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Sound as an Instrument

img  Tobias
Drone music is usually a rather conservative and inert genre, but in the case of Yui Onodera, things certainly appear to be moving fast. After the world’s leading mags, artists and label owners had cast their vote and the dust had settled at the end of 2007, three of his albums popped up again and again in the unavoidable “End of the Year” lists. Something in his music struck a chord with a public hungry for well-proportioned forms, clear lines and inner calm – all of which are elements the music of this young Japanese sound artist is amply endowed with.

No forwards or backwards

An important factor in Yui’s career was the support of Daniel Crokaert, head of Belgian label Mystery Sea. Daniel’s natural nosiness and curiosity led him straight to the page of Critical Path, the label Onodera had set up in 2003. “I stumbled upon Yui's work when it was still in its early days”, Daniel confirms, “I seem to remember I congratulated him at the time of his first CD-R releases. After that he proposed to release something on Mystery Sea...” It was to be the start of a long working relationship, which would turn out fruitful for both sides.

It is easy to see why Daniel was enthusiastic. Onodera’s techniques were closely aligned with those of the artists represented on the Mystery Sea roster and his palette mainly consisted of a combination of processed acoustic instruments and field recordings. The third part of “Punkt”, his second solo album, peels itself from a recording of church bells and enters a zone in which there is no forwards or backwards. Out of nowhere, his music is suddenly there and simply stays put, with the listener holding his breath.

Tokyo torn in half
It is not always clear for an outside observer, but Onodera’s oeuvre is in fact heavily influenced by Japanese culture and by the city where he has lived since his birth: Tokyo. “What inspires me most is the environment I'm involved in, which includes almost everything surrounding me - not only physical urban environment but also my parental vernacular philosophies, the music scene in Tokyo and people such as musicians and organizers around me”, he says, adding as a sort of summarised manifesto: “I'm now very interested in the relationship between music and the place it comes from.”

Yui Onodera’s Tokyo sounds like a city torn in half. On the one hand, there is dark mystery, a microcosm of crackles and noises rising from the gutters and disappearing into the mist. On the other, there is utterly incredible beauty. Too much of it perhaps for some, including Daniel Crokaert, who found the first demos sent to him “a bit too much on the smooth side”. They proved to be just right for others, however, and so 2007 opened with Yui’s first publication outside of his home country, with the release of the “Synergetics” EP on Stefan Knappe’s “Drone Records”.

With these two pieces, Onodera made an extraordinary debut on the scene. Culled from guitar and piano, the warm and radiant light-drones were filled with streaks of gentle melodies leaving beams of harmonics in their wake. While the A-side is drenched in energy and juicy like a ripe peach, “Synergetics #2” is slower, more contemplative and contrasts the intangibility of its stretched-out resonant fields with reverbed piano playing. Minimal in instrumentation, the music reaches a daunting delicacy in expressiveness, capturing potentially infinite atmospheres in concise four-minute miracles.

Sound as an instrument

In the meantime, work on the Mystery Sea demo continued. Daniel was never worried, after all, that they wouldn’t come to an agreement: “I always detected rich underlying layers & patterns in his sound, so I encouraged him to explore these further.”, he says, “What attracted me to Yui Onodera's work is his singular approach, the refined outlines of his music, the seemingly effortless organic character of his aural assemblages and drones. Yui's music is pure calligraphy!” In an effort to take his music to the required level, Onodera would eventually produce the material to two of the full-lengths which would later stun a wide audience.

Both of these albums are completely different in nature. This is down to a non-determinate approach when scoring, according to Yui: “When it comes to my composing process, it keeps changing because I don't have one specific way to stick to. I can employ any sound from field recording, physical instruments I play, my voice and so on. Any sound can be my instrument.”, he adds.

The integration of field recordings or noises from his quotidian environment can start up the creative engine – or serve to finish a rough sketch: “In my working process, sound materials from physical instruments or field recordings often lead the work in progress to the direction it should take. Sound gives my composition an inspiration and at the same time suggests how it is supposed to be and sometimes even its concept.”

A romantic, post-academic vision of musique concrete

And indeed, methods and outcome are vastly divergent on “Suisei” (and/OAR) and “Substrate” (Mystery Sea). While the latter, a work of interrelated short-form pieces, was built from a plentiful array of instruments and tools, the former, a single track of just over fourty minutes, uses nothing but a pump organ and collected environmental sounds. The final result, however, is impressive in both cases.

“Suisei” constitutes the most enigmatic composition in Onodera’s still young career. Samples of water and more opaque sound sources take on musical character, forming irregular rhythms or humming melodies made of cobble stones in a granular voice. The drones, which open the piece and appear to be taking it into the usual deep textures quickly make way for a bewilderingly surreal and fractured world of sounds, a romantic, post-academic vision of musique concrete. It is the world as seen and heard by someone who attaches the same emotional resonance to the noise a fork makes when it scratches a plate as to a Bob Dylan song – and an homage to the inexplicable spiritual dimension of Tokyo.

It is a theme which is only bound to increase in importance. Yui: “Right now, I am not interested in instruments but in the ‘City’”. I am taking courses in architecture at school now and my next solo work will make "Tokyo" its theme.”

Thanks to the tireless efforts of and/Oar’s Dale Lloyd as well as to its exquisite packaging, the album reaches all the right people. Laptop pioneer Carl Stone commented: “We might think it is over after about a half an hour but happily the work continues even beyond. We never know where the composer is leading us, but we are happy to find ourselves there."

Bathing in soft waves and dreamy harmony
While “Suisei” is a unified work of puzzle-pieced entities, the eight separated parts of “Substrate” form a coherent sphere. This is the purest form of drone music imaginable, painstakingly minimal and immaculately realised. Onodera does nothing to confound expectations – instead satisfying them in the nicest possible way. In the first pieces of the album, a continous diffusion of back- and foreground and a highly effective contrast between deep maternal undulation and high flickering pulsation is at the heart of the music.

As “Substrate” progresses, however, it leaves all adornments aside, bathing in nothing but soft waves and dreamy harmony. It is never quite clear, how many layers he uses at a given time (especially in the massive cathedral corona of “Substrate part 7”), but Yui has developed a technical prowess which makes them melt into a sole texture anyway.

Making people happy
For those who can not make up their mind as to which of these works to buy first, “Rhizome” on Gears of Sand is a welcome alternative, because it blends the various faces of Onodera with each other. The opening two pieces begin where “Substrate” ended, with the drones taking on a more rhythmic character and the music bordering on a hazy kind of glitchtronica. The next two movements counterpoint this with a field-recording-oriented approach, gentle pads remaining hidden underneath several processed strata of sound.

In two lengthy efforts at the core of “Rhizome”, Onodera then even manages to integrate his Ambient side. Digitally snippeted chords hickup in slowmotion on “Rhizome Part 5”, while the fourteen minute sequence number six sees Yui improvise on the Piano over a single, repeated bass note and a nocturnal brushwood of atmospherics. A tender Jazz dirge, like William Basinski dreaming of the Summer over a glass of Bourbon. Even though he does not see himself as part of any kind of movement, some of his personal favourites do shine through on these moments, as he freely admits: “Yes. I certainly like ‘ambient#2’ of Eno/Budd.”

The secret to the artistic success of these records lies in Yui Onodera’s firm belief in a core value of music: Making people happy. His aspiration is never to reach as many people as possible, but to truly touch those who are willing to listen: “I wish I will be able to write something that provides each listener with an irreplaceable experience, even if the number of listeners is quite limited, even if it's as small as one person”, he says without pretensions, “Some musicians and their works, including the ideas behind those, have hugely influenced me. If my music could be as special as theirs, nothing could give me more pleasure.”

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Yui Onodera/Critical Path
Homepage: Yui Onodera at MySpace
Homepage: Mystery Sea Records
Homepage: Drone Records
Homepage: and/OAR Records
Homepage: Gears of Sand Records

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