Welcome to Organ Grinder—we’re back for 2021! We’ll be continuing to offer our thoughts on new experimental music in the coming year. Our seventh issue features reviews of 3untitled by Masayuki Imanishi and Popular Fictions by Jeph Jerman, two albums released January 21 by Italian label tsss tapes.
Our writers’ thoughts on a new release. This section is the core of each issue.
Masayuki Imanishi, 3untitled (tsss tapes, 2021)
Masayuki Imanishi is a sound artist based in Osaka, Japan who makes use of field recordings, contact microphones, speakers, radios, paper, and various objects. He collaborated with bassist Marco Serrato on Caura, released by tsss tapes in 2019. In the past few years he’s released music solo on Moving Furniture, Cønjuntø Vacíø, and Hemisphäreの空虚, as well as with acid techno musician Kouhei Matsunaga on Diagonal Records and as part of industrial doom trio Eartaker on Bedouin Records; he’s also had tracks on compilations by Cønjuntø Vacíø and Chaque matin du Monde. His latest for tsss tapes comprises three short untitled pieces whose sonic vocabulary encompasses water, mouth, and synthesizer sounds, among others.
Purchase 3untitled on tsss tapes’ Bandcamp.
Jinhyung Kim: I like the way sounds and environments blur and intersect on 3untitled. To my ears, the persistent bubbling that runs through “Two” approximates water noises, modular chirping, and the haptic feedback your thumbs generate while texting, all in roughly equal measure. “Three,” in its earlier half, segues smoothly from vague, severely low-pass-filtered scraping to fricative mouthing in an echo chamber. On “One,” the gurgling ambience and intermittent flashes of synthesizer suggest somewhere oceanically deep—perhaps within the hull of a submarine, the not-quite-silence punctuated occasionally by sonar. But the sound of someone sucking through a straw a few minutes in makes that ocean a glass of water; the intrusion of high-pitched sine tones and signal distortion later on flattens and disrupts the cavernous depth of the soundscape.
What I appreciate about a lot of tsss releases is their playfulness with the spatial dynamics of recordings; simple spectra like flat/full, close/distant, inside/out, etc. fall descriptively short. The pieces on 3untitled are aural sculptures whose dimensional specifics are concrete enough that any rough sketches of their form are bound to feel reductive or incomplete. In any case, it’s music better served by attention than thought.
Shy Thompson: It can be a bit difficult to critically engage with these sorts of quiet microsound releases—not because they're hard to talk about, necessarily, but because they're like musical comfort food for me. I could—and do—listen to a million of these things and I don't get tired of them because I just really like immersing myself in three dimensional sound spaces. I'd liken the appeal of this kind of music to playing with a fidget spinner or buzz magnets—it's an interesting type of stimulus that gives your brain something to do with its idle processing power. I'm prone to spacing out and it's easy to just curl up and take a nap if I'm in standby for too long—people tell me all the time that my ability to sleep anywhere at any time is very catlike.
Not unlike how I can get my cat to spring into action at a moment's notice by dangling a ribbon in front of her or shining a laser pointer on the floor, microsound music lights up my psyche and can give me a second wind. Close, spatially evocative sounds like the ones Masayuki Imanishi gets from his contact microphones here are especially effective at arresting my attention. It's probably pretty easy to find music in this vein I'm likely to enjoy, but I don't consider that a bad thing—sound is interesting, by and large, and I'm always looking to expand my mental collection of cool noises that I like to hear. One might frame it as having a low standard; I think that I'm just eminently open to listening.
Maxie Younger: 3untitled wastes no time establishing its environment: within seconds, opening track “One” plunges the listener into a murky hiss of bubbling drones and diffused radar beeps. All of 3untitled’s sonic experiments seem to play off this same idea of submergence, the crushing pressures of the deep, the freak currents of undertow; a persistent element of each piece is a low, bassy drone whose throbbing intensity rises and dissipates with mercurial abandon. Within this dark scenery, Imanishi displays an affinity for sharp contrasts, juxtaposing high- and low-fidelity timbres against one another to varying effect. Closing track “Three,” for instance, spends its second half observing the ways in which a low, degraded radiator-like hum brushes up against a wash of glistening modular static. Imanishi’s work here is engrossing, for sure, but not in a way I find particularly memorable or noteworthy; too often, it falls victim to the worst cliches of abstract experimentalism, suffused in blunt darkness for darkness’ sake, left to linger on vague, non-committal gestures of sound that struggle to evoke much of interest. Exploring these depths left me, unfortunately, unsatisfied.
Kevin McKinney: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an album that maps itself in quite the way this one does. In each of 3untitled’s three tracks, we start in one spot and spiral outwards, tracing the boundaries of a physical space. Of course, as much as this album can seem to me like a collection of soundscape recordings, nothing about these places really makes sense. Each piece here has some internal consistency, its own logic, but it's sure not our logic. For a few strange minutes, we get to sit in a space where, say, an echo doesn’t work in quite the same way it works on Earth. How wonderful.
Over the last few months, tsss tapes has become my very favorite record label, largely because their music feels so immediate and emotionally intelligible even as it pushes me as a listener. It’s possible that the Jeph Jerman tape in this batch is the exception to that trend, but 3untitled certainly isn’t.
And I’ve never heard anyone manipulate a radio dial better than Masayuki Imanishi. Seriously, can someone please send me a list of the best radio players in experimental music?
Zachariah Cook: Part of the fun of listening to field recordings is guessing what discrete elements the artist uses to craft the illusion of continuous flow. A good field recording, like this one, might work by taking the listener down one traversing path—a single breath carried on by the wind, or the tumult of the water cycle. 3untitled is a very aqueous, terrestrial piece. It’s quite unlike Caura, Imanishi’s last tsss project, which featured the full-on assault of Marco Serrato’s sonorous double bass. That tape was both decadent in its organic qualities and chillingly ethereal. 3untitled may not be as evocative, but it’s anything but inert. As I worked my daily puzzles, I had it on repeat, and was often distracted by images of water churning through underground caverns, gurgling at the mouth of a stream, or even sloshing around inside someone’s mouth. 3untitled is a journey of mundane yet unpredictable proportions, not an adventure into human follies. Sometimes you want that.
Jeph Jerman, Popular Fictions (tsss tapes, 2021)
Jeph Jerman is a sound artist born in Guam and based in Arizona who released tape, noise, and field music solo under the name Hands To in the late ‘80s - ‘90s and under his own name since the late ‘90s, taking particular interest in environmental recording, object improv, and collage. He’s collaborated frequently with other sound artists and repeatedly with Doug Theriault, Greg Davis, and most recently, Tim Barnes; he’s also worked with Giacomo Salis and Paolo Sanna, whose album MOT was released by tsss tapes in 2020. Jerman has put out records on Erstwhile, Confront Recordings, mappa, Falt, Grisaille, and HologramLabel in the past several years. Popular Fictions, out now on tsss tapes, comprises two pieces: “Simple,” which foregrounds parallel streams of spoken word, and “Compound,” a more field-sourced collage.
Purchase Popular Fictions on tsss tapes’ Bandcamp.
Maxie Younger: Popular Fictions is a study in afterimages, spirals of quaint human activity that settle into the nooks and crannies of everyday spaces. Consider opening track “Simple,” a fittingly uncomplicated, repetitive collage of militaristic clicks, vocal snippets, and tinkling noises that sound like the collision of glass bottles. These elements melt into each other, smoothed out like pavement trampled under so many boots; there’s a real sense of place and characterization at work that allows “Simple” to develop such an in-your-face soundscape into something that eventually lulls the listener into a state of relaxation. Voices, anchorless, fading into mist, speaking in circles about nothing in particular: I’m reminded of trips on crowded buses in late afternoons, surrounded by a thousand distinct conversations that could just as well be the buzzing of a thousand honeybees. The second track, “Compound,” proves even more charming by taking a more curious, exploratory approach to its sound design. The noises at play feel more specific—howls of wind, creaking wood—and suggest a space much more physical and grounded than the lilting fantasy of “Simple.” “Compound” also strays much further from its points of origin: as it enters its closing minute, a demented orchestral figure flickers rapidly in and out, warping and bending in a way that suggests the tuning of an old dial radio. Jerman has done great work here, elevating the deceptively simple into something transportive, entrancing; listening is like observing the routines of ghosts.
Jinhyung Kim: Popular Fictions refuses to be read in a sequential or definite manner; it does so with the stubbornness of a Pollock painting or a slab of granite. It’s fruitless to parse from left to right (or vice versa) or in terms of relations between the micro- and macroscopic. The overall lengths and inner proportions of its two side-long collages seem arbitrary—no matter what iteration of a fractal you zoom in on, the pattern is basically the same.
But I don’t need to get too lofty. Jerman suspends elements of collage in firm equilibrium such that, as a listener, I find myself on rather level ground, with no point of elevation from which to survey the landscape or map the terrain. I’m sure this is his intention; he wants us to wander for a bit without a map, to simply feel the ground beneath our feet. I think we might share a frustration with people who make Rorschach tests out of abstract expressionist canvases, those who discover latencies made manifest in flicks of a painter’s wrist. That’s a lens I’m not interested in applying to Popular Fictions—but I do need some more time to walk around.
Kevin McKinney: I love music whose listening I can treat as a game. I’ve put on “Simple,” the first side of Popular Fictions, before bed most nights the last couple weeks, hoping to hear it different each time. A few times I sat with a pen and notebook and tried to jot down as many of its words as possible like password / rush / hurricane / insomnia / switzerland / quantum / eyes / tangential / bubblegum / projection / vermont / later / holograph / my ass. Sometimes I’d follow a word to some association, or to an old inside joke, and then come back to the music, never sure how much of the song had passed. Other times I tried listening only to any sound that isn’t a voice. We hear the recorder click and zip as it turns on and off, but to me the best parts are when we glimpse the rooms these voices are recorded in. I think once or twice I hear the clink of a dish or a tool, and once sentimental strings from a TV, maybe the soundtrack to an old movie. The hardest game is to listen to the voice without wanting to understand it, to hear it as rhythm or melody or drone or texture and nothing else.
Funny enough, this reminds me of fire drills at school as a kid, and the way you could make the sound “flip” depending on whether you were focusing on the rhythm of the alarm itself or the silences between. Yanny/Laurel. The world jumps a foot to the right when I focus with my lazy eye, etc.
It’s hard for me to say much more about this album. In interviews, Jerman asks us to practice a type of listening that I’m not sure I’ve struck many times in my life. Jerman wants us to just listen, to try not to attach meaning to what we’re hearing. My listening is always intertwined with memory, with my personal history and with others’, with conversation and reading. So playing these games is important to me; it’s good to think about what I listen to when I listen to “Simple.” I don’t know: is all this thinking hearing at all?
Shy Thompson: Growing up without a lot of money and not many people around, you find strange ways to entertain yourself. As a kid I was only ever able to get a couple of video games a year, and even though I more than made use of what I had access to, I still eventually got bored of them. Playing in the woods was fun enough, but I was a cowardly child and never wanted to wander too far from home. I experimented with more solitary hobbies like drawing and writing, but when I wasn't feeling creative an easy way to stave off boredom was to surf the local radio stations with the clock radio by my bed.
I could never settle on a station I liked, so I would reach for the dial every couple of minutes. I didn't really like music much at the time, so I preferred to find the stations that primarily consisted of people talking—it was a good enough way to feel like I had some company. But I never understood what any of these people were talking about, so I didn't land on these for very long either. While constantly twiddling with the dial, I started to become more aware of those positions between channels, where you can get audio from more than one of them at once.
This was exciting; I found a way to turn the radio into a game that I could infinitely play, searching for the most interesting combinations of these intermediate broadcast positions. These are the earliest memories I can recall of being fascinated with sound, and they're probably formative in some way or another. I spent hours upon hours listening to these strata of noise, challenging myself to see how much I could identify by paying close attention.
This Jeph Jerman tape sounds exactly like one of my makeshift radio stations. As I lay here, bored and isolated due to a global health crisis and feeling as lonely as I did when I was young, I'm transported back to that place in time where a layer cake of sound that collided by happenstance is enough to put my mind at a temporary state of ease. Jerman improvises in the vast majority of his work, and a radio is even present as a component of the music. I wouldn't be surprised if he was influenced by a similar experience. I appreciate the company.
Thanks for reading the first Organ Grinder issue of 2021. Feel free to share with your friends—and stay warm and safe.