22 September 2010

Review: Sakamoto Brings the Noise

If you find yourself in possession of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s new album Out of Noise, here’s my advice: Get on a train.

A deluxe edition of Out of Noise is being released in the US by Decca (dropping 28 September) with a companion CD, Playing the Piano, which came out last year. Playing the Piano contains a dozen solo piano versions of earlier Sakamoto compositions (“self-covers,” he calls them, including themes from The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and The Sheltering Sky) performed by Sakamoto himself. Despite a bit of banging and pounding here and there, it’s all pretty easy on the ears.

Out of Noise
is another matter. The new disc also features a dozen tracks, all exploring the hazy area where noise morphs into music, and music disintegrates into noise.

All of which makes Out of Noise more of a challenge for the ear. I don’t think I helped myself much by loading both Playing the Piano and Out of Noise onto my iPod and attempting to listen to both at a go. Playing the Piano ends with Bolerish, from the soundtrack of Brian DePalma’s Femme Fatale. Out of Noise opens with hibari, a solo piano piece as peaceably formal, at first, as anything on Playing the Piano. But soon the rhythm seems to stutter and notes begin to enter the chords at odd angles. After an hour of flowing melody, I found myself in choppy waters and wanting to crawl ashore.

Out of Noise is a different experience taken on its own terms, something I discovered by chance a few weeks ago on the 7:30 train from Seattle to Portland. As we clicked through a foggy landscape of back yards and parking lots and blurring trees, I started hibari and found it transformed into a meditation exercise. Indeed, “meditation exercise” seems like the best way to describe Out of Noise, one that has the world around us as it’s object.

A few of the tracks feel formally composed. hwit and still life feature the pristine bowing of early music group Fretwork, and to stanford is another solo piano composition, but most feel more like soundscapes where human elements (guitars, voices, etc) are more likely emerge and recede. The most affecting of these, glacier, incorporates recordings of Sakamoto’s 2008 trip to Greenland with Cape Farewell’s Disko Bay climate change research expedition. Sakamoto has involved himself in ecological issues in recent years and it’s hard not to feel, especially in this piece, a painful sense of the climate we know and depend on melting away.

[Here's a video of glacier, complete with climate change factoids]

Curiously, a neighbor's barking dog or a passing truck fit into the flow of this music in a way they wouldn't in a Haydn symphony or even a Philip Glass arpeggio fest. (The first time through firewater I had to pause it to make sure that the barking I heard was indeed the cocker spaniel down the street. Later, I almost missed the pooch.)

It’s inspiring to see a master like Sakamoto continue to stretch himself with new challenges and new collaborators like Christian Fennesz, Keigo Oyamada, multi-instrumentalist Skuli Sverrisson. That said, Sakamoto the composer, Sakamoto the ordering intelligence, is who emerges through all the noise.

Not everything works, at least for me. The track in the red includes samples of human voices--most prominently an older black man’s saying things like, “I just feel like, you know...” and “...a little lost, but...” against a gently pulsing background of ambient noise and a keyboard. Sadly, the intent here is too obvious and isn’t taken far enough. It’s hard not to hear an echo of Primitive Radio Gods’ more overt Phone Booth. Likewise, the Reichian jibber jabber of composition 0919, which closes the album, sounds like something one robot would create to annoy another robot and made me want to break plates, and not in the happy Greek way. Strange too, that minimalism should feel like such a throwback at this point.

It’s also inspiring to see Sakamoto sticking to the album concept for Out of Noise, with the separate pieces arranged deliberately and flowing on a set course. It’s inspiring to see any artist do that, although it also feels quixotic to do so in the track-skipping musical landscape we live in. Yet another climate to be saved.

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