Fuubutsushi was only ever meant to be a one-off; an album made through Zoom and Dropbox at the height of the pandemic by four musicians - Matthew Sage, Chris Jusell, Chaz Prymek, and Patrick Shiroishi - who had never been in a room together. Just for the sake of it. Instead, close friendships were formed and a series of seasonally themed albums followed; albums of comfort, love, and attention.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Illustration: Johanna Nolgard
There is a scene in the 2021 Mike Mills film C’mon C’mon, where radio journalist Johnny (played by Joaquin Phoenix) has taken his nine-year-old nephew Jesse to New York City for the first time and is showing him how to use his radio equipment, how to record sounds by simply pointing a microphone at them and, through it, listen to his surroundings more intently. “You know what I love about recording?” Johnny asks Jesse, who is busy pointing a microphone at the traffic on Manhattan Bridge, “You get to keep these sounds, you get to keep them forever. You’re making this mundane thing immortal.”
C’mon C’mon deals with memory, and remembering through sound. After being introduced to recording, Jesse spends the majority of the film engaged in acts of preservation. Recording his uncle, recording himself, but mostly just wandering around city streets with a headset on, weeding through cacophony to find and record sounds that would from thereon carry significance for him and him alone.
In its lush ambient foundation (featuring a superb score by Bryce and Aaron Dessner) and use of recorded sound as a narrative tool, C’mon C’mon often reminded me of Natsukashii, a collaborative album by Chris Jusell, Chaz Prymek, Matthew Sage and Patrick Shiroishi, and the final instalment in their Fuubutsushi series. Both are attempts to reconcile with time, and to ultimately seek comfort in its passing.
It is easy to see why both C’mon C’mon and the Fuubutsushi series have resonated so much with their respective audiences, as we’re entering the third year of a pandemic that has drastically altered the way many of us perceive time. The latter especially is a product of this unique moment in time, born from an excess of hours, made entirely through Zoom and Dropbox by four musicians who had never once been in a room together.
Watch the Time
Violinist Chris Jusell, multi-instrumentalist Chaz Prymek and saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi were all aware of each other’s existence. All of them were prolific artists in each other’s musical periphery, had either met in passing or had mutual friends. But none of them had ever collaborated, until experimental artist Matthew Sage reached out to the three of them with a proposition.
Sage had recently made a habit of more actively involving others in his work. His confounding album Seymour saw him coalesce seamlessly with likeminded composers Zander Raymond and Gianni Andreatta; back in 2019 he had already invited Jusell, Prymek and Shiroishi to each make their individual contribution to his solo effort The Wind of Things. . The excess of time and the looming apathy of pandemic life saw Sage pushing this a little further, inviting his colleagues not to contribute to his work, but to create something together; to form a band, with all members on other ends of one enormous country. Sage in Chicago, Jusell in Colorado, Prymek in Missouri, and Shiroishi in Los Angeles.
Whether it was out of boredom or trust in Sage, who had made a small name for himself with his Patient Sounds label (recently resuscitated as Cached Media), all invitees said yes to the project. Quickly a group chat was formed, some basic conversations were had about their shared love of ECM and the defunct new-age folk label Windham Hill Records, and within two weeks of Sage sending some unadorned piano tracks around, the album Fuubutsushi (September 2020) was done and dusted.
"That’s what people feel when they listen to the music; it’s that we were communing – in a way that was sort of unnatural.”Matthew Sage
‘Fuubutsushi’ (風物詩), a Japanese word referring to a sense of seasonal nostalgia – longing for the approaching season upon its first sign – quickly became the group’s moniker too. Because as soon as the first album was done, it was clear to all that more would follow, and so did Setsubun (February 2021), Yamawarau ) and Natsukashii (August 2021). That which turned out to be a seasonally themed series is now completed, but the release of the 25-minute song ‘ ‘Good Sky Day’ in October 2021 implies that there’s still plenty of fun to be had together for Sage, Jusell, Prymek and Shiroishi.
Because fun, or levity if you will, has always been at the core of Fuubutsushi, Sage tells me over Zoom. “At first, the idea was to just make a really warm, nice, easy record to listen to, because everyone was so stressed out.” All musicians involved reined in their more abrasive, experimental tendencies. “We all tried to challenge ourselves to make something really sweet and forward, to explore something that was very much not in our own avenues,” ending up with what Sage describes as being “too sweet to be an ECM record.”
Take the frivolous whistling and feather-light percussion on ‘Chorus Wheel’, or the pastoral ‘Shepherd’s Stroll’ with its clarinet, wind chimes, and field recordings of bleating goats. It’s almost aggressively quaint at times, but never to a fault. It’s the chemistry of these four gifted musicians that keeps Fuubutsushi’s music miles removed from the more insipid kind of new-age jazz; an audible chemistry that’s all the more remarkable given the digital environment it was created in.
Sage: “It’s one of those things that is a piece of the magic to me, a little bit of the lore of the project. We just had this chemistry that eluded all of us. It was three people whose playing I trust; three incredibly gifted listeners and musicians, and I could see it not working, but… it just worked.”
“I do think we all had a moment, especially after the first record, where it was like: it sounds like we’re in the room together, playing together! And we realised we couldn’t stop doing this. In that way we also became support for one another while we were going through these really challenging moments in our lives. We couldn’t necessarily be together for it, but we could talk to each other in a group chat or catch up in a Zoom meeting or make a song. And I always knew I was making something for three people who I trusted to listen to it. That was consoling in its own way. It felt really communal, even though we were really isolated. That’s what people feel when they listen to the music; it’s that we were communing – in a way that was sort of unnatural.”
Even though the main forms of communication were group chats and Zoom sessions, and there was never a possibility to play off each other, the many different layers on each Fuubutsushi song came together unspoken and unaddressed. Files would simply be uploaded by each individual member to the designated Dropbox folders, until, during a Zoom marathon, Sage assembled everything and finalised the mix for the album. Mutual trust made any further creative cross-examination redundant.
It allowed for each member to make their distinct mark on the project – Patrick Shiroishi, in particular. Among the idyll that permeates most of Fuubutsushi’s music, he contributed a series of interview excerpts that are sprinkled throughout all four albums, seemingly designed to turn soothing into solemnity; to draw the listener back into reality, albeit briefly. The interviews are with survivors of the U.S. concentration camps in which, during World War II, about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry (two-thirds of them U.S. citizens) were kept. This history has been a recurring theme for Shiroishi, whose paternal grandparents were imprisoned in a camp in Northern California. His gut-wrenching album Descension (2020) is an instrumental meditation on this dark history ‘and its echoing relevance in the present era’; last year’s Hidemi centres on the resulting trauma in Shiroishi’s own family. In the peaceful realm of Fuubutsushi, however, he found a way to express himself more explicitly than ever.
Sage: “Patrick started putting these recordings into the record and we completely believed in the message he was sharing; we felt that it was important, and so we didn’t say anything. Talking about their intentionality felt like a moot point. It’s part of his practice to explore his Japanese American heritage through instrumental music. And when he found an avenue to use words for it, we all shut up and let him talk.”
“I believe in this ability – and this isn’t just music, it happens in comedy – of making an audience feel safe and then in that moment giving them something important to handle. We would make these warm, safe compositions that were full of these beautiful melodies, and then in those moments where we felt we really had the audience, we could say: now is the time to talk about a really important part of American history that’s often overlooked. Especially because while we were working on this, there was a huge outbreak of crimes against Asian Americans in the United States.”
Friends with Foxes
When the members of Fuubutsushi simply shut up and listened to Shiroishi’s testimonies, it indicated their collective commitment to listening as an activity; listening to others, listening to nature, listening to the world. Environment is at the centre. Not in the way we have come to think of it as a natural world from which we, human beings, have removed ourselves in an act of dogged exceptionalism, but merely the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded. The fact that each member found themselves inspired by a very different locale, leaves Fuubutsushi’s music largely suspended mid-air; like a peregrine falcon taking only occasional deep dives to get a closer look in.
“A microphone gives you the opportunity to point to a creek, to point to a tree bending in the wind. It gives a sense of empowerment."Matthew Sage
Just like ‘Shepherd’s Stroll’ was inspired by Chaz Prymek’s work as a Missouri goat shepherd, Sage found inspiration for Natsukashii’s 11-minute opening track in seeing a boy getting his kite stuck in a tree in Chicago’s Chopin Park. After four years of city living, it took a pandemic for Sage to truly listen to his surroundings. “It became so quiet here, and Chicago was not a quiet place. I live really close to the airport, so there’s always airplanes going over, but there were no airplanes, no traffic, except the sirens, which there were a lot more of in those first few weeks of the pandemic. I was listening to the world responding to a change in human activity, which was a different sound palette than what I was used to.”
Still, it’s away from the city that Sage’s listening becomes most intentional. “I’ve been with my wife for almost ten years at this point, so when we’re walking, she’ll hear a sound and know that I’m going to stop and listen to it. That’s part of walking for me: I give myself these opportunities to stop and listen to a soundscape, listen to a place. And if I have my recorder with me, it’s a totally different kind of listening.”
Sage elaborates: “A microphone gives you the opportunity to point to a creek, to point to a tree bending in the wind. There’s an agency in pointing at a thing and listening to it that’s not necessarily available when you just sit and listen to the entire spectrum of the world. The tree bending in the wind is just one character in the ensemble of the woods you’re walking through, but when you point to it with a microphone, it becomes a soloist.”
He refers to an essay by Brunhild Ferrari, the wife of electroacoustic pioneer Luc Ferrari, titled ‘The Microphone’s Gaze’. In it she writes: “Just as two people do not internally perceive an object in the same way even though they might see it at the same time, whoever holds the mic receives the sound intimately and internally, already freighted with intention and purpose, while the ear of the other can listen freely. (…) The dialogue between them consists precisely in exchanging these different perceptions, which enriches the experiences and sensations of them both.”
One moment on Yamawarau especially captures the weight intentional listening can carry, while simultaneously contributing to Fuubutsushi’s wide-angled view on the world. It is Sage’s rapid answer to the question which of the many field recordings on all four albums stands out most to him.
“One of the times we had a chance to get out of the city was in May (of 2020, ed.). We went to Wisconsin, which is not too far from Chicago. We were camping at the bottom of this glacial valley and we were right next to this river that was incredibly loud, so I got these incredible field recordings of the river. We then left the camping trip early, because we were hearing about what was happening in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd, and we heard that they were going to shut down the highways to Chicago and realized we needed to get home before that happened.”
“While in the car home, I went into my field recorder and realised that I was recording this river the moment George Floyd was killed by the police. And so that sound made it onto Yamawarau, because it’s important to me. No one would ever know that if you would just listen to it, but I think that’s part of what’s incredible about field recordings for me. They have this indelible fingerprint of a moment on them – whether you know it’s there or not. I may never explain to someone why or how I’m using a sound, but that sound carries significance to me that’s beyond words in most instances.”
The use of the river sounds on ‘Wisconsin Basin’ is at the core of why Sage makes the music he makes. “I studied writing, I thought I was going to be a poet growing up, and I still do write poetry, but I never share any of it, because I find that wordless, instrumental music often does the same thing poetry does, which is to communicate this incredibly complex thing with the least amount of information possible. This field recording is most important to me, because it has this depth, it has this moment, but it’s also this beautiful, gorgeous, sonorous river.”
The river, the protest sounds on ‘Mistral’, the Japanese American testimonies – there’s a plethora of stories on the four albums Sage, Jusell, Prymek, and Shiroishi have made together (so far), most of them without a spoken narrative, bound together only by the Fuubutsushi moniker. Ultimately, it is an effort of four musicians stuck in time, finding ways to make it pass and seeking comfort in collaboration. What any of it means, is anyone’s interpretation. Sage: “Often when I listen to someone sing a song with lyrics, it feels like it’s a song about them for them. When I listen to instrumental music, it feels like a song by someone for an audience. And that seems really nice to me.”
And so it was a tremendous confirmation when Fuubutsushi finally played their first (and so far only) live show at the Columbia, Missouri Experimental Music Festival this past fall – the only time the four of them have physically been in a room together – and got to finally meet their audience. “People said it has been what kept them company through the year that we made it. And that’s maybe one of the kindest things that a listener could say about our music. They took it on walks. Knowing that our music accompanied someone on a walk during this really challenging point in human history is so flattering and it makes me feel really grateful to have made these songs with these friends.”