The conventional standards of recorded music and spontaneity are somewhat at odds with each other. Once something is laid to tape, there’s a fixity that subsumes the work, regardless of how in-the-moment the origins of the sound might have been. Despite this, Fluxus-associate Takako Saito recorded a series of works in the ’80s and ’90s that are just now seeing wide release under the title Spontaneous Music. While the recorded nature of the work, as well as the formulaic grounding of Saito’s melodies, negate spontaneity, the breadth and intricacy of these tracks offer the listener plenty of surprises. The music here runs almost two hours in length, expertly dealing in improvisation, aleatoric field recordings and spatial consciousness.

While this surface-level description of the album sounds daunting, the result is anything but. Spontaneous Music is an oddly listenable album, mostly due to the simplicity of both the music and its guiding concepts. “Am Rhein mit Hammer,” which translates to “On the Rhine with Hammer,” offers nothing more than it suggests: 30 minutes of wind, flowing water and dull, steady hammer tones of varying volumes and tempos. The occasional car horn situates a city nearby the river, but that’s about it. There’s no pretense of a narrative; the sounds simply speak for themselves. The always-changing texture offers intrigue, but the overall repetitive nature of “Am Rhein” gives the track a clear-headed sanguinity.

The other of the two non-vocal pieces, “Kugeln,” or “Balls,” forgoes the idyll nature of
“Am Rhein” for a unique, mind-bending experience. The balls in reference are mostly pool balls, and the track is 20 minutes of said objects rolling, clacking and dropping into pockets. Both through clever mic placement and panning, the track is full of a nearly tangible motion. It’s a clever enough concept, made all the more engaging by the alien sounds that emerge as the track progresses. Especially towards the chaotic midpoint, it sounds as if the rolling balls are cackling at the listener. Saito explores a variety of feeling and experience, all without ever straying from the simple guideline of “balls.”

While the field recording work present is exceptional, it’s Saito’s vocal work that stands out as truly singular. Of the two solo vocal tracks, “Isokono Pasokono” is the lengthier and consequently more successful. Saito explores the limits of her range and vocal abilities, using the short titular phrase as the grounding point for a seemingly endless improvisation. It’s unorthodox, and, in its sparse solo voice arrangement, quite unnerving, but Saito’s expressiveness and experimentalism rivals, if not surpasses, that of Meredith Monk or Joan La Barbara. There are just as many moments of chilling expressiveness as there are head-scratching curiosity at the grotesque sounds Saito conjures.

Fluxus defined itself by an anarchist, “anti-art” sentiment that sometimes praised absurdity over meaning, leading to a creative approach that verged on frustratingly dishonest. Saito’s work dates roughly two decades after the movement’s peak, and there’s more of a developed sense of direction here. She shows her truest innovation in this regard on the album’s centerpieces. “Toro während des Naturreiskochens” and “Mit Elektrohammer,” translated, respectively, as “Toro while Cooking Brown Rice” and “With Electric Hammer,” are a mix of the album’s two contrasting sides, that of vocal experimentation and a hands-off approach to documenting naturally-occurring sounds. “Toro” is immensely unassuming, with Saito improvising on a two-syllable melody while she boils rice, the only non-vocal sounds being the steady hiss of water and the occasional click of the spoon against the pot. It reads as joyous, pleased and silly. It’s easy to picture Saito dancing around her kitchen, smiling as she turns a menial task into an opportunity for creativity.

As an experience, “Mit Elektrohammer” is a sharp contrast, though the end result is similar. The addition of power tools is grating and harsh, especially as it distorts Saito’s voice. Despite this more aggressive texture and the more complicated, winding melody, the track still retains an absurdity due to its odd pairing. The readable pleasure of much of the music never undermines Saito’s seriousness towards her craft. The novelty of the concepts only lasts so long, and it’s her commitment to execution and development that solidifies Spontaneous Music’s greatness. It’s precisely Saito’s mixture of humor and contemplation that makes her music so affecting.

As a document of musical and conceptual ideas, Spontaneous Music is nearly flawless. The only downside of this new package is that the sound quality is less than ideal, more a consequence of the original recording circumstances than anything else. Tape hiss, distortion and degradation mar each of these tracks, placing a film of sorts on the purity of the works. While Saito would probably argue that this is simply another layer of spontaneity to embrace, it nonetheless sullies the album’s final effect. There’s a wealth of nuance to the recordings and performances here, an attention to detail that would speak volumes in a crisper, more hi-fidelity context. Still, musicians and listeners working in field recording, free improvisation or any other left-field musical practice have much to take in here regarding simplicity, cohesion and commitment to creative limitations.

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