Minamo: Unclassifiable Classposted on January 30th, 2009 by Alyssa Timin
At first glance, classical music and improvisation may seem to make strange bedfellows. Indeed, in the 1960s, composers brought them together almost by force. Earle Brown, for one, describes his work from that time as “secretly” exploring why classical musicians could not improvise.
This weekend at Peak Peformances, Minamo brilliantly demonstrates how much has changed since the days of Brown’s guerilla tactics. Violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist Satoko Fujii, both trained as classical musicians, team up to play a fully improvised concert on January 31st. There are no plans, no parameters—there is simply a connection.
This connection revealed itself the first time Kihlstedt and Fujii played together. Kihlstedt says, “The ROVA Saxophone Quartet actually first put us together for their 25th-anniversary concerts in San Francisco a few years ago. We had quite literally never played together until we hit the stage, and there was an instantaneous connection that was utterly exhilarating for both of us.” A recording of that performance, she adds, became the cornerstone of the duo’s debut album, Minamo, released in 2007 on Henceforth Records.
A review of the album published on the blog Free Jazz concludes, “This music will not appeal to all jazz fans, because it isn’t jazz, but it’s great music.” Not only is the music on Minamo not jazz, it is not anything else either. It is “unclassifiable”—one imagines iTunes throwing up its hands in defeat.
Yet it is wrong to assume that what Kihlstedt and Fujii create together is impenetrable, unlistenable, or bizarre. Undeniably, they do not shy from dissonance nor from extended techniques (Fujii enjoys playing inside the piano); insofar as what they improvise is classical music, it is decidedly contemporary classical. The sound-world of Minamo bears the mark of Ligeti and Crumb—attenuated to timbre, containing fragments of rhythm and bursts of energy, and eager to defy the ear’s expectations. Still, beauty and emotion emerge frequently in Kihlstedt and Fujii’s abstract, sometimes eerie acoustic landscape. Far from alienating listeners, the music offers a welcoming embrace.
The duo’s omnivorous technique accounts to some extent for their inability to be classified. More important, however, is their ineffable connection. Kihlstedt notes, “With [Fujii], what emerges when we improvise is so specific and articulated and dramatic that it might just all fall apart if we were to try to impose premeditated compositions onto it. We…just walk out and play and let [the music] unfold as it will.” This nets-down approach raises a significant challenge. “We really have to make a commitment to stay focused,” the violinist observes, “but also we have to have a wide enough sense of peripheral vision (peripheral audition) to be ready for surprises and hairpin turns. It really is quite an exciting ride.”
Such insistence on pure, spontaneous exchange makes Minamo special, and specially different from what a label like “experimental” could capture. To borrow a nonmusical term, the music of Minamo might be properly called “inter-subjective.” Kihlstedt and Fujii lead entirely independent musical careers, mostly on separate continents. Kihlstedt lives on the West Coast, playing in the avant-folk ensemble 2 Foot Yard, the folk-jazz trio Tin Hat, a rock band called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and the world group Charming Hostess. Fujii divides her time between Tokyo and New York, performing with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, her own trio, and big bands (one each in Japan and the United States), as well as many other groups. Remarkably, Fujii has released 40 CDs as leader or co-leader since 1996. While she describes herself as a jazz musician, the pianist also incorporates Japanese folk traditions into her playing. Both Kihlstedt and Fujii also compose their own music.
Their different backgrounds and professional trajectories make Kihlstedt and Fujii’s instantaneous connection even more striking. Such a pleasant surprise rewards the performers as much as the listeners. “Since we live thousands of miles away from one another,” Kihlstedt remarks, the collaborations are “an infrequent pleasure that we look forward to every time.”
Alyssa Timin is a freelance writer living in New York. Her art and music writing has appeared in the annual magazine of the Philadelphia Music Project, Finnish Music Quarterly, New Music Box, Visual Arts Journal, Artsline, and Sequenza 21.