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Tomas Phillips + Marihiko Hara: Prosa

img  Tobias Fischer

Treating sounds as words and building plots from abstract sonic artifacts comes entirely naturally to Marihiko Hara and Tomas Phillips. In Hara's work as a member of delicate pop duo rimacona-lab, lyrics and music are regarded as close siblings. Phillips, meanwhile, has immersed himself in researching the intersection between writing and composing. Perhaps that is why already the press release to their first collaborative album makes a point of not over-stretching its conceptual aspects: References to literature were indirect at best, syntactical parallels foremost related to the overall architecture of the work instead of every single detail. And if, as indicated, there was indeed a connection with Japanese writing, it was to be found precisely in those passages, which were, in their „quietness“, expressions of synaesthetic qualities anyway. Before taking a stab at its underlying programmatics, the first thing one should therefore probably do with regards to Prosa is to discard whatever one may have read about it – and to simply sit back and enjoy.

Phillips and Hara have certainly done everything in their power to make the auditory experience as agreeable as possible. Their palette is instantly familiar, inviting and never overburdened, consisting of singular koto dabbers and iridescent piano runs, gossamer layers of electrostatic crackle and the occasional, endlessly decaying sentimental synth chord, with several of these elements appearing at different places of the record, increasing both the inter-relatedness and self-referentially of the music. Importantly, too, the duo are making extensive use of silence as a compositional device, with several of the chord changes taking place at an almost dream-like inertia, long stretches of empty bars lending a sense of wideness, space and solitude to the score. Time is entirely subjective here, either significantly sped up or slowed down, hardly ever moving at its objective rate. This becomes immediately apparent in the first two „chapters“ comprising „Prosa I“: In the opening five and a half minutes, musical attacks are singular events on a blank canvas, each note an island of its own. As the influx of tones gradually increases, so does the perceived pulse of time. Rhythms trickle in, sustained chords fill the emptiness between individual evens and the music picks up pace – only to re-enter a sort of dream-state shortly after.

Over the course of the album, these contrasts are, if anything, growing even more apparent, if only because of the stylistic diversity covered by the material, ranging from heartbreaking ambient sections and a distant piano nocturne played on a dusty, lightflooded attic to artfully constructed, dense webs of drones. In the light of these obviously lyrical qualities, the title of the album suddenly takes on an intriguing quality after all. It has recently become all but customary, after all, to draw comparisons between poetry and music, with the adjective „poetic“ being applied to all but every piece combining elegance of form with a sense of harmony in musical relations. Hara and Phillips, contrarily, are interested in different qualities. Whereas, in poetry, line, rhyme and rhythm are the determining elements, prose feeds from sentence, flow and narrative. While the former penetrates the moment, the latter deals with change. These new parameters and their organic application, rather than the trivial parallels with fiction, are the real basis for the material on display here and they make for some fascinating deviations from the traditional routines of composition and album building. The challenge for the artists lay in creating a work which was marked by a continuous and coherent mood, while nonetheless „going somewhere“. It was about using leitmotifs and recurring themes without making them sound like hackneyed rehashs or mechanical repetitions. It was about creating clearly delineated chapters on the one hand and then relating them to each other afterwards. And, most of all, it was about making these technical aspects stand back behind the emotional unfolding of the work.

Much of the solution on Prosa consists in working on a scenic basis. Listening to the album is not unlike watching a play, with the curtain dropping between acts without the momentum being severed. On „Prosa I/ii“, a field recording of a gentle rain storm suddenly emerges from the abstractions, but it is not merely a piece of found sound, but a genuine narrative element, as though the protagonist were suddenly being woken from his reveries by the drops of water dancing on his face. Everything here is directly related to the notion of storytelling – which, against the odds, is an anything but self-evident feat. All art is communication, of course, the history of music tending towards the construction and continuous elaboration of composition as a language. And yet, it was only around the time of Haydn, that the constituents of the tonal system acquired a degree of symbolic meaning, which allowed composers to use them for relating personal sentiments and building rapport without having to make recourse to explanatory lyrics. Haydn's audience laughed at his „jokes“, joined him in his laments and sensed the desire built up over the course of elaborate harmonic trajectories, because they understood particular developments relating to chord progressions and melodies as signifiers for telling a story through sound. The point of the exercise was never to imitate one form of art with another but to attain the same expressiveness and organicity of direct human contact. And it is this goal that Prosa seems to be working towards.

It is certainly no coincidence that Tomas and Hara, who could potentially draw from an extremely wide range of 20th and 21st century influences, have chosen to make the album almost demonstratively „tonal“. This, after all, relates it to a vocabulary which has grown over centuries and become almost as natural as quotidian speech. At the same time, they are adding the element of sound to the equation, whose storytelling faculties have grown considerably over the past decades. As such, they are enriching the expressive possibilities at the disposal of classical composers and catering to the full sensual spectrum of what a contemporary audience can appreciate. Consequently, the exact meaning of the narrative is still up to the listener, but it is certainly not entirely random either: Hara and Phillips have imbued their work with plenty of indicators and clues, which undeniably guide their audience into a clearly delineated direction. Again, everything's a question of perspective. Does the cover of Prosa depict a giant wall of ancient books in a library or a curiously curved cobblestone street? Thinking about the answer will serve to increase your awareness of the material at hand as well as the „true nature of music“ to boot.

Foremost, however, the satisfaction from this collaboration does not stem from its philosophical wisdom but the act of listening. It is great for a novel to be stimulating and ambitious, but few expect it to develop a new language in doing so. As Prosa effectively demonstrates, there is something to be said for applying the same criteria to music.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tomas Phillips
Homepage: Marihiko Hara
Homepage: Tench Recordings

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