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Michiyo Yagi / Elliott Sharp: Reflexions

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Tokyo-based koto player Michiyo Yagi and New York-based guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp have been collaborating since the mid-nineties. Yagi, during her tenure as visiting professor of music at Wesleyan University, was looking for role models who transform the conventions of their instruments, experimenting with sound and musical forms. Sharp was one of these mavericks that Yagi was drawn to, along with others including Fred Frith and Marc Ribot.

Over the years, this improvising duo, which has kept collaborating and performing, became a tight unit. Both have developed a highly personal and idiosyncratic language, while respecting past traditions. Listening to Sharp's Terraplane outfit playing the blues or to Yagi's slightly-left-of-orthodox koto playing on Shizuku (Tzadik, 1999) demonstrates the scope of their references. Both are fearless collaborators who really value new improvised meetings, which never fail to expand their musical vocabulary.

On this 2005 recording, Yagi presents the sonic possibilities of the ancient koto by adding drumsticks and a bass bow, as essential tools for her extended techniques. Sharp brings an electro-acoustic, 8-string guitarbass, with a laptop interface. The nine improvisations feature the two reflecting on each other's sounds, more often acting in reflex, abstracting themes and always mirroring the other's ideas, throughout this exceptional session.

Opening with the short and meditative "Darkly Dreaming," the duo soon turns to a dense and dissonant improvisation, "Tempest." Yagi strums repeating, fast sonic ripples, while Sharp charges them with varied distorted drones, stretching his instrument to produce sustained, psychedelic sounds, until their individual textures melt into one, otherworldly sound. The two shorter improvisations—the spare and abstract "Refractions" and the intense "The Candy Factory"—stress the intimate affinity and tight interplay shared by Yagi and Sharp.

The longest improvisation, the 19-minute "Journey," unfolds slowly, like an epic suite with a clear traditional Japanese tinge. Sharp's guitar occasionally emulates Japanese traditional string instruments like the biwa or shamisen, blurring the sonic distinction between his modern, hi-tech instrument and Yagi's more ancient 17-string bass koto (first premiered in 1921), before the two begin to explore a more abstract bluesy sonic region.

On the ironic "Folklore," Yagi and Sharp act in chaotic interplay, with the bowed koto and distant, percussive strumming of the guitarbass. "The Jumbliers," named after Edward Lear's fictitious species, is a more conventional improvisation, with a clear, often melodic, theme. The meditative "Dreaming Darkly" is a beautiful conclusion to this fantastic set of free, imaginative spontaneity.

Track Listing: Darkly Dreaming; Tempest; Refractions; The Candy Factor; Journey; Shortwave; Folklore; The Jumblies; Dreaming Darkly.

Personnel: Michiyo Yagi: 21-string koto, 17-string bass koto; Elliot Sharp: 8-string guitarbass.

Title: Reflexions | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Idiolect


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