by Steven Arroyo
MARCH 26 2018
The avant-garde composer and the tabla master orchestrate a controlled collision of their approaches, with harmonious results.
Look around and find the nearest ordinary object. Anything will do, really. You might be staring at Shuta Hasunuma’s next musical instrument. The 34-year-old composer’s idea of an orchestra is as likely to resemble a cluttered attic as a string ensemble. Those aren’t hypothetical examples: On the top floors of a gallery in Brooklyn, Hasunuma’s current interactive exhibit, Compositions, invites visitors to make sounds using objects including glass bottles, a tattered cardboard Amazon delivery box, and a basketball. Elsewhere, in a recent open call for his philharmonic orchestra, Hasunuma urged applicants not to worry whether or not something qualifies as an instrument before using it to audition. Which brings us back to that nearby object—is it your computer? Perfect. As he noted in that same open call, if you bash a computer with a rock, it will make a sound, and thus music.
Hironori Yuzawa’s craft has a tighter definition: He plays the tabla. Where Hasunuma has probed a thousand different instruments, seeking the right pitch from each, Yuzawa mainly sticks to just the one, coaxing a thousand different voices from the compact South Asian drums for his recordings as U-zhaan.
The two Japanese musicians’ new collaborative album, 2 Tone, is a controlled collision of these opposite approaches, with harmonious results. It’s a mostly tranquil piece, with unexpected splashes of sound disturbing the gentle ambience that Hasunuma creates using keyboards and synths. The two musicians’ ultra-light touch pulls you in, at which point their surprises come out.
Hasunuma is the lead architect here, but it’s U-zhaan’s skill that really opens doors. His tabla is, at various moments, a percolating coffee machine, a cockroach scampering under a rug, and a heartbeat. “Music for Five Tablas” features nothing more than generously spaced tabla hits, with U-zhaan reaching beyond rhythm with some pitch-perfect intervals. “Radio S,” the best of the three tracks here that stretch into the seven-to-eight-minute range, opens with serene raindrops, eventually develops a frantic rhythm, and then settles somewhere in the middle. The track comes full circle in its just-polyrhythmic-enough final minute, powerfully positive and twice as danceable as the duo gets anywhere else.
They expand 2 Tone’s world further with three guest features from experimental luminaries. Ryuichi Sakamoto brings down the mood for a spell on the dark and dissonant “Lal,” while Arto Lindsay sings his own lyrics and adds guitar effects to the anaesthetized “Green Gold Grey,” which sounds as though it’s being breathed into the ear. Each of the cameo tracks is a success in its own right, even if they somewhat distract from an otherwise focused experiment. The Devendra Banhart-murmured “A Kind of Love Song,” especially, feels like an intrusion from a different album. It’s graceful and contemplative, but as a piano ballad in the midst of Hasunuma and U-zhaan’s formless exploration, it’s out of place.
That’s not to say that the balanced partnership at 2 Tone’s center is necessarily incongruent with pop-leaning songwriting, and the album’s best highlight attests to this. On the penultimate track, “Dryer,” Hasunuma gives a warm and friendly lead vocal performance—his only singing on the album—while U-zhaan does triple duty, contributing horn and acoustic guitar on top of his usual percussion. The song shifts accordingly, from a calmly strolling chorus to a bridge of over-caffeinated 16th notes and back again. And then, after all the push and pull, it finds a peaceful resolution.