By the Numbers
The promise of digital music reproduction, compact discs if you recall, was not only "perfect sound" but indestructible sound. In the future, said the salesmen, no longer will we have to return a CD to the jewel box after listening to it. Just toss it somewhere over there; it's got a half-life of 125 million years. Or, if need be, use it for tuckpointing. Slice with it, dice with it, sharpen knives on it, clean fish with it. Then, like magic, return it to the CD player and -- listen -- there's Geddy Lee's voice in all its glory. No muss, no fuss.
What a scam. CDs skip, and, until recently, they sounded like shit, too. Not only do they skip: The resulting repetition is seldom all that interesting, definitely not as interesting as the nick on More Hot Rocks during "Sitting on a Fence." ("The day can come when you get old and sick and tired. and tired. and tired. and tired. and tired. and tired.") No, CD skips are otherworldly digital gibberish, and attempts to harness the alien tones, until now, have proved to be nothing more than overly simplistic postmodern novelty.
It's hard to say exactly how Nobukazu Takemura makes the music he does, but the Japanese composer/remix master uses the binary babble of skitterish CDs as a foundation. And though his methods probably are more high-tech than simply taking a blade or some fingernail polish to the raw side of a CD, the resulting digital pinpricks, under his hand, are transformed into pure beauty.
Takemura uses as his method a kind of aural pointillism, precisely placing dots of sound in a complex order. And though you'll no doubt find his work filed in the electronica section of your local music store (and that's where his roots lie, in the soft electronic-pop music of -- excuse the dumb name -- spiritual vibes), his music can hardly be pigeonholed as big beat, techno, drum and bass, or house. Rather it floats and dances with quiet, sibilant blips. On last year's Funfair (Bubble Core), which he recorded under the alias Child's View, he mixes the method with orthodox pop structure to create extended, wonderfully melodic songs (all instrumental, though voices do on occasion seep in) organized into complex, highly engaging patterns.
Try placing the sounds on "Pendulum," from Funfair. The reflex is to assume that the composition was created on a computer, but if you pick apart the sounds, they're all familiar: Xylophones meld with what sound like steel drums and a gamelan. A child's voice is sampled once, a simple, girlish "da," repeated ad infinitum, while snippets of clarinet and oboe give a razor-sharp, highly orchestrated arrangement. The slow pacing provides an ethereal essence, a freaky blissed-out vibe, but there is an edge. The result likely was created with the aid of a computer, but the more you listen to it, the more you can imagine an orchestra consisting of highly disparate instrumentation: In addition to the aforementioned tones, toss in wind chimes; a music box; glass bowls; an oboe; a sexy French lady half-singing, half-speaking.
On paper the ingredients spell out -- yikes -- new age. Wrong. But it is pretty, and it is, at times, gentle. Maybe even -- ugh -- peaceful, easy. Fans of the Crüe will not dig this, that's for sure, nor will close-minded fans of Fatboy Slim. But there's no denying the beauty of the music, which, despite its synthetic origins, sounds absolutely organic.
In a sense Takemura, like musically less interesting labelmates Oval, is merely advancing an idea that originated in audio reproduction in the late '50s with the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs and their remarkable experiments with tape cutups. Using analog tape the two recorded, cut apart, and then respliced the mess in a different order. The end product was a new, juxtaposed meaning that sprouted from all the elements of the original message. Jump to New York City in the late '70s. Using the medium of turntables and LPs, DJs created something magically new: cutting and scratching. Across town artist Christian Marclay was merging the ideas of Burroughs, Gysin, and the DJs by cutting up LPs and pasting them back together (you can hear some of his amazing work on his Records reissue from last year) to be played on record players. Enter Oval and Takemura, whose desire to turn the sound of a defective CD into curious melodicism has resulted in a new sound.
Takemura's recent work is more prismatic and, as a result, more akin to that of his predecessors: His piece on the stellar reworking of composer Steve Reich's Reich Remixed (Nonesuch), is the highlight of the collection. Takemura takes on Reich's 1995 composition "Proverb," snipping from it a single gorgeous female voice, magnifying, melodicizing, and rhythmifying it. In the song's first moments, the CD seems to jump and warble, and the reflexive reaction is a desire to run to the player, eject the disc, and blow on it. But then things settle in and little audible bumps appear, followed by what ends up being a countermelody. Gradually the pace quickens, until everything coalesces into a goddamn workout of sound: Skips find legs and then rhythm, until the mistakes morph into muscle and that lady's voice uncovers a jittery, sampled melody. Patterns emerge that are easy to trail but impossible to anticipate. Takemura accomplishes the impossible, one that seldom happens in the world of remixes: He transforms one visionary excursion (Reich's original "Proverb") into another one, his remix.
A twelve-inch released earlier this year is a bridge that connects Takemura's melodic, beat-based compositions similar to both "Proverb" and Funfair with a stark new vision that he realizes on the recent Scope (Thrill Jockey). The first side of the single, "Meteor," is an epic ten-minute melodic jam, dwelling on a single fleeting series of notes with a wimpy, stuttering rhythm underneath. The second side is more skewed, and, well, more difficult to digest, mainly because it takes more work to wrap your ears around. Where previous releases were wonderful, complicated variations on your basic thump-thump-thump-thump rhythm, "Wax and Wane" presents a mantra minus the quadruple-thump attack, one that doesn't immediately present itself as a rhythm. Only through relentless repetition does it slowly gather momentum and a hook, and from there it gradually shifts its emphasis. But, admittedly, it's also a bit tedious.
Takemura amputates the 4/4 rhythm almost entirely on Scope. Sound hits like a hailstorm of digital bits, thousands of tiny individual pellets, and Takemura gathers and renders with them often gorgeous compositions. You (or anyone else in this world, for that matter) have never heard anything like the music on Scope, because these are brand-new sounds. Here Takemura uses as source material gentle, earthy tones -- what sounds like a marimba, an occasional music box, each with a personality as distinct as any piano note or saxophone tone -- frays their edges until they're fuzzy scraps of sound, then sweeps all these teensy bits into one carefully imagined pile. At first these abstractions sound confusing (following a heartbeat rhythm is innate, but following a sporadic, jerky one takes more brain power than it does booty) but once you adjust your ears, the gestalt will not only fascinate you but, more important in the overly sterilized digital domain, move you.
But it won't always move you. At times it sounds like, to quote a friend, "R2D2 music," random tone bursts without a recognizable pattern. Blips blurt like a faulty microchip, the system seems to audibly crash, and the listener's left scratching his or her noggin. The crystal palace shatters, and a shard pokes you in the ear.
If you're a guitar fan (you know you rock and you don't have any time for computer music), Scope will sound like gibberish, the overanalyzed workings of a brainiac mathematician/composer/electronic-uh geek. And maybe that's what it is, if you wanna go Cliff's on us. But a tip of the hat to anyone who stretches to imagine a new kind of music, a morphing of highbrow, lowbrow, and e-brow; an old-fashioned handshake to anyone who, upon imagining such an idea, actually succeeds in creating it.
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