A critical analysis of You Ishihara's radical 2020 album, "formula", his first solo LP in 23 years, by Masato Matsumura.
Masato Matsumura is a Japanese music journalist and historian that has written extensively on experimental and avant garde music. His essay on Japanese Noise Music was presented by the Red Bull Music Academy and he has most recently written the 2019 book "Introduction to Avant-Ｇarde Music".
His review of You Ishihara's album "formula" was first published on the Japanese music web-site Ele-King in March 2020 and is here translated to English by Justin Simon and published with Ele-King's permission.
The original Japanese essay from Ele-King can be read here.
A new digital deluxe edition of formula is now available for purchase here from Zelone Records Japan.
I’d like to begin by saying that You Ishihara’s “distance” is not about the way a sound reverberates. It’s not about a “wet” sound or a “dead” sound. The balance and positioning of specific sounds is relevant, but when you consider the point in question from a standard technological or methodological perspective, it seems Ishihara “deletes” the most important element - or, to put it another way, the part that seems as if it “must be deleted” most is in fact left untouched in the mix. There are two, contradictory ways to achieve this result, two ways to sculpt a “distance” in the musical space-time continuum that’s reminiscent of the “distance” in Kafka’s The Castle. The first approach presents something that assumes the traditional form of music, and the second presents a recording that simply functions as a sound object.
In his recent interview, Ishihara referred to work born of the former approach as “conceptual art” and gently indicated that formula was different. He also hinted at his affinity for the latter approach, citing works by composers such as Ferrari and Eloy that he felt possessed a similar sensibility to the one expressed on formula. Both of these French composers produced significant works in the fields of tape music / musique concrete, and I imagine that if you listened carefully to Ferrari’s “Presque Rien” or (although he didn’t mention this specific piece by him in the interview) Eloy’s “Gaku no Michi” (which Eloy created at NHK’s electronic music center), you would give your knees a hearty slap [in light of how similar the pieces are to formula].
Because [if you listened to these works], you would find that concrete or electronic sounds make up the bulk of the material in these pieces. The act of patient, attentive listening is emphasized by the former, as its title spells out clearly that “Almost nothing [happens] (Presque Rien)”, and in the latter, which incorporates field recordings, the similarities and differences between electronic and environmental sounds are very slowly revealed. I analyzed the historical evolution of this type of methodology in chapter five of my previously published work “Introduction to Avant-Garde Music” so I won’t repeat it here, but it’s important to consider whether the “distance” Ishihara refers to is merely a sense of remove in relation to an acoustic phenomenon, or instead a reference to an aesthetic. Much like the subject of the Les Rallizes Desnudes song “Distant Memory,” “distance” can connote a quality peculiar to the subject’s mental state.
So “distance” can refer to a longing, or a nostalgia, since there is a commonly held belief that all recordings (and not just of music) refer to a specific, prior point in time, and that since field recordings are aural evidence of a sound that was previously made someplace on earth, these sounds cannot be anonymous. The simple sounds of trees stirring in a forest, rainfall, waves breaking and retreating on shore…on their own, these are mere entries to be catalogued in a sound source library. Without some element that transcends the immutable law of “nature,” these recordings remain indistinct. But any sign of humanity (in the form of a ‘man-made’ object, a term that I think should extend to humans themselves) distinguishes an otherwise indistinct recording. And these recordings can stir up a degree of affection for the past within the listener, depending on his or her cultural background. People refer to this as nostalgia, and Ferrari’s approach was radical in the way he dissimilated this core perception by simply introducing a slight fluctuation to the sound of his field recordings. On the surface, Ferrari’s approach seems to echo the intentionality present in Eloy’s work, where field recordings sit uncomfortably with electronic sounds (Stockhausen’s “Hymnen” is also similar), but in fact these two artists took different approaches. And when it comes to which side of the equation You Ishihara’s formula belongs, we find that, surprisingly, it straddles both.
That said, formula is not avant-garde music. Ishihara remains stubbornly loyal to rock. Or maybe it’s not loyalty at play, but just that rock has left a deep impression on Ishihara. Perhaps he’s pursued a kind of secular enquiry over the years. One gets a clear sense of Ishihara’s journey from his interview - from his formation of White Heaven from the ashes of Living End in 1985, to his last solo album, Passivite (released 23 years ago), to The Stars, and through his production work for Yura Yura Teikoku, Ogre You Asshole and others - a journey that’s radiated more of a dark grey light than a blinding brilliance. I saw White Heaven play a number of times at now-shuttered Gospel in Sengawa. The crowds were thin and I don’t recall much fanfare from the audience. And perhaps it was Ishihara’s English-language lyrics that led Modern Music proprietor and PSF label-owner Hideo Ikeezumi to describe them as “the band with the greatest gap between their popularity at home and their reputation abroad.” This disparity is often cited as a sort of preface to any discussion of White Heaven, but it’s not clear if Ishihara ever got a real sense of this himself.
Imagine you’re sitting peacefully in a garden at mid-day with no interruptions, and you’re suddenly overcome by a white light, as if you’ve been sucked into a void. If such an experience rings as “psychedelic” to you, you might apply this same term to White Heaven’s music. But they were active at a time when the strength of an expression was celebrated, and in the context of what surrounded them, they came off as reserved. Or perhaps I should say instead that White Heaven’s work was nourishing, and, to ears accustomed to artificially sweetened sounds, their music was simply distant. On the other hand, as Ishihara stated in his interview, although rock music had reached its apex and was plateauing in the early ‘80s, it also had an element of “speed.” Ishihara’s concept of “speed” recalls the sentiment expressed in Abe Kaoru’s mysterious declaration that, “I want to be faster than anyone else,” but the absolute physicality of the practitioner at the core of Abe’s concept is missing from Ishihara’s “speed.” The nuance of Ishihara’s concept is more akin to the relative velocity at the heart of our relationships with others. Like a far-flung galaxy receding at a quicker pace than our own…
First released in 1991, White Heaven’s Out was thankfully reissued recently by west coast based U.S. label Black Editions as part of their PSF reissue campaign, and those who have yet to hear the album should definitely immerse themselves in its charms. Hearing the newly remastered and more dynamic mix for the first time, I was once again impressed by the way the ensemble exhibited restraint even as it feverishly charged through its cleverly composed songs. Starting with Out and through all his subsequent work, Ishihara stayed true to his own dogged methodology - not putting on airs, but working from an urgency born of the dialogue between his taste and his critical faculties. His solo release, Passivite (taking its title from the French word for passivity), could be seen as a buffer of sorts (merely hinting at what was to come), and his subsequent releases with the Stars, which featured Michio Kurihara and Yura Yura Teikoku’s Chiyo Kamekawa (who both also contributed to Passivite), expressed a more direct intentionality.
It might be a stretch to say that Ishihara has become more “active,” but by channeling (some fraction of the “speed” of) his awareness of how music is heard and understood, paradoxically, the weight of his work has lightened. Or perhaps I should say that he’s approached his collaborative production work with the exact same energy he previously invested in picking up an instrument, writing a song and performing it. To elaborate a bit more on this concept, it’s hard to imagine Ishihara not feeling a compulsion to honor both sides of this equation. And this is likely why few people understand what it is he actually does, in spite of his relative name recognition. Supposing my theory is correct, formula - which harmonizes each of these elements - may be his first work to present the full picture that, up to this point, he’s kept to himself.
White Heaven's "Out" newly issued by Black Editions.
The reader who picks up formula with this in mind may react with confusion to Ishihara’s extremely original take on rock. As I stated earlier, the two main elements of formula are field recordings and songs. It depends on how you approach the record, but listening to formula keeping in mind Ishihara’s description of the album as an uninterrupted chain of sound, where the five or six songs combine with field recordings, noise that seems to well up from inside the earth dissolves into the clamor of the congestion. The minute and a half stretch of “Presque Rien”-esque flanged sounds remind you that what you’re hearing isn’t noise from outside your window but rather sound coming from your speakers. You may feel relief when the sound of the band creeps into the mix shortly thereafter, but the first song on the album seems to step nervously into the cacophony, and is hardly the assertive opening piece we’ve come to expect from albums. If you extracted the work of the musicians who contributed to this album - Ishihara, his longtime collaborator Michio Kurihara (guitar), the rhythm section of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto (drums) and Tomohiro Kitada (bass), and Soichiro Nakamura, proprietor of Peace Music studio - the music alone would no doubt be impressive, but in formula’s world, the music is granted no special privileges.
Well, we’re surrounded by noise in our daily lives. And we’ve reduced that infinite, omnipresent spring of information to an easily digestible concept – “noise.” Are these the sorts of thoughts you had when you first heard formula? Limiting our focus to the sound of footsteps, we can distinguish the sound of men’s shoes from the sound of women’s high heels. Furthermore, each beats out a unique rhythm (a product of how the individual carries him or herself) and the sum of these footsteps combine with other sounds to “shape” our urban living space. Ishihara says that he listened to countless field recordings during the production of this album. The sounds in these recordings - of trains, children, revving motorcycles, other machines, etc. - can’t be notated on sheet music. But these sounds weren’t included for simple dissimilation purposes. And as these sounds gradually synchronize with the musical elements of the album, you will get the sense that together they construct a sound space much like a trompe l’oeil.
Compared to the technique employed by field recordists like Chris Watson (Cabaret Voltaire, The Hafler Trio), where field recordings are painstakingly sifted through and edited for inclusion into a larger recording - a process that reveals a very transparent human hand at work - Ishihara’s constant shuttling back and forth between the interiors and exteriors of his recorded material reads as ostentatious. But there is a meta element to Ishihara’s formula, and it doesn’t lend itself to a simple explanation. And while Ishihara may have hinted at his own self-consciousness, and how his expression is deeply rooted in a discomfort with humanism (as he described in his interview), if I start addressing these topics here my already drawn-out essay will become even lengthier, so I’ll save them for another time.