Surrendering sight to sound

The sultry, soaring voice of Aspidistrafly's April Lee (above) was filled with melancholic introspection.
The sultry, soaring voice of Aspidistrafly's April Lee (above) was filled with melancholic introspection. PHOTO: ESPLANADE

Japanese pianist Haruka Nakamura and fellow folk musicians Aspidistrafly perform in the dark at a joint showcase

REVIEW / CONCERT

MUSIC WITH SCENERY: HARUKA NAKAMURA PIANO ENSEMBLE AND ASPIDISTRAFLY

Esplanade Recital Studio/Thursday

Rarely do musicians perform in almost pitch darkness, but that is exactly what Kitchen. Label artists Haruka Nakamura Piano Ensemble and Aspidistrafly did on Thursday evening, in their first joint showcase here as part of the Esplanade's Super Japan - Japanese Festival of Arts.

The two-act tribute to ambient sound and mellow, carefree folk - amid 19 tiny standing orange lights to help the musicians see their instruments - was what it might have been like when cavemen first sat around a fire as cicadas, nightbirds and an evening breeze chirruped and whooshed around them.

Singer-songwriter April Lee and Kitchen.Label founder Ricks Ang are Aspidistrafly, whose name comes from the title of George Orwell's 1936 anti-capitalist novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Aspidistrafly launched the evening. As black-and-white slides of a full moon, an outstretched hand and a pensive Pierrot flashed on a screen behind them, the duo were the epitome of melancholic introspection with their lush preponderance of major seventh chords and Lee's sultry, soaring voice, reminiscent of the alto flute. They suffused the audience with a deep, Debussy-like beauty, making listeners feel one with the universe, all agony melting away with Lee's every inflection.

It was often hard to make out what she was singing about, but then mystique, not lyricism, was their thing.

The slide show ended with Aspidistrafly's 30-minute set, as the beloved Japanese pianist Nakamura took the stage with four friends - violinist Rie Nemoto, Araki Shin on flute and saxophone, Akira Uchida also on saxophone and Isao Saito on drums.

The audience could barely make them out in the dark, and soon had goosebumps when a barely perceptible figure in a heavy coat walked among the audience, sounding a triangle and bells with a sinister portent.

This contrasted quite surreally with self-taught Nakamura's musical sensibilities, which consisted of pristine sound teased out in tickles, flutters and flounces.

Every piece the ensemble embarked on built to a seemingly endless loop of joyous notes. Depending on how much one liked repetitive cadences that went nowhere, a la Philip Glass, the experience might either be like watching someone put glistening grains of sand into a bottle with chopsticks, or standing still as raindrops kept falling on your head.

Nemoto and Lee were the evening's standouts. Nemoto's sonorous and superbly tempered timbre was a revelation of how exquisite the strings could be, and brought this listener to the brink of tears.

Aspidistrafly returned to play with the ensemble on the last two numbers, ending with Twilight.

There was no encore which was fair enough after two solid hours of surrendering sight to sound.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'Surrendering sight to sound'. Print Edition | Subscribe