Recorded live in concert at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California in August 2002, "Headlands" features seven freely improvised works created by the group's unique instrumentation of shakuhachi, koto, piano, and live electronics.
By collectively leaving the traditional and cultural roles of their acoustic instruments behind, shakuhachi player Philip Gelb, koto player Shoko Hikage and pianist/electronic musician Chris Brown, join live electronics pioneer Tim Perkis in finding common ground in the extended and experimental technique associated with improvised music. The ability of manipulated electronics to create otherwise unavailable musical sounds meshes with the acoustic musicians' desire to reinvent the possibilities of timbre and instrumental interaction in a collectively improvising ensemble. The result is a beautiful and elastic music that creatively juxtaposes old and new, acoustic and electric, and tradition and innovation.
A fusion of older traditional music and modern jazz, the Natto Quartet not only express a singular vision of this amalgam, they execute it to dizzying heights. In fact they offer a perfectly blended mix of creative jazz improvisation, Japanese Koto and live electronics, no small feat. The sound is so arresting and unique, that the open minded listener cannot help but be completely drawn into their weave of sonic wonder. Careful construction and deep listening skills are used, along with unquestioned advanced musicianship. What is even more remarkable is the unpredictable texture of the music, sometimes reflective and somber, most times jagged, mathematically wild, geometrically angular, responsive to sheer whimsy and even sci-fi fantasy. It's a truly new music unlike anything I've ever heard, astrong candidate for best avant project of 2003, and sure to turn many a global thinking, progressive minded ear inside out.
Michael G. Nastos
Natto is a very sticky fermented bean dish that Japanese people occasionally serve to test Westerners's taste for their traditional cuisine. It makes for a somewhat appropriate name for this improvising quartet. Shakuhachi player Philip Gelb, koto player Shoko Hikage, pianist Chris Brown and Tim Perkis on electronics have refined an approach that avoids the usual coagulating pitfalls of cross-cultural collaborations. To this end, they wisely keep their respective, substantial CVs low in the mix, creating an alluring music predicated not on research or idiomatic expertise, but an obvious faith in the primacy of sound. Throughout Headlands, a well-engineered concert recording, each sound has the self-contained integrity of a stroke of masterful calligraphy, but still conveys a catalytic value in an unfolding piece of spontaneous music. Subsequently, traditions resonate in Natto Quartet's music instead of being referenced, and their varied, pungent flavours are never reduced to a muddle.
The latter point is salient because, more often than not, the Quartet's improvisations move predictably between soft and loud, sparse and dense. Subsequently, Gelb and Hikage are faced with the intersecting challenges of integrating traditional and extended techniques, and choosing when to sidestep or meet the occasional deluges head on. Perkis and Brown have a complimentary set of challenges, centring around their obvious capacity to drown out the subtleties of the traditional instruments. Close listening prevails, however, as each musician seems to have a perfect bead on the other's next steps. This facilitates both striking shifts in mass and exquisitely elongated gradations of colour. Still, there is just enough volatility in the quartet's music to keep it from being rubber stamped as 'Deep Listening'. The resulting anticipation is as rewarding as the music's frequently surreal hues.
Sounds of the mystical Orient and the more assertive Western world clash head-on when the Natto Quartet ignites. Philip Gelb, an extremely versatile and resourceful shakuhachi player, and Shoko Hikage, an astute proponent of the ancient koto, contribute the Eastern sensibilities that flow well beyond the cultural borders of their instruments' roots. On the Western front, pianist Chris Brown and electronics specialist Tim Perkis provide the 21st century impetus to sustain the transformation. Together, the California-based quartet becomes an exploratory team intent on establishing a new world order where improvised creativity is the sole determinant of beauty, even if that beauty is in its earthiest form.
Each artist plays a distinctive role in forming this free collective. Gelb's shakuhachi arsenal consists of instruments of varying lengths that alter the pitch and cover a wide tonal range. He shows absolute dominance over the difficult reeds. Gelb has taken the shakuhachi out of the meditative field and has plunked it squarely into the improvising arena, where his originality is continually on display. Brown takes a fully unstructured approach to his reconnaissance mission. His approach from inside and outside the piano combines aggressiveness with thought-provoking development of logical freeform sequences. Brown's playing erupts with physicality, although his forcefulness is always under control and able to be abated at will.
Tim Perkis is a wizard on the electronic controls. He bends and twists tonal centers while always maintaining a musical stance devoid of sheer noise or static elements. This inventiveness in sound production makes him an exceptional contributor to this group. Hikage blends spirits of the past into this strongly flavored brew. Her blunt, interruptive statements reverberate and rebound against the reams of chilling improvisations encircling her. She straddles dual cultures with aplomb and makes her instrument sing out emphatically.
While collective interaction is at the heart of the music, the performers also spin off in engaging partnerships, which in turn inspire spontaneous contributions from the others. For example, Gelb spars gingerly with Hikage, encouraging Perkis to enter wrapping electronic impulses around the stark but strangely soothing output. Brown listens intently and interjects jabbing comments for emphasis. And so it goes throughout the recording, with each dual encounter leading to profound group interpretation. Instruments that are centuries apart in origin and light years apart in concept find a common ground for promoting unity. The Natto Quartet effectively marries these divergent influences, producing music for our time.
-All About Jazz
Typical of the fostering environment within the Bay Area's improvised music scene, all four members of the Natto Quartet, especially Chris Brown and Tim Perkis, are frequent collaborators, often performing improvised music in various configurations with each other or alongside other musicians and performing artists. This amount of familiarity between players allows for high-level interaction and exploration, which proves essential when combining such unique and diverse instrumental forces. Laptopper Tim Perkis always seems to use the right sound at the right time. His sonic palette is rooted in electronic music's pre-sampler past, favoring retro bleeps and sweeps that concurrently contrast and reinforce the other players' timbres and choices. Also tinkling the keyboard, albeit the ivory type, Brown's sensitive yet energetic bursts create a compelling buzz. Philip Gelb proves that there are more than 1001 ways to play the shakuhachi. Equally adept, Shoko Hikage extracts a flood of sound from her koto.
-New Music Box
The members of the Natto Quartet have performed together in various configurations for years, finally solidifying as a quartet in 2002 to perform both composed works and freely improvised music. Gelb has studied the shakuhachi, an ancient Japanese bamboo flute, since 1988, and is one of the only performers in the United States to use the instrument in the new improvised music context. Hikage grew up studying the koto, traditionally a 13-string chamber music instrument taught to women in Japan, and uses her extensive classical training on her instrument in both traditional and new music applications. A founding member of the influential interactive computer network ensemble The Hub, Perkis performs regularly on the improvised music scene where he utilizes customized software and hardware to create his unique and sensitive electronic approach. Brown, who frequently collaborated with Trio Natto before it officially became a quartet, is the Co-Director of Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, an epicenter of live electronics performance. He is a composer, electronic musician, and pianist whose mobile preparations and inside-the-piano technique help redefine the instrument's role.
Trio Natto was formed in 2000 and have performed throughout the Bay Area and Japan. They explore the unique combination of two ancient Japanese instruments with a live electronic improviser and are often joined by Chris Brown on grand piano.
Shoko Hikage began learning koto aged three. She graduated from Takasaki College with a major in Koto music and went on to become a research student in Sawai Sokyoku where she received her master's certificate. Hikage currently teaches koto at the Japanese Cultural Community Center, Northern California.
Philip Gelb focuses on playing shakuhachi in new music. He has performed throughout America, Europe and Japan as a soloist and in numerous ensembles. Gelb studied ethnomusicology at the Florida State University School of Music and he currently teaches and performs in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as curating the music series at Meridian Gallery, SF.
Tim Perkis has worked in the medium of live and electronic computer sound for many years - performing, exhibiting and recording throughout North America and Europe. Perkis is a founder of the computer music band The Hub and often performs in the improvised music scene. His work explores the emergence of life-like properties in complex systems of interaction.
Chris Brown, composer, pianist and electronic musician composes for acoustic instruments with interactive electronics, for computer networks and improvising ensembles. Recent compositions explore polyrhythms using piano, percussion, DJ and computer. He teaches electronic music at Mills College in Oakland, where he is Co-Director for Contemporary Music.