Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Notes on Tatsuya Nakatani show

Tatsuya Nakatani played at Downtown Pres last night (thanks to Dave Caperton for use of the photo below). I've heard Tatsuya at least a couple of times now, most recently maybe a year ago, playing solo both times. I don't always get to hear people multiple times, so when I do I'm struck by how different the experience can be. That experience of difference raises a bunch of questions. How different are the performances? Am I just latching onto different aspects to listen to? I have some serious selective hearing. I will always listen to horn players in an ensemble and have to make an act of will to hear the drummer. Do I get smarter? Am I hearing more each time around?

I have had a strong experience of performance differences listening to Susan Alcorn, but I follow her music closely enough and know her well enough to know that at different times and in different performance contexts she works with very different material. My ears and brain are not playing tricks on me. Last week I was listening to a recording she's done of People Get Ready. It works so differently there as a stand-alone track than when I've heard her play it in concert as the second part of a diptych with Twin Beams, one of her compositions (I think I'm remembering that right). And each time she puts different things into the song.

As for Tatsuya's show on Friday, the first thing to note is that it was in the church's acoustically very sensitive chapel. The previous show was in Zeitgeist gallery, which is a converted retail space, not a listening room. Everything rings in the chapel. As I recall, both shows had a similar general structure, starting and ending with a large gong which he bowed on the edges and struck with a big soft mallet. At the DPC show, he ended with ever subtler strikes from the mallet, just brushing it at the end, but in that room you could hear the vibrations. At the end you heard everything--the smallest sounds from Tatsuya's instruments, then the flourescents, the building's HVAC system, who knows what from the street and buildings around. All through the show, everything seemed clear and available to the ears, so some of the difference in the concerts could come from what one was physically able to hear--maybe it was all there both times.

In this set, the presence of melody and harmony stood out. Some of this is inherent in Tatsuya's method. He doesn't use sticks too much--much more depends on bows, scraping things across drum heads, rubbing a kitchen whisk around on things. My sense is that when a percussionist uses sticks, it puts emphasis on the attacks and their sequence and timing. These other methods of drawing sound out of the kit give some sounds more sustain and draw attention to pitch and timbre. All of that is always there, but for me can get lost in the energy of rhythm.

Tatsuya uses a smaller drum, maybe a floor tom or marching band tom, in place of a bass drum. He strikes it with a pedal, but it produces a more structured sound, defined by high overtones not just a thud. Between the structure of the sound and the way he plays the foot pedal, it registers a distinct bass foundation pitch that worked like pedal point note on which other notes piled up to form harmonies. The clarity of that pedal point pitch is one of those things that maybe I just didn't pay attention to last time, or it didn't ring as clearly in Zeitgeist.

He also uses a set of pitched metal bowls to provide lots of melodic content. He bows their edge or taps them. And one of the best parts for me was a four or five note melody or scale he got by bowing the edge of a smaller gong. Harmony and melody seemed to be everywhere in this performance.

A critical dimension of a solo improvisation is to tie ideas and events together and provide connective tissue for doing so. Tatsuya starts with the mallet and bows on a large gong set up behind the rest of his kit. He works with these sounds for a while, but at some point he will want to transition over to the rest of the material he has. Musically he needs to let the material with the large gong evolve but can't stay there forever. Musically he needs a way to move on to new ideas, and technically he needs a way to move to the next thing physically. In his case this involves continuing to use one hand to make sound on the large gong, but to take his other hand and bow the smaller gong (I think) which is positioned in with his other equipment. Once he gets some sound on that going and established as a musical motive, he can shift himself physically to a position at the kit and start using a whole new set of tools to make sound.

I bring this up because these transitions are one of the hardest things about performing solo, no matter your instrument. On saxophone you work into a musical idea, but then you need to build a bridge to the next thing you want to do, and it's really easy for that transition to feel choppy or unintentionally abrupt. In some cases, you just need to be faster. John Zorn built a whole aesthetic around lightening fast quick cuts back and forth. In other cases you need to find things that can morph into something else or form a bridge that might mark a little time, like white space on a page of poetry. In the case of a percussionist, so much more of this technique is shown visually.

The other thing about Tatsuya's performance is that you can see the refutation of any argument that the sequence of sounds is random. Part of Tatsuya's task in constructing these performances is to provide himself with connective tissue--sounds that he can repeat or which ring through to give him a bridge to get ready for the next thing. He positions a bunch of cymbals on the floor to the right of his floor tom. At times he will set up a pattern that he can continue with his left hand--say running a metal bowl around the edge of the tom so it clicks and rings on the keys around the head. While he's doing that he'll reach down to the floor, and sort through the cymbals to select the one he's looking for, and pull that up and start working with it. He rarely seems to be grabbing the first thing he gets his hand on.

This point may not be necessary. It's certainly not needed for anyone who has made a commitment to this music and pays attention to it. I may still be fighting wars of 30 years ago when people would say Free Jazz guys were playing completely random notes. That seemed to be a prevalent attitude then. I'm not sure it still is today. It's not an argument I think about or have so often any more, but that may be a function of my participation in general social atomization. Maybe I'm less likely to actually talk to someone about our different aesthetic preferences and experiences.