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Ironomi: Sketch

img  Tobias Fischer

Beauty and horror are occasionally closely related. In his 1999-shock-sensation Audition, a surreal tale of sorrow, desire and longing told through both breathtakingly atmospheric and deeply disturbing images, Japanese director Takashi Miike wove several layers of consciousness into a feverish texture in which love, lust, pain and satisfaction could no longer be clearly separated from each other. Its main protagonist Aoyama Shigeharu, an aging company executive who has lost his wife and, subsequently, all hope of a better future, fakes a movie casting as a means of finding a new companion. His choice, Yamazaki Asami, pledges her devotion to him, but just when their happiness seems certain, it is brutally ruptured and everything that once seemed good now comes back to haunt him. Although the movie mainly gained notoriety for its initially tedious slowness and all but unbearable intensity, with audience members frequently fainting or walking out of screenings, Miike was not so much fascinated by physical violence as such, but rather by the power of the subconscious: In a hallucinatory sequence of scenes, woven together by delirious logic rather than exactly poinpointable chronological order, the hero looses himself in the contraptions of morality and the demands of society, never entirely sure whether waking up from the nightmare will improve his fate or render it even worse. Punishment, Audition suggests, hardly ever takes place in actual fact, but foremost in the mind, where Shigeharu's inability for forgiving himself and accepting his new-found love, gained through supposedly unacceptable means, is weighing heavy on his conscious. The question of what constitutes reality and what belongs to the domain of imagination is revealed as a paradox: Constantly interpenetrating, they span up a new space in which the world presents itself as what it is at heart: A construct of our brain, a product of the senses, an image produced by unreliable faculties.

On their sixth full-length in just three years, Ironomi are not seriously cherishing the illusion of being able to untie this web of associations and impressions. Similar to a lot of Sound Art, the work of Junya Yanagidaira (Piano) and Yu Isobe (Laptop) may sinificantly deal with memory and place - especially so on Sketch, which presents an attempt to capture both the haze and heat of Japanese Summer as well as a private stay at Mashiko, a smallish, but idyllically located town of 25.000 inhabitants, embedded into a  pastoral scenery of awe-inspiring mountains and lush hills. And yet, rather than trying to attain documentarian precision, their approach resembles that of a painter depicting reality exclusively as he sees it, as a subjective distillation of chemo-biological impulses and emotions: Field recordings provide for a snapshot of the region's acoustic properties, of the constant hum and hiss of the pervasive cicadas as well as subtle signs of human life (the housekeeper sweeping the floor outside with a rattan broom, on “翠色”, for example) presented in super-real purity. The music, too, is not just the result of  a love for  impressionism – certainly with regards to 19th century piano-composers and possibly to the technique of painting by the same name as well – but just as much of remaining in the moment and capturing the immediacy of a particular point in time through sound.

Terms like improvisation and composition may still technically apply, but they are hardly able to adequately depict what is happening here. All pieces on Sketch begin with tender, ephemeral piano motives by Yanagidaira – some of them so fragile as to almost pass by the listener's threshold of awareness unnoticed – and are then gradually picked up by Isobe, who feeds them into a string of self-written software patches. What happens next is a question of the material in question: While opener “夏虫色” and closer „時色”merely juxtapose these airy motives with distant repetitions or offbeat counterpoints, the transformational process is far more incisive on other occasions. On „空色”, for example, Ironomi open with a particularly sultry sequence of sweet seventh chords and environmental sounds, which keeps unfolding, while a second passage – or, to be more precise, an entire new track - at first all but inaudible and then gradually gaining in richness and volume, begins washing over and completely replacing it. As a video of Ironomi's light-flooded performance at an old temple during the Open Sound & Art Village festival in Tokyo proves, meanwhile, the general sense of polydirectional movements is not just created in the machine, but through a simultaneous, bidirectional call-and-response game between the musicians and their gear.

As much as these operations have become more proficient over the years  thanks to extensive experience, they can never be calculated as minutely as an algorithmical formula. The kind of bland rhythmical harmony and textural smoothness typical of the majority of Ambient-releases is thus replaced with an unsteady, yet all the same hypnotic flow of perpetually shifting accents, metrums and tonal constellations, in which even the aforementioned field recordings can suddenly turn into musical elements subject to changes in timbre and dynamics. And yet, the entire work is all the same marked by the same detached tranquility and fleetingness of their previous albums on local labels Starnet and Ryondo Tea (the truly delectable reverie Recode, particularly, comes to mind). The fact that Sketch may seem both intriguingly complex or, as one reviewer has already remarked, too uneventful, points to the true reason for this dual impression of calm and perturbance: Although loops seem to dominate the picture, there are really no ledgers anywhere, with the music reinventing itself in every moment.

These notions eventually culminate in Sketch's centerpiece “裏葉色”, by far the most extensive and immersive of contributions. Here, the main motif is presented merely in a strikingly short introduction clocking in at just over fourty seconds and comprising of no more than a handful of longing chords. Already with the second repetition of the cycle, the transformation sets in: The entire progression is first divided into myriads of tiny samples - some of them remaining firmly recognisable, others so small or disfiguringly cut up that they bare no resemblance to the original whatsoever anymore – and then re-assembled from scratch. What at first seems like an uneasy and confusing array of unconnected samples quickly develops a mantric quality. Snippets and longer segments start appearing on the left, right and center channel, in the fore- and background as well as in various states of electronic processing. While some elements occupy a sort of fixed positions, others are making mere fleeting appearances, as the music shifts gracefully at the speed of clouds on an all but windless day. There is no return to the safe haven of reality anymore, as the balance tilts towards the dream and the imagined, trapping the listener in a peaceful space of pure sound and sonic allusions.

Alban Berg's „Piano Sonata No. 1“, which famously recycled the harmonic and melodic content of its first few bars over its entire 13-minute duration to stunning effect, is a possible point of reference for this technique, a music factually standing still, yet simultaneously appearing to be in constant motion. It is certainly not a flight of fancy or too far-fetched to regard Sketch as an attempt at trying to build a world in which everything is intricately related - one can dissect the work into its different movements or into even smaller units, but its true meaning can only be grasped by appreciating it as one continuous piece laid out on a grand-scale canvas. One of the most intriguing aspects in this regard is the fact that, consciously, or unconsciously, the album has been arranged in a perfectly symmetrical fashion, with track lengths corresponding to each other almost exactly at the rate of the golden means.

So while the duo may be pursuing similar philosophical ideas as Takashi Miike, their aesthetics are of a far more balanced nature: Not just is there plenty of beauty to be found on Sketch, but horror is also kept at a safe distance.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ironomi
Homepage: Kitchen.Label

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