Review : TOMO “Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works” CD (Subvalent, 2010)

tomo-butterfly-dream-and-other-guitar-works-album-coverI was excited to receive Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works, the debut guitar album by Japanese multi-instrumentalist, TOMO.  This would be the first work by a Japanese player I’ve written about; I was curious to hear how TOMO’s technique and approach to composition might vary from his American and European counterparts.

That being said, TOMO is no stranger to American guitar traditions, having lived in Missouri during his teens, where he learned finger picking and absorbed a variety of pre-war musical styles.  He cites a long list of American guitarists and composers as influences, in addition to Medieval and Renaissance lutists, Hawaiian slack-key players, Middle Eastern and Indian instrumentalists, all of which are paid homage on Butterfly Dream. The album opens with the Blackshaw-esque “Carnival In Full Bloom,” an exercise in dense, gradually shifting patterns on 12-string guitar.  “Sliding Milky Way Paradise Lost Blues” is a 6-string bottleneck blues rendered psychedelic by heavy reverb and the foil of droning hurdy gurdy.  “Ceremonial Music in Sheol” is a raga-style piece that includes a lengthy passage with intense vocal chanting.  “Drifting Beyond the Border Hill to Hill” and “Farewell Waltz” are each in their own way a nostalgic nod to John Fahey and the Takoma sound.

After leaving the States, TOMO became involved with the underground music scene in Tokyo, most notably as a member of the drone-psych group, Tetragrammaton.  Indeed, drone is a central motif on Butterfly Dream, felt most profoundly on its title track, a twenty minute dialogue between 6-string guitar and hurdy gurdy.  This website has been critical of the “obligatory” drone piece that often appears on contemporary guitar albums.  It is not so much an aversion to the approach, but to the awkward insertion aside more carefully considered work, seemingly for the sake of presenting an album-length collection.  This criticism does not really apply to Butterfly Dream, even though it does contain a few moments that sound unfocused to my ears.  The album clocks in at nearly seventy minutes, essentially two albums of material, which would seem to indicate a level of commitment that is missing from the other examples.  This left me thinking generally about the role patience plays in minimalist music… not only patience required by the musician in executing the extended pieces, but the subsequent patience required by the listener to endure and appreciate them.  I contacted TOMO, who was kind enough to comment:

If you’re talking about patience as an active behavior or a will to create or listen to music, yes… we require patience for any form of art. In other words, we need some kind of will to participate with the work of art, even as audience. However, it is not my first objective to create extended pieces.  For example, “Butterfly Dream” is the longest tune in the album, and I needed to extend its length in order to express the state of intoxication or dream. So, the extended time was just an approach to allow people to trip into another state of consciousness.

I have heard that some people state “Music can be enjoyable without knowledge or education”, but I disagree with this opinion. We have to develop our knowledge just in order to listen and enjoy the music. For instance, if you listen to the compositions of Arnold Schönberg without any knowledge of 12 tone music, you might fall asleep. But, once you grasp the idea of 12 tone music, you might pay attention to one sound to another, and you would become aware you are actually enjoying it. Same thing for any other music, we need some text or background just to enjoy it. Like playing a game, you need to understand the rules.

But, there is a trap with music knowledge and education. If you tend to think too much about the text or theory, then you might forget to perceive the actual sound. In this case, the theory distracts you from listening or focusing on actual sound. Since music sometimes breaks its own rules or schema, it implies a moment of birth for this new sound. And, I believe, this is the central difficulty in listening to music. Personally, I call it the “Sound vs. Text” issue.  And, I think that we need some balance between text and actual sound.

One of Butterfly’s most intriguing tracks, “Raga en Japanesque,” mingles electric tamboura with 6-string guitar figures.  The overall sound of it reminded me of McCoy Tyner’s “Valley Of Life,” from his Sahara LP, a piece on which he played koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument).  TOMO was again kind enough to elaborate; this time regarding the “voice” of Japanese music in his work:

I have been inspired by Gagaku music (Japanese classical music in imperial court) which uses a lot of drone as a component. In the tune “Raga en Japanesque”, I tried to combine Koto music and Indian Classical music to show a certain mutual affinity (I used the word “Japanesque” which expresses an exotic form of Japanese culture, because even as a Japanese person like myself, that is a way I perceive Japanese traditional music or any tradition as a man who lives in modern society. This is the paradox and irony. Because, for all of us in modern culture, we perceive our own traditions in an exotic way, there is a “distance” between traditional culture and ourselves. And my sense of exotic perspective fully finds its existence in this album.)

Also, when I think about Japanese culture, I always feel that our culture is a crazy mix of material from other places. In other words, Japanese culture is an ability to arrange something. If there is a so-called “originality” in Japanese culture, it means “idea and ability to remix”. Japanese classical music contains many influences from the music of Korea, China, Central Asia, and even the middle east and India, when it developed itself. Throughout history, when foreign instruments were imported to Japan from overseas, the accompanying music systems were imported at same time. Japanese people have then arranged the material and music systems, finding a way to fit with their aesthetic. On the other hand, Japanese people develop their own aesthetic through these activities of remixing with materials from other culture. Of course, every other culture is also constructed from the cultural components, but in particular, Japanese culture has strong characteristic as a crazy re-mixer, in order to express itself.

As you can hear, my album is clearly the eclecticism of some things I like or I for which I feel an affinity. And I feel that my sense of eclecticism comes from the spirit of remixing in Japanese culture.

Buy the CD from Subvalent

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