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Chihei Hatakeyama: "Ghostly Garden"; "A Long Journey"

img  Tobias

You know the old saying that the first impression is always the best impression? Well, with Chihei Hatakeyama, it may not be entirely true. Despite being able to claim applauded releases on several leading labels, including Kranky and influential Australian imprint Room40, his star has risen steadily, but at a comparatively leisurely pace. For those measuring success by end-of-the-year-lists or ecstatic reviews, in fact, it must seem as though Hatakeyama were just one several talented Japanese producers working on a contemporary version of Ambient within a small and narrowly delineated niche. This seemingly self-evident line of reasoning would however significantly slight the scope of his achievements. Hatakeyama's biography reveals an intriguing interest in an unusually wide array of styles and techniques: With Opitope, a duo with Tomoyoshi Date, he has fruitfully dabbled in electro-acoustic experimentation for several years, while his more recent Luis Nanook-project with Singer/Songwriter Tsutomu Satachi is dedicated to the definition and exploration of „the newest 2010 Folk sound“. Even the albums under his civilian name have always been harder to sensibly file away into standardised genre-drawers than his generally unquestioned allegiance with the Drone-scene may suggest – and they're testimony to a restless mind obsessed with music in all its different forms and guises.

In opposition to the currently en-vogue brute-force-approach of trendy Doomsters, Hatakeyama's drones are ephemeral entities made of air and breath, eschewing instantly pleasing cascades of shimmering harmonics and immediately gratifying gravitational Bass-fields. His entire oeuvre, in fact, is characterised by a seemingly impenetrable web of intertwining lines and ideas. To the unsuspecting ear, regularly massaged into wellness-heaven by smooth, simplistic filter-manipulations, there is quite a lot more going on here than can comfortably be taken in on an inattentive first listen. On „Ghostly Garden“ and „A Long Journey“ alike, textures are brimming with slowly blossoming motives and teeming with merely temporary themes, as several voices manifest themselves purely as fleeting timbral colours. With a single stroke of the brush, Hatakeyama is capable of taking his tracks from blinding light into deepest darkness, from auspicious animation to afflicted agitation or from warm major triads to eery minor chords, effortlessly creating worlds no longer made of concrete objects.

A Guitarist by trade, Hatakeyama has an astounding ability to get to the fundamental sonic characteristics of every instrument he can lay his hands on. Even after years of honing his skills, a playful naivete has remained essential to him: Reluctant to merely use acoustic timbres as cheap source material for electronic explorations, his gaze is instead directed at the outer limits of particular groups of sound, taking instrumental colors to the border of where they are still recognisable. In this alien grey-zone between familiar formants and vague textures, he will then start building his compositions with the complete freedom and nonchalance of a classical composer on a psychedelic trip to the countryside. At times, leaden weights seem to be attached to his keys, his mallets made of stone. Then again, the strings of his Guitar will spark aurora-like eruptions with each caress, a single note filled with myriads of metaphors and allusions.

Nowhere does this become more apparent than on „Ghostly Garden“, released early this year on Luxembourg's Own Records. The spartan press release gives nothing away in conceptual terms, but it is safe to assume that Hatakeyama is portraying a personal space here, leading the listener by the hand to some of his favourite sites along a carefully arranged path. Joy and sadness, hope and despair, life and death are always closely connected, as even the most uplifting harmonies are enigmatically rising from a mysterious void whispering in indecipherable tongues. The opening is programmatic in this respect. Eight-minute „Shadows“ belies its name by flooding the space with light and luminescence, while subsequent „Voices“ sounds like a slightly disfigured mirror-image, with sharp, needly frequencies piercing their way through the soft outer skin. Rather than sculpting his images from long, sustained tones, Hatakeyama makes use of the more edgy qualities of impulse-drones, creating a flitting feeling akin to rays of water dancing on the moon-lit waves of a midnight-ocean.

There are several more of these twisted deja-vues to be found on the record. Knowing about the title to a piece, including „cave“, „slight trail“ or „stone wall island“, actually adds to the experience, as the „ghostly garden“ becomes increasingly tangible in a dream-like reality with each listen. After quickly switching from one mood to the next in the first half, the album dives headlong into a trio of more immersive excursions in the second, culminating in the extended meditation of the title-track: Over the course of ten minutes, loose, broken-keyed Piano-notes coalesce into a triumphant rainbow of shimmering tones generously spread out all across a threedimensional canvas. The artwork congenially mirrors the long-term effect on the subconscious exercised by the music: Folding out the digipack in full yields a striking contrast of dark depths and ultramarine splendour.

The contrast between this spooky, surreal ambiance and the soft and sweet qualities of „A long Journey“ are astounding. Short, episodic pieces dominate the bulk of the latter, whose tender, hushed moods evoke images of lazy days at the Cote d'Azur, of relentless heat beating down on colourful promenades bustling with life. The palette again mainly comprises of ethereal atmospheres and kirlian-camera-shots of acoustic instruments. This time, however, loose notes actually converge into lascivious lyrical melodies, otherwordly drones cast melodious shadows on the wall and fragile field recordings are skilfully woven into the fabric of the music. This careful concretion enhances the filmic character of the album, as tracks take on the feeling of poignant scenes depicting an emotional state or sensory development. On „Within New Trees“, a half-awake harmonic undulation shines through what could be a sleepy morning in a French harbour town, with pitched sounds and musique concrete elements attaining an organic balance.

Rightly because of the concise character of these mostly between one- and four-minute-short miniatures, Hatakeyama's propensity for turning discretion and subtlety into powerful tools comes to the fore even more prominently. Even nervous city noises seem to be flowing from a well of silence, in which solid states and recognisable shapes are reduced to watercolours, seguing in- and out of each other and merging into bright psychedelic mandalas. Hatakeyama sprinkles a couple of Piano drops here, a few loose Guitar tones there and plays his Vibraphone to the busy chatter of the mainstreet. You can almost see him sipping a fine Espresso as he leans back on his chair to take in the acoustic splendour around him.

Simply put, „A Long Yourney“ feels like vacation, like bathing in the sensation of great calm and relaxation derived from several days spent in the sun. Pieces are arranged like slides in a photo viewer, each one capturing a particular moment in time. The result seems casual at times, especially when the album refuses to end at an emotional acme but chooses to gradually fade away with the outwardly unremarkable field recording of „The Dance of the Sea“. But again, a deep search for truth and the mysteries of existence has guided the composer's hands. By means of highly efficient juxtaposition, there is a sense of transportation nonetheless, a feeling of sharing something profoundly personal. „Calm“, a four-minute-short collaboration with Argentinian colleague, Spekk-protege and upcoming Home-Normal-artist Federico Durand, is a case in point, sweetly chiming fireflies buzzing through an early evening sky covered by glistening clouds filled with miracles and wonder.

„Saunter“ may still rank as his boldest and most experimental release to date. But Hatakeyama's last four releases suggest that his real interest may not lie in radical and uncontrolled experimentation anyway. Somewhere between tactile Sound Art and intricate ambiance, his music relies on the courage to let go of established formats and then reconstruct music anew from its ashes. Like the writings of a romantic Descartes, Hatakeyama's tantalising tales are filled with the anticipatory breath of a fundamental proposition: That the true value of music can never be estimated on the strength of a first impression.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Chihei Hatakeyama
Homepage: Own Records
Homepage: Home Normal Records

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