Gorgeous interpretations of traditional Hungarian folk songs, fleshed out in full color with synth and drum machine textures. Effortless vocals predominantly by Sebestyén Márta, a folk singer, composer, and actress who has also worked with Deep Forest (!). There’s something Virginia Astley-esque about the deliberately innocent quality of her voice, though perhaps that’s a typical affect of traditional Hungarian folk singing–I sadly wouldn’t know. The prolific musician and songwriter Szörényi Levente contributes some vocals as well (presumably in addition to much of this instrumentation, though I can’t find full credits anywhere), and his brother Szörényi Szabolcs produced the record.
I’ve listed the song titles in Hungarian followed by their English translations where applicable. There’s a lot to love here, texturally: rolling, churning synth and drum machine on tracks like “Segélj El Uramisten” and “Szerelem, Szerelem” that reminds me of Sakamoto; more abstract chirping sample play on “Este Lett;” but the centerpiece is the floating, sinewy stunner “András,” previewed below. Impressively, Szerelmeslemez (“Love Record”) only gets increasingly generous with additional eartime. Enjoy!
Another favorite from the Hosono canon. This was the score for the first animated adaptation of The Tale of Genji, a sprawling piece of 11th century literature written by noblewoman Shikibu Murasaki, considered by many to be the first modern novel in recorded history. (Isao Tomita later write his own symphonic adaptation of the story.) The anime was directed by Gisaburō Sugii, and while it only covers a small part of the epic storyline, the score is highly ambitious.
Unlike much of Hosono’s catalogue, here synthesizer mostly acts as an atmospheric texture and instead puts traditional Japanese instruments, particularly koto, flute, and drums, front and center. What’s really astounding about this soundtrack is the layering of instruments, piling them up until they become unfamiliar: droves of fingerpicked strings sound like a hive of insects, waves of gentle hand percussion feel like the swells of inhales and exhales, processed flute suggests the shrieking wind. Despite a pervasive mysteriousness, and even ominousness, this is unmistakably gorgeous music, and structured in such a way that it will appeal to fans of more conventional synthetic ambient music–but retains a feverish futurist-classical elegance all its own.
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!
Mariah was the brainchild of saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, who is most well-known for his solo performances of Bach’s cello suites in acoustically interesting spaces (he recorded in a mine, he did some work with Ryuichi Sakamoto, we love him, etc.). His work with Mariah was a far cry from the rest of his career, though–Utakata No Hibi, the band’s fifth and final LP, is loosely woven, big and wide open and facing skyward. The album is built around percussion, which ranges from traditional Japanese to tribal to Talking Heads-y, pencilled in with simple synth textures and spikes of brass. The songs are mantric, with vocals in both Armenian and Japanese that act more as an instrument than as a focal narrative. The definitive high is “心臓の扉” (“Shinzō No Tobira/Door of the Heart”). No filler, though–all the less poppy moments are a joy, and manage to simultaneously feel futuristic and medieval.
Maria gave me this record years ago, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. We’re really excited that it’s being reissued on Palto Flats, a label run by personal DJ hero Jacob Gorchov. It’s an important record that speaks to a wide range of people, and the attention it’s attracting is well-deserved. The New York release party is tonight, with vinyl for sale. Sample the remasters below, or listen to “Shinzō No Tobira” in its entirety here.
(Side note: watch Yasuaki Shimizu’s “Human Cuckoo Clock” installation, in which he did hourly performances of saxophone renditions of Bach’s cello suites for eight hours in the Tokyo International Forum, here. A really beautiful, playful use of acoustics.)
I made this mix for ambient indoor listening, thinking about the last few moments of winter and a little bit of thawing for spring. It’s heavy on vocals, folk, and acoustic instruments, so it may be more of a background listen. If you like it, download it here.
Tracklisting: 1. 0:00 Arthur – Wintertime
2. 2:50 The Durutti Column – Sleep Will Come
3. 4:38 Bridget St John – Many Happy Returns
4. 6:51 Harold Budd – Albion Farewell (Homage to Delius, for Gavin Bryars)
5. 9:22 Connie Converse – There is a Vine
6. 10:54 Woo – Taizee (Traditional)
7. 13:06 Unknown – Pumi Song
8. 14:13 John Jacob Niles – Go ‘Way From My Window
9. 16:27 Clara Rockmore – The Swan (Saint-Saëns)
10. 19:19 Lewis – Like To See You Again
11. 23:41 Unknown – IV
12. 25:39 Patti Page – The Tennessee Waltz
13. 28:32 Gigi Masin – Parallel Lines
14. 30:57 Yasuaki Shimizu – Suite No. 2: Prélude (Bach)
15. 34:55 Donnie & Joe Emerson – Love Is
16. 37:55 Rosa Ponselle – The Nightingale and the Rose (Rimsky-Korsakov)
Heartbreaking, eerie, and otherworldly, this album is actually a compilation of various recordings dating back as far as 1952, when the choir was first formed by Bulgarian composer Philip Coutev. As the women in the choir are from all over Bulgaria, the music is a hodgepodge of differing vocal styles from the country’s quite isolated provinces. Marcel Cellier compiled these songs in 1975, but it went largely unnoticed until its rerelease by 4AD in 1986, to overnight worldwide renown. Volume II of this compilation won Cellier a Grammy in 1989. That same year, Kate Bush released The Sensual World, which featuredthree Bulgarian female soloists. The choir has been touring worldwide since then, and everyone and their dog loves them (as they should). Find out much more here and here.
The title translates to “The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”–an apt description, as it’s a complete mystery to me how music this majestic and unsettling can actually exist. It completely changed my concept of the relationship between dissonance and beauty. Powerful stuff!
Selda Bağcan got real big in the 70s as one of Turkey’s most well-known politically-minded musicians, and from what I understand, became somewhat of a household name. Her sound was a progressive wash of psychedelic guitar funk and angular synth heat, applied liberally to Turkish folk songs as scorching backdrops for her emotive, razor-sharp vocals and political critiques. Unsurprisingly, she was thrown in jail three times and was stripped of her passport, but was eventually freed and went on to tour extensively. She resurfaced again in 2006, when Finders Keepers reissued her self-titled LP with some previously unreleased tracks. That’s when I first heard this record–my sister gave it to me, and it just about blew my 16-year-old brain open, since I didn’t have much of a grasp on the roots of psychedelic music, or what Turkey was. This record is a classic for many, so I hope this serves as a friendly reminder that it’s still bubbling hot (with the exception of string-infused weeper ballad “Dam Üstüne Çulserer,” flecked with fountain sounds and spiny percussives, which is more of a slow-burner). Note: I’m posting the original album, without the rerelease tracks and with the songs in a different order. It sounds better than ever, almost 40 years later. Enjoy!