Tortoise, Nobukazu Takemura & Aki Tsuyuko, Prefuse 73
Tuesday, May 15, 2001
One can learn a lot about music simply by observing an audience. On May 15, a collection of twenty-somethings gathered for the Tortoise show at the Somerville Theater. The concert was, of course, sold out in this college town. Tortoise may not be a household name, but the band has mass appeal within the intellectual set, and especially among men. (Count yours truly in the latter category, with a postgraduate degree and a Y chromosome. Can't pretend otherwise, as much as I might like to.) The free-thinking independence of the audience was a perfect match for the intensely creative music of Tortoise and the clever inventiveness of Nobukazu Takemura. More on that subject later. Unfortunately, it didn't mesh at all with the opening act, which became painfully obvious as this first segment of the performance progressed.
The opening band at this show was Prefuse 73. I can't imagine a less appropriate group for this crowd. Take my word on this: you don't need to see Prefuse 73 perform, if you're in for anything like the experience I endured. (Skip ahead unless you're really interested in the gory details.) The band consisted of a computer guy, a DJ, and an MC. The MC was completely out of touch with his audience. At the start of the performance, he did some nice raps, quick-paced and dense, well-timed and well-executed. The problems developed when he insisted on audience participation. At various times, he instructed the crowd to hold their arms in the air, wave them back and forth to the beat, shout on command, and render applause after certain key words. Sorry, no can do: this was an independent-minded group, not a bunch of followers. When he started freestyling (and he made sure we understood the meaning of that term, with a painfully long definition), he let loose a steady stream of political correctness that took the progressive ideas of hip- hop to extremes of self-parody. "Boston! Are you excited to see Tortoise?" (Yes, thank you. The sooner the better.)
As for the rest of this group, the DJ really stood out in the talent department. Using only the basic tools of turntables and real-time effects, he took his few opportunities to perform and rendered some of the freshest spinning I've heard in a while. Unfortunately, he played such a subordinate role in the music that his work was mostly lost in the background. The computer guy triggered beats, worked the loops and effects, and generally made sure there was a steady groove going at all times. Unfortunately most of his material was pre-programmed, and there seemed to be very little "live-ness" to his portion of the performance. The Prefuse 73 you'll hear on record has a crisp studio edge which makes it a fun listen; the vocals in particular receive due electronic attention. But in live performance, the group was a bit sloppy. The vocals were performed "clean," with no live effects. The Prefuse 73 show, despite its best efforts, did not have an interactive feel just the usual "fresh funky beats" with a few twists.
Things changed dramatically when Nobukazu Takemura and Aki Tsuyuko took to the stage. Performing on three laptops (two Powerbooks and a PCthe third machine presumably serving as a video monitor), they reduced music to its most fundamental elements. One had the sense that this was a recitala concert performancenot a "gig." The crowd applauded politely and enthusiastically between pieces, but there was not much direct interaction during the performance itself. It seemed like the process of creation took priority over feedback and response.
Takemura's recorded work largely consists of abstract sample-collage pieces. Using loops, effects, and skipping noises, he builds towering sonic sculptures from a few simple interlocking pieces. Takemura's distinctive approach on record relies upon a continual process of re-assembly and mutation of these elements.
In live performance, Takemura did a brief set in the old style. Bits and pieces of electronic sound flowed together, with a subtle implied rhythm that never saw explicit reference. After the pre-programmed beats of Prefuse 73, Takemura's varied approach held the audience's interest. The music flowed naturally (following Takemura's own twisted version of logic), with enough surprise and detail to keep listeners tuned in. This early material was inspiringly beautiful, in a very abstract and profound way.