Stuart + Akama

Greg Stuart + Ryoko Akama, Stuart bowing a percussion instrument in room, Akama making recording in forest

kotoba koukan

American percussionist Greg Stuart first came to my attention through his close collaborations with Michael Pisaro, particularly on the expansive “Continuum Unbound”, and later through his work as one third of percussion trio Meridian. Ryoko Akama’s quietly beautiful compositions for Cristián Alvear (including the recently-reviewed “Hermit”) and her synth playing for Ensemble Grizzana on their recording of works by Jürg Frey marked her out as a composer and performer to listen out for. Their first collaborative release is entitled “kotoba koukan”, or “language exchange” in Akama’s native Japanese, and comes courtesy of Mexico’s Lengua de Lava label, the name of which means “Lava Tongue” or “Lava Language” in Spanish. Lots of language and translation all round then.

First piece ‘e.a.c.d’ combines thrumming, churning noise (most likely led by Stuart) with single hanging piano notes and chords (probably from Akama). The intensity and clarity of the piano remains consistent, while the noise varies greatly in texture and dynamics. To my ears, the faithful, stable recurrence of the traditional pitched instrument takes on a reassuring, steadfast presence in the face of a constant sonic turmoil, forming vertical checkpoints of specificity amid a horizontal atmosphere shifting between thick fog and fine mist. ‘’ presents a sparse, desolate terrain buffeted by faint gusts of wind and high-pitched, synthesised tones; the atmosphere here is quiet and compelling, offering a different sort of heaviness compared with the hazy roar of the preceding track.

The manipulation of various unidentifiable objects in an open room forms the basis of ‘border ballad’, creating a sound space reminiscent of work by Devin DiSanto or Rie Nakajima and David Toop. The miscellaneous scratches, shuffles, whines, and expirations of air create an impression of busyness and clutter quite different from anything I’ve heard from either of these musicians before. Final piece ‘fadeinout’ is in a way a sort of mirroring of the first, with a low synth hum taking the horizontal line and a recurring mallet percussion note providing vertical interruptions, though the structure unfolds very differently. The music gathers steam until it’s throbbing along nicely; after reaching a peak, the energy slowly begins to dissipate, and the percussion note becomes lost as the eclipse of silence begins to wane. Eventually the piece fades away to a whisper, completing the instruction contained in its title.

“kotoba koukan” is quite different from anything I’ve previously heard from either Stuart or Akama. It’s full of attractively rich, round timbres and textures, but they are arranged with such simplicity and calm that the overall effect is more like an atmospheric or solar phenomenon than an overly gilded architecture of affect. Adjusting to the climate of this music is a pleasurable experience, direct and bracing enough to clean the dust of routine from the senses. In his interpretations of work by Pisaro, Stuart has played a major role in blurring the boundaries between two current strands of music — namely ‘quiet’ or ‘silent’ music and noise — and this release pushes this distinction further towards collapse. The precision and specificity for which Akama is known gives vital shape and form to this collapse; between the two of them, the duo have created a beautiful and compelling album.

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