Patrick Shiroishi: I was too young to hear silence

The wellspring of Patrick Shiroishi’s torrential output—last year his name appeared on 32 albums, and there is every indication that he will break that record this year—is a conversation he had with his grandmother. When Shiroishi was young, he asked her about the Japanese internment camp at Tule Lake, California, where the U.S. government incarcerated nearly 30,000 people during World War II and where she met his grandfather. Normally chatty and amiable, she suddenly went stonily silent. Shiroishi has since used his saxophone to excavate his family’s history and grapple with Japanese Americans’ collective trauma. His first solo album was dedicated to his grandmother, others to his parents and his aunt. Shiroishi’s breakout solo effort, 2021’s Hidemi, narrated his grandfather’s life after Tule Lake through beautifully dense, multilayered compositions. Even Shiroishi’s collaborations with others—in his own bands Fuubutsushi, SSWAN, and Oort Smog and in countless duos, trios, and quartets—are modeled after his grandfather’s life: specifically, the sense of community that Patrick Hidemi Shiroishi helped build, as a deacon and small businessman, in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.

I was too young to hear silence is the sparsest of Shiroishi’s releases, but its fragile improvisations also carry the weight of his family’s story. Recorded at 1:30 a.m. in a parking garage under a Japanese restaurant near his hometown of Rosemead, California, Shiroishi’s lone saxophone emanates from underground like the buried past crying out for remembrance. In the massive, empty building, trembling melodic lines are buttressed by long stretches of ambience, and sharp bursts of noise are met by reverberant echoes. Shiroishi cites the work of saxophonist Masayoshi Urabe, whose albums A Brute and Sōingyokusaiseyo are more silence than sound, as an influence on his minimalist approach. But just as important are location-dependent works like Pauline Oliveros’ recordings with the Deep Listening Band in an underground cistern or Akio Suzuki’s “o to da te” project, which maps points of strong echoes across urban areas. This isn’t the first time that Shiroishi has played in this garage—last year’s empty vessels, with Marta Tiesenga, was recorded there during the lockdown—but here he responds to the space as if it were the other half of a duo, an integral part of the unfurling composition.

The album was recorded in one take with a saxophone, glockenspiel, two microphones, and portable recorder. As a document of a live performance, it combines the tension of an improv set with the petty thrill of trespassing. “stand still like a hummingbird” opens with several seconds of silence before short saxophone blasts reveal the garage’s cavernous resonance. Running water, perhaps from a custodian or shopkeeper washing up late at night, can be heard in the background. As Shiroishi’s improv progresses, he develops a language of piercingly high notes, fluttering runs, and breathy puffs of air, all of which cascade through the concrete passages of the garage and return slightly delayed and diminished.

The centerpiece of I was too young to hear silence, the seven-minute “tule lake blues,” is a memorial for his grandparents that transitions from soulful melodies into keening metallic screeches, as if Shiroishi is finally voicing his grandmother’s wordless despair at the mention of the eponymous camp. Two songs after that cathartic moment, some of his loveliest playing appears on on “is it possible to send promises backwards?,” a joyfully acrobatic display that seems to glory in movement itself. Finally, “if only heaven would give me another ten years” closes the album with celebratory lines that arc brightly through the air before resting again in the silence of the Los Angeles night.

Shiroishi’s productivity is due in part to his versatility. Through a multitude of guest appearances, he has found a space for his saxophone in the Armed’s muscular hardcore, Agriculture’s ecstatic black metal, and Quicksails’ fractured electronica, among scores of others. But I was too young to hear silence showcases Shiroishi’s music at its purest. The raw, impromptu output of a player uniquely attuned to his instrument and purpose, it amounts to an exorcism of the generational trauma that informed this searching night underground.

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Patrick Shiroishi: I was too young to hear silence