Beyond the valley of vinyl

Pub date March 27, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


No one turns the tables on the turntable quite like Otomo Yoshihide. San Francisco is a renowned turntablist holy land, thanks to the Return of the DJ comps David Paul has put out on Bomb Records, and the stylus-stylish feats of Q-Bert and the Invisibl Skratch Picklz. Yet the most audio-inventive and visionary SF-set turntable achievements to date probably reside within the new CD-DVD Multiple Otomo (Asphodel), largely recorded during the artist’s recent Bay Area visit. There, Otomo attacks the turntable’s potential for sound from dozens of wholly inventive angles, playing it as a musical instrument rather than using it as a piece of stereo equipment. Vinyl isn’t a necessary ingredient. Otomo shows a system that broadcasts music can also be used to make music. He turns an outmoded machine inside out and invents it anew.

Such praise for Multiple Otomo, while based in truth, likely means little to its chief creator. Whether he’s recording, engaged in sampling, or warping the parameters of live performance, he’s expressed little interest in consumer products and little regard for music that subjugates itself to words.

Nonetheless, the audio-only component of Multiple Otomo, Monochrome Otomo, is a CD of 18 tracks, each of which has a title and all of which trigger a writer’s descriptive imagination through their sonic properties. "Generator and Records" tracks rhythms of crackle — albeit with even less interest in pop repetition than snap-crackle-pop contemporaries such as Ryoji Ikeda and Thomas "Klick" Brinkmann. "Turntable Feedback" sculpts rusty, serrated chunks of cacophony with an authority that noise guitarists such as Nels Cline might covet. "Records" sounds like an infernal engine attempting to come back to life. Discarded technology doesn’t possess soul, but Otomo excavates soul from it. "Cardboard Chip Needle" features howls and horn squawks that are equivalent to nails on a chalkboard in terms of primal abrasiveness, yet Otomo — a free jazz heir of Masayuki Takayanagi, whose guitar assaults once famously caused student radicals to riot against him — also can use a six-stringed electric as a steel drum of sorts and create a gorgeously spooky, Harry Partch–like journey into a night forest.

But rather than chart new shades of purple with simile and metaphor, it might be better — or at least less silly — to use analogy when discussing Multiple Otomo. One track on the CD portion, "Cut Records," possesses a quality that isn’t far from what Peter Tscherkassky does on film: what might be the soundtrack to an old movie sounds like it’s fighting to escape the broken stereo that traps it. As Tscherkassky does in his mind-blowing celluloid reworks of Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity, Otomo taps into the convulsive properties of his media (equipment) and his medium.

One of Otomo’s behind-the-camera collaborators on the frequently awesome DVD portion of Multiple Otomo is filmmaker Michelle Silva of San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, who has a definite appreciation of Tscherkassky. Like Tscherkassky, Otomo is the type of experimental artist whose work is directly pure and powerful rather than arcane or deliberately hard to understand. The visual component of Multiple Otomo is intimate with Otomo’s methods. Semiabstract close-ups rule, and Otomo’s hands get into all kinds of trouble. Indeed, Otomo is frequently multiplied, as the title promises, but he’s also got a trickster’s proficiency for disappearing from the scene.

In addition to textural visual splendor — overlays, scratched surfaces, kaleidoscopic reflections, screens within screens, the hypnotic spinning dances of fluorescent records, the hot, tarlike gleam of burning black vinyl — there are numerous humorous treats within some of Multiple Otomo‘s DVD chapters. While many of Otomo’s activities are a retro audiophile dude’s worst nightmare come to life, "Vinyls" is also playfully disrespectful in its approach to the collector mentality, putting an Al Green Hi Records classic through tortures while ultimately saving the worst violence for Evita and Supertramp. (Ah, sweet justice.) Though Otomo frequently proves you don’t need records to play a record player, on "Tinfoil," two bits of the titular object begin to resemble the legs of a dancer with an extreme case of the jitters.

Frankly, any object that finds itself near the hands of Otomo Yoshihide should have a case of the jitters. It’s bound to discover that its end justifies his means. *