Headphones mandatory… Ambient music is something I’ve always been fascinated by. My first real exposure to the genre was David Bowie’s seminal album ‘Heroes’. Side 2 of “Heroes” is all-instrumental, featuring synth drones, atonal sax and koto, as well as various unsettling ambient sounds mostly courtesy of Brian Eno. Inspired by Cold War era-West Berlin’s eerie, almost surreal vibe as an island of Western culture in the midst of a communist totalitarian state , songs like “V2-Schneider” and “Neukolln” evoke decay, desolation and loneliness possibly more powerfully than any blues song ever could.
I became intrigued and my next stop was the work of Brian Eno, often considered a pioneer in ambient music (especially his Music for Airports series). It became apparent that in order for me to open my mind to Eno’s music I needed to let go of any preconceived notions of what constituted a ‘song’, or even what constituted music. Traditional song structure, as well as mainstream concepts of musical keys, melodies, and even time signature, are more or less tossed out the window. As such ‘ambient’ music has more in common with non-western indigenous music as well as early electronic experiments in musique concrete. Once I’d made the mental leap, a whole new world of sound and musical experience opened up for me, and I began to explore the world of ambient music.
It’s easy to imagine that, like most ambient musicians, Chihei Hatakeyama has been greatly influenced by Eno.
Hatakeyama is a sound artist and musician from Tokyo. He performs under his given name and as one half of the electroacoustic duo Opitope, along with Tomoyoshi Date. Hatakeyama utilizes electric and acoustic instruments such as electric guitar, vibraphone, and piano.
“Alone by the Sea” is music at its most minimal and ambient. Chord progressions are minimal to non-existent, melodies loop stereophonically. It’s all about texture and layers of sound, gradually evolving over the course of a ‘song’. Perhaps ‘piece’ is a better name as the music sounds like a living, breathing thing that evolves organically, without a beginning, middle or end. The different pieces come across more as snapshots from a slow intricate process than individual musical statements.
The liner notes tell us this EP was influenced by Fudaraku-tokai, a form of the ascetic practice of sacrifice performed in medieval Japan. A monk undertaking this practice would set out to sea in a small, single-sailed (but oar-less and rudderless) boat in the hope of arriving at the southern paradise of the Bodhisattva of Compassion . Apparently the artist used only one sound file for the album, a sample from an old record bought in a small record store.
It’s easy to get swallowed up by Chichei’s majestically unfolding soundscapes, and catch perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the somber and magical event that the monk’s voyage must have been. Small, almost unnoticeable changes occur very slowly over the course of a piece, enveloping you in a kind of trance that does not let up until you realize the piece is ending. It’s truly a testament to Hatakeyama’s skill and mastery of the genre that music seemingly so non-eventful manages to hold the listener’s attention to the point of utter fascination. In fact it would be apt to think of this music as a kind of meditation of its own. The first three pieces are all called ‘Alone by the Sea’, numbered 1 to 3. The last piece “In Dreams” I can only assume depicts the monk’s inevitable passing away, and the arrival in the promised paradise. Clocking at an impressive 29:51, it is at once the most somber and most majestic of the four, and to me at least evokes some of the sadness, determination and self-sacrifice as well as deep spiritual beliefs possessed by the monks choosing to make this ultimate sacrifice.
“Alone by the Sea” is a majestic and fascinating album with deep spiritual roots, showcasing Chihei Hatakeyama’s uncanny mastery of the elusive genre known as ambient. It’s warmly recommended for fans of ambient music and those wishing to expand their musical horizons.
– Phil Vanderyken for Fluid Radio
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