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Ryan Choi - "Three Dancers"

It's been a while since I last saw a release by America's Accretions label, but here they present the debut album of Ryan Choi. He was born in 1984 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and trained on the double bass, but these days he keep himself occupied with playing the ukulele, percussion, 'other string instruments' and electronics. Apparently he was on a 'years-long hiatus from music', but still explores the concepts conceived over the last fifteen years. It is a very short album, clocking at twenty minutes only and has three pieces. In each of these three pieces Choi starts a piece from scratch (it seems) and from there explores the piece further on, adding layer upon layer, but not through the use of loop stations or such like, but 'simply' by adding another note, a different string or changing the rhythm a bit, shifting back and forth. It reminded me from time to time of the music by Agencement, who did something similar, but perhaps with more hectic, nervousness, on the violin, but it shares that similar density from playing an instrument and seemingly without too many electronics, and that made me wonder what part electronics do have in this release. As far as I can judge with my limited knowledge, it seems that they are used to add colour and space to the pieces, in a very moderate fashion. I might be entirely wrong. Also I am not to sure about the extent in which pieces were layered together and/or how much of this was the result of a live improvisation. Not that these things really matter of course. What does matter however is that the music grew on me every time I heard and that it is a great pity there are only three pieces on this album. Otherwise I thought this was a great release.

     - Frans de Ward, Vital Weekly

Ryan Choi was born, and lives, in Honolulu. And he plays ukulele. But that is where the cliches and expectation ends. Because he plays a very different ukulele in a very different way.

But first, let's backtrack a little to say how he came to Elsewhere's attention.

Every week on average Elsewhere receives about a dozen CDs for consideration and about the same number of e-mails from international or local PR people offering albums (these days usually streams or downloads). And then there are the e-mails from the artists themselves...about another dozen.

Most of the latter are just an optimistic blanket mailouts (clearly a blackmetal band From Norway whose album is entitled Kidnap, Rape, Kill Then Bury isn't reading Elsewhere, they get the immediate "trash"). Some are absurdly brief, little more than, "Here's a link to my album, hope you will write about it".

Others are more in-depth and offer links to websites, bandcamp, a place for images and so on.Many however don't even give a hint at the kind of music they make.

Ryan Choi's first e-mail was exactly the kind we on the sharp end like receiving: personal ("Dear Graham" suggests he knows who he is addressing) and to the point.

"I'm inquiring about the possibility of having my two albums reviewed, Three Dancers and Whenmill; the first features the baritone ukulele, percussion and electronics and the second features solo baritone ukulele. All the music was composed, performed and recorded by me..."

And he offered links to soundcloud for the albums, said he would send CDs if that was preferable and also had a link to his website.

All that in a tidy few lines...and he had me at "baritone ukulele, percussion and electronics".

A quick push of a link to a soundcloud page and I was back in touch saying, "Leave this with me".

He spotted my address at the end of the reply and said he'd post actual CDs...and within days they arrived with some promo material, again very focused.

Choi struck me as intelligent, savvy and professional.

And his music...

Choi is in his early 30s, classically trained on double bass and his music on baritone ukulele is perhaps best described as being in the contemporary classical area (with electronics and percussion sometimes.

The fact he lives just outside Downtown Honolulu is interesting, he is "outside" but "Downtown" (fancifully at this distance, that is as in "off-Broadway" and akin to "the Downtown NYC scene" of the late 20th century).

Choi works the margins with challenging, interesting and sometimes mathematically complex original compositions and playing . . . but his work can be highly approachable.

It doesn't all sound like Fred Frith on prepared guitar, but would be enticing for the Kronos Quartet to adapt if they heard it.

From what I have read, he has been away from music for a while and the two albums Three Dancers (which takes its title from Picasso's Les Trois Danseuses) and Whenmill were released a month apart earlier this year.

He might have been away, but he's come back as a man in a hurry and right now is working on a series of piano pieces and another ukulele album.

Three Dancers (in a cover of his own art, a piece which alludes as much to Matisse as Picasso) opens with the sprightly and short Preparations I and IV on prepared baritone ukulele places him close enough to a lively and quirky piece by Frith, but in its rapid changes of tempo and stuttering notes is the perfect introduction to his style.

Some won't find it easy listening but it is quite captivating.

The longer second piece (just over nine minutes) Apollon at Eros is again for prepared ukulele (with wooden box percussion) and its liveliness, melodic angularity and tease (where to next?) suggest a series of discrete ideas formulated separately but pulled together in a coherent and sometimes witty whole.

The six minute title track (prepared baritone ukuleles and electronics) is the most aurally challenging and alluring as no clear melodic lines emerge but it plays off rhythmic elements and hyperactive interplay between the instruments and subtle electronics.

He packs a lot of musical information, improvisation and challenging enjoyment into just 20 minutes.

Whenmill is rather different, a series of four pieces for solo baritone ukulele using unusual tunings and, as before, owing little to vernacular language of ukulele. The opener Quixano has a stately, almost Spanish-guitar sound with passages of languid romanticism.

Inn Blue and the title track which follow again explore more introverted moods than the previous album.

The final 12 minute-plus piece South Aleksandr (as with all these pieces, worked on and recorded some years ago) is a more episodic and expansive exploration of the territory previously marked out.

These gentle pieces are perhaps your easiest in-road to what Choi does...and then you can take on the more demanding but rewarding terrain of the Three Dancers album.

And the mutual discovery of Choi/Elsewhere is what this site is all about.

To check out these albums by Ryan Choi go here. Whenmill and the Three Dancers single are available through iTunes.

     - Graham Reid, Elsewhere

Ryan Choi is a multi-instrumentalist, but his primary instrument is the ukulele. On Three Dancers, his debut album-strictly an EP, at just under twenty minutes-he plays baritone ukuleles with preparations, in both standard and non-traditional tunings, selectively enhanced by percussion or electronics.

Choi was born, and still lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is, of course, the home of the ukulele. Maybe Ryan Choi is his real name; maybe he took it from DC Comics' The All-New Atom. His first instrument was the double bass, but, he says: "my focus in recent years has been on composition, improvisation, and private performance on the ukulele."

I very much doubt that either George Formby or the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had any influence. Nor Hawaiian traditional music come to that, not even as popularised by Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole. The most obvious comparator from a non-Hawaiian perspective must be Eugene Chadbourne, if only because the prepared ukulele and Chad's banjo both sound similarly wiry, barbed and percussive, but also because Choi's approach is just as unconventional and individualist as Chadbourne's.

The three pieces on Three Dancers were all inspired by literature and visual art. The album title references Picasso's Les Trois Danseuses, but the cover art is Choi's own Aquarian.

The lead cut, "Preparations I and IV", features just Choi's prepared baritone ukulele. It's played in a lively, dextrous fingerpicking style, and sounds spontaneous but too melodically intricate and well-rounded to be improvised. It's box-fresh at any rate, vivacious, animated, and absolutely compelling.

"Apollon at Eros", twice as long as the first cut at 9:12, has Choi using a wooden box-It actually sounds more like cardboard-as a percussion instrument, played skiffle-style like a washboard. This provides locomotive and echoic propulsion to a more chordal, roughhouse number with definite echoes of the blues and American Primitivism. As the piece goes on, Choi's soloing develops something of a split personality, with a more relaxed attack on the lower strings for a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar sound that offsets the bare, nervy tensility of the higher notes.

On the third and final cut, "Three Dancers", Choi plays ukulele with electronics, which initially sound as subtle as amplified wisps of finger-on-string contact sounds. But as Choi picks in increasingly crabbed and compulsive clusters, and his flow becomes incessant and insistent, the whole thing sounds weirdly back-masked. It's a striking effect.

And that's it. These three distinctive but complimentary pieces are clearly distillations of much concentrated practice, experimentation and refinement.

Choi has already released a follow-up, Whenmill, which is a digital only album on the Off imprint. It's comprised of four "modern classical" compositions for solo baritone ukulele, for which Choi adopts a more considered and lyrical approach, his ukulele tuned to approximate a Spanish guitar.

In very different ways then, Three Dancers and Whenmill present a rebuke to anyone disinclined to take the ukulele seriously. They are both worth checking out, but the exhilarating Three Dancers is the more exciting discovery. They make one wonder, what next?

     - Tim Owen, Dalston Sound

Ryan Choi is a composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist from Honolulu, Hawaii. After a years-long hiatus from music, he presents his latest work, 'Three Dancers' is based on Pablo Picasso's painting, 'Les Trois Danseuses', although it evolved conceptually over the last fifteen years. Here Choi employs baritone ukulele, percussion and electronics. That's right, ukulele, Hawaii's most popular instrument, but you won't be hearing any "Aloha Oe" hula tunes on this recording. The music is avant-garde, and I'm willing to be you never heard the uke played like this! This EP consists of three pieces- "Preparations I and IV," "Apollo at Eros," and "Three Dancers". Choi's compositions draw as much from literature and visual arts as they do from musical tradition (he designed the CD cover illustration - "Aquarian", if that's any indication) and the music may be as much sound installation as it is conceptual audio.

The first thing likely to be noticed is that Choi's compositions are very busy. I don't know how much multi-tracking was done for the ukulele, but I have a hard time believing that it wasn't overdubbed as there is just so much going on. There are influences here that stem from traditional Asian and African playing; it's very rhythmic, snd the tunings are obviously not Western. The little melody that you may discern is a hybrid of jazz and avant-garde classical with an Eastern touch. This is a guy who really knows his way around the ukulele too, evoking things out of the instrument I never considered possible. Choi utilizes a combination of strum, finger picks, slides, and bends (sometimes seemingly simultaneous) in his improvisations. Some segments seem to have a familiarity in form while others are just completely abstract, but there is a cohesiveness to it all. In that cohesiveness though, there is a similarity throughout that may have the casual listener thinking, "this all just sounds the same". I assure you it's not. "Preparations I and IV" seem to have a more traditional bent to them, in both the hard strum technique and individual notes. There is no other rhythmic component than the uke, which is generally sporadic. "Apollon at Eros" brings in the hand percussion (some kind of flat sounding drum) to anchor the piece while the ukulele stretches out exploring a variety of different motifs. As far as improvisation goes, it's absolutely marvelous and never stumbles, laying out at times while the percussion remains in effect to gather new energy and momentum. "Three Dancers" is the most abstract of all pieces, and this is the only one where I can hear the (subtle) electronics in play. It almost sounds backwards at times, with a certain rhythmic quailty that isn't quite obvious. Any concession to melodic form, even in the abstract, is absent here for the most part as Choi explores terrain hitherto unknown.

These pieces play remarkably quickly for about 20 minutes worth of music, likely because the playing has a lot of rapid motion. While certainly not for everyone, those discriminating listeners who enjoy avant-garde music that is purposefully conceived and carried out should find 'Three Dancers' fascinating.

     - Steve Mecca, Chain DLK

Mick Jagger famously recalled seeing the Rutles' Che Stadium concert from such a distance that he wondered, "Is it really the Rutles? It might be somebody else." Listening to "Three Dancers," the new EP by Ryan Choi, inspires similar thoughts. The press materials say that Choi plays baritone ukulele, but his work on these three original instrumental compositions is so far removed from mainstream ukulele music that it is easy to wonder if he might be playing something else - maybe a professionally crafted instrument, maybe something he made at home.

That's not a bad thing for people with open minds to what constitutes music. Choi's compositions also include percussion of unidentified types and "electronics." His picking and rhythmic strumming of a string instrument - we'll take his word it's a baritone ukulele - adds melodic fragments as well as additional percussive rhythms to the mix. The results are almost guaranteed to be unlike anything else that is going to come out of Hawaii this year. That's not a bad thing, either.

     - John Berger, The Star Advertiser


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