Kazuo Imai ambles through the audience to his chair, shedding a winter jacket and vest and a layer of clothing before setting to work. With his woolly grey hair and bow-legged gait the legendary improviser seems more like some kind of cosmic fisherman than an avant-garde musician. Perhaps in Japan this is one and the same thing? Before him on the wooden floor a few implements – wire, blocks of wood, pieces of red and blue cloth, a chain and one acoustic guitar.
Such is the near absurdity and mystery of an occasion like this, Imai’s momentary tune-up has people edging forward on their seats, uncertain if the performance has begun. A definite pause makes it clear this is not the case. But when Imai does begin, it seems much the same as before during his tune-up. From there things begin to intensify, with Imai at various times seated in his chair or on the floor, applying tools to his guitar strings and riffing off the sounds this creates, or simply playing the guitar itself with a ferocious or fragmenting energy.
It is hard to escape thoughts of when a child picks up an acoustic guitar with no idea how to play it, and simply begins making sounds with every part of the instrument. An ecstasy almost all of us have traces of in our memory banks.
Imai appears to cultivate this untrained freedom to a much higher level. He offers skilled, barely recognisable glimpses – I’m tempted to say ‘samples’ – of flamenco, Delta blues, gypsy music, and classical playing, and Eastern sounds suggestive of the Japanese koto. The latter instrument was formed to mimic the shell and the stomach of a dragon. Imai is like this on his acoustic guitar, all shell and stomach, eating many things, a modern-day dragon brewing his fire out of barely recognisable elements that collapse into his purpose.
What follows is a list of rolling impressions formed immediately in response to the music as Imai plays on his guitar. Pieces of thought, metaphorical wood to burn…
Notes on Piece #1
Lattice tune up
Claw frenzy acoustic
Guts into wood
Guitar of dots
Speed lead abruptions
Tim Buckley flamenco
Rag on strings
Remnant blues, ghost America
Notes on Piece #2
Django finger break
Language of stars, cold
Rain water enters a cup
Too many headlights
Branch breaks in wild wind
Storm through a window
Notes on Piece #3
Child’s toy turning
Tension lives with joy
Kazuo Imai bows.
Wipes his face with dark blue hand towel.
Places cloth over his head. Covers his face in shadow.
Artist: Kazuo Imai, leader of the legendary Japanese free music quartet Marginal Consort. Playing solo on acoustic guitar this evening.
Tools: Classical acoustic guitar with nylon strings, violin bow, pieces of cloth, one strand of wire, two square blocks of wood, neck chain, metal clasp, wooden pipes or wind chimes, xylophone mallets.
Sound: Matt McGuigan, Hospital Hill.
Venue: The People’s Republic, a warehouse venue and private home dedicated to monthly experimental music performances and underground readings. Its website slogan: “For the people, by the people”. Invitation to shows are via a closed email list only. Performances take place in a large lounge-room space seating up to 80 people, with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling book cases, artworks and an interior fish pond. Entry is by donation in a glass jar –with all monies going directly to the artist. Hosts and curators: Nick Shimmin and Corinne Vernizeau.
Background: Kazuo Imai requested the opportunity to play solo prior to his group Marginal Consort’s performance at Carriageworks on the coming Friday night. Founded by Imai in 1997, Marginal Consort are a renowned avant-garde musical collective who usually play just once a year. Rarity of appearances and ritual focus makes them one of the more featured items on Lawrence English’s 2019 Open Frame/Room 40 weekend event at Carriageworks, “an annual festival of transgressive sound… a project of contrast and aural spectra.” Marginal Consort’s members were students of the composer and violinist, Takehisa Kosugi, who was a contemporary of fellow experimental composers like John Cage, and similarly interested in drones and deconstruction with a distinct Japanese flavour. English musician and musicologist Julian Cope once described a musical work of Kosugi’s as “reminiscent of the creaking rigging of the unmanned Mary Celeste”. After graduating from Kosugi’s Bigaku School of Aesthetics in 1976, the students who would eventually form Marginal Consort independently established themselves as significant figures in the Japanese underground music scene, with Kazuo Imai most notable among them for his performances on guitar and viola de gamba. Imai also studied under the noise musician and free jazz improviser Masayuki Takayanagi, described by Neu Guitars as “one of those extreme mavericks who combined virtuoso playing and extreme grasp of musical theory with radically atonal freerock amp destruction.” Tellingly, he was the only student of Takayanagi’s to ever graduate.
Proposition: Respond to the improvised playing of Kazuo Imai with associated lines of thought, images, sounds and words, as suggested by his music as it is happening. Putting these ‘associated words’ on to a woodcut print, partially sanded and scratched, punished then polished, might better parallel the roughness and erasure that Imai makes use of as playing and compositional techniques. His raw yet considered approaches resulted in a meditative, stressed, oddly shining performance tonight. Can formal criticism approach this or must the structure of criticism bend with his approach?
Kazuo Imai appears with the Marginal Consort collective at Lawrence English’s 2019 Open Frame/Room 40 event at Carriageworks, this Friday, 14.06.2019. Details here.