Who: Makoto Oshiro
What: Homemade instruments, automatic sound, assorted awesomeness
Where: What follows below is partially a review of a specific concert at fttari
I suspect the reason that I haven't covered Makoto's stuff here so far is that he's doing a lot of the things I'm interested in and doing them so well that it almost hurts to think about it too much. Last night (2013/01/20) he played an absolute treasure of a set at fttari that confirmed my feelings, and also confirmed the fact that when he's on form, he's one of the best experimental music artists working in Tokyo right now. Indeed, I really felt that the live recording session (for a release on the fttari label), which was attended by just three audience members, was among the top experimental music concerts I've seen. It was certainly more compelling than all but the very best concerts I've seen by the senior statesmen of the field, of any nationality.
Because this is going to be (or is already) quite a gushy review, I'll start with some qualifiers: it's arguable that most of what Makoto is doing is based conceptually on things others have done before. Dephasing tickers, circulating feedback, bass speakers throwing pieces of metal around: I've seen and heard all of these before. (However, I'm not sure if there's a precedent for his amazing "fan in a jar" instrument -- see the description below. If not, I suggest we name it the Oshiro fan organ, or something). The point is really that Makoto's realization (with almost 100% homemade gear) and exectution of these concepts is excellent and totally compelling.
He started his set off with a number of clicking devices. I think they're made from relays and some kind of timer chip. The result is a compact device whose frequency can be tuned and the fairly large motion of the relay arm means that the sound couples well to whatever its placed on, something you wouldn't expect of a kitchen timer or some of the other devices people use to make dephased oscillator soundscapes. The clickers were placed on, various objects (including plastic tuppaware containers) adding an extra acoustic richness to the simple clicks. This is the kind of music that's certainly best enjoyed in a small room with a small audience. It was easy to enjoy the gradually shifting rhythms set up by the clickers in the dimly lit quiet of fttari.
Another standout moment was when he turned up the frequency so that the clicks became buzzing tones. The clickers were loaded into a container where they generated beat frequencies and other spectral phenomena on top of their simple tones. Makoto modulated the sonic miasma by lifting and closing a lid on the container. Simple in principle, but rich in practice. As with all good experimental music, it also forced the listener to contemplate the natures of sound and music themselves. The dichotomy of rhythm and tone in particular was beautifully demonstrated.
The second set involved the above-mentioned fan-in-a-jar instrument. Small cooling fans had been mounted into variously shaped glass jars. Above each jar, suspended on a string, was an asymmetrically shaped shell or other hard object.
Makoto had made each fan operable by a push button switch, and the switches were arranged in a pannel before him. When he pressed a switch, a fan somewhere in one of the 7 jars would gently spin into action. Gradually, the resultant air current would stir the shell pendulum into motion, its oscillations graually increasing inside until it hit the side of the glass jar. Due to the irregular shape of the shell, hitting the side of the jar would cause it to rotate resulting in a complicated (chaotic?) motion and thus a complicated rhythm on top of the natural rhythmic frequency caused by the pendulum itself. It was a beautiful combination of natural motion and caused motion, with the will of the operator being imposed from a distance and with minimal ability to actually control the resultant sound.
The final treat of the night involved Makoto's well known "teppan" or sheet metal instrument, a beautiful looking and ingeniously constructed self driving oscillator, which was one of the first things he became known for in Tokyo aside from his previous video/sound work. The instrument consists of a sheel of metal fastened by four bolts to a wooden resonator. The resonator can be driven by a speaker capable of generating power even at low frequencies (a kind of actuator I suppose). By selectively channeling vibrations on the surface of the sheet through a pickup mic, through an amp and finally to the speaker/resonator, Makoto can set up a self driving, shifting feedback pattern. Tonight, he had this whole system coupled to another large speaker by a spring. The feedback signal could also be fed to this speaker which had a fabulous low frequency response, causing it to crawl along the floor as it vibrated (I believe this is a trick used by Tokyoites Motallica as well) and thow up large washers which had been placed in its cone. The washers hit the spring randomly, resulting in further complexifying of the audio signal. It can be a challenge to produce interesting sounds from combined acoustic/electronic feedback loops, as you have to make sure one frequency of feedback doesn't run away an dominate everything, and you also need the feedback to be working on a number of different frequency scales including shifts over many tens of seconds if you want to create a truly interesting, self-generating sound pattern. Makoto's performance was a real master-class in this kind of feedback loop based sound generation, better than anything else I can remember hearing in the genre.
It was one of those experimental music concerts where everything works naturally and delightfully and you remember why it was that you started listening to this kind of music in the first place. Alongside Madoka Kono's forthcoming CD, Makoto's release is definitely long overdue and worth picking up when it comes out. It's great to see the inventive new blood in the improvised music from Japan scene finally having their recordings released.