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Hiroki Sasajima: Nille

img  Tobias Fischer

Paradoxically, the most radical and innovative music hardly ever stems from the most obviously stunning timbral creations. Extreme noises merely exaggerate and distort what is already there, after all. If truly groundbreaking art is about making the invisible visible and the inaudible audible, then it must by default focus on the hidden and seemingly trivial sounds which we pay no attention to in our daily lives. This counter-intuitive yet entirely convincing philosophy is the departure point for Hiroki Sasajima's current work. Just as with some of his fellow Tokyoites, including Sound Artist Yui Onodera and Jazz formation Mouse on the Keys, Sasajima regards the Japanese metropolis both as a source of sonic inspiration and an acoustic body. Contrary to them, however, his gaze is neither directed towards the busy streets and crowded spaces nor towards the quiet oases embedded into its chinks. Rather, his interest is sparked by the vaporous layer of sonic dust forming between these poles, by the emissions usually drowned out by the constant din surrounding us.

On „Nille“, his first major release following a string of netlabel publications mainly applauded within a small circle of connoisseurs, the determination with which he has followed this concept to its logical conclusion has resulted in an album of austere design and uncompromising severity. As on a lot of releases from the genre, drones and field recordings play a seminal role here. But - and this puts Sasajima beyond comparison - they never segue. Rather, both are treated as independent entities neither corresponding nor contrasting with each other. „Reflect realism“, the artist suggests in his liner notes and this seemingly simple assignment contains within itself the key to the compositional aim behind the music: The mutual ignorance between his elements uproots them and effectively places them in Sasajima's laboratory for observation and dissection, like insects and plants placed underneath a microscope. This, meanwhile, poses an important question: If sounds loose their „materiality“, „functionality“ and "natural context", what remains of them after this procedure?

The answer is anything but straight-forward, as all of the four pieces on „Nille“ present the audience with variations on the aforementioned underlying theme. On „Part 1“, a variety of sounds, ranging from liquid chuckling and aquatic gurgling to what could be the immersion of various objects into water, pass by against the backdrop of sustained and gradually condensing atmospheres, eventually culminating in a sequence of tiny crystalline bells. On „Part 2“, meanwhile, these ambiances become more insistent, especially gaining in lower resonance, while the accompanying transformations appear to restrict themselves to a single rustling sound, carefully changing over the course of the piece. As apparent as these different shadings may be on paper, by this point, the listener has already enjoyed almost half an hour of music, pointing to the psychedelic qualities of the material: Clocking in around the twelve-minute-mark, these are slow-moving meditations without apparent direction or goal, which one might easily perceive as „uneventful“. And yet, if anything, the approach is even intensified on the third installment, a warmly shimmering cloud of deep swell and gentle micro-clicks. Representing the only serious attempt at an integral fusion between the different layers, it almost disappears within its own ephemeral shell, space peacefully folding in on itself.

And yet, it is the conceptual heart of the entire record. It is here that the seemingly unaimed operations of the opening sections are revealed as a process of gradual withdrawal. Increasingly, the foreground as an acoustic area defined by increased relative volume and more pronounced tonal colour, turns into a void, the music slowly ebbing away into silence as if pulled back by a tidal force. What remains are serene drones, patiently humming far away in an undefined distance. Simply by remaining put, they have become the center of attention. It is only now that one discovers that one has literally been drawn into „Nille“ as if observing an intriguing picture in an empty gallery, shuffling closer and closer towards the canvas until one has arrived within touching distance and is looking at the structure of the paint itself – a vast, almost perfectly smooth, yet finely granular sheet of deep, dark blue.

Observing the unfolding of the process is not unlike taking in one of Kazimir Malevich's („White on White“) or Robert Rauschenberg's monochromatic paintings – one not only needs to reset one's expectations but one's focus as well. It is a return to the essence and Sasajima appears to be actively nurturing the notion by unfolding his materials with systematic meticulousness and an almost stoic calm. You can virtually see him standing out there in an alien landscape, pointing his microphone at bizarre creatures and playing with surreal objects in a bid of documenting their sounds with all but scientific precision. While many composers tend to either speed up subjective time or to slow it down, „Nille“ arrests it in a succession of singular moments devoid of any overarching narrative. None of them necessarily has to „mean“ anything. But the continuity and timbral coherence of this chain of instances makes the underlying flow of time palpable with forceful intensity.

Of course, the somewhat demure quality of some of the sounds on the album implies that one's first impression may not be one of great emotional engagement or intense sensory stimulation. But these qualities do come over time, creeping in one the audience like a nagging thought fighting its way into consciousness. And as is so often the case with more discrete but all the deeper reflections, they are sure to outlast their more striking and extreme counterparts.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Hiroki Sasajima
Homepage: Mystery Sea Records

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