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Chihei Hatakeyama: "Saunter"; "The River"

img  Tobias

One of the things you learn at a Marketing agency is that even though you can certainly improve upon your weaknesses, you can never turn them into sellable strengths. What a relief, then, that Chihei Hatakeyama apparently fosters no plans of entering the world of public relations any time soon. After a childhood spent with extreme Metal, a youth devoted to Techno as well as a string of short-lived stints with a variety of bands and projects, he discovered that rhythm-based music was not his forte. In fact, still today, his talents as a composer appear to lie entirely outside his interests and passions as a listener: Meticulously sculpting the sonic material at his disposal, patiently organising and reorganising a single idea into a multi-associational piece and creating physical tension from seemingly static themes - in all of these cases, the very absence of a pulse has been a key factor, especially since Hatakeyama hasn't tried to compensate for it in any way. Quite on the contrary, it has allowed him to manifest his concepts about texture and ambiance most clearly.

Two closely related thoughts have dominated these concepts ever since he fulminantly made his entrance on the scene with „Minimal Moralia“ on Kranky in 2006: The idea of „memory-evoking soundscapes“ and the atmospheric alienation of acoustic instruments. The former denotes a tendency to consciously and purposefully eschew solid form. Hatakeyama's tracks are like malleable, fluent, transitory clouds of harmony, which happily escape the audience's grasp like a brightly coloured butterfly joyously flapping its wings in the sun while staying clear of a collector's net. You settle into your seat and close your eyes to enjoy the music only to find out afterwards that you've just spent the past thirty minutes daydreaming off to a completely different space. Unlike traditional Ambient albums happy to serve as background wallpaper, however, these works constitute veritable cortical triggers, stimulating the brain regions most directly occupied with hazy images, blissful backtracking, nostalgia, sorrow and regret. If you find yourself taking a trip down memorylane, then that's always been part of the plan.

The second point is possibly the most important compositional technique currently employed by Hatakeyama. Like many of his colleagues, he, too, makes use of the natural resonances and timbres of instruments like Guitar and Vibraphone or the spatial characteristics of pure field recordings. And yet, he is taking both one step forward and one step back in his oeuvre. On the one hand, some of his hidden sources suddenly step out from the fog to reveal their true identity, creating surprising moments of eye-opening familiarity. „A Temple in the Past“ (from „The River“), for example, opens with shimmering droplets of spectral colours and opaque serenity. At around the two-minute mark, however, a Piano peals itself off this dense and fuzzy soundscape, counterpointing the mysterious mirror image with emotionally striking determination. It is at points like this that Hatakeyama enters into a dialogue with his listeners, as he allows them a look behind the screen. On other instances, however, he manipulates his themes in a way that not even professionally trained ears will be able to tell where they were initially culled from.

„The River“ on Hibernate Records makes for an excellent example of how proficient Hatakeyama has become in working with this outwardly limited set of parameters to create a variegated musical panopticum open to many different interpretations. As sweet and elegant as these pieces may appear, they always retain an air of secrecy and indeterminability. Made up of mostly no more than a handful of elements and all but entirely staying clear of melody, tangible themes (except, perhaps an implied torse of two notes) and the bass-end of the spectrum, many of them primarily consist of sustained undulating tones and airy chords at the outer edge of apperception. „Subtle“ doesn't even come close, as a word, to describe the delicacy and dream-like nature of this 4-5 minute figments, which only seldomly include definitely pinpointable references like the aforementioned „A Temple in the Past“ and thematically related, „A House in the Fog“ or „Lance and Arrow“ with their ghoulish microtonal scratchings and deformed field recordings.

The reason why the album works as a whole is because Hatakeyama has managed to create the pervasive sensation of a narrative. Built on the philosophical proposition of never being able to repeat one's actions or to re-live certain situations and stages of life, there is a notion that each part of this sonic puzzle is, in a way, a reflection on the same subject from a different angle. The fact that pieces hardly ever seem to change makes sense within this framework, because they question the very idea of development. The music appears to be constantly quoting itself without ever actually mechanically repeating a single bar. Instead of using counterpoints and contrasts, „The River“ works with shifting complementary components, commenting on itself and deepening its general mood over the course of its 45-minute duration. The arch of the album is nonetheless clearly shaped by a clever combination of short miniatures and slightly longer tracks, a discreet movement towards darker shades in the second half and a grand finale with sleepy oasis „Phantasm“.

There is a sense of absoluteness and definity (and, if you're a fan of pure drone building, possibly devinity as well) about „The River“, which made a change of course or rather an addition of the palette seem all but unavoidable.  On „Saunter“, Hatakeyama consequently appears to have found a promising addition to his repertoire in the exploration of processes: „Treads echoing far away from sea coast“ sees him open with a motive of a major second played by a colossally echoing underwater-orchestra, which is gradually trimmed down to a mesmerising sheet of nothing but the same tone played at different pitches. On „The Room in Past“ (the title again constituting an allusion to the territory of memory), a Piano-loop phases through hyperspace, its contours spliced apart and reconstructed in transformatory cycles. And the most daring cut, closer „Landscape on a Hill“, plants a bed of tender Kalimba-pluckings, then seamlessly shifts their formants towards the fantastical and finally lifts off and softly drifts away into a land of tranquility and glacial grace.

All of these pieces deal with form and transformation in a way and their field-like character points towards an interest in the relationship between sound and space. This is not hard to explain, as „Saunter“ was inspired by a move away from Hatakeyama's former home and to a new environment. You can virtually hear how all synapses are starting to open up like flower buds in the morning under the impact of new stimuli. There is a touch of magic in the most simple expressions, a deep mystery in what could be taken for naivete.

The album, however, is not so much a complete turnabout but rather one of these seminal moments of self-questioning and of exploring new facets of one's own personality. By handing some of his work to the workings of a process, Hatekayama has even allowed rhythm to trickle in through the subconscious backdoor. It is still nothing more than a delicate idea here, a side-thought and a lucky incident. But more and more, one of his previous weaknesses is coming to the fore – and turning into a strength against the odds.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Chihei Hatakeyama
Homepage: Hibernate Records
Homepage. Room40 Records

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