Japanese art’s most famous series is perhaps its “Views of Mount Fuji” by the woodblock artist Hokusai. In the series, he portrays the mountain from various locations in Japan; in certain cases as the prominent subject of the work; in others a distant point in the background of a teahouse or lake scene. One is swept up the beauty of the composition and the importance of context, even to something as large as a mountain.
The international trio of Peter Kowald (bass and throat singing), Miya Masaoka (17- and 21-string kotos) and Gino Robair (percussion, ebow and faux dax) record their own set of views, Illuminations , 16 short vignettes that too rely on collective context.
Since Kowald’s death in September 2002, quite a number of albums have been released featuring the bassist. Illuminations may be one of the better ones. What the audience loses in cantankerous plucking and violent extended technique, it gains in a reserved Kowald filling up spaces with dark bowing, rich pizzicato and numerous instances of his vocal stylings. Miya Masaoka, well-known to most Downtown music goers, commendably brings her singular instrument into free music. Though oft times she is near impossible to hear and consequently disregarded by fellow musicians, on Illuminations her playing is wonderfully recorded and is usually the centerpiece. The koto, an ancient Japanese instrument, blends beautifully with the low register of Kowald’s bass and Robair’s reserved percussion. Robair is less a “drummer” than a rhythmic artist, working with common and uncommon tools (his are the only internet references to the instrument “faux dax”) to drive the proceedings.
The album is short at just over 53 minutes, and with this many tracks each piece has the ephemerality of Hokusai’s woodprints. The different views catch the three musicians in different moods, all briefly explored and put aside. The trio deserves praise for working within this succinct format rather than belaboring itself and its listeners with an hour-plus burst. As it stands, Illuminations is stirring and thoughtful. Masaoka and company seem to fashion lovely sketches, carefully brushed onto delicate parchment.
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