This is mood music: if you’re in the right mood, it’s truly beautiful in places and leaves your mind relaxed and in the present. In the wrong mood, it scratches down your spinal cord like a horde of angry kittens with genetically engineered super-claws.
In a word: it won’t calm you in moments of stress, but if you’re already chilled, it soothes the soul further.
In the sleeve notes, the composer explains that he aimed for “an overall subdued character, quietness, lack of thematic development and a common aesthetic direction” relating to various elements of Japanese culture, from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel to haiku. His doctoral and postdoctoral research was on the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
We were going to compare the music with Buddhist idea of living in the present (aka mindfulness, an intentional attention on the present), but after reading the notes, the approach also takes in the Buddhist maxim that change is constant: wabi-sabi is based on the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, suffering (ie constant craving of life for possession of things and people) and the emptiness or absence of existence.
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty and intimacy, and so it is with the music.
The works here force your head into the present because of their simplicity and economy. There’s a lot of silence and pausing, and little in the way of repetition or melody; to put it crudely, “there’s a good bit coming up” is not a thought the listener is going to have, in the sense that most music has parts that stand out; this music just is.
Having said that, one of the better tracks is For the Ice II, based on the structure of the Japanese no dance chu no mai (“moderate dance”), partly the repetition of fixed thematic sequences, giving it some familiarity to Western ears. It also contains unique sequences, the aim being to compare the Western and Eastern concepts. The instrumental sections are also more tranquil than the ones with vocals.
The programme opens with three separate pieces, then Pale Views, a four-part work based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel A Pale View of Hills, in places lively, in others beautiful and with some tranquil vocals.
While it is modern music, there is no jarring modernity save a little at the very end; all in all, a thought-provoking album, and of course you don’t need to know about mindfulness, wabi-sabi or the unbearable lightness of being to appreciate it. The work features Shonorities, a group that includes Shie Shoji on vocals, Naomi Sato on soprano saxophone and Japanese sho, Lin on flutes, Stelios Chatziliosifidis on violin, and Jasmina Samssuli at the piano.
Out now on Divine Art’s Metier label, MSV28584.