Experimental guitarist Taku Sugimoto has become known for a contemplative style of playing that aims for a kind of true ‘minimalism’, in the sense of playing as little and as quietly as possible. Now finding modest international fame on the merits of his compositions and free improvisations, Sugimoto has often been associated with onkyō, practiced by Japanese performers at the (now closed) Off-Site club in Tokyo.
Known for its extreme quietness and radical less-is-more aesthetic, onkyō is a purposefully challenging style. Full of barely audible frequencies and notes half-uttered, it can be thought of as a kind of ‘almost’ music that treads the fine line between frustration and elegance.
Here, Sugimoto brought his minimal, meditative style to Café OTO for the first time with a solo performance and joint improvisation. His solo music in particular was filled with stylistic hallmarks. Using only harmonics and muted notes, Sugimoto played as sparsely and quietly as possible, creating a slow and drawn out meditation on the muffled sounds of the guitar. Playing from notation, Sugimoto’s performance was thoughtful and musically definite, but also left space for the audience to find their own patterns and structures.
A by-product of presenting sound at extremely low volumes is a necessary acceptance of the sounds of the room and the urban environs into the performance. At Café OTO, Sugimoto’s silences were filled with ghostly chatter filtering through the floorboards, along with the sirens and night-time bustle of Kingsland High Street.
Part of Sugimoto’s style is the creation of a meditative space in which to become aware of the sounds of everyday life, an aesthetic he shares with many onkyō musicians. But this is also predicated on a respectful and willing audience. Sugimoto seemed to delight in testing our patience, drawing out his performance to the point where an eager crowd started to feel fidgety and uncomfortable – at OTO I witnessed one leave quietly about ten minutes in.
One of the many challenges of Sugimoto’s music is creating structure and shape from very few notes. In improvisation, this challenge is felt more keenly. A joint improvisation with resident OTO violinist Angharad Davies (in what I gather was their first duet performance) seemed more tentative than thoughtful. Furthermore, Sugimoto’s quiet style was continually pushed by Davies, whose resonant playing seemed to demand both a louder and more active style.
Improvised music is always about treasuring moments of confluence, and the greater textural and timbral possibilities of the guitar and violin in combination meant there were moments of real sonic vibrancy. Yet the duet’s reluctance to risk frustration and create space and silence meant not reaching the true elegance of Sugimoto at his best.