The Sealed Knot - Surface / Plane (2001)

Now that all of you have finally trawled the depths of that amazing Vajra album, we can move on. So. Aside from a Royalist association during the English interregnum in the 1650s, The Sealed Knot is also the improvising trio of Burkhard Beins (rubbed percussion), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Mark Wastell (who was still playing the cello in those days). 'Surface / Plane' was their first CD (released in 2001 on Jon Morgan's now defunct Meniscus label, I think this was the label's last release actually) aside from a very hard to find untitled CDR on Confront one year earlier (hey, anyone like to make a guest post of that?). More recent albums were again on Confront and most recently on Another Timbre. When this one was released, it was considered a part of the New London Silence, but nobody uses that term anymore. Let's just call it eai and be done with it. All three players have earned their credentials in this area, Beins in Polwechsel, Phosphor, SLW, Trio Sowari, Activity Center etc., Davies also in SLW and furthermore in Broken Consort, Ist, Cranc, London Improvisers Orchestra, Assumed Possibilities etc., and Wastell in Assumed Possibilities and Broken Consort as well, oh and also in Ist and London Improvisers Orchestra, and furthermore in Quatuor Accorde, The Scotch of St. James, Belaska, Oceans of Silver & Blood, etc etc... If these guys are all so prolific, how come nobody has heard of them? We'll leave that question for another time. For now, enjoy these hushed explorations (in the words of Jason Bivins: 'the slow hissing or whining, the sudden rustles or thwacks, the delicate pizzicato like tiny droplets on the still surface of a pond'), and check out some of the other work these guys have done.


Vajra - Mandala Cat Last (2002)

One of my favourite albums of all time, this: the 5th (not counting that 3") and by far the best album by Japanese supergroup Vajra (跋折羅), the mighty trio of hoarse acid folk troubadour Kan Mikami on vocals and guitar (三上寛), the uncategorizable but instantly recognizable percussion of long-time Kazuki Tomokawa associate Toshiaki Ishizuka (石塚俊明), and last but not least - Keiji Haino (灰野敬二)! (What? He needs no warm-up talk, he's freaking Keiji Haino!)
This 2002 release (on P.S.F., like all Vajra albums) is usually referred to as 'Mandala Cat Last', though that's actually a fusion of the Japanese title (Mandalaキ・『やっと』 - 'Mandala ki - yatto') and the English one ('Cat Last'), both of them for reasons unfathomable to me (and probably you) making the same awkward pun (yatto is Japanese for 'at last'). But enough of that, on to the music.
Vajra is a very unstable but thrilling mix of three masters, a cocktail of psychedelic rock, hypnotic blues, unhinged improv jamming, folk and traditional Japanese song forms all twisted and mangled, feedback noise and ululations - basically all the great skills that the members of the group have perfected over several decades each crashing head-first into each other. Are you excited? You should be. The third track here is probably one of my top 3 favourite songs of all time - every bit as spine-chilling the 100th time you hear it as it was the first. When the first one takes flight, you hope it will never end. The fourth one is a very simple yet moving a cappella take on an obscure Mikami song, コップは壊れるだろう ('Koppu wa kowareru darō', 'The Cup Will Break'), from way, way back (it first appeared on his 2nd album, 三上寛のひとりごと, 'Mikami Kan no hitorigoto', 'Kan Mikami's Monologue', 1972 that was). OK, let's have a look at that tracklist.

1.    オレには空が緑に見える (Ore ni wa sora ga midori ni mieru) - The Sky Looks Green to Me
2.    日本のコーラは甘い! (Nihon no kōra wa amai!) - Japanse Cola Is Sweet!
3.    猿は拝まない (Saru wa ogamanai) - Monkeys Don't Pray
4.    曼荼羅TOOT(H) (Mandara TOOT(H)) - Mandala TOOT(H)
5.    亡音 (Bōon) - Sound Deadening
6.    疑傷 – 武蔵へ – (Gishō - Musashi e -) - Playing Wounded - For Musashi

Transliteration is a bit of a problem on the last 2 songs here, since the titles there, as far as I can tell, seem to be freshly coined by (probably) Mikami himself, and you never know with those devilish kanji. The translations are reliable, they are by Alan Cummings, the number one (and only?) go-to-guy for freaky Japanese singer-songwriters wanting to see what their lines look like in correct English (see scans).

Michael Pisaro - July Mountain (Three Versions) (2010)

Michael Pisaro has been, for some time now, all the rage in a tiny section of the experimental music fanatics crowd. Unfortunately that section is so small that even within said segment of the populace, nobody has ever heard of the guy. At least that's my impression, what's yours?
Pisaro is part of the Wandelweiser collective, a German group of musicians who are linked by their explorations in minimalist sound and an office outside Düsseldorf. The most 'famous' member of the club is probably Austrian trombonist, composer and improviser Radu Malfatti; some others are Manfred Werder, Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, but don't feel bad if you are not familiar with them.
Pisaro's output rate has gone steeply up in recent years, with several volumes of 'Transparent Cities' and other compositions being released on Edition Wandelweiser, and a bunch of other albums scattered in between. One of the most beautiful results is 'July Mountain', a piece that was originally released as a very limited edition 3" CD on Engraved Glass, the label of most prolific field recordist and sound artist of all times, Jez Riley French (lots of music to be found there too, go listen). On 'July Mountain' (inspired by a Wallace Stevens poem), several layers of percussion played by regular Pisaro collaborator Greg Stuart are topped off with recordings of environmental sounds and a handful of piano chords, resulting in some of the most immersive 20 minutes of sound you'll ever come across.
October 2010 saw the inauguration of Pisaro's very own label, Gravity Wave; one of the first releases was a reissue of 'July Mountain' with 2 alternative versions of the piece, one of them with a different set of field recordings, the other stripped of any environmental sounds at all, revealing the rich layers underneath; if you wish, you can provide some of your own.
This is only one of a bunch of great Pisaro recordings that can still be obtained (check out the other three on Gravity Wave as well, the duo with Taku Sugimoto on Erstwhile, and definitely don't miss out on 'A Wave and Waves', also released last year but on Cathnor this time, and also realized by Greg Stuart - beautiful work), so spend generously, the rewards are ample.