Improvised Music from Japan / Otomo Yoshihide / Ground Zero

Dissolving Ground Zero: From "Performance" to "Sound"

by Atsushi Sasaki

(Liner notes for the CD Last Concert)

For musicologists of the future, this album will have a place of great importance. Not only is it the final recording of Ground Zero, Otomo Yoshihide's major project of the '90s; it also marks a critical turning point in Otomo's musical career. More precisely, a clear division can be drawn between Otomo's music before and after the last Ground Zero concert--the "Dissolving Gig"--which took place at On Air West in Shibuya, Tokyo on March 8, 1998.

This album, which contains almost all of that concert, provides a complex and ambiguous blending of the "before" and "after" elements that characterise the distinct phases of Otomo's work, and it is likely that listeners accustomed to hearing either the "before" or "after" Otomo will to some degree be puzzled by the combination of the performance and sound elements it contains. I don't want to imply that this ambiguity is the result of any vacillation emerging in this transitional period: the music here no doubt arises from intentional choices and actions on Otomo's part. Rather, I think the essence of the musician Otomo Yoshihide is very apparent in this concert recording. Moreover, this album not only illustrates the division between the "before" and "after" music; it also transcends that division, to reveal the motifs which run through all of Otomo's work.

If the basic elements of what we call music are performance by human beings on musical instruments and objects, and the sound that emerges from these activities, then one could say that the change in focus on Otomo's part was emphatically from the former to the latter. When Otomo (a remarkable guitarist and Japan's first turntable artist) began to develop and deepen his musical style, he initially placed much importance on playing skills and physical expressivity in performance. This was natural for a player who emerged from the world of free jazz and improvisation and, through a unique process, then moved towards composition. In order to realise certain types of new music, Otomo demanded a high level of technical mastery and physical dynamism from the various musicians who made up Ground Zero (each of whom was a technically outstanding player active outside the group as well). From the time of the band's first incarnation to its final dissolution, it's membership changed several times, the shifts in personnel relfecting the process of trial and error by which Otomo pursued his musical vision. Ground Zero's music was never a specific end in itself, but rather a series of steps towards ever higher goals; and as it changed from a basic band format to a "double band" with two guitars, two basses and two drum sets, and then to a format extended further by a sampler, a koto, and a futozao-shamisen, Ground Zero rapidly headed towards the farthest limits of music-as-performance.

There is no telling what sorts of internal struggles Otomo went through, or what sorts of exchanges occurred between him and the various group members, in regard to Ground Zero's disbanding. However, since the "dissolving" of the band, Otomo's solo work and his new group projects, I.S.O. and Filament, have shown an orientation which is clearly different from that of Ground Zero. To put it bluntly, it suggests an abandonment of "performance"--or at least an attempt at release from performance. In I.S.O. and Filament, Otomo does not play the guitar; nor are the familiar mechanical devices--turntable, sampler, CD/MD players--"performed" on with the unique style and technique with which he has always been associated; they are used instead merely as tools for the production of apparently quite simple sounds. In contrast to the phantasmagoric ensemble work of Ground Zero, the core of the new sound is an electric and based on sine waves; the sound of direct contact--even poor contact--with circuits; fragments of various recordings of today's frequency-synthesized and frequency-generated music; and the faint noises produced by the turntable and needle themselves.

Otomo has said that Sachiko M (of I.S.O. and Filament), the only Ground Zero member who had never played a traditional musical instrument, had a strong influence on this change in style. Sampler artist Sachiko--who for some time after joining Ground Zero handled the elements of sound collage and sound effects--eventually quit altogether what we call sampling to move off in a unique direction, using the sine waves preset in the sampler as her only source of sound. This is precisely the same direction that Otomo is currently pursuing, both in Filament (a duo with Sachiko) and in the trio I.S.O. (where they are joined by Ichiraku Yoshimitsu, a percussionist who has likewise changed his orientation and now uses only electronics)--moving from "performance" to "sound." At this point, questions about how to play and what style to play in are barely considered. Sound itself lies outside manipulation and expression. The issues to be addressed now are, first, whether or not to produce sound; secondly, the choice of sound; next, at what volume to set the sound; and finally, duration of the sound, how long to keep it going. And here music moves away from physical action and becomes a more speculative form of work. As this activity (which can rightly be called radical) continues; it will be interesting to see how Otomo progresses.

But back to this album. The "Dissolving Gig" was an event which took place at the midpoint of this (perhaps irreversible) change on Otomo's part. The one-off group consisted of 13 people, some selected from among the musicians who had played with Ground Zero in the past, and some entirely new faces. By March 1998, quite a while had passed since Otomo had announced the disbanding of Ground Zero, and he was then moving into a new phase. We can reasonably assume therefore that in the "Dissolving Gig" Otomo was attempting to simulate the aforementioned change from "performance" to "sound." In effect, this album is a high-speed race through the history of Ground Zero. Rock, jazz, improvisation, ethnic music, noise, musique concrète, minimal music--all of the various elements appear, disappear and reappear, overlapping and separating, tracing a complex, unstable path. This is not, however, an attempt at an aesthetic mixture; rather, it gives the impression of a rough, carefree spinning. The kind of obviously cathartic and ecstatic elements heard previously in Ground Zero's performances are almost entirely absent--and even some self-avowed Otomo disciples experienced a sense of incongruity during the concert and felt dissatisfied on hearing the constant flow of sound.

Surely, though, that was what Otomo intended. This was the performance in which he literally let us hear the process of Ground Zero's "dissolving." This album records the transformation of the aggregate called Ground Zero from an orchestra to an oscillator. Towards the end of the gig, the sine waves surge like the waves of the sea, washing over the entire performance. Finally, only sound remains.

However, the transformation crystallized in this album is actually no more than a superficial aspect of this work. Although I might seem to be contradicting everything I have said so far, looking back from the perspective of the present one sees that Otomo has always addressed the same fundamental question (one addressed also by the late Takayanagi "Jojo" Masayuki in his final album, Inanimate Nature): How does one hear, or make heard, the world's stirring and chattering? Or, how is one to reconcile the presentation of the anarchy (chaos) created with sound, and the organization (cosmos) of that anarchy?

First, by pursuing the expansion of the idioms of noise and improvisation which sabotage existing "music," Otomo tried to organise chaos, while at the same time secretly injecting chaos into order. Next, by adopting the idea of sampling, he entered his period of postmodern citation and collage (and to be frank, Otomo's efforts at that time were more successful than anyone else's). However, the structure whereby chaos and cosmos are fundamentally linked, or conceptually appear continually to be interchanging, is based on the assumption that chaos and cosmos are strictly and clearly distinct from each other. The trap which avant-garde and postmodern aesthetics has fallen into is to remain unaware that anarchy and organization, as the basis of one another, continually reinforce and maintain each other. But on the contrary, can't sound itself demonstrate that chaos and cosmos are originally exactly the same, that there is no clear distinction between them--and that that is what the "world" is? This is the starting point of Otomo's new phase of activity.

April 15, 1999

(Translated by Yoshiyuki Suzuki)

Last updated December 5, 1999