I’ve reviewed plenty of experimental albums, both jazz and electronica, that sound like little more than a collection of recorded noises. The real trick in evaluating such recordings is to find the weave of music that’s hidden among the random sounds. It’s always a matter of degree, the balance between Noise v. Music, especially when this is all so subjective. Prickly Pear Cactus from avant-garde instrumentalist-composer Ikue Mori turned out to be a tricky proposition, but one that ultimately led me to a strange, mysterious kind of music that haunted me days after listening to it.
Ikue Mori had a great idea when she decided to enlist pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura for this collaboration. The three of them worked through Zoom, with Fujii and Tamura sending sound files recorded at home to Mori so she could wrap them in a blanket of odd synthesized and real sounds. (This is how a lot of music is being made during the Covid Age.) The genius of this approach is enhanced by the exquisite sound quality, so we get very clear delineations between the real and the artificial to the point where it all sounds real, all performed by three people making unusual but live sounds in a single room.
The first time I listened to Prickly Pair Cactus, I heard a lot of random noise. It was truly interesting noise, and the amazing sound quality kept me focused, but in the end I fell just short of grappling with these unorthodox ideas. The second listen to Ikue Mori and her fascinating approach, however, yielded something far more rewarding. The trick is to follow the melodic lines from the piano and the trumpet and allow their juxtaposition with Mori’s huge catalog of sound to provide the structure for the music. That’s when it all comes together.
Just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned how pieces of music, albums really, can become forever entwined with a piece of high-end audio gear if the listening session is truly memorable. That time, it was the Volti Audio Razz loudspeakers, which are extraordinarily dynamic and fun. This time it’s, well, the Volti Audio Razzes again. The Voltis excelled at laying out this complicated album and capturing all the potent ideas that Ikue Mori demonstrates. The result was pure fun–at regular intervals, Mori surprises you with dynamic sounds that give you goosebumps, startle you or give you feeling of exhilaration. And that’s where the music is.
After this listening session, I witnessed something I’ve never seen. Through the entire album, I noticed that my dog Lucy was sitting quietly on the floor, in the sweet spot, transfixed by Prickly Pear Cactus. I’ve never seen her do that before. That’s how real these sounds are, so present and exciting. Lucy dug this recording. If you’re the adventurous type, you will too.