Chihei Hatakeyama – Mirror

18/08/2011

Listening to Chihei Hatakeyama’s Mirror made me aware of some important truths around what I would call conceptual sound art. Not, as it happens, while I was listening, but later, as I cycled the back roads, which is where I do most of my thinking, where all the epiphanies take place. I realised that good conceptual art leaves something, a residue, a trace, or perhaps even a slab of significance, that can be chewed over later, well away from the work. This postponed aesthetic thrill is qualitatively different from, say, the act of visualising a musical score or running through a composition in your head.

The music is almost irrelevant at times like these – this isn’t to say that Hatakeyama’s music is shallow in any way – I’ll come to that later. The way that it’s all been set up is what lingers. A while back, I found myself lingering a little over Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, but in that case I came to the conclusion that his piece didn’t do what it says on the tin, or at least what most commentators claim that it does. For what it’s worth I think that Lucier’s piece is more about comb filtering and phase relationships between microphones and speakers than it is about revealing the sonic ‘essence’ of a given listening space.

Hatakeyama’s Mirror is honest, simple and is effectively presented. I’m still smiling at just how effective the work turned out to be.

It’s very easy to adopt a theme, a loose bundle of ideas or even a tight concept for your artwork. It’s not so easy to make it all hang together. Some so-called conceptual artists from the non-musical/sonic world get away with all sorts of unfeasible claims and statements about their concepts and work. Others make it all function very well. Perhaps it’s easier to get your concept over the closer you work to the visual – things entering the eyes (or even language taken in via text or aurally) are more readily put into boxes, sorted out and rationalised. More so than the extreme abstractions of sound and music. Perhaps. With sound and music I listen to stuff every day that doesn’t sound in the least similar to what the artist tells me about it. But then music is more liquid than solid. In its fluidity it almost defies the artist’s attempts to pin down connotations and to set up hard and fast correspondences, to grab a concept and transmit the ideas to the listener.

Chihei Hatakeyama has chosen to work with the idea of the mirror in his new work, entitled Mirror as you’d expect, and as I’ve said he does a very good job of working his concept, keeping things very simple and focussed.

In a recent email correspondence Australian based artist and label owner Lawrence English asked if I would like to have a listen to some of the new work coming out of his Room40 label, in particular the new digital editions. Like many labels old and new, his is moving towards digital distribution models. Mirror is currently offered as both cd and download. So far I’ve been impressed with the quality of the Room 40 releases I’ve listened to. There’s some variety in there but I’d say there’s a leaning towards the more introspective and textural side of new non-academic composition. So if that’s your thing, check in.

Returning to Hatakeyama’s work, the online sleeve notes tell us the following:-

Drawing deeply on the earliest recorded period of Japan’s history, the Kofun era, Hatakeyama’s Mirror meditates on the importance placed on reflection during this age. The mirror was a source of great inspiration, not only as a metaphor for the sun, but also for its ability to shift and reflect light from one location to another. This act of transplanting light considered almost magical by many during that time.

Similarly this idea of reflection spurred Hatakeyama to undertake a new recording method. Taking layers of composed instrumental passages and then re-recording them in a variety of reverberant spaces, Hatakeyama sought to accentuate and amplify the harmonic qualities of the sounds. Overtones were shaped by these spaces and rich fluctuations emerged from the original recorded elements. This process of re-recording leading to the rich tonal qualities heard in Mirror.

Spaced out with a series of intimate field recordings, marking the points of arrival and departure between the composed pieces, Mirror is an elegant second chapter in Hatakeyama’s ongoing textural songbook for Room40.

And of the artist himself, I’m told that he has:-

a reputation as a fearless textural experimentalist. He has performed for years under his given name and also as one half of the electroacoustic duo Opitope, along with Tomoyoshi Date. Hatakeyama’s polychromic and memory-evoking soundscapes are created utilising various recorded materials of electric and acoustic instruments such as electric guitars, vibraphone, and piano.

The first indication that we’re dealing with a well considered approach to the concept of the mirror would seem to come with the tracklist:-

01 – Ferrum

02 – May 15, 2010

03 – Spilth

04 – October 3, 2009

05 – Renitency

06 – July 4, 2008

07 – Alchemy

The named titles, Ferrum, etc. are the resonant textural works. These are interleaved by the field recordings, named (presumably) by the date of the recording. The album overall is not quite set out in an arch form, but there’s enough in the structure to suggest or hint at the notion of a mirroring of some sort.

The other things that I know about mirrors are mostly quite obvious, though perhaps taken for granted given that we encounter mirrors most days in everyday life. For a start, the reflection of your face or body is reversed – you’re not really seeing yourself the right way round. This is comforting to people like me who think they look like a gargoyle most of the time – it’s all the fault of the mirror. On the other hand I’ve always found landscapes in the rear view mirror to be strangely attractive. Then there’s the fact that the size of the face/body/whatever you see in the mirror is reduced by a considerable proportion compared to the living face or body. Add to that the flatness, the frame, the ghosts of body language that inhabit mirrors.

FInally, (I’m not sure how relevant this is, but it stirs something relevant in me), the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan considers the mirror stage to be fundamental to our psychological development. I wonder though what happens if you deprive a child of all contact with a mirror – maybe that’s the cause of all the social unrest in Britain nowadays. Let’s ask David Cameron… But I digress.

Listening to Hatakeyama’s textural works I was struck by how many of these attributes, if that’s what they are, came over in the music in an abstracted manner – very difficult to describe, but certainly present. Of particular relevance to my mind were notions of framing, what lies within and what lies outside the frame of a mirror, especially if you think of yourself carrying one around – what changes, the frame or the reflection? And so on.

The four textural works are very similar. Ferrum works with a blurred tonal play of background and foreground, harmonics peeling off like spray from a surfer’s wave, a hint of (the dreaded) fuzz, but integral to the work and never intrusive. Clearly defined bass and midrange layers allow the work to open into a richness of spectrum and range. At times, lovely light feathery gestures break through the mix.

Spilth washes over the listener like waves, with more tension in the ‘chord’ of the underlying tonality. Renitency is hissier, more penetrating at times, Alchemy gentler overall, but the similarities override the differences.

In summary, these are fine rather than exceptional compositions. I don’t know if it’s possible to dazzle in this field of composition, though of late I’ve heard some very fine pieces in the just intonation department.

At first I was intrigued by the use of field recordings, but by about 2/3 through the album I finally ‘got’ it, and managed in my own ear and mind to tie together the field recordings, to reflect in new ways on the juxtaposition between dense textural composed pieces and raw field recordings. And raw they are. There is very little (if any) editing in the form of fade-ins and so on, they are quite indeterminate: some abstracted public spaces, cars, children, nothing special to identify the locations. That of course is the point unless there’s a hidden agenda, but it would be so well hidden as to be unfathomable, and therefore meaningless. I say meaningless but it did cross my mind that the inclusion of the dates, times and locations of the recordings by the composer point to a desire to allude to meaning, in much the same way as Beckett does when he has Vladimir and Estragon constantly refer to seemingly important matters in Waiting for Godot, leaving the listener to ponder the possibilities. Very clever.

But more than this it was the textural contrast afforded by the field recordings that set my inner ear off on all manner of amazing journeys, encouraging me to work a little harder, to remain suspicious of the apparent narcotic blissfulness of the composed works. There’s something else in there and I can almost……. you get the drift.

I say that this is very clever because I know from my own endeavours and from other artists that tying together composed, processed work with field recordings can be a testing affair often leading to works of arcane complexity. Of course you can simply lump the whole lot in together and make a sonic stew, seasoned to taste, success dependent on the pedigree of the chef. But here, the simple interleaving and clear separation works beautifully.

Another element that really appealed to me in all of this was the compositional method, where Hatakeyama makes layers of composed instrumental passages, then re-records these in a variety of reverberant spaces. Here again we have some very important notions arising around the ideas of mirroring and reflection.

I’ve worked with re-recording techniques like this ever since I read of Walter Murch’s methods in designing the sound for Apocalypse Now. For example at one point Murch worked with 65 tracks of recorded helicopter sounds and at another point he re-recorded various sounds in reverberant spaces through metallic speakers. This kind of approach demands a lot of time and effort – because of this Hatakeyama has my respect. To self refer yet again, the live possibilities of such approaches are very exciting and I am at this very moment very much on the case…

In the meanwhile I look forward to listening to more of Room 40’s wonderful releases

Chihei Hatakeyama’s Mirror is released on Room 40 in both cd and digital format.


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