Hiroshi Yoshimura – Wet Land, 1993

A less-heard but very deserving later work from the master, Hiroshi Yoshimura, by multiple requests. Though you’ll recognize a familiar fascination with water sounds, here the focus is on synth rather than piano. A love for pastoral, rolling keyboard motifs is still very present. If anything, by 1993 Yoshimura had burrowed even further into the tension between the natural and the artificial: though Wet Land is clearly preoccupied with visions of nature, here they’re rendered in hyper-synthetic, heavily produced language, and are all the more beautiful for it. Though this is busier than his earlier material, much of it feels in keeping with the hope Yoshimura and his peers had for “environmental music”–which, according to Ashikawa, was

…music that could be said to be an object or sound scenery to be listened to casually. Not music which excites or leads the listener into another world, it should drift like smoke and become part of the environment surrounding the listener. In other words, it is music which creates an intimate relationship with people in everyday life…Also, [it] is not the music of self-expression or a completed work of art; rather it is music which by overlapping and shifting, changes the character and the meaning of space, things, and people.

This is long out of print; however, if you’re interested in Yoshimura’s work, his Music for Nine Post Cards (the first installment in the Wave Notation series) was recently reissued by Empire of Signs and is available for purchase here.

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Claire Hamill – Voices, 1986

This blog started with the intention of sharing records that more people should hear, and I think that’s more the case for this record than any other thus far. It occupies a strange mid-point, both in visibility and in the context of the artist’s body of work. It’s been reprinted a handful of times, and its Discogs recommendations include acts as disparate and big-league as Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, and Prefab Sprout (begging the question, who exactly is listening to this record?). Claire Hamill debuted on Island Records, opened for Jethro Tull, and made several very big-budget albums. She dabbled in folk, synth pop, and electro before landing on Voices, which has been (somewhat confusingly) labeled as new age. It’s perhaps owing to that very difficulty in pinning her down or understanding her body of work that her work itself, with its dazzling high points, seems to have slipped through the cracks. We missed the trees for the forest.

But backing up: after an audition for Island founder Chris Blackwell, Hamill released her debut at seventeen, an impressive piece of folk that belied her age. It immediately drew comparisons to Joni Mitchell and was advertised in Time Out with the tagline “When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire has finished her first album.” (Happy International Women’s Day, by the way!) But despite her label’s high hopes for megastardom, her records continued to fall flat of large-scale acclaim. After a few more folk-rock efforts on a new label, Hamill ended up on CODA Records, Beggars Banquet’s “new age” imprint. She released Touchpaper, an ambitious electro-sophisti-pop record about which there are some great notes here, and then, while living in the English countryside married with a new baby–“a sweet time in my life”–decided to make a record using only her voice. Entirely self-written, self-produced, and featuring just a bit of synth and drum machine, Voices feels like a pared-down predecessor to Camille’s Le Fil. She uses her voice not just as a choir but as strings, as as keyboard, and as texture, all the while staying attentive to inclusions of inhales–they’re emphatic, but never oppressive. Songs like “Harvest,” which so clearly evokes a chorus of women reaping wheat, manage to worldlessly distill the bucolic ethos of what Aaron Copland needed an entire opera to do. Despite repetitive motifs and loops, nothing ever slogs. Everything moves.

What’s really shocking about a first listen, though, is how clearly you can hear threads leading directly to and from so many important artists. At the risk of sounding like the token music journalist who compares every female artist to every other female artist, you can explicitly hear the Celtic-tinged multi-tracking that Enya would go on to make a career out of, Kate Bush’s emotional fluency, a Cocteau Twins cavernous goth sensibility, Julia Holter’s polished baroque, Virginia Astley’s loving chronicle of the English countryside. Nothing folky, but totally pastoral. A (mostly) worldless spectrum of feeling. There are jewels to be found throughout Claire Hamill’s career, but Voices is her strongest, and perhaps most unsung, stroke of brilliance.

A note that while I always encourage you to buy records you love whenever possible, Claire has been personally funding her continued independent music-making, so if you love this as much as I do, please consider buying it!

Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Keyboard Fantasies, 1986

Pastoral, intimate meditations in the gentlest tones from a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. Vocals are sparse, but Glenn-Copeland’s deep gospel-opera timbre is still what keeps me coming back. Keyboard Fantasies was lovingly recorded in Glenn-Copeland’s tiny home town of Huntsville, Ontario, where he lives to this day. Please consider purchasing this album directly from the artist.

Roedelius – Wenn Der Südwind Weht, 1981

Hard to pick a favorite release from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who’s contributed to 92 different releases, according to Discogs. Though most famous for co-founding Cluster and Harmonia, he’s been even more prolific as a solo artist. Wenn der Südwind Weht (“When the South Wind Blows”) was his seventh solo release, though he followed it up with a casual 35 more full-lengths, most of which I still haven’t heard. Of his earlier releases, this is both my favorite and the most exemplary of signature Roedelius. The most remarkable moments are when synthesizer acts as a vessel for his pastoral sensibility, with unabashedly sentimental lines of synthetic oboe, clarinet, organ, and something theremin-like sitting on top of rolling piano chord pulses muffled in golden-warm reverb. The title track, “Veilchenwurzeln,” and “Mein Freund Farouk” are the best instances of this kind of classical miniaturism–they’re what make this record feel like a favorite sweater–but in very German tradition, a handful of the other tracks meander into more shivery, drawn-out synth meditations (and that’s certainly a good thing). Ideal rainy day music.

Satoshi Ashikawa – Still Way, 1982

The only available recordings from Satoshi Ashikawa, who passed away shortly after making this record. This was the second in a three record series called Wave Notation, which also included Hiroshi Yoshimura‘s Music for Nine Postcards and a collection of Erik Satie songs played by Satsuki Shibano–fittingly, fans of Yoshimura and Satie will find a lot to love here. Perfectly bare bones minimalism–just harp, piano, flute, and vibraphone. Crystalline, pastoral, picnic-ready. Midori Takada on both harp and vibraphone. Long out of print.

From the liner notes written by Ashikawa himself:

“Sound design” doesn’t just mean simply decorating with sounds. The creation of non-sound, in other words silence, as in a design, if possible, would be wonderful. There’s no question that our age — in which we are inundated with sound – is historically unprecedented. The Canadian sound environmentalist and researcher Murray Schafer warns of this state of affairs in the following: “The ear, unlike some other sense organs, is exposed and vulnerable. The eye can be closed at will; the ear is always open. The eye can be focused and pointed at will; the ear picks up all sound right back to the acoustic horizon in all directions. Its only protection is an elaborate psychological system of filtering out undesirable sounds in order to concentrate on what is desirable. The eye points outward; the ear draws inward. It would seem reasonable to suppose that as sound sources in the acoustic environment multiply – and they are certainty multiplying today —the ear will become blunted to them and will fail to exercise its individualistic right to demand that insouciant and distracting sounds should be stopped in order that it may concentrate totally on those which truly matter.”

We should have a more conscious attitude toward the sounds – other than music —that we listen to. Presently, the levels of sound and music in the environment have clearly exceeded man’s capacity to assimilate them, and the audio ecosystem is beginning to fall apart. Background music, which is supposed to create “atmosphere,” is far too excessive. In our present condition, we find that within certain areas and spaces, aspects of visual design are well attended to, but sound design is completely ignored. It is necessary to treat sound and music with the same level of daily need as we treat architecture, interior design, food, or the air we breathe. In any case, the Wave Notation series has begun. I hope it will be used and judged for what I had in mind as “sound design,” but of course the listener is free to use it in any way. However, I would hope this music does not become a partner in crime to the flood of sounds and music which inundate us at present.

Bridget St. John – Ask Me No Questions, 1969

Peak British folk. Bridget St. John is most well known for the trio of excellent records she released between ’69 and ’72 on John Peel’s Dandelion label. This, her debut and the first in the series, is the most bare-bones and raw, with guitar that’s alternately sunny and somber. It’s also blessedly absent of the goofy optimism that made many of her peers less palatable (and, unlike many of its contemporaries, all the songs on it are self-composed). Her voice is remarkable not just for sitting in a notably low alto range, but for its consistency of non-expression, as if she preferred to let her androgynous bard quaver and her direct lyrics speak for themselves. The follow up to this record, Songs for the Gentle Man, is also worth seeking out, but it’s more padded out with instruments, and feels somehow less pure for it–I love how Ask Me No Questions is unabashedly moody, dappled with the occasional patch of sun (the eight minute long closing title track is dense with field recordings of birds and church bells). Perfect fall soundtrack.

Virginia Astley – Hope In A Darkened Heart, 1986

A favorite that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Virginia Astley is a British musician who put out a small slew of full lengths and EPs in the 80s, but seems to have flown under the American radar. Her music is distinctive for its sing-songy, little boy church choir vocal delivery, and her lyrics, while sometimes indistinguishable, are as dark and ruthless as they come (“I’ve tasted your tongue like a worm from the grave / Had you inside me, then like a rock beside me”). She also used her extensive collection of field recordings to make a gorgeous instrumental concept album chronicling a summer day in the English countryside, which is way more expansive and less twee than it sounds.
My sister first played me Hope In A Darkened Heart a few years ago and it’s stuck with me since. While the songs are effectively pop in structure, the record defies the specificity of genre: it truly sounds like nothing else. Astley wrote all the songs except for the opening track, which is a duet with David Sylvian. Ryuichi Sakamoto and Astley co-produced the record, and it feels very much like both of them: Astley’s lilting, pastoral nostalgia on top of Sakamoto’s mechanical, off-kilter synth chug. Its darkness is belied by how damn pretty it is. Well overdue for a re-release.