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Laptop Folkie

By Marc Weidenbaum

Taking the stage on July 9 at the Mermaid Lounge in New Orleans’s Central Business District, Norihide sat down beside a small desk. Along with his rustic, loosely strung acoustic guitar and a black Apple laptop computer, he had with him a small mixing board, a clarinet, a harmonica and a single drum.

His most valuable asset, though, was a disarmingly intent disposition, which seemed to magically win over the crowd as soon as the club’s piped in music was shut off and he started to strum his guitar. The Mermaid, like most small concert venues, is a place where there’s sure to be people talking at the bar throughout any given show, no matter the dollar amount of the cover charge. But Norihide had no difficulty achieving the level of silence necessary for his music to be heard. “My music is very quiet,” he would say later in the show, “but please enjoy.” By that point, two songs in, almost everyone had long since closed their mouths, and focused on this slight figure on stage, playing simple melodies on an eccentric assortment of simple instruments: an ascetic one-man band.

The evening was billed as night of electronic music. Norihide is supporting his new album, Modern, released earlier this year on the New York-based Carpark record label. Headlining were members of Animal Collective, who are based out of Brooklyn, and also playing was a local innovator named Potpie who specializes in drones and soundscapes.

All three acts make music well under the radar of popular culture. Norihide favors an un-ostentatiously experimental brand of electronica. His Modern album welcomes listeners with familiar sounds — a guitar line, the echo of an acoustic piano, the tinny rap of a drum, the occasional bit of computer-driven percussion — and then re-arranges them in ways that are often surprising. He is adept at setting up certain expectations based on how songs traditionally develop, and then going in unusual directions; though most electronic music emphasizes rhythm and texture, Norihide is also concerned with the shape of his melodies, and with the way some canny repetition and the odd offbeat can alter the listener’s perspective.

The stage at the Mermaid Lounge was anything but barren when Norihide ambled out, close to 11:30pm. Though his own setup was minimal, he was surrounded by the equipment for the other acts playing that evening. The contrast couldn’t have been any greater than when he lifted his worn acoustic guitar to his lap and began to strum; any audience member who ended up at the show entirely by chance might would have been forgiven for mistaking Norihide for a singer-songwriter. Listeners to Modern and to Norihide’s previous collection, Humour (Study and I), however, would have recognized in this opening solo guitar piece the outline of a slowly churning rhythm that is one of his trademarks. The song, though, could just as likely have been an understated, vocal-less cover of the Jam’s “English Rose.”

After a minute or two, Norihide brought his solo guitar piece to a close and popped open his laptop. Bathed in the active-matrix glow, he pressed a button, which triggered a track of guitar playing, very much like the piece he’d just played himself. He joined in, soloing on top of the backing track. He then traded his guitar for a harmonica as a buzz emerged slowly — not feedback, but a thick, lush backdrop.

The initial batch of pieces he played, all between two and five minutes, were marked by their instrumentation. All had a similar, rural feeling; whether on guitar or harmonica, he played hum-able melodies but no indelible, pop-song riffs. For the third song he employed some prerecorded piano, against which he strummed guitar, sometimes purposefully out of synch with the recording. For the fourth he played clarinet against a prerecorded clarinet track. The live clarinet complemented the taped one, sometimes veering into it, sometimes playing something entirely apart. Two minutes in, the piece sped up considerably and then there was a momentary pause. If you were observing Norihide’s face during this brief interim, you saw him watching his laptop screen for a cue, like a first violinist watching for a signal from a conductor.

Throughout the concert, the pieces appeared to be thoroughly pre-arranged. Norihide might improvise atop a prerecorded track, but he wasn’t doing much with the laptop as an instrument, per se. He strummed while his Apple produced wood blocks and castanets, or a tea-kettle wail, or a clarinet line, or a synthesized haze. In contrast with many laptop musicians, he was distinctly not working with a small heap of computer samples and stringing them together; instead there was a predefined sequence to each track, and he played along with it. That said, there was a pronounced intimacy between Norihide and his laptop.

For his penultimate number, Norihide shut his computer and returned to the solo guitar that had opened the show. His strumming, with its intricate finger pattern and manifest repetition, recalled John Fahey’s philosophical brand of acoustic folk music, in particular how Norihide would appear to repeat phrases until they sat right, and only then move on to a variation. There was a freedom in the evening’s few laptop-less songs that wasn’t as evident in the ones where he played along with recorded accompaniment.

At the end of the concert, just before midnight, Norihide told the audience he was about to sing a song in Japanese, which with its sad tone could very well have been a Jonathan Richman tune heard in translation. He invited everyone to sing the “sha la la la” part, breaking the spell he’d cast earlier in the evening when he had requested quiet. As it had earlier, the crowd obliged dutifully.

Related links: Ogurusu Norihide's website. Carpark Records's website.

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