The British COVID-19 pandemic experience, while perhaps not as caustic and chaotic as some other places, has been defined by directionlessness, ambiguity, and serious uncertainty, especially for the arts. Venues across the country have had to try to find a way to avoid closing their doors for good, including vital hubs for London’s experimental scene, such as Café Oto. In addition to streamed fundraiser events and charity auctions of experimental music memorabilia, the venue has been steadily releasing a series of homemade lockdown recordings under the label Takuroku, which they began this past May. Tackling the financial uncertainty from the inability to present concerts and the inability of artists to perform, proceeds from releases on Takuroku are split equally between Café Oto and the artist themself. The result has been a vibrant history of the sound art made in the last half-year and a testament to the ingenuity of the scene for finding a solution that not only preserves, but nourishes and stimulates.
The audience for such a vital collection can never be too big, and in order to provide a sense of what is available on Takuroku I have reviewed a handful of entries that I have found particularly enjoyable and interesting. Competitions being for horses, and the scale of the catalogue being what it is, I stress that this is by no means a “best of”, simply some of my own highlights that I feel give a good picture of what the catalogue has to offer — if it were practical or sane to attempt to review all of the hundred-odd entries, I probably would. I have also tried to present a chronological cross-section that includes early as well as recent entries, though new recordings are added at such a rate that any attempt at that gets out of date rather quickly!
For the UK, there is currently no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic. So it is fitting, then, that there also appears to be no end in sight for Takuroku. Each week seems to bring with it announcements of new, alluring releases, and while we gear up for performances to start happening again, it has been a rare comfort to rely on Café Oto and the contributing artists to continue producing exciting new music and to provide evidence that the scene lives on in times of adversity.
Malvern Brume opens the catalogue with Gaps in the persistent hiss, a twenty-minute unfurling of a dark panoply of synth textures, field recordings, and DIY instruments. We rarely know what exactly we’re listening to, and where exactly we’re going, but each section is drenched in the kind of tension and paranoia that could only have come from March/April 2020. Listening to the record feels like listening to a prophecy of the worst possible outcome of the times we’re living through, as if the detritus of a collapsed society has been projected from the future’s last working radio transmitter. In a good way!
As we move through this collage we find it punctuated and intervened upon by two quasi-intelligible spoken interludes, poems that paint stark images of scheming animals and nature taking hold. These poems were written during walks through London’s Victoria Park, also the location of the nature recordings; while local walks might normally seem a banal source of artistic inspiration, here Malvern Brume has evoked perhaps the unifying national experience from the height of British lockdown, that of going for a walk once a day as the only government-sanctioned reason to leave the house. This policed, uncomfortable picture of the outside combined with the brooding, anxious picture of the inside makes Gaps feel like something of a time capsule even only six months later.
Being a sucker for no-input mixing boards, I was excited to see a submission from Toshimaru Nakamura. Having worked with the instrument since the mid-90s as a stalwart of the Tokyo onkyo scene, Nakamura is a pioneer in the field, and for twenty years he has been releasing a series of numbered “nimbs” — solo no-input mixing improvisations that offer an approachable gateway to the possibilities of the practice. Nimb #62 is no exception, and while we all wait for the return of live no-input performances, this (and his back-catalogue) will do nicely.
No-input mixing involves routing the output of a mixer to its input, and sculpting the sounds that arise from the innate properties of the hardware itself. There is an attractive purity to the concept, to drawing something inarguably organic out of the artificial, summoning the “ghosts in the machine.” The nature of no-input mixing being built upon feedback means there is a constant fragility to the sound, a sense that, under less experienced hands, the signal could easily spin out of control and pop out your eardrums. No such risk with Nakamura of course; Nimb #62 moves through a number of moods and textures but there is always a feeling that his hand is safely on the wheel. What results has a restrained and at times even serene character that you can’t help but think should be impossible with such a chaotic medium, and serves as a great introduction to the genre.
It is perhaps all we can do to try and make the most of the lockdown and the general disruption of society, and for musicians this might mean there’s time to revisit projects left on the backburner. THGIE DRSOW is a record that might not have been made if life had been allowed to continue as normal. Tatsuya Yoshida and Makoto Kawabata’s manic, ecstatic jaunt of an album started life as a collection of loops made by Kawabata in 2017 while the two of them worked with Richard Pinhas on Bam Balam, intended to be used but ultimately left on the cutting room floor until now. Across eight mind-melting tracks, the material has been reclaimed, fleshed out, and revved up. Keys shriek from beneath visceral drums and howling guitars; all dials are cranked to 11 for the majority of the album, with the exception of the fifth track VEIF (i.e. FIVE; it took me longer than it should have to notice the anagrammatic titles) where there is a feeling of coming up briefly for air, before the maelstrom is spun up again for the album’s climax.
Anton Lukoszevieze has forged an impactful career in experimental music and the arts in general, principally as a cellist, and is possibly best known as the boss of Apartment House, one of the most prominent and influential ensembles in British new music and a Café Oto regular. On Word Origins, Lukoszevieze has allowed us into his home for a series of solo improvisations that feel both intimate and vibrant. By setting himself the premise of sitting down with his instrument at the same time every evening and recording whatever happens, there is a guarantee of exciting, unexpected, and profound results.
Each of the eleven improvisations are given evocative, semantically searching titles derived from Ted Berrigan’s seminal Sonnets. The significance of these poems is incidental, but crucial; they happen to be what Anton was reading at the time of the album’s recording, and he cites an importance also to the paintings he was making at the time in the formation of his approach and mentality around these pieces. Word Origins is, then, like an artistic snapshot of a personal lockdown experience, with Lukoszevieze internalising the immediate ingredients of his environment, the place and frame of mind that lockdown has landed him in, and laying it out for the listener. It is a real joy to listen to such a raw and direct manifestation of his performance practice.
The rise of hauntology as an important concept in art and music — the evoking of real or imaginary pasts as an aesthetic pursuit — is perhaps no surprise given the world we have inhabited for the last few years, and especially these recent months. Such is the case for Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb’s beguiling, eerie Viola Torros project that takes as its starting point speculations about the work of composer Viola Torros, the shadows and hints of whom can be felt and found throughout the world of antiquity. The pair build on what little is understood about her and her work, finding ways to make sense of esoteric performance materials and a broad geographical provenance.
In the Preliminary Study this takes the form of a slowly shifting, droning meditation for a pair of violas. Catherine Lamb’s sensitivity and mastery of subtle, deliberate changes of intonation is well-employed, and the gradual ebb and flow of the two players is almost trance-inducing. Both haunting and hauntological, the Viola Torros Project presents a fascinating means of working and creating. Chang and Lamb’s contribution to Takuroku follows a more substantial release on the Another Timbre label in 2019, which is also well worth a listen.
The prolific and versatile Lisa Ullén brings to Takuroku a raw and raucous performance that offers an engaging entry point into her wider work and aesthetic. Ullén brings a freshness and vigor to prepared piano improvisation over a twenty-minute tempest of texture, harmony, and timbre, recorded at her home in Stockholm. Gold is a compelling demonstration of the possibilities of a minimal recording setup. This has been a reality for much of the recording that has been done this year, and it is by no means always a disadvantage. Even with only a handheld recorder, Ullén is able to plunge the listener into a swirling mass of buzzing strings and frenzied chords, and project a soundworld of rich diversity and nuance that reveals something new with each listen. You can’t help but feel that a sophisticated multitrack studio arrangement would take away some intangible quality from the music being produced, that the guttural immediacy of the material is strengthened by this DIY approach to production.
Paper Birch is a project devised by two artists who have never met in person, completed remotely from opposite ends of Britain. Between May and June Fergus Lawrie of Glasgow and Dee Sada of London exchanged ideas, words, and music, and crafted an album from their homes that speaks to their shared experiences despite distance. Like a Postal Service for the lockdown era, what emerges from this collaboration is a doomy and atmospheric record dominated by ethereal vocals, droning guitars, and sneakily poppy sensibilities. This is the entry on the list most likely to get stuck in your head, particularly the shoegazey opener Summer Daze.
The pair describe MORNINGHAIRWATER as the product of “mutual feelings of despair, fragility, and hope,” and the half hour of weirded rock sinks the listener into a bed of these feelings. The album’s brooding centerpiece, Hide, seems to encapsulate this combination of moods the best — the repeated lyric “I can’t escape from this house,” set against an almost euphoric backdrop of swirling guitars and synthy drums, paints an all-too-familiar picture of trying to find solace in global isolation.
The Telepathic Lockdown Tapes takes the format of MORNINGHAIRWATER and brings it a step further into the abstract. Rather than a project established during lockdown and for Takuroku, The Quiet Club is an Irish duo who have been performing together for over a decade. With the outbreak of the pandemic they found themselves separated from each other but keen to continue working which, for improvisers, presents a problem. Their solution was what they dubbed “telepathic listening;” performing together, at the same time, in their own studios — unable to hear what the other is doing — and combining the recordings as-is to form a single work.
Robbed of the ability to listen to each other and to interact musically in physical space, the resulting recording is a testament to what Takuroku is about and what it can mean to produce art in a time of pandemic and isolation. As sparse textures of found sounds and eerie electronics evolve and intermingle, you can’t help but be convinced that the telepathy has worked, that the two improvisations are truly one; it is impossible for the listener (or for me, at least) to discern which streams of sound come from which collaborator.