Digital Release Review: Shoshin Trio “The Shape of Emptiness Now”

“It’s quite impossible to listen to this music with any preconceived ideas of what music should be.” – Dawoud Kringle

Shoshin TrioArtist: Shoshin Trio
Title: The Shape of Emptiness Now
Label: self-produced
Genre: improv/free jazz/contemporary

Review by Dawoud Kringle

Shoshin (初心) is a Zen Buddhist and Japanese martial arts term that translates as “beginner’s mind.” It describes the attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions when studying or doing something.  Shoshin holds true whether one is studying at a beginner’s or an advanced level.

Shoshin Trio from Bloomington (Illinois) with Michael Carlson (drums), Stefen Robinson (alto saxophone and electric mandolin), MFM member Matthew Smith (computer), and guest Grant Souder (double bass) bases their musical improvisations on the “beginner’s mind” concept within a constrained and meditative form.

Their earlier releases, Latency, Clean Cuts, and It’s Not A Cult, It’s A Movement are the epitome of experimental, ambient music. They center on the use of sampled sound as a foundation and template for musical improvisation. There are no song structures here; only pure improvisational stream of consciousness (it should be noted that Shoshin Trio is not to be confused with Sho Shin Trio, an Italian ensemble with a similar musical / artistic concept).

The Shape of Emptiness Now is their newest release. It is composed of two tracks: “Part 1, Gratitude,” and “Part 2, In Dedication.”

“Part 1, Gratitude” begins with Souder and Robinson offering a lyrical jazz form that deviates from what one expects judging from their earlier releases. The electric mandolin comes in with a meditative response to the drums and saxophone that recalls John McLaughlin’s work on Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. The improvisations become more formless and zen-like as the piece progresses. The simultaneous appearance of the alto sax and mandolin are clearly the result of overdubbed parts. This is indicative that the Shoshin Trio views the recording process as an improvisational tool.

“Part 2, Dedication” brings in a slightly more obvious use of Smith’s computer sampling. Robinson’s alto saxophone work still dominates the music, and the interplay between Carlson and Souder explores a variety of levels of subtlety and poetics. The music on this release has no discernable end, the last track cuts to silence in the startling way one is woken from a dream, and leaves the listener struggling to regain his / her bearings – and in retrospect, this abrupt change in conscious perception augments the underlying concept behind the music.

It’s quite impossible to listen to this music with any preconceived ideas of what music should be. The improvisations delve deeply into stream of consciousness meditations. At times, it takes on an almost hallucinatory effect. At times it becomes quite beautiful, yet this beauty seems to happen with no conscious effort, as if the music itself determined its own standard of beauty with no involvement from any artistic decision form the musicians who created it. While clearly not for everybody, The Shape of Emptiness Now is obviously music of superior quality and vision within its own conceptual framework.

It is interesting to note that a member of Shoshin Trio, a Professor of Arts Technology at Illinois State University, is also the founder / owner of the label Illegal Arts. The label was founded in 1998, under the pseudonym Philo T. Farnsworth (the name of the man who invented television). They specialize in hip hop, electronic, experimental, dance, mashup, and plunderphonics. Illegal Arts had been at the center of some highly publicized legal battles (such as the 1998 release Deconstructing Beck; thirteen tracks by a number of different pseudonymous artists created completely from Beck samples that were not legally approved by Beck’s recording label).

The label believes in the legitimacy of sampling in music, that the use of samples of music copyrighted by other artists is an expression of artistic freedom that does not co-opt or compete with the original music, that there are crucial difference between bootlegging, piracy, and in the creative transformation of existing culture into new and original works of collage. Needless to say, this creates legal difficulties – not to mention moral and philosophical paradoxes – that contradict the idea that an artist’s original work is his / her property, and not subject to indiscriminate plunder and annexation without authorization or fair remuneration. This vaguely communistic denial of the economic concept of ownership of intellectual property contradicts, and arguably exacerbates, the endless struggle to insure fair financial remuneration for a musician’s work. The paradox has yet to be resolved.