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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Takuroku
Stewart Smith , December 7th, 2021 10:43

As Cafe Oto winds down its lockdown label Takuroku after 195 releases, Stewart Smith discusses ten entry points to the experimental music series with senior producer Fielding Hope

As the first lockdown in Spring 2020 brought live music to a sudden halt, the underground music community rallied to provide alternatives. In Newcastle, The Old Police House instigated its TOPH Housebound TV series, while in New Jersey, Jon Abbey began AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine. Meanwhile in London, experimental music hub Cafe Oto hatched plans for a “lockdown label”, Takuroku. Launched in May 2020, Takuroku aimed to provide an outlet for new work created in lockdown, while providing “a way to help sustain both Cafe Oto and the artists involved through these incredibly challenging times”. Eighteen months and a staggering 195 releases later, Oto has closed the curtain on Takuroku – at least for the time being.

“We were trying to figure out what to do for ourselves, but also keep this boat floating in some way,” recalls Cafe Oto senior producer Fielding Hope. “And we wanted to keep up creative relationships with artists and try and support them in a mutually supportive fiscal and creative dialogue. That was obviously before the Cultural Recovery Fund kicked in. That's why it started." Oto already had its own digital platform in place, and thanks to the sterling efforts of Oliver Barrett, who mastered all the releases and designed the artwork, the Oto team were able to roll out Takuroku as a “really tight, chiselled operation”.

Hope cites TOPH and AMPLIFY as influences. “We wanted it to represent the different ways that people were being creative during lockdown. And we have quite a hands off approach with the actual releases themselves, like when we were sent them, we didn't suggest any edits.” When one recording arrived as a corrupted file, a mutual decision was made to leave it as it was. “I think it sounds really cool because it just cuts off at random points. Maybe somebody should win a prize for figuring out which release it is,” he teases.

The open brief, combined with the circumstances of lockdown, provided an opportunity for artists to experiment with the ways in which they recorded and released their music. “It presents non-formalised ways of expressing yourself,” suggests Hope. “And that can include normal releases, releases made in people's bedrooms, audio diaries, those releases that were made outdoors, those releases people made over the winter by file sharing and recording over zoom. There were extremely DIY releases. For example, Maggie Nicols’ was done with her in-computer microphone. She taught herself how to use GarageBand and a lot of that was recorded by phone memos and voice memo.” The qualities Takuroku sought to reflect, Hope continues, were “temporality, some kind of flexibility, and honesty.”

A key aim was to build on existing relationships and nurture new ones. “I think originally we identified a lot of people that we really admire on a local or international basis that we work with closely. As well as that we saw an opportunity to reach out to new people, so there were quite a few artists from China, Alyu from Argentina, and people that maybe don't come to the UK so often. You want to have a mixture of artists: established ones like Keiji Haino and Josephine Foster, but then artists that no one has ever heard of before.”

What follows are ten points of entry to Takuroku’s vast catalogue. Not necessarily the ten best – although they are all terrific – but releases that reflect the boundless sense of adventure and desire for communication that lies at the heart of the project: everything from joyful domestic jams and neo-dada noise picnics to detourned classic rock and poly-vocal musique concrete.

Ashley Paul – Window Flower

Since relocating to London a few years back, American composer and performer Ashley Paul has become a key member of the local Cafe Oto community. Recorded at home with husband Ben Pritchard and daughter Cora Ray, Window Flower was part of the first Takuroku batch, alongside releases by New York guitarist Steve Gunn, London musician Malvern Brume and Bristol duo Harrga. A delightful companion to Paul’s 2020 album Ray, Window Flower features songs based on family percussion jams, with layered vocals, clarinet and saxophone over keyboards, drums and bells.

“I think this is a great example of someone responding to the very open brief in a way that engages both the temporality and the kind of instant reality of their situation,” says Hope. “In the first thirty or so releases especially there's a lot more of the kind of lockdown music that presents people being caught in a very specific situation. There was a kind of charm about that, because I think also there's a fetishism of lockdown music that's quite miserable or fatalistic, and this is like a 16 minute blast of joy. Joy and banality. There was something special about that.”

Valentina Magaletti – A Queer Anthology Of Drums

Valentina Magaletti’s A Queer Anthology Of Drums “documents a journey that never took place.” Assembled from drums, percussion, toys, field recordings and oscillators, the eight pieces by the Tomaga and Vanishing Twin drummer-composer are richly atmospheric, full of trance-like rhythms and dark psychedelia. ‘The Other Side Of Everything’ lays resonant bell tones over looming static and reverb, while ‘Body In A Room’ is suitably sinister, its bleak electronic throb suggestive of the military bunker in George Romero’s Day Of The Dead. ‘Tutti Alcirco!’ by contrast is a carnivalesque joy.

“A lot of people don't want to make music in this specific way related to lockdown,” suggests Hope. “Valentina's was one of the first that felt like, okay, this is an album, it's very well pieced together and it's very thoughtful, it represents itself like something that you would usually find on record. We don't want to fetishise a particular type of lockdown music. That led to numerous other studio or professional recording based releases.”

Nour Mobarak– 3 Performance Works

Nour Mobarak’s 3 Performance Works is one of several Takuroku releases to work other peoples’ voices into the artist’s own sound, reflecting a desire for communication amidst the social isolation of the pandemic. LA-based artist Mobarak presented compositions used in her multi-disciplinary, multi-channel live performances, mixed down to stereo as self-contained pieces.

“‘Allophone Movement’ comes from interviewing loads of people in the street, and then leaving that as a sound world,” explains Hope. "It’s this kind of cyborg text piece that flows a little bit like a machine funk release, in a funky sound poetry style. There were a few other releases that were like that. I think Claire Rousay’s Ilysum is like that – and Natalia Beyliss's Invaded By Fireflies – based upon the idea of asking people to describe beautiful places they've been to. Jean Luc Guionnett's Totality was voice memos of different people just saying whatever they wanted. So I find that a curious theme that emerged by accident. The release is being formed from content created by other people in an indeterminate way.”

Neil Charles – Low And Beyond

One of the UK’s finest bassists, Neil Charles is an Oto regular, appearing with Elaine Mitchener, Alexander Hawkins and Anthony Braxton’s latest standards quartet. A long overdue showcase for his solo work, Low And Beyond is a superb set of double bass improvisations, ranging from rhythmically playful explorations of the instrument’s upper range and groaning arco chords to percussive bow strikes and grainy harmonics.

“He's a player that I've always thought was really interesting,” says Hope. “He's always had really interesting opinions on music and a way of talking about music. I think he's an example of someone that you never see on their own and it felt like a really nice excuse to be like, ‘Hey, how do you feel about doing something yourself?’ You're on your own and you can only be on your own. Maybe you're not so busy touring and playing with other people, so [it’s a way of] having your mind in a different direction. I think he excelled at that.”

Firas Khnaisser & Ali Robertson – Inspiring Capital

As the world slowly opened up and people were able to meet outside again, Firas Khnaisser and Ali Robertson began playing in Lochend Park near their Edinburgh homes. It’s one of several Takuroku releases to be recorded outdoors, including Ute Kanngiesser & Daniel Kordik’s cello improvisation in Hackney Marshes, Xu Shaoyang’s fizzing and clanking group improvisations under bridges in Beijing and Tapei, and David Birchall and Otto Willberg’s virtual, but still al fresco, meet up in Manchester and London.

Subverting the neoliberal language of Edinburgh’s official “inspiring capital” slogan, Khnaisser and Robertson make neo-dada mischief in the ruins of the Festival, scraping, twanging and plinking assorted instruments and junk while seagulls squawk and people walk past. “There’s a bit of a picnic vibe about that release,” grins Hope. “Playing with things and having a laugh. There isn't a feeling of preciousness like, ‘here we are in this this place’. It feels in tune with normal life, so to speak.”

Nakul Krishnamurthy – Tesserae

A stunning example of Takuroku as a showcase for new artists, Tesserae finds Glasgow-based Indian composer Nakul Krishnamurthy imagining new possibilities for Indian Classical music. On ‘Anudhatthamudhatthassvaritham’ (a compound word formed from the three notes from which Indian classical music is believed to have originated) Krishnamurthy weaves multiple vocal tracks and oscillator tones into the Carnatic raga 'Sindhubhairavi'.

“It's one of my favourites,” says Hope. “I've always been curious to hear what he would do on his own recording, because he's worked with Indian Carnatic players, Ryan Treanor… He comes from a Brahman Indian Carnatic background, so he's not trying to sound like anyone from the Western hegemony. I think what he's trying to do is use some of the methodologies or approaches of experimental music, to expand the horizons of Carnatic music itself, which I find so fascinating. It’s such a beautiful, rich, extra record.”

Maggie Nicols – Creative Contradictions

Maggie Nicols has appeared on numerous recordings since her debut with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1969, but Creative Contradictions is her first solo album. Recorded during lockdown at her home in Wales, it’s the sound of a master improviser adapting to new situations with aplomb. Having taught herself to use Garageband, Nicols has woven together songs, poems, monologues and improvisations into an intimate and wildly inventive suite.

“Maggie is an exceptional artist who's worked in lots of group or improvised contexts and is herself a bit of a community player, but I've always find it unusual that she's not made a solo album, given she's got an amazing voice, and she's got a bit of a knack for her own poetry and songwriting. She's a wonderful piano player as well,” says Hope. "So we felt extremely lucky when she said, ‘Yep, I'm going to give it a go.’ It’s genuinely one of the most DIY releases. To me it represents something of the charm and openness but also a desire for communication and expression that I find really beautiful.”

Rosso Polare – Cani Lenti

The Italian duo of Cesare Lopopolo and Anna Vezzosi created one of 2020’s most intriguing debuts with Lettere Animali on the Russian Klammklang label, so it made perfect sense for Takuroko to reach out to them. The resulting Cani Lenti is a heady swirl of bowed and plucked strings, clattering percussion, electronic crackle, free improv clarinet and found sound: an inspired collection of sonic contradictions.

“It’s music that I find quite landless in a way,” Hope offers. “And I'm always kind of curious about the kind of Mediterranean folk, dub and musique concrete influences, many different elements that would probably normally be quite incongruous with one another. I think somehow they made it work in a way that felt really harmonious and strange and beguiling in its own way. And very intimate too. It’s representative of two people locked down together.”

Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks – Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks

As Hope points out, Keiji Haino has been making lockdown music, so to speak, throughout his life. "His solo albums always feel quite cocooned, isolated. This is almost the complete opposite. I found it gloriously incongruous but it's also amazing that he responded by wanting to record his band playing live in some bar in Tokyo. It's like Keiji embracing his full rock roots." Heralding the return of live music, Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks is a gorgeously demented set of classic rock covers. Bassist Shingo Naruke and drummer Toshihiko Katano turn the libidinous strut of the Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ into a galumphing crawl, with Haino hamming it up over Masami Kawaguchi’s crunching post punk guitar. The Who’s ‘My Generation’ becomes a disjointed Magic Band fumble while an apocalyptic ‘End Of The Night’ vastly improves upon The Doors’ original. A fantastic rock album, as righteous as it is ridiculous.

John Tilbury – Metalessness

With restrictions lifting and Cafe Oto returning to full capacity shows, the time was right to close Takuroku. Its final three releases are all fitting in their own way: Wild Rani’s murky no-wave “ode to an extremely strange, dark time”, a live Oto performance from operatic soprano Alya Al-Sultani and turntablist Mariam Rezaei, and master pianist John Tilbury’s beautiful voice and clavichord meditations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’.

“John Tilbury is an example of someone who's been at home throughout the pandemic, he’s not really able to leave where he lives because of health and safety,” explains Hope. “It was the only release where we went out to someone's house specifically to record it. John had this particular idea lined up with this interpretation of the Samuel Beckett piece, so I think for me, on a curatorial level, to end on some sort of Beckettian grey scale, and with John, felt fitting in so many different ways. Just the feeling that things are not particularly over yet, I guess. And also to work with someone who is a very, very important part of the Oto community, and has been for a long time, but due to health and safety can't present his work in the space. So it felt like, okay, we want to represent people who can't be here, and that idea of presence is something that oscillates throughout the series.”