Essential New Music: Tetuzi Akiyama’s “Thaumaturgy”

If you had to sum up the relationship between magicians and their audiences in one question, it would be, “Do you want me to trick you, or do you want to catch me trying to trick you?” And if you polled the audience while under the influence of an infallible truth serum, the preponderant answer would be, “Both.” Hey, everyone wants what they can’t have, right? 

Thaumaturgy refers to the ability to conjure magic or work miracles. By so naming his first solo album in a decade, Japanese guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama is practically inviting you to watch for his sleight of hand. Don’t bother; as long as your eyes are on his fingers, you’ll never catch it. But if you close your eyes, you’ll know it’s there. 

It’s fair to call Akiyama a rolling stone. He tours the world, improvising with American free-jazz musicians, collaborating with European experimentalists and duetting with fellow devotees of the guitar. His playing encompasses blaring boogie riffs, transformative instrumental preparations and sparse, atonal figures, but you won’t find any of that on Thaumaturgy. Each of the LP’s 11 pieces is an acoustic-guitar solo, and none of them spends much time on drama, aggression, virtuosic display or overt dissonance. Instead, Akiyama traces spare melodies that hint at classical and folk styles, but they never commit to any genre.

The more your brain registers what this music is not, the more it’s turned back to what it is: a sequence of quiet, cohesive musical structures whose inherent abstraction invites you to appreciate forms and sounds as ends in themselves. So, don’t look; just listen, with your ears and mind open. You won’t see Akiyama perform any magic, but you’ll feel it when the spell is cast.

—Bill Meyer