Universal is Born

The lovely EM Records label in Japan has been busy with more of its characteristically wonderful reissues of scarce, choice and exotic items. All the below were received here 02 May 2012. I happened to visit Honest Jon’s Records in West London yesterday and found they were still stocking a few copies of the label’s older releases, some of which are out of print. I’m personally very excited to receive and hear I Saw The Outer Limits (EM1098CD) by Matsuo Ohno. The work of this exceptional Japanese electronic music composer is not exactly easy to come by. There were three CDs issued on King Records in 2005, but these volumes of The World of Electro-Acoustic Sound and Music are in the process of becoming collector’s items. If known at all, Ohno is probably best known to a Western audience through his soundtracks to the TV anime series Astro Boy, but that’s become something of an astral albatross for him. In fact he has a complex history behind him, working in documentary and nature films since the late 1950s, developing a very personal philosophy, and some details of his fascinating life have been recorded in the very simpatico sleeve notes to this release, written by the label owner Koki Emura. There are other and more obscure anime works, for example the work of Hiroshi Maname, which had an influence on this creator, and he also made his own innovative documentary films in the 1960s, including some highly personal film projects about the treatment of disabled and mentally ill children in Japan. He produced and directed a 1972 documentary following the Taj Mahal Travellers on tour.

In 1977 he scored the soundtrack for The War In Space for Toho, the large Japanese studio that produced the Godzilla movies, and he was commissioned by director Shinji Hinoki to produce an album of purely electronic music. I Saw The Outer Limits is the result, Ohno’s first release of non-soundtrack music, and an art statement in its own right. To emphasise the unique nature of Ohno’s music, Emura gently opines how much electronic music of the 1970s (and a lot of it was quite commercial and even sold well) was not only rather bland and boring to listen to, but also tended to simply recreate the sound of conventional instruments; many times we heard quite ordinary melodies being played on a keyboard, except that the keyboard happened to be a synthesizer. It’s worth bearing this in mind as you delve into the extremely subtle tonal shadings of Ohno’s work, which are the result of pure process – the sounds here can only be created by electronic means, and the only method to arrange them involved tape editing. While this is not wildly different from the techniques used by many classical electro-acoustic composers, the results here are blessedly free from theories of structure and compositional techniques. The music just floats…it makes a lot of electronic music seem clumsy and stilted with its delicacy and weightless grace. One senses that Ohno worked in a very intuitive way, and Emura for one is convinced that Ohno has “broken free from musical genre…also from the very framework of the standard composition process”. The other thing that listeners will notice is how strange and almost impersonal the work is, a quality which is another product of Ohno’s unique personality, his reluctance to preach or express direct messages in his music. Outer space music has rarely sounded so outer-spacey, in short – cold, distant, alien, and forlorn. The release comes with a bonus mini-CD of Animal Noise Music called Choju Gigaku, and the composer himself explains how this oddity came about for the World Expo in Japan in 1970. He himself is charmingly baffled as to why anyone would want to reissue this obscure item which was intended for a very limited audience and sold virtually zero copies at the time. For the rest of us music fanatics, prepare to be delighted for 12 minutes of electronic animals singing their beautiful little tunes. I think the label has also pressed this as a nifty seven-inch vinyl item. Essential purchase!

Portrait of a Prodigy (EM RECORDS EM1099CD / MEDITATIONS MEDI 02CD) collects a number of recordings by the enigmatic Indian flautist T.R. Mahalingham, remastered from 78 rpm discs of the 1940s and 1950s. Indian music is not quite in my line, but it seems this fellow did much to reinvigorate the Carnatic tradition with his attempts to put more voicing and emotion into his playing. In doing this he caused some controversy among the purists, and made matters worse by his slightly disreputable lifestyle; an occasional gambler who was not very reliable or punctual, often arriving late for concerts or storming off the stage in the middle of a performance. These however could be taken as indicators of his perfectionism in music, and signs of a temperamental genius. I’m not at all versed in the traditions here, so have nothing to compare it to, but my ears tell me his playing is clearly detailed, taut, and very meticulous. He may not exactly be the John Coltrane of the Carnatic flute, but his music is beautiful to listen to.

Another record guaranteed to expose my musical chauvinism and ignorance of world music is Diew Sor Isan: The North East Thai Violin of Thonghuad Faited (EM1101CD). This album compiles a number of mid to late 1970s recordings of this exceptional player of the Sor Isan. The Sor Isan is a fairly grating instrument and its keening sound may be an acquired taste to Western ears at first spin, but some will also love its rawness and direct qualities. It’s a very distinctive voicing you don’t hear too often. Thonghuad Faited is notable as one of the few players who managed to bring the instrument to the fore, and achieved notoriety as a soloist – again, going against the grain of tradition. The music is completely beyond my ken, and I’d be lost without the contextual notes provided by Chris Menist and Maft Sai (who also compiled the release) – they achieve an interesting blend of musicology and regional history in their concise essay, and bring the story to life. All of these tunes have something to recommend them, whether it be a syrupy ethnic drone, an intriguing vocal part, or even a lightweight easy-listening “rock” backdrop with drums and guitars. The other thing I like is that while the Thai violin is the “lead” instrument, it’s clearly nothing like the sort of musical excess we would associate with jazz, improv, or rock solos, and rather than relentlessly propelling forwards, the music keeps circling in on itself in a compelling manner.

On Istikhbars & Improvisations (EM1096CD) we hear the piano music of Mustapaha Skandrani. This is another example of a relatively obscure musician whom Koki Emura clearly regards as a hidden gem and one most worthy of wider exposure. This Algerian musician recorded this music of his piano improvisations in 1965 under the auspices of a French patron, and once again it is something I have never heard the like of. Skandrani was trained in the traditions of Arabic or Andalucian music, but in the late 1930s he came under the influence of a musician named Hadj M’rizek, who was on a mission to modernise and update the traditional forms of hawzi and shaabi music. It seems that the piano, that most European of instruments (the development of the well-tempered clavier, and indeed the entire Western scale, is a fascinating tale in itself, full of competing factions), was considered totally unsuitable for the rendition of the half-tones and microtonal structure found in Andalucian music. On these 18 short and exquisite piano improvisations, Skandrani provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. Admittedly the grand piano in question was tuned especially to accommodate him, but even so it’s hard not to be flabbergasted by the precision and assurance with which he executes complex runs of notes and tricky Middle-Eastern intervals. The dryness of the recording only adds to the husky, spicy flavour of the music. The album upset quite a few musical purists on its release, so perhaps Skandrani is a visionary “outlaw” who appeals to this label for the same reasons as Mahalingham above. Even so, Mustapaha Skandrani was highly respected and successful in his field, and did many great things for Algerian music in his lifetime. It’s surprising that this was his one and only recording.