Ikue Mori is as one of the most singular musicians in modern music history. She emerged in the late 70s as the percussionist in DNA, a jagged, viciously dissonant trio led by singer-guitarist Arto Lindsay. A crucial part of New York’s no-wave scene, the band created noisy koans that relied on conceptual brio rather than traditional artistry—almost no one in DNA used conventional instrumental technique, and Mori had no musical training or experience when she was recruited. The playing she did back then remains arresting today—uninhibited by formal baggage, she masterfully blended faux-tribal primitivism with a weirdly melodic sensibility.
Since those rudimentary beginnings, Mori has consistently tweaked her sound and evolved her approach. After DNA fell apart, she began experimenting with drum machines and eventually switched to laptop, where she developed a distinctive sound—fluid and abstract, it translated her percussive vocabulary into a globular mass. She’s been refining that aesthetic for decades now, in solo efforts and in a wide variety of collaborations: a short list includes Phantom Orchard with harpist Zeena Parkins, Death Ambient with guitarist Fred Frith and bassist Kato Hideki, a series of recordings with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, and informal meetings with folks as disparate as vocalist-electronicist Maja Ratkje and percussionist Steve Noble. Obelisk, the debut recording of a beguiling composition-oriented band with Courvoisier, drummer Jim Black, and cellist Okkyung Lee, is due imminently. Even more exciting, Mori has just dropped one of the best recordings of her career: Highsmith (Tzadik), a dazzling duo with pianist Craig Taborn.
Taborn is one the most exciting, curious, and unpredictable pianists in any genre, but I was a little unsure whether his meticulously etched playing would work with Mori’s slithering, spasmodic soundscapes. My concern seems silly in hindsight: throughout the record, both musicians exhibit heightened listening skills, varying their approaches track by track. Mori has broadened her palette, and by occasionally adding visceral, abrasive noise to her spaced-out bloops and percussive flurries, she can fracture her often serene sonic daydreaming with startling intensity. She’s never had so many responses and possibilities at the ready to help her engage with relatively aggressive partners, and Taborn takes it all in stride, unfazed by even her most blanketing floods of sound.
Mori makes two rare Chicago appearances this weekend. On Sunday at the Hungry Brain she’ll play two improvised sets, the first a duo with reedist Ken Vandermark and the second a trio with drummers Tim Daisy and Phil Sudderberg. Mori was one of many players who participated in Vandermark’s residency at New York venue the Stone in January 2016, and their quartet with trumpeter Nate Wooley and guitarist Joe Morris is a highlight of the wonderful box set chronicling the series, Momentum 1: Stone (Audiographic). On Monday she’ll perform solo as part of the Option Series at Experimental Sound Studio, followed by a discussion with Vandermark about her work.
Below you can hear the entirety of Mori’s set with Vandermark, Morris, and Wooley.
Motif, My Head Is Listening (Clean Feed)
Jan St. Werner, Felder (Thrill Jockey)
Various artists, Soul Sok Séga: Séga Sounds From Mauritius 1973-1979 (Strut)
Bon Iver, 22, a Million (Jagjaguwar)
Jimmy Holiday, Spread Your Love: The Complete Minit Singles 1966-1970 (Kent)