I'm drawn to specific record labels the way some people are drawn to specific cuisines or specific neighborhoods. If you say the words "Stax" or "Motown", you can communicate with those single words a whole flavor of music. Japan's long been a hotbed of indie labels catering to amazingly specific and narrow tastes — e.g., the late Hideo Ike'ezumi's P.S.F. label, immortal forever for having brought us the likes of Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha.
Now I'm delving — slowly — into the treasure trove that is Edition Omega Point, a label all but unknown in the West but deserving of wider appreciation thanks to its mission: to document the amazing electronic, experimental, and avant-garde music found in Japan's underground and academic circles. Catnip for an ecletic like me; the sheer unheard-ness of this music automatically makes it an object of fascination. Like many tiny labels, EOP presses few copies of each title — often no more than a few hundred — but that still makes those discs easier to track down than the original issues of that music. Assuming there was ever one to begin with, that is.
Composer Jōji Yuasa is one of many talents chronicled on Edition Omega Point. If his name rings no bells, perhaps the name of one of his cohorts will: Toru Takemitsu, easily Japan's most accomplished and popular modern composer. He and Yuasa hooked up while the latter was a pre-med student at Tokyo's Keio University in the late 1940s, and they along with musicologist Kuniharu Akiyama formed the Jikken-kobo ("Experimental Workshop") in 1952.
Yuasa's own career has mirrored Takemitsu's in terms of its eclectic experimentation. While Takemitsu has done work that hews more closely to the mainstream (e.g., film scores), the closest Yuasa has come to such things has been work for theater and multi-media productions. A good portion of his work involves electronic, computer-generated, or tape-manipulated sound in the manner of folks like Pierre Henry or work executed under the auspices of IRCAM in Paris.
Aoi no Ue consists of two compositions, the half-hour long title track and the fifteen-minute "My Blue Sky (No. 1)". "Aoi no Ue", executed in 1961, uses a text written by Yuasa, based on Murasaki Shikubu's The Tale of Genji, and sung in nō style by three brothers. Their voices are transformed with some basic studio techniques and combined with electronic and concrete sounds — "bird songs, water drops, glasses, the warped sound of a vibraphone," and many others. The ultimate effect is both ancient and timeless: the human voices seem to be calling from a place deep in the past, the electronics and other sounds from the distant future, and it's we who are somewhere in the middle, receiving from either direction.
"The piece took almost half a year to complete," wrote Yuasa. "I worked with the excellent sound engineer Zyunoske Okuyama at the Sogetsu Art Center and we usually worked through all night." The aesthetic payoff is plain enough, but there was a surprising real-world reward, too: the piece won the Jury's Special Prize at the Berlin Film Festival for that year.
"My Blue Sky No. 1," the second track, was created in 1975, although it seems like a product of the tape music era of the 1950s, when Stockhausen, Cage, and the like were turning simple pulses on tape into whole universes of sound. The first half begins with a simple radar-like chirp, and then through the addition of reverb and other modulations transforms over time into an ominous, all-consuming buzz. Then silence, and then the primal beep of the first half returns, this time fading slowly away across the second half of the piece into an ocean of echoes. It's highly abstract, but at the same time strangely moving, and I think some of Yuasa's comments (slightly pretentious as they might be) helped me figure out why:
"I had imagined a movement of invisible energy generated in space and the infinite depth of space," Yuasa wrote about this composition, "because when I look into the blue sky, it makes me feel movements of invisible energy. In this sense it might be said that there is a unity of man and the universe, or absolute solitude in Zen philosophy. This work is carefully arranged in space, not only stereophonically but also by means of using the foreground and the background of the sound space."
One of my other favorite electronic pieces is İlhan Mimaroǧlu's "Bowery Bum", created with nothing more than the sound of a rubber band and a few studio functions (mainly reverb). It ought to sound droll and comical, but in time takes on a melancholy temperament as well. That same emotion came to mind when hearing "My Blue Sky", evoked by sounds that I was in time drawn to more by what they hinted at than by how they were created.