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Chihei Hatakeyama: Variations

img  Tobias Fischer

Electroacoustic composer Tobias Reber recently remarked that the irritating question of „what a composer is trying to tell us with a piece“ degraded musicians to the level of an inarticulate infants. Not only do myriads of over-intellectual reviews and analytical essays prove his point. Most artists are, in fact, aiming at the exact opposite: Reaching a level of proficiency, at which their music transcends tangible concepts and turns into undiluted, absolute sound. Or, as Manfred Eicher of ECM put it in an interview with German music mag Crescendo: „I don't know if there's an ethos to what I do. I simply want to discover music and find out, what's possible. To me, it's a form of nourishment, like bread and water.“

Few have been able to realise this goal as successfully and seemingly without effort as multi-instrumentalist Chihei Hatakeyama. Where others work with structures, Hatakeyama sculpts a flow. Where some will group notes into melodies, he will expand harmonic cells into large-scale compositions. And instead of following the tradition of thematic progression, his pieces are moving into the depth of a threedimensional space rather rather than making use of horizontal concepts such as dynamics, development and density. On some of the most intriguing moments of albums like Ghostly Garden or A Long Journey, the result was an airy and yet intricately convoluted cloud, in which musical motives manifested themselves as soft surfacial spasms.

The fact that the tracks on Variations are again so irresistibly pretty and easily attributable to the Ambient-genre, has somewhat obscured their exploratory scope. Today, with ten solo full-lengths and a cornucopia of compilation-contributions under his belt, Hatakeyama is part of a select group of composers capable of making harmonious and aesthetically pleasing tonal music seem adventurous and ambitious again. This seeming paradox is explained by the Tokyoite's conflation of textural and melodic elements, with breathing drones composed of fragmented phrases, short sequences and solitary chords disguising themselves as smooth soundscapes. Astoundingly, his music has no clearly definable for- and background anymore, but rather consist of a continuous advent and decay of ideas, patterns and perspectives. Defiantly eschewing repetition for the most part, it renders each moment as unique as the one preceding it. In a world without memory, on the other hand, there can be no point of departure and no destination, no past and no future –  and accordingly, everything in this music is pure present, every note both seminally important and entirely negligible.

Variations is certainly not an exception to these rules and still bares his  recognisable script. At the same time, it can be considered a meta-album of sorts. Rather than dealing with philosophical reflections on the nature of reality (The River), parallels between the art of dance and the art of sound (Saunter) and eschatological questions (A Long Journey), it is a reflection on the act of composing itself and on the interaction between an artist and his materials. While such thoughts are typically reserved for the later parts of an musician's career, it is certainly no coincidence that these questions should arise at this very point in time: Over the past two years, Hatakeyama's discography has grown at a relentless pace, with most of the material following a similar approach and ascribing to a consistent aesthetic. In a way, this prolific output was necessary for him to arrive at a conscious understanding of the nature of his production technique: A potentially infinite series of transformations, juxtapositions and permutations of tiny tropes of sound, some of which rendered entirely unrecognisable from their original state or thus heavily processed, that they appear as mere atmospheric resonance, as the distant echoes of what once was an instrumental line. For his latest installment, particularly, Hatakeyama likened this method to the pattern-play of water, a fluctuating sequence of light and shade, peak and trough, of colour and darkness – with the theme of variations alluding less to the classical technique of melodic permutations but to his penchant for digging into the very DNA of the soundfiles in question.

As a result of this creative self-discovery, Variations readily qualifies as his purest and clearest work to date. Hatakeyama is working within a single sound per piece here, with three tracks dedicated to the piano, two to electric guitar and one to the duo of guitar and vibraphone. All are marked by a sense of drifting and a floating quality, by the effective suspension of time and space as well as the blurring of precise outlines. And yet, they all approach the notion of continuous flux from a different perspective: „Variation for electric guitar II“ comprises of nothing more than a sequence of two deep chords on top of a sustained drone, which continues throughout the entire track. The transformations are of an all but imperceptible nature: At intermittent points, Hatakeyama discretely widens the space between the triads or simply emits one cycle, creating sudden gaps in the fixed rhythm. At the same time, ethereal harmonics are forming in the upper registers, which all but inexplicably coalesce into the same two-chord-motive pitched up by various octaves – an angelic echo to the main theme. For more than ten minutes, the music relies exclusively on this reinvention of identical motives, its stubborn strife for rejuvenation saving it from the danger of cancelling itself out.

A track like „Variation for Electric Guitar and Vibraphone“, meanwhile, lifts the veil from the compositional approach behind the work, while nonetheless leaving enough of it obscure as to not end up sounding like process-music: In the opening bars, a four-note theme is introduced, then shortened to two notes and finally stretched, reworked and pitched up and down, until every single atom of the resulting drone comprises of permutations of the original. Despite this almost obsessive coherency, there is no recognisable theme to hang on to. Quite on the contrary, it is the very mutability of the material which creates the sensation of themes gently drifting by on the horizon without apparent destination or aim. It is a music without ledgers, in which constant motion is more important than the moment. Even putting a piece on repeat will never lead to the same experience, each listen leading to new and entirely different sensations, perceptions and emotional responses. As such, one could regard them as fields rather than compositions, oscillating with a cornucopia of associations at varying frequencies. By turning his attention to an ideal rather than a fixed style, Hatakeyama has avoided the pitfalls of subscribing to an ultimately repetitive technique.

It is, in fact, a process which seems to be inspired most of all by the sheer joy of working with a minimal palette, by the pleasure derived from observing how a single musical thought can lead to a cascade of fresh ideas. Not once does Chihei Hatakeyama seem to want to tell his audience anything at all – and it is this very reliance on the pure power of music which awards his work such an alluring quality.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Chihei Hatakeyama
Homepage: Soundscaping Records

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