Vol. 33 Issue 2 Reviews
Zbigniew Karkowski/Atsuko Nojiri: Continuity

Compact disc/DVD-Video, 2007, Asphodel ASP 3003; Asphodel, 763 Brannan Street, San Francisco, California 94103, USA; telephone (+1) 415-863-3068‎; fax (+1) 415-863-4973; electronic mail hello@asphodel.com; Web: www.asphodel.com/.

DVD CoverReviewed by Jeffrey Treviño
San Diego, California, USA

To the ailing graduate student author, composer Zbigniew Karkowski is a symbol of fantasy: trained in conservatories and having passed through the clogged channels of old, he defects, only to become an engine of Tokyo’s experimental noise scene. Will our academically laurelled hero sustain his seeming outsider edge, or will he unwittingly countenance those forces of overly conceptual, evasively unimaginative modernism that Pierre Boulez’s apostles reheat daily in conservatories and universities? Alejandro Planchart once likened the comfort of such boring dichotomies to “babies, clutching at furniture in order to remain standing.” Unfortunately, the recording under review here resonates with this opposition: you can take the composer out of the academy, but you cannot take the academy out of the composer. This album—taken together with an anti-rational and unconsidered lecture delivered last fall at the University of California, San Diego—demonstrates Mr. Karkowski’s zeal for delivering the worst of both worlds.

The album includes a DVD, which contains three pieces created with videographer Atsuko Nojiri, and a CD, which contains two different compositions by Mr. Karkowski. The DVD’s pieces add to an already heaping genre of monolithic, concept-based work: There is an object, or environment of similar objects, characterized by a certain behavior; the behavior happens (for an excessively ambitious duration) and is reframed via image filters and perspective shifts; a soundtrack travels alongside, nonchalantly brushing the film every so often but remaining largely, and with aplomb, oblivious. The one exception to this assessment is the initial volley of Float. This provides an elegant experience, a conceptually integrated dance between lines and points represented visually as expected and sonically with string glissandi and percussion staccatos, grouped pretentiously into that most crutch-like of modernist clichés, the feather-beamed accelerando/deccelerando hairpin. But by the end of its sixteen-minute duration, the unrelenting coherence grates; I beg to be puzzled.

The remaining two works on the DVD are not exceptional: Tritonal Rapture fails because Mr. Karkowski destroys Ms. Nojiri’s fragile world of subtle, diaphonous plaids with the hammer blows of a brutal, wandering accompaniment, while Membrane pairs a soundtrack more appropriate to the previous work with a playful and active film. One might assail this prescription for congruence with any number of contrapuntal assaults—and one might ask his girlfriend to buy a ticket before a kiss. Of the three, Membrane, with its characteristically Japanese rumination on the ambiguity of negative and positive space, as well as its inviting rondo-type form, is the most strongly profiled.

The compositions on the CD throw the DVD’s lapses into relief. Mr. Karkowski moves freely, with a nuanced use of foreground and background at the outsets of both Mass-Flow-Rate and Perceptor. In the case of the former, this depth yields monumental and portentous affect, executed with internal necessity (the materials fight their medium to speak, and this matters.), raised to brilliance at times by bold strokes like the fourteenth minute’s extreme sparseness. In the case of the latter, an initially supple palette descends into the same facile one-dimensionality that sinks the films’ accompaniments.

It is a shame to hear conservatives joke that so-called “sound artists” are merely composers who prop up visual, conceptual, spatial, amplitudinal, and social diversions in front of unconsidered sonic experience; it is equally a shame to hear “sound artists” so rarely buck the stereotype. Mr. Karkowski, on rare occasions, does, and although his critical filter could be tuned more sensitively, you should in fact buy this album for Mass-Flow-Rate, a lovingly constructed and often profound sonic experience that is alone well worth Asphodel’s asking price. As for the rest, it might get better if you turn up the volume really, really loud.