful of koto players in the free improv world, but among them Miya Masaoka has set herself apart. Her qualities include a strong compositional sense, even when creating in the moment. It's something she shares with guitarist Fred Frith and saxophonist Larry Ochs, whoalong with more than a decade togetherare what makes Maybe Monday a ridiculously strong trio. And when a group knows its capacities and textures so well, as Maybe Monday clearly does, it is a strong candidate for working with guests. Their new release Unsquareonly their thirdincludes drummer Gerry Hemingway, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, electronicist Ikue Mori and harpist Zeena Parkins.
The recordings came about as a result of a weekend-with-guests played in November 2006. While the live sets (scheduled for release on Intakt in 2009) were as quartets, with one guest per set, they took the opportunity to do a studio recording with the full ensemble. The result is a dizzying, fascinating set of music. Voicings, foregrounds and backgrounds are constantly shifting, dynamics swooping about. It's a carefully mixed hour of sound, with no consistent placement of players. Parts come off as electronic beds, but koto, violin, sax or guitar are never far from rising to the fore. Intent listening is something like walking on smooth stones in a shallow riverbed; there's always some sort of foothold, but it changes with each step. And while you might slip and fall, you probably won't.
Although there are five less instrumentalists involved, Koto AccordionMasaoka's duet with accordionist Pauline Oliverosis a similarly rich and thick listen. In part that is due to the eight-speaker system they played through for the recording. There's an immense spatiality to the disc, with varieties of sounds leaping to the front and falling back again. The dense soundscape is also due to the dexterity of their instruments: both are capable of grand expulsions or delicate gestures. Add to that some deft electronic manipulation and the performance is often harrowing. There's rarely much to hold on toif there's an overarching theme it's the enormous crescendos and dropping to drones. If Unsquare is a riverbed, Koto Accordion is a water flume in a dark cave. If not, then at least they're a pair of astounding recordings.
Personnel: Fred Frith: electric guitar; Miya Masaoka: 25 string koto and electronics; Larry Ochs: sopranino and tenor saxophones; Gerry Hemingway: drums and percussion; Carla Kihlstedt: electric and acoustic violins; Ikue Mori: electronics; Zeena Parkins: electric harp and electronics.