Tone Glow 001: Dan Gilmore & Shots
Interviews with 2019's "non-music" stars + album downloads and our writers panel on Ryoko Akama's 'Dial 45-21-95'
Welcome to Tone Glow, a newsletter focused on experimental music edited by Joshua Minsoo Kim. In our first issue you’ll find interviews with artists who work in the realm of so-called “non-music,” downloads of obscure albums, and our writer panel’s thoughts on Ryoko Akama’s Dial 45-21-95.
Thank you for reading the first issue of the Tone Glow newsletter. My name is Joshua Minsoo Kim and I started Tone Glow as a blog back in 2015 due to a desire to write about experimental music that wasn’t getting much coverage elsewhere. That eventually led to me freelancing for various publications, from Pitchfork to The Wire to Bandcamp Daily. Tone Glow has also recently expanded into a record label called Tone Glow Records. After Squarespace became too cumbersome to use and stripped many of its useful features away, I decided to stop blogging. But recently, through inspiration from Todd Burns’s Music Journalism Insider newsletter, I’ve made the decision to devote some time to Tone Glow once again but in the form a newsletter. Issues will be released every other Monday and will endure for as long as I see fit.
Each issue will follow a similar format:
A long-form piece, likely to be an interview with an artist.
Download links to older, obscure albums via Dropbox.
A writer panel featuring capsule reviews of the same album (ideally, something released recently), accompanied by a rating between 0 and 10. This section of the newsletter is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
As you will see at the end of this newsletter, there are a lot of writers who participated in the writer panel. So much so that I briefly considered turning this newsletter into a playful farce by increasing the amount of writers every issue à la Dieter Roth’s Zeitschrift für Alles. Alas, there’s a limit to how long these newsletters can be, and I don’t have enough money to pay dozens of writers.
Even still, I am interested in a few more writers. I specifically want to ask younger, newer writers to reach out, especially if your voices are underrepresented in media: people of color, women, and those who are lgbtq+. I say this knowing that I only felt comfortable applying for my first site—The Singles Jukebox—due to a similarly explicit call for PoC writers. If you have suggestions for what you’d like to see or would like to apply to write, email me at email@example.com or DM me on Twitter. I pay $10 per capsule review (3-10 sentences) via PayPal. If you have ideas for long-form pieces let me know; the type of work and length of writing would determine the rate, but it’d be at least $75.
Dan Gilmore (Careful Catalog)
Dan Gilmore is the founder of Careful Catalog, a record label and distro based in NYC. In the latest issue of The Wire, I wrote an essay on so-called “non-music” and consider Careful Catalog’s 2019 releases to be at the forefront of what the year provided with this approach to sound and silence.
“Non-music” has no set definition and is the result of there being an insufficient descriptor for what this sort of music is (or is doing). In essence: it has *something* to do with small gestures or silence or purity in presentation, and relates to ideas explored by Cage, Brecht, Fluxus, happenings, and lowercase music. There can be consideration for silence as musical material, but there’s also the notion that this music has no desire to be (or be perceived as) academic in the way Wandelweiser composers’ works often are. In fact, maybe the greatest unifying factor of non-music is the idea that despite academic underpinnings, it’s not composed or performed or presented in accordance with the unspoken consensuses built around experimental music oft-considered academic. Even further, it doesn’t have the semblance of classical music or ambient or field recordings, at least in the typical sense. Regardless, it’s music that’s still highly unique from artist to artist, and a further branching of the avant-garde.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: How did you decide on starting a record label? Was this something you had thought about for a while?
Dan Gilmore: The label started as an extension of the mail order operation, after about a year of functioning solely as that. That was always part of the plan, but I rushed into the second phase when Will Guthrie was shopping around a recording and asked if I’d be interested. He was under the impression I was already doing a tape label, not just the distro. I said I’d be happy to give it a go anyway.
I’d often entertained the idea but had no shortage of excuses concerning space, finances, credibility… all valid reasons for why I shouldn’t have started a distro either. Somehow I thought it would be more feasible and cost efficient to just run a mail order. Not true. Basically, I devoted all my free time to writing e-mails and shipping tapes until an artist I liked wrote an e-mail asking if I’d make their tape.
Is there a significant meaning behind the name Careful Catalog?
Well the name is beyond awful to me at this point. If I think too long about the idea of such a bad name entering the consciousness of even a small group of individuals around the world, I get queasy and my hands reflexively go for the face. I don’t think my remorse is terribly unique, so whatever. It is what it is. At the very least it’s simple and easy to remember.
To answer your question, it doesn’t really stem from any one thing, but ‘care’ is largely there as a reference to Joy Williams’ “Taking Care”. Not explicitly that story, but themes that appeal to me in much of her writing which overlap with other art I’m drawn to: negotiating with nothingness, life’s range of custodial labor, animals, cosmic loneliness, this kind of stuff. The name’s not so bad with this in mind; it’s really the idea that people might think I’m commenting on how selective, fine tuned, or precious what I’m doing is that makes my skin crawl. I guess the word ‘care’ can also be associated with mail in a number of ways.
The three albums you released earlier this year are all similarly minimal, what interests you most about this type of music?
I’d say those three releases are commonly propelled by an intense focus rather than an emphasis on minimalism, which isn’t an area that particularly interests me at all. I think a very limited amount of objects, environments, and actions can be put through the wringer in a way that doesn’t have to fetishize negative space, or assert some preoccupation with purity and longevity. Similarities between the three are also largely coincidental, as I chose to work with them as people at different times before any specific recordings were in mind. With the Takamitsu Ohta CD, I’ve used the term ‘microscopic’ but maybe it’s more helpful to refer to the density of forms seen in a literal slide under a microscope. It’s very complex and alien within something small and plain.
Personally, I feel like the Shots record actually has a remarkable amount of events and activity happening. A lot of moving parts. The style of documentation just doesn’t involve much fishing for sounds. If the recording itself were to be posited as a kind of descriptivist narrator with every second taken at face value and transcribed, each sound is new information in relation to the last which the listener can use to construct a personal map with a varying degrees of accuracy. Seeing three names on the insert could function as similar information, causing speculation surrounding their respective locations and intentions when there’s a gap.
Connor Camburn’s disc could be nearest to a form of minimalism, particularly in his preferred design aesthetic, but the content is continuously evolving and is in service to larger ideas about why something is happening and the role of the individual overseeing it. So for me I’m more drawn to what’s obscured, or what is a challenge to identify in his work, rather than its repetitive nature.
What artists and albums would you say have most impacted your taste?
Without getting into my entire personal music history, which I can’t imagine is interesting to anyone, going through almost everything that was available from the Other Minds Archive and hearing all the programs Charles Amirkhanian produced for KPFA during the ‘70s was hugely educational. I’d listen to pretty much anything on there despite having no clue what a lot of it was. I’d recommend anyone do that now. Check out the one where Charles visits Gelbe Musik.
The Breadwinner was a turning point, for better or worse starting a decade of being arguably too fixated on that whole deal. Mark Schomburg’s work with Yeast Culture and Petri Supply / Incubator is something of an obsession (I have what can only be described as a shrine). Hearing G*Park’s Seismogramm around when the CD reissue happened. Ben Patterson I think about often.
Do you see a lineage between so-called “non-music” artists today and experimental artists of the past?
There’s absolutely a lineage everyone is indebted to. Most of the sound work we’re talking about isn’t new at all and it’s often easy to find something even more transgressive or fucked-up sounding from the ‘60s, especially when technology plays a diminutive role, but I’d wager the difference now is the way people interact with the work and the accessibility for more participants. Idiots like me can find out about things previously restricted to academia very easily. Different kinds of people are free to engage with these concepts who don’t meet the standard qualifications of an artist, much less a musician. So there are different iterations of the same ideas happening from new blood, and it’s all mixed in with various subcultures and histories so ultimately it’s not a total rehash. In America at least, it seems like more people have some background in hardcore than anything, before noise or what came after noise. I spent time with all that stuff but it wasn’t my path necessarily, but as an observer it’s something I’ve noticed. I think traces of all those experiences carry over into a previously restricted area and that’s what feels new about it combined with people sharing obscurities non-stop. It’s a wider, more communicative net for George Brecht’s idea of spiritual virtuosity.
You have a new album coming out from Swedish musician Mattias Gustafsson, what makes him an artist that you wanted to work with?
I’ve admired Mattias’s work since taking note of what was happening in Sweden after finding the iDEAL label at least ten years ago. I’d stocked a good bit of his music directly and from other labels, and he reached out over the summer to propose a recording after expressing that it seemed like I was doing something different and interesting. I suspect the Darksmith drawing in the Shots record sealed the deal. His approach to sound is in my wheelhouse alongside a lot of other artists I like—who work with kind of nasty materials, and using elevated techniques and pacing. He’s great to chat with. We share an interest in Mickey Newbury and cookbooks, among other things.
Is there anything else you'd recommend people check out, be it music or otherwise?
Well in terms of music I’d just suggest people seek out Arek Gulbenkoglu’s CD-R releases if they haven’t already, something I’ve been annoyingly telling everyone for years now. I’ve just started working on a cassette release for him that will be out after Gustafsson’s Frusen Musik and a 7” from a Canadian project called barn sour. Aside from music, I recommend people check out the idea of giving me a job doing literally anything in New York when I’ll be needing an income in January. I’m crafty and have no problem with menial tasks.
Shots is a trio comprised of Dan DiMaggio, John Friberg, and Matthew Friberg. Their recent album, Private Hate, was my clear choice for AOTY. I talked with these “non-music” practitioners about their process, performing live, and the influences that informed their singular LP.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: How did you three start making music together? Were there specific goals or ideas that you had for what the music was supposed to sound like? And are there any artists or albums you were all influenced by that led to what you're making now?
Daniel DiMaggio: We had played together a couple times over the years with like real instruments but started playing more in the Shots style around 2015. We never discussed any aims for what the music would sound like, but were just on the same page as wanting to play quietly I guess. I feel like we're all pretty well-versed in experimental music or whatever but we didn't have any specific influences for the group, it seems kind of like it was a foregone conclusion to play in a generally ‘lowercase’ style and then do different things to imbue it with elements of our personalities. I actually feel that this is really the only style of music that would be honestly fun for me to play. We made a mix for Oath of Janta that is sort of a survey of the kind of music we like.
Matthew Friberg: Jim Roche always inspires me. Part of the most recent NYC show was inspired by lifting my leg while walking around and paying attention to that.
For me, there aren’t any goals or aims with what we do, and I mean that sincerely. That’s not to be taken as yet another approach, like intending to make music without meaning. The not caring comes first.
John Friberg: When we first started it was more of a “little instruments” style sound. But as we kept going we began adding stuff beyond the sound objects or junk or whatever we were using. The environment where the performance was happening was always kind of important, but we started thinking more about how to manipulate the environment itself, or the performance space or wherever we were. Especially in ways where it’s not obvious or it’s overlooked entirely depending on the situation. That goes for both live and recorded stuff.
We’ve also been trying to expand our “materials” as much as possible, in terms of what’s being used to create sound, but also overall in terms of what’s being considered during a performance. So things like body movement, color, spatial stuff, and anything else we think could be useful.
And as we incorporate different things it opens us up to new influences, ideas, artistic practices, etc. So I’d say it kind of evolves over time. But the main thing is that whichever of these materials we decide to use, we do it in a way that sort of cuts through the bullshit. Which is funny because I’m sure there are people who’ve seen us play, who spend lots of time with experimental art, music, etc., who would say that we’re entirely full of shit. But it’s something we try to avoid.
The Nice Weather for War compilation seems to have been an important document for capturing this “non-music” sound as it’s happening today. How did that compilation come about—was Lambkin specifically trying to curate this as a way to document this style of music?
Daniel DiMaggio: We got included on it through our friend Gabi Losoncy, who's also featured, recommending us to Graham. I'm not sure about the aim of the compilation I guess, you'd have to ask Graham. We didn't have much correspondence with him beyond him telling us our track was “just what the doctor ordered.”
Are there any other artists right now that you all feel a kinship to in terms of creating music with similar ideas and motives?
Daniel DiMaggio: I don't know really, I know a lot of people personally whose music I like but I don't know that I feel any artistic kinship with any of them specifically. I'm happy that our record came out on Careful Catalog and I really like the Takamitsu Ohta CD that came out on the label earlier this year.
I'm intrigued by the notion that there are no goals with what Shots tries to accomplish with their music. Given this, would you say you've all still grown as performers of the music you create? Is there a trajectory that you see from your first release, Up Front, to Private Hate in terms of how the music you're making has developed?
Daniel DiMaggio: Yeah, at least for me personally I think the earlier music we recorded was more centered on tactile sound-making with objects. I've progressively felt better about, like, laying back and having tapes, amplification or environmental conditions do more of the work, though there is still a fair amount of ‘playing’ on several of the Private Hate tracks. Sort of parallel with this is how I feel like Matt has developed more physical movement-based stuff that he does when we play, which often makes relatively loud and defined sounds, and I think that's sick since it contrasts with what me and John are doing and also gives some moments more of a focal point, and even at times more of a ‘band’ feel. I feel like this applies to the first cut on Private Hate.
Matthew Friberg: I think that we’ve become able to depend on thinner and thinner threads that connect us during a performance (live or recording session). At the same time, the energy that runs between us through these threads is maybe more powerful or reliable than a few years ago. A definite shift for me has been a move away from improvisation. Most of what I do is pretty strictly choreographed.
John Friberg: I think when we started there were certain unspoken rules on how we interacted with each other that were important to solidifying the sound and intention of Shots. Even with the Kye track, and definitely with parts of the Up Front tape as well, the recordings of “us” included the place where each recording was made. So in some ways the “field recording” perspective makes sense, but contrary to the aim of a lot of field recording, we’re not looking to hide ourselves from the mics. That’s one of the basic differences, among a slew of other ideological and technical considerations that make this different from that. But if when listening to field recordings you can change your perspective of what’s being heard from one of passive documentation to one where the sounds are being performed by a capable entity, then that’s closer to what we do.
For me there’s a really delicate relationship between ourselves and whatever’s “not us” in these performances, with control changing hands back and forth. I think that line of control has also gotten thinner or blurrier over time as we’ve become more comfortable with leading instead of supporting or mimicking the “not us” part.
Can you speak more on the NYC show? Were there any set plans for what the performance would entail or was it improvisatory? What was the reaction like to the performance?
Daniel DiMaggio: I'm really happy with the way our set (and the whole show) turned out. Me and John had practiced playing together, which consisted of setting up and listening to various sound sources which would be going on throughout the performance, and I decided I was gonna stop playing a loud tape halfway through, but we hadn't all played together beforehand. I think our set worked out really well, in a way that kind of exemplified the dynamic I described in the last answer, and that we look cool in the pictures of it. The reaction was very positive, though the lion's share of the audience was our friends and people we know.
Matthew Friberg: I thought it was awesome—it was really cool of Dan G. to set that up. Again, I wouldn’t consider what I do most of the time to be improvisatory. So yes, I planned out the majority of my contribution to that performance: dance and minor banging around with two stones that I’d painted, one blue with white polka dots and one yellow with thin orange stripes. Some other little stuff, too. I taped to the wall this big blue rain poncho and unsuccessfully tried to cover part of my body with it. I purposely positioned myself on the wall so that it wouldn’t work, but the fabric would stay on me for like a second, then I’d “try” again.
Is there anything that Shots has coming up? Anything people should be looking forward to?
Daniel DiMaggio: We are gonna go to Vermont (where Matt lives currently) and play and record there some time in January, and we also have tentative plans to play in Mexico City in early 2020 sometime. I've been feeling more excited about playing again recently. For a while—like since the summer—I felt kind of over experimental music, but now I'm feeling good about it again, possibly ‘cause of the change in weather that happens around this time of year.
Joe Friberg: Aside from the shows that come up, we tend to work on things ourselves for a little while, checking back in with each other periodically. Our overall focus is established to the point where when we do come back together we’re all still on the same page. And we record together as much as we can so that there’s material available in case someone asks. There’s also room for our individual work to be presented as Shots in some cases, which I’m really happy about and would hope to do more with in the future.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album.
Arek Gulbenkoglu - The Reoccurrence (self-released, 2014)
Given Dan Gilmore’s recommendation above, it felt fitting to include Arek Gulbenkoglu’s The Reoccurrence in this issue, but it proved even more apposite after I reflected on my personal relationship with this disc. I don’t have it in my collection anymore (I think I gave it away in an end-of-year raffle to a reader), but I uploaded a FLAC copy to a certain private track upon release. Despite being limited to 77 copies and not being available for sale anywhere, I was able to track down what I can only presume is the copy I ripped (thanks past self). Which is to say: please download the albums in these newsletters and share them for their own preservation.
After revisiting this disc and my initial review of it, what strikes me most is how peculiar it remains. The recorded rustling on “Part 1” feels at once shoddy and voluminous, the shrill tones on “Part 2” have an alien sheen to them, and “Part 9” is a homespun, acousmatic collage. The variety of sounds presented on this album—the low-end rumbling of “Part 7,” the pulsing waves of noise on “Part 5,” the field recording on “Part 3”—are all presented in a “pure” manner. But with how meditative these tracks can feel, there’s still a sense that Gulbenkoglu has done more than just raw presentation of audio: tracks can sound hyperreal, but also playful and humorous in their ostensibly straightforward nature. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Mattea Landry, Sean McCann & Eric Schmid - St. Francis (Recital, 2016)
Throughout the past decade, Sean McCann’s Recital label has been a crucial hub of interesting avant-garde works if only for its archival releases. Contemporary recordings prove just as exciting, which is the case for the overlooked St. Francis collaborative album from McCann, Mattea Landry, and Eric Schmid. It contains an assortment of things: Landry reading aloud biblical text and St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun, McCann singing a Beirut song, piano notes that can be pretty in their flowing melodies or pretty in their ugly dissonance. It’s an album that’s highly personal but moving in unexpected ways; at times, it feels like overhearing the damaged souls of millennial burnouts trying to connect with the Divine.
There are certain moments that stand out for how they bridge the sacred with contemporary living. Schmid states the serenity prayer and follows it with cries to not think about SAIC students, and to create great art. It’s sublime, and repeated again later on to emphasize how this is a common worry and commonly recited prayer. Snatches of DJ Snake & Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” crop up as if to grant the chorus’s lyrics (“I won’t give up nah nah nah/Let me love you”) a newfound spirituality. A ramshackle cover of “Imagine” exists to point to its hackneyed essence, making its intentions feel like something worth considering by those damaged by cynicism. “[God] lives in your nearest neighbor, in every man,” St. Francis once preached. You can sense Landry, McCann, and Schmid trying to find Him somewhere in the noise. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Doug Theriault / Jeph Jerman - No Titles (Foxglove, 2004)
In a previous conversation with Dan Gilmore not presented in this newsletter, he had cited Jeph Jerman & Greg Davis’s Cottonwood, Arizona as a notable influence—its quiet handling of various bits and bobs are precious and beguiling in their simplicity, sounding like an even more bare Wuwei. No Titles, on the other hand, is considerably more active. There’s a liveliness to the piece because it sounds like a muted percussion solo, which should draw in fans of Claire Rousay’s work. Still, there are tracks where things are reduced to quieter, more intimate levels, where Theriault and Jerman’s bustling soundscapes-in-miniature are exciting for the variety of timbres and frenetic arrangements. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Ryoko Akama - Dial 45-21-95 (Another Timbre, 2019)
Press Release info: “Apartment House play a series of works by Ryoko Akama, based on research she conducted at the Kryzstof Kieslowski archive in Poland.”
Matthew Blackwell: In the last scene of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, the protagonist Julie rolls up her completed score, and the soundtrack begins to play as she places her finger on the pertinent staff. We assume the music is non-diegetic, but it may be ultra-diegetic, playing triumphantly but solely in Julie’s head. This moment is all that’s necessary to understand Ryoko Akama’s Dial 45-21-95. We can imagine Akama in Julie’s place, her finger lighting upon Kieslowski’s manuscripts, these tracks erupting in her mind.
The materiality of Kieslowski’s archive is translated through the materiality of Akama's chosen instruments. Violins scrape and moan, clarinets hum and wheeze, pianos plink and tremble. Though the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation that holds the Kieslowski collection is a gleaming modern gallery, the album brings to mind a chamber ensemble tuning up in the stacks of a dusty archive, evoking yellowed manuscript pages and black-and-white photographs. The standout track is “I see everything as a failure,” the (very much relatable) title of which describes more than 13 minutes of despondent haunting from these instruments. The Kieslowski connection makes it easy to see this project in the vein of Eno’s Music for Films, soundtracking an imaginary film from the late director. But it could just as easily soundtrack your own life, lending even mundane moments a melancholic grandeur.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’m reminded of a quote from Kieslowski on Kieslowski: “I try not to tell the actors too much [...] because I know that they simply listen to everything you say [...] and if you tell them too much then they quote you later on [...] [e]verything’s written in the screenplay.” Ryoko Akama’s scores, at times more suggestive and open to interpretation than others, bear a similar confidence. There’s an assuredness in her scores and the performances they can lead to, but also in Apartment House’s ability to imprint individual playing styles and personalities into their recordings. Across the album, tracks feature an effective trick: there’s patient playing and careful consideration for silence, but there’s tension brewing at every moment. It allows for a cohesive listening experience, but also grants these aurally dry songs a peculiar mystique.
Jesse Locke: Ryoko Akama’s Dial 45-21-95 quietly unfolds to fill the air like steam rising from a teakettle. This series of compositions performed by the Apartment House ensemble is based on sketches and manuscripts from the archives of Polish director Krzystof Kieślowski. Like his best-known films, the Three Colors trilogy, Dial’s focus turns our attention to small gestures instead of explosive action. Violin, vibraphones, woodwinds, guitars, piano, and terse cymbal crashes emerge from long, flickering tones, creating a sense of placid calm underpinned with lingering dread. Perhaps the song title “stay in the background” points to Akama following in the tradition of Satie’s furniture music, but she may also be hinting at a dark secret sewn into the seams.
Gil Sansón: A series of plateaus that can be a bit too precious for impatient ears, the music here shows a serene confidence that fits Kieslowski's work quite nicely in terms of subject matter yet avoids the pathos present in most of the Polish master's oeuvre (compared to the music for the films, written by Zbigniew Preisner, that is). The composer clearly knows what she wants in terms of overall shape and harmony, and the dynamic between the freedom of the interpreter and the predetermined aspects of the scores result in elegant music that's quite lively in an understated manner. Each piece has individual character, some seemingly quite simple in structure (“these very people”), others much more layered (“a sense of coming back,” with a recurring structure and assigned individual lines). Akama's previous works have shown a focus on aspects of texture, explorations of objects and noises; here we find the same care in sound placement, with emphasis placed on harmony and melody, showing that Akama can stretch her horizons without compromising the character and personality of her music.
Jonathan Williger: Much of the music on Dial 45-21-95 sits there until it doesn’t, weightless in a field of silence that seems more definitive of the work than the sounds themselves. It is quiet in the same way that Morton Feldman’s music is quiet, which suggests a strange sense of severity and requires intense attentiveness. The timbre of each instrument here becomes a focal point due to the minimal tonal palette, and as I listened I kept coming back to the grainy sound of the bow on the string, the breath moving through the clarinet as it barely vibrates the reed—the very physical nature of the instruments themselves. It is beautiful, but hard to hold onto for very long.
Mark Cutler: A lovely if slightly overlong collection of pieces. The music here is very slow, but seldom feels sparse or distant, as minimalist compositions often can. Akama’s simple, puzzle-like scores give the players enough freedom to find their own rhythms, resulting in pleasing convergences and fleeting wisps of melody. The album includes two realisations of two pieces: “If your tooth hurts, it hurts the same” and “a sense of coming back.” In total, the four tracks account for just under half of the album’s 74-minute runtime. However, to my ears, the second performances do not add significantly to an appreciation of the underlying piece—particularly since they are spaced so far away in the album sequence. But as a single continuous experience, Dial 45-21-95 is a sensuous pleasure.
Raphael Helfand: The tracks on Dial 45-21-95 are islands of sound in a dark sea. Or, as Ryoko Akama puts it, “like you are floating on the ocean […] experiencing the clouds as clouds, as shape, as light, as color, as body, as element.” Even the album’s busiest tracks evoke intense solitude with their sparse, deceptively simple arrangements. Akama’s quiet structures, like clouds, leave room for interpretation. The strings and woodwinds are often played one or two at a time, lingering languorously over each note, punctuated by skittering percussion and brief bursts of piano. In these thin textures, Akama creates eerie two-note harmonies that reach psychic depths a fuller ensemble couldn't.
Eli Schoop: Given that Ryoko Akama has based Dial 45-21-95 on a director of particularly introspective cinema, it shouldn't come as a surprise that her new album deals with the personal. There's an unspoken loudness in emotion that permeates her compositions, emanating from the woodwinds and brass that battle for clarity. Akama and her players manifest the small actions in daily life, with each instrument articulating a certain motion and feeling, understanding how what we do day by day compounds on itself.
Tomás Cabado: While the track titles have a Kieslowskian feel to them—“I'm just so-so” even bears a similar title to that of a ‘95 documentary on the director—how he is otherwise present in these compositions is a mystery. I gave up trying to hear him evoked, since evocation is more related to a romantic view of art and poetics. This position could be matched with Akama's explanation that her creative practices involve “just want[ing] to make music.” Akama knows that this stance is problematic: it “has become such a baffling thing to say,” she mentions in an interview. Her approach to music poses a tension (although one that I can't tell is productive) with the will to dialogue with an external reference: another artist. It differs from how experimental music is often associated with works on some level of sound-as-phenomenon (Tenney, Lucier), of experience (Oliveros), an ontology (Beuger), or history (Frey) that leaves little room for evocation as a function of a pure music.
The “form” of the album, in its titles and its music, is adorable: references to the “Kieslowski world” unfold in these titles (“If your tooth hurts, it hurts the same,” “stay in the background,” “I see everything as a failure”), and shorter compositions are inserted as casual objects—a descriptor that one wouldn’t use to describe the director’s films. Apartment House is an excellent ensemble, and their execution has a feeling of precision that makes me wonder what Akama has written, taking into account her previous music, which has a more casual veneer. Seeing two of these scores, I perceive that the ensemble’s presence in these recordings exceed the stripped appearance of Akama’s notations: “only music” emerges, still different from the work, and still distinct from Kieslowski.
Oskari Tuure: That Ryoko Akama conducted research at the Krzysztof Kieslowski archives for this album might make one think of Zbigniew Preisner, who scored most of Kieslowski's cinema, but the music here sounds nothing like his. While Preisner's compositions had a certain pop appeal to them, Akama’s are much more abstract and cryptic, reminiscent of the uncertain atmosphere in Kieslowski's more enigmatic scenes in a way that's hard to quantify. This general air of mystery is only reinforced by some of these compositions’ scores: simple pencil graphics and notes that reveal Akama's unorthodox approach towards writing music.
There are a lot of (positively) unconventional harmonies on the album, especially on both versions of “a sense of coming back,” but timbrally Dial 45-21-95 sounds stripped-down and plain. The artist's decision to specifically focus on pitch is quite evident. Regrettably, this does not translate to very engaging compositions, as most tracks meander aimlessly. Ending the album with two alternative versions of previous tracks is a miscalculation on a record so sorely lacking in memorable moments; these last fifteen minutes don't provide the listener with anything that they haven't already heard. The highlight of Dial 45-21-95 is the tranquil piano melody on the short “I'm just so-so,” the record’s most straightforward piece.
Jeff Brown: Dial 45-21-95 is minimal but complex, like watching a time-lapsed video of a cloud rolling across the sky or a spider making a web. Each piece utilizes silence with confidence and natural placement, which is a testament to Ryoko Akama’s writing and Apartment House’s performance. The album overall has subdued and sparse playing, but there’s intent and purpose to every note. “I see everything as a failure” builds intensity to reach powerful harmonies before breaking away to silence. The piece “I'm just so-so” expresses self-doubt and melancholy with alto flute, violin, and piano. The piano sustains the occasional note, like a lingering thought weighing heavy on the mind. Meanwhile, the alto flute and violin play somberly—there’s soft breathing and slow bowing, the latter of which sounds like a struggle to create friction with the strings. Dial 45-21-95 can be seen as a soundtrack not just to a film but to everyday life, highlighting the simple beauty of a person’s day.
Evan Welsh: Defined by subtlety and sparseness, Ryoko Akama’s scores leave interpretive space for both the listener and performer, making Dial 45-21-95 a variable music experience that will shrink and swell in impact upon revisits. An incredible amount of air is built into these compositions, and “I’m just so-so” is the best example: a Satie-esque, minimalist piano exercise whose gentle creaks and woodwinds stay in the background.
Even on the two most immediately engaging tracks—the gradually expanding “these very people”; and “I see everything as a failure,” with its discordant piano strikes, hissing flutes, and ticking percussion creating an eerie atmosphere—there’s enough room for listeners to bring themselves and their surroundings into each piece. The specific circumstances of anyone approaching Dial 45-21-95 and the minutiae of those spaces will affect how one experiences Akama’s compositions. The tones and soundscapes of the album, in a fairly brilliant manner, don’t overwhelm listeners as much as accompany them and emphasize their own feelings.
Marshall Gu: In an interview, Ryoko Akama talks of being inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowski's films because they succeed in capturing "everyday lives," so it's apt the track titles on Dial 45-21-95 feature common but unspoken thoughts. The music follows suit: we hear the creaking of old wood and the constant hum of droning strings, to more poignant examples like the odd metallic gurgle on "stay in the background" and the ambiguous whistle-scream on "I see everything as a failure," all of which create an atmosphere of anxiety. Ultimately, Dial is a little too spare, and contains a few miniatures that add little to the rest of the album. I also wish there was more than one moment of tender respite beyond "I'm just so-so," whose delicate piano chords recall the first half of Sigur Rós's "Fjögur Píanó." And even within "I'm just so-so" are those same anxieties; this time it’s in the empty space between the notes that end up being the loudest part of the song, so loud that you can hear the piano pedals.
Jesse Dorris: These expanses of suspended notes, mostly on their own or suddenly but temporarily coupled, sound domestic. “Stay in the background” suspends vibraphone and wind instruments in the air like stripes of sunlight through the shades, beneath creaking strings echoing like an overheated radiator. Two versions of “a sense of coming back” fidget amiably, with fingers drumming across guitar strings as if they were coffee tables. Maybe it’s just a muscle memory trick—the almost-chords of “I’m just so-so” brought the Cure’s “Homesick” to my ears—or a linguistic prompt via the ensemble’s name, Apartment House. But these performances of Akama’s subtle scores feel both lived-in and livable, and as with any interior there are hints of danger within the comfort: the longest track, gorgeous and settled into its 13+ minutes, houses a noise resembling a tea kettle whistle or a death rattle or a strange orgasm, depending on one’s mood. It haunts long after the music’s over. It’s called “I see everything as a failure.” At home, don’t I just.
Tara Wrist: It's not difficult for me to hear how Krystof Kieszlowski's life and work could inspire Ryoko Akama's new collaborative effort with Apartment House; the material feels pensive, careful, and attentive, like the director's own films and his presence in interviews and archival footage. What feels lacking for lengthy stretches of Dial 45-21-95 is an emotive tension to animate the long, drawn-out passages of momentous observation that characterize Apartment House's performances. The instruments feel like cameras in the hands of their performers: each choice is taken in response to Akama's typically suggestive-not-definitive scores, much like a director reconsidering a moment in the shooting script, realizing that the depths of humanity in front of him will sing out more precisely if he waits for them to draw themselves out completely.
Unfortunately, though I've tried, I can't find anyone in front of these “cameras” being filmed except myself. Perhaps that's the point. While listening to “I'm just so-so” and trying to collect my thoughts, I sighed, stood away from my computer, and leaned against the window frame, opening the window to let the cool night air inside. I stood there watching the sky dim and the streets fill with patches of light as behind me the whole performance played through to its end. For a moment I felt an emotion utterly alien to a human heart, but very much like something I'd feel framed by a movie camera: like I completely understood my place in the world. But no one called “cut!” to end the scene, and the moment passed.
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