Tōru Takemitsu – Kwaidan, 1964

A watershed moment in the career of an avant-garde giant. Takemitsu composed several hundred pieces of music, many of them massive and orchestral in scope; scored over 90 films; and published 20 books before his death in 1996. Interestingly, much of his early output was marked by his contempt for traditional Japanese (and, more broadly, non-Western) music, colored by his experiences of the war, during which Japanese music was associated with militaristic and nationalistic cultural ideals. In his own words: “There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. Folk music in a ‘contemporary style’ is nothing but a deception.” So severe was his enmity with tradition that he famously destroyed several of his own works upon discovering that he had unintentionally incorporated “nationalistic” elements of traditional Japanese scales. An early proponent of musique concrète, his work has often been cast as in synchronicity with Pierre Schaeffer; however, neither were aware of the other at the time (though Takemitsu was an ardent admirer of John Cage).

Still, despite his fierce commitment to avant-garde experimentation, by the 1960s he had started to more deliberately incorporate traditional Japanese scales, elements of folk songs, the tones and modes of Gagaku, and, as evidenced in Kwaidan, ancient instruments like the biwa.

A quartet of heavily stylized supernatural vignettes rendered in intensely saturated color, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive film in the history of Japanese cinema at the time of its release. Takemitsu turned out a score ambitious enough to match, channeling his ambivalence towards tradition into a mangled, strangled take on the folk sounds of his upbringing. Silence acts as a prominent texture, but in between the strained gaps are twisted shakahuchi lines, shrieking winds, ghostly metallic clangs, splitting wood, an occasional distant drum, Noh-style vocals recalling a storied mass suicide on a battle ship, and a whole lot of that biwa, played with such venomous ferocity that one can only wonder how many strings had to be replaced over the course of recording. Sparse, horrific, and very potent. Enjoy, and happy Halloween!

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[Interview] Phew

Phew has had a decade-spanning, genre-hopping career and has cemented herself as an experimental music icon. She was a member of Aunt Sally, a punk band at the heart of the Kansai No Wave scene, and has collaborated with an incredible list of musical luminaries. Her debut self-titled record from 1981 has been canonized by Japanese record collectors and post punk devotees alike. Still, it’s perhaps now, working with only her collection of analog hardware, that she’s at her most powerful. She has just released Light Sleep, a collection of six tracks culled from three CD-Rs that had previously only been available at her live performances. If you’re not yet familiar with her work, it’s an ideal place to jump in, and you can buy it here. In conjunction with Blank Forms, Phew will be making her US debut on April 6th at First Unitarian Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Tickets are available here.

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You said in a recent interview that you wished you could “sing like dance, and use electronics like singing.” There’s some really beautiful footage online of you playing in Tokyo in 2014, and the whole thing sort of feels like a dance.

Thank you. For me, when I play live I’m definitely concentrating on the physicality of the performance. But I do have to be in control, although there is an element of merging—you treat the machines like an extension of your own body.

You’re committed to using analog gear instead of digital, but it’s of course harder to use and less predictable. Do you feel that the unpredictability has turned into a central part of your live performance?

Yes. I performed in Paris last night, for example, and it took about five minutes into my set to be able to match the sound I had been producing in sound check—but you just run with it. It’s definitely harder, but it’s also fun and satisfying to perform that way. To finally get the sound right is like catching a wild horse and making it your own.

How much room do you leave for improvisation and live composition during performances?

I go into it with a big sketch of what I want from a song, and from there it’s like filling in a coloring book. It’s never going to be the same twice, and that’s the fun part. If something’s not working, I’ll do something else.

You’ve also said that you don’t think you’re a singer in the conventional sense, because you don’t aim to communicate a story or incite feeling within the listener. It seems as if you’ve resisted ideas about what the voice “should” do as a “human instrument.” Still, your voice is really powerful and evocative. Do you feel you use voice as a texture, or even as a machine?

Yes—it’s definitely still an instrument, but the way I treat voice is hugely influenced by how I listened to music when I was a little girl. When I was ten or eleven years old, the Beatles’ Abbey Road came out, so I was listening to a lot of the Beatles without understanding any of the English. I was tasting voice in the same way as I would guitar, with no understanding of lyrical meaning. I’ve used voice that way ever since, texturally.

You’ve said that you hated the 80s in Japan—that everyone was drunk on money, and you didn’t even want to leave the house. It’s interesting because I imagine most people think of the 80s as a musical explosion for Japan, especially given what people were suddenly able to do with synthesizers.

I don’t know. I wasn’t even listening to contemporary music at the time. I was mostly listening to music from the ‘50s. A lot of Elvis Presley.
Right, you even did an Elvis cover. Did your parents listen to Elvis around the house while you were growing up?

No, they were listening to more jazz. Especially my dad. But I hated it—I was totally allergic to jazz.

Interesting! I would have guessed there’s a lot of avant-garde jazz influence in your music.

Maybe subconsciously. I feel better about jazz now, but if there are jazz influences in my music they’re unintentional.

You’ve also mentioned the Sex Pistols being a big influence on you as a teenager.

When the Pistols came out I was roughly the same age as their members. Seeing them live was influential, but it was less about their music specifically than about punk as a movement. UK punk was a huge influence in my desire to have a band, but Aunt Sally was less about making a political statement than embracing the possibilities of punk, musically. The main takeaway from punk, for me, was a lack of leadership, a lack of any “pop star” identity.

Has music ever been a form of protest for you?

In the 80s, it absolutely wasn’t. We were just making music. We never even thought about the fact that having three women in a punk band could be radical. Now, in 2017, it does feel more like a protest. But it’s less about having a specific message, and more about the live performance and considering the experience of the audience. There’s something very small and fragile about that relationship, and that’s the most important and radical aspect of making music for me.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that you’ve always gotten the best out of all the collaborators you’ve worked with over the years, playing to their strengths while still keeping the music balanced. It always sounds like you, even when you’re playing different genres. What do you look for in a collaboration?

I look for someone that changes me, someone that allows me change into something I didn’t expect. That’s the most exciting part. Surprise, flexibility.

A lot of people are referring to Light Sleep as a return to the sounds of your first record. To me the sound feels more intimate and specific—the gestures feel smaller and more detailed, a lot of the beats feel like microbeats. It’s more delicate. Is this kind of intimacy a product of working without collaborators?

Yes. The recordings on Light Sleep were made before my record A New World. The songs are rough sketches, like drawing an object in pencil, which is probably the intimacy and scale that you’re hearing. I also recorded them in my bedroom, so they’re meant to be small.

Do you have plans or projects for when you’re done touring?

I want to do a performance in collaboration with a video artist. I’d like it to be somewhere in between a vocal performance piece and an installation, so it would probably be in a gallery or museum setting.

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Thank you to Phew, Juri Onuki, Cora Walters, Lawrence Kumpf,
and Keiko Yoshida for facilitating this interview.

Seigén Ono – Seigén, 1984

Ouch, so beautiful. Seigén Ono’s debut album was released when he was 26 years old, though he had already worked with David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and went on to become one of Japan’s most sought-after producers and engineers. I feel as if this record has been steadily opening up for me over the past year, finally cracking wide during (surprise surprise) a headphones listen. It might feel a bit austere at first, and there are definitely a few explicit nods to western minimalism, but it’s deceptively generous, even lush. Incisive modern classical, a few bits of very Japanese smooth jazz, and an avant-garde sensibility. Featuring some songwriting from Yasuaki Shimizu and a slew of razor-sharp session musicians. An incredible network of moody textures, all perfectly atmospheric. Part of the perennial favorite Music Interior series, the entirety of which will probably be posted here eventually, realistically. The liner notes call this “a perfect production of beauty,” and the statement doesn’t even feel hyperbolic.

Note that this includes two additional tracks but not the two bonus tracks from the recent reissue, which doesn’t seem to be readily available for sale anymore, though they’re well worth it if you find a copy.

Masahide Sakuma – Lisa, 1984

Beautiful and diverse solo release from Plastics member Masahide Sakuma. The album traverses both mood and genre: ambient minimalism, modern classical, industrial, avant-garde, medieval, and…vaudeville? Acoustic guitar, synth, strings, electric guitar, synthesizer, vocals, samples, flutes and percussion. Some tracks have a sparse cinematic feel suggestive of Mark Isham’s Vapor Drawings, which came out the year prior. Lisa is so diverse and strange, it could take years of listening to fully unpack.

Produced by prolific avante-garde jazz composer Seigen Ono, the album is another entry in the phenomenal Music Interiors series released from 1984 to 1985, including a couple albums by Ono himself as well as Yoshio Suzuki. Worth exploring!

Peter Michael Hamel – Organum, 1986

Supremely beautiful recording from German minimalist composer and author of the 1978 book Through Music to the Self: How to Appreciate and Experience Music Anew, which I swear I was reading in my town’s library growing up when I was supposed to be doing readings about the Civil War.
The album looks and feels likes something that might have made its way into my library stack as well. Recorded at the Academy of Music in München with pipe organ, conch, and Tibetan cymbals, this is a pipe organ study, exploring a range of moods as well as Hamel’s impressive knowledge of eastern and western scales and motifs. Much of the music comes on crescendoing waves of arpeggiation, from calmer melodies to dense, almost unbearable chaos–only to be sliced through by a return to peace.
For anyone interested in more of Hamel’s, his 1977 release Nada is also very good.

Música Esporádica – Música Esporádica, 1985

A dense and dream-like collaboration between members of Spanish avant-garde trio Orquestra de las Nubes, Spanish guitarist Miguel Herrero (on synths well as electric guitar throughout), and American percussionist, four-time Grammy winner, and John Cage collaborator Glen Velez. Soprano vocalist María Villa (of Orquesta) is featured in the first two tracks in a more textural, compositional way, with short crescendos and light, whispery Sprechgesang before returning on the third track to a more improvisational, avant-garde style. Much of the recordings’ dynamism relies on Velez’s virtuosic performance on the Irish frame drum, the Bodhrán, with its signature scraping and clacking. As in his other recordings, he uses the drum as a resonant instrument, not simply as a tool to move the music along
Recorded in Madrid for the Spanish label Grabacionnes Accidentales (“Accidental Recordings”), this was released in 1985, the same year as another gem from the same label, Prima Travesia by Finis Africae.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1981

Arguably the definitive work from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the project of UK-born composer and musician Simon Jeffes. Jeffes saw PCO as the ongoing soundtrack to a dream he had had while suffering from food poisoning in the south of France, as well as a vessel through which to explore his interest in “world” music, particularly African percussion. The ensemble’s music resists genre, though–you can hear Jeffes’s British proclivity towards the pastoral and an interest in folk music that splits itself between Western and non-Western traditions, but you can also hear a love for Reichian minimalism, a vaguely avant-garde quality that presumably compelled Brian Eno to release their first record on his Obscure label, Satie-esque piano ambling, flamenco, and even–going out on a limb here–the chug-a-chug forward momentum of Kraftwerk, for whom PCO opened in 1976 in their first major concert. Comfortably moving between unabashedly beautiful (“Numbers 1-4,” “Flux,” “Harmonic Necklace”), cheeky (the famous “Telephone and Rubber Band,” based on tape loops of a telephone ringing tone, an engaged tone, and a rubber band), and the clever, all-purpose optimism that the best movie soundtracks happily exploit (“Air A Danser,” “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter,” “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas”). There’s a sense of déjà-vu to much of PCO’s discography, but it’s especially present here, and combined with meticulous musicianship (this album took almost four years to record), it makes for a deeply transportive listen–with the caveat that the destination isn’t always clear.

Ippu-Do – Night Mirage, 1983

Ippu-Do was founded by Masami Tsuchiya in 1979 alongside Akira Mitake and Shoji Fujii. The band released five records, but Tsuchiya went on to release a slew of solo records as well as tour as a guitarist with Japan. With Steve Jansen replacing Shoji Fujii on drums, Night Mirage is a hulking play between towering new wave guitar, skewed synth pop, and avant-garde synth murk, with shades of calypso and a nod to Erik Satie.
The version I’m sharing is the 2006 Japanese re-issue, which includes Masami Tsuchiya’s six-track experimental mini-album, Alone (1985). They’re entirely instrumental, brooding, and very, very beautiful. Enjoy!

Batsumi – Batsumi, 1974

Sublime spiritual jazz afrobeat fusion. Psychedelic shifting rhythms and urgent, brassy hooks doused in reverb. Many South African jazz musicians from this time period didn’t make any recordings at all, so big ups to Matsuli Music for digging up this previously unavailable landmark, lovingly remastering it, and making it available.

[RIP] David Bowie – Low, 1977

Last night I heard about David Bowie’s death with disbelief. I don’t think I’m alone in my longheld, subconscious idea that Bowie, if not altogether immortal, would at the very least outlive us all. I then found myself in four simultaneous 2:00 am text message exchanges of Bowie memorabilia: remember this live performance, that outfit, this song, that photoshoot, this scene in that movie, that moment with Iman, this album cover, this phase, that feeling. For Bowie, pictures are worth plenty more than a thousand words, because words could never do him justice. Instead of trying to express our loss, we just swapped images and stared in awe.
We’ve learned many things from David Bowie, whether or not we’re aware of just how much originated with him. What I’m most grateful for is that he lived out a fluid sexual identity under global scrutiny, and recognized that the public’s thirst to know exactly “what he was” was simultaneously ridiculous and a tool to be played with. That was particularly inspiring to me growing up, as was his shapeshifting sound and aesthetic. To call him a chameleon is incorrect, because he never blended in with anything. “Lightning rod” might be more apt. He’s always seemed like a particularly sensitive vessel for creative thought, and he acknowledged that divine inspiration in his lyrics: “I will sit right down / waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
I woke up this morning agonizing over which Bowie record to share today. Low needs no introduction and defies explanation, but it feels the most emblematic of the depth of his interests and emotions. It’s a record about alienation, and that alienation rubs off on the listener: by the time we reach the saxophone outro “Subterraneans,” we feel disoriented, cut adrift and unsure what just happened. I can’t help but think of his family when I listen to it today.
Safe journey, David, and thank you for everything.