Various Artists

AMPLIFY 2002: balance

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Since its inception in 1999, Erstwhile had cultivated quite an impressive "stable" of talent, musicians from all points on the globe representing some of the most adventurous and rewarding directions in electro-acoustic improvisation. Prior to this occasion, label producer Jon Abbey had curated two festivals, both in New York City, featuring a number of these performers, but the October 2002 event in Tokyo was easily the most far-reaching yet. Consisting of many prominent members of the Japanese and European improvising community, AMPLIFY 2002: balance ran for three days and also included a number of affiliated concerts. A large portion of this activity is captured on this lavish box set, comprised of seven full-length CDs as well as a DVD. The discs are arranged in chronological order, beginning with four live sets recorded in the days immediately before the festival, each featuring no-input mixing board master Toshimaru Nakamura in duo and trio improv settings with analog synth player Thomas Lehn, electronics wizard Günter Müller, guitarists Tetuzi Akiyama and Taku Sugimoto, and G3 virtuoso Christof Kurzmann. The tracks are an effectively varied introduction for what is to follow, generally quiet and sparse but with an enormous level of concentration, of weighing the exact value of each emergent sound. Though the remainder of the set ranges widely in both volume and density, these performances are a perfect palate cleanser, serving to focus the listener's ears. Disc two is a studio recording, a duet between Nakamura and Müller, two of the supreme collaborators in this genre, musicians who always make their partners sound just that much better. It's a marvelous session, one that -- had it been released as an individual disc -- would have been a major event on its own. Titled ".tint," it consists of five tracks of bubbling intensity, luscious alien soundscapes, and unparalleled creative decision-making. Its enticingly juicy sound provides a superb toehold for the intrepid but inexperienced listener.

The next four discs document the festival proper, starting with an extraordinary and intense set by Cosmos, consisting of Ami Yoshida (voice) and Sachiko M (sine waves and contact mike). All high-frequency pitches and barely audible vocalizations, this is some of the most demanding music to be found on this demanding scene, but this performance generates incredible power by virtue of its restraint and tightly channeled sound elements. Other highlights include the ensuing rough-and-tumble storm generated by Keith Rowe, Lehn, and Marcus Schmickler, a fine and occasionally violent duet by Müller and Otomo Yoshihide, a recapitulation and expansion of the beautiful Weather Sky album by Rowe and Nakamura, and much more (especially guitarist Burkhard Stangl's appearance in a couple of formations). It's about four hours of music that varies dramatically in texture and approach but is of impressively high quality throughout; each set has (at least) something of value to offer, usually a great deal. On the seventh disc, Rowe assembled a septet of guitarists to interpret several pages from Cornelius Cardew's epic graphic score, "Treatise," as well as to create a closing improvisation. Both are lovely, loose performances, a kind of collective stretch and sigh after the intensity of the previous three days. In addition, and very importantly, there is a DVD by Jonas Leddington that offers highly imaginative and perceptive documentation of both the festival and surrounding events, connected to the musicians or otherwise (including some fascinatingly integrated Tokyo footage). Especially for those who may have difficulty grasping music that can at times be forbiddingly austere, the DVD provides the crucial service of allowing one to see, for example, how Yoshida manages to create those sounds (and how dramatically concentrated she is) and just how much tension there is in a live performance of Sugimoto's guitar quartet, where there may be only a single note played in 45 seconds. Put this all together in a gorgeous box design (with luscious photos by Yuko Zama adorning each sleeve) and a highly informative, 52-page booklet and you have a release that should reside in the collection of anyone interested in the state of the art of creative improvisation just after the turn of the century. Highly recommended.