While visiting Japan mid-December, I had a single night free for a concert. Katsura Yamauchi and Mitsuhiro Yoshimura were scheduled to play Loop-Line, a small gallery near Sendagaya Station, on December 13. Yamauchi is a saxophonist. Yoshimura was billed with “headphone, microphone.” This I was looking forward to.From afar, I’ve monitored the Loop-Line concert listings, a mix of local experimentalists and expats, on the gallery’s website, loop-line.jp. I’d never been to Loop-Line before, but you could say I’d heard it. One standout recording of 2006 was a live Loop-Line collaboration between Darren McClure and Hiroyuki Ura, who in advance of their show made field recordings of the neighborhood for use as sonic raw materials. They later posted the resulting music online (at standard-music.net).
I managed to follow the elegant blue map on the Loop-Line website with assistance from the concierge at my hotel, four stations away by rail. Judging by the quietude of that McClure-Ura recording and the input of some friends in advance of my trip, I figured Sendagaya to be sleepy. Heck, the 13th was a Wednesday. But Brazil played Japan that evening in soccer, and when I exited the station the street overflowed with people in every direction.
That blue map shows three white squares: stadium, Mos Burger franchise, Shinto shrine. Loop-Line is down a narrow one-way street and sits to the right of a little exercise space, which I took to be the fitness equivalent of urban Japan’s famed cram schools. Loop-Line is in the basement. There’s a blue neon sign at the top of the stairs, but it’s only visible from one direction.
There were three sets, one each by Yamauchi and Yoshimura, after which they played together. Yoshimura went first, using nothing but his headphones and amplification for close to half an hour. Turning the headphone into an instrument, especially an instrument of expertly controlled sounds, was ingenious; he took a tool of reception and flipped its usage. Yoshimura exuded concentration, grasping the headphones as one might a squeeze box.
Yamauchi followed with 15 minutes on sax. He employed circular breathing, emphasizing tone over melody, and as with Yamauchi’s, his performance was marked by intense control. He flirted with passion only when, during the closing minutes, he played something suggesting Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”
Then came the duet, Yamauchi’s sax inserted between Yoshimura’s soft, feedback-derived tones. Perhaps to match Yoshimura’s investigation of his unusual instrument, Yamauchi played the less standard aspects of his sax, emphasizing tactile quality, saliva and overtones. Yoshimura matched these with his electronics.
A drink was tagged onto your ticket, bringing the cost of entry to about $20. Before, between and after the sets, I sipped my Scotch and soda with a slice of lime and listened as the bartender played a CD of classic jazz. Though I’d never been to Loop-Line, I felt at home. It could have been an avant-garde space with a small but committed audience in any city, the original Knitting Factory on a weeknight back in the late 1980s, or the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco today. Loop-Line, all stark white walls and dark wood floor, benefits from being below ground. Nestled in bedrock, it’s a great place for quiet music, almost entirely devoid of outside noise. And being down that narrow one-way street doesn’t hurt.
As at any such space, the crowd knew each other. No doubt half of them, maybe a dozen or so total, have played at the Loop-Line themselves. I found myself mapping familiar faces from S.F. onto theirs, though the Loop-Line regulars were considerably better dressed. On the walls that evening hung willfully staid paintings, aesthetic comrades to the duo’s music. The paintings looked like textile designs as imagined by Agnes Martin, rough but elegant patterns of curves, cuts and lines.