It doesn’t seem to matter what medium they turn their hand to – film, fashion, theatre, literature, photography or, indeed, music – Japanese culture always seems to combine an intensity and honesty of expression with a forthright, futuristic vision. By contrast, we in the West – particularly here in England, perhaps the least open-minded, forward-thinking country on the planet – are often as distant from them conceptually as we are geographically. Over the years, i have kept finding what emanates from Japan to be an endlessly fascinating stream of inspiration. In a way, it’s easy to laugh at them, but only, i suspect, because we see in them an unabashed individualism we crave to possess. Musically, they demonstrate a freshness in their approach to sound and how it can be sculpted into different forms. i’ve written before of Merzbow, master of so-called “Japanoise”, the surface of whose work i feel i’ve only just begun to scratch. Just as capable of polarising opinion is Ryoji Ikeda, no less raw and elemental (although, i suspect, much more brilliant) than Merzbow, but preferring to look to the very heart of what sound is, precise and surgical, rather than dense and torrential. Equally precise is Ikeda’s output: a small collection of releases, each of which fashions music from the barest of fundamentals. and i choose that word carefully; Ryoji Ikeda uses bare sound waves as his raw material, constructing patterns that evolve and juxtapose themselves, often ordered, occasionally more chaotic.
The first half of 1000 Fragments, from 1995, is a collection of Ikeda’s earliest work, very brief soundbites and collages that allude to the world of television and advertising, under the heading Channel X. Many of these don’t amount to much, although they demonstrate a predilection for noise and untreated sine tones that is a sign of things to come. “What’s Wrong” has achieved some popularity in playlists, no doubt due to its exciting drum patterns, and “Into the Tranquility” is an outstanding little study; “Abstructures”, on the other hand, is among Ikeda’s most obtuse pieces, its haemorrhage-/ tinnitus-inducing bass and treble making for a painful 3 minutes. The remainder of the disc is far more expansive; the 5 Zones continue the thread of “Into the Tranquility”, a fabulous journey exploring a series of abstract, evolving clouds of sound, at first gently framed with high and low drones. Morse code makes an appearance, as though etched in bas-relief against its nebulous background, which at times evokes the noises of radar and a human heartbeat. These clouds eventually break to reveal a languid, powerfully deep pulse (The Orb spring to mind), which gives way to brighter, more penetrating drones, and finally an abrupt shift back to its initial gentle amorphousness. The final track, Luxus 1-3, is sheer beauty; fragments of female voices, distantly couched in reverb, that become underpinned with a softly throbbing bass.
+/-, from the following year, is again divided into two parts. The first three tracks come under the heading Headphonics, and they are, indeed, best heard through headphones. The music is very simple: an underlying oscillation between the left and right speakers is introduced, with occasional bass and noise interjections (“0/0”), after which a driving sense of pulse is established, rapid but incredibly gentle (“0/1”), and eventually this subsides, leading to a rapidly-moving deep bassline (“1/0”). The remainder takes the main title of +/-, comprised of 7 tracks. The first three, “+”, “+.” and “+..” are a stream of rapid blips, that race along, always shifting in frequency and timbre; the next three, “-“, “-.” and “-..” contrast sharply with this, placing short, sparse blips against waxing and waning washes of sound that haze and buzz. At first (“-.”), there’s a strong sense of perspective, the blips appearing like markers, or regularly spaced signposts in an unfamiliar landscape, but later (“-..”), as the blips evolve and the washes of sound temporarily disappear, this perspective is confused, melding into a single, changing sound object; the final track, “+/-“, is a brief coda at the cusp of human hearing; of this, Ikeda says, ‘a high frequency sound is used that the listener becomes aware of only upon its disappearance’, a fascinating idea indeed.
0°C, from 1998, is something of an amalgam of Ikeda’s previous two albums. The first 10 (mostly, very brief) tracks, under the heading C, juxtapose harsh buzzes and blips with cut-up fragments of speech and recorded sound, particularly strings. These are used in a very different way from Channel X, however, integrated more fully into his trademark evolving textures. Also present again are the rapid blips redolent of radio/Morse signals and the heartbeat (last heard in 5 Zones), which project a very human presence into the mix. The last, and longest, of the 10, “C0:: coda (For T.F.)” is a dramatically gentle conclusion, with soft pings above warm sound-fields, eventually yielding to a louder, faster, ringing. The second half is made up of three longer episodes that together comprise 0°, one of Ikeda’s most laid-back, relaxed pieces. The clashes are mild, the oscillations between low and high are surprisingly calm, the pulses are slow, upon which glitches of noise intrude. In the second track, “0°:: zero degrees ”, the various pulses and oscillations form an intricate cross-rhythm, and in the third, “0°:: zero degrees ”, it creates one of Ikeda’s most complex textures: a rapid pulse, with deep beats, noise, random blips and background dissonance, which all suddenly fades to leave a single blip, marking time into eternity.
time and space was released the same year, and it continues the dual exploration of bright, blunt textures and wide evolving soundscapes. time comprises 5 tracks, each titled after their duration. It begins in similar fashion to 0°C, with cut-up speech (this time, sounding rather like recordings of NASA launches) alternating with assorted buzzes, blips and bursts of noise. But from the second track, a new simplicity asserts itself, as a slow frequency sweep makes its passage from very low to very high, while the familiar pulse continues to mark time. “3’33”” and “4’44”” are principally concerned with rhythm, one a low frequency bass rhythm punctuated with noise and high tones, the other, very gentle, featuring a cross-rhythm between bass and treble; the Morse code returns here, and Ikeda uses noise to superb effect, emulating a soft wind. The fifth track, founded upon another heartbeat-like bass, combines all these elements, including the frequency sweep, which ends time, ascending into the supersonic. space, a single track, begins seamlessly from this altitude, initially with a series of incredibly high blips; very gradually, this develops into a large, thoughtful canvas. First a deep rumble emerges, then a low wind; a profound bass pulse throbs at regular intervals; finally, a second wind develops, this one with a stronger harmonic presence that interacts with and against the bass. It’s one of Ikeda’s most exquisite creations.
2000 brought Ikeda’s first full-length double CD, Matrix; this main title is illustrated in the individual track titles, being binary representations of two mathematical progressions. Ikeda’s work is rather too often and too easily described as “minimal”; in many ways, that description is both insufficient and inaccurate (not to say insulting), but here, at least in part, it’s appropriate. Under the heading matrix (for rooms), the first disc (particularly the 12-minute opening track, “0000000001”) is surprisingly reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Drumming, being an exercise in phasing beat patterns, the beats here being the difference tones caused by the clashing of various sine tone clusters. The result is less precise than Reich, but no less compelling, fascinating to behold as one pattern evolves into another. Like all things minimalistic, though, there are times when things get very dull, and Ikeda falls foul of this at times, with some tracks rather static in the overall process, or simply facilitating a transition from one frequency band to another. But, equally, some are enthralling and hypnotic, introducing yet another new method of working with such basic tones, to magnificent effect. Disc 2, entitled .matrix is entirely different, with the focus shifted from phasing beat effects to more deliberate and intricate percussive rhythmic patterns. The first three tracks seem to be preamble, before “1111110111”, where a fast percussive pulse is built up from layers of wind, noise, blips, bass and high tones. This is continued and developed through the next few tracks, with some out-of-sync pulses bringing back the phasing idea from disc 1; by track 7, “1110111111”, with additional punctuations of metallic noise, it’s a fabulous (and very danceable!) texture. From here, though, the interest dissipates, and things are pretty dull until the very last track, “0111111111”, a coda that includes some lovely deep bass pulses; again, the album concludes in positively stratospheric regions of the frequency domain.
In 2001, Ikeda teamed up with German sound artist Carsten Nicolai to create the project Cyclo., intended to examine, in Ikeda’s words, “error structures and repetitive loops in software and computer programmed music”. i don’t know much of Carsten Nicolai’s work, so i can’t really say what he brings to this album, but in all essential respects, the result is consistent with Ikeda’s previous releases. Perhaps due to the emphasis on loops (implied in the project title, “Cyclo.”), there is no exploration here of the cloud-like textures of sound from earlier albums. Most of the tracks are exploring rhythmic cycles, created from the by now familiar combinations of deep bass pulses, higher pitched glitches and blips, shimmering (i.e. beating) tones and other noise-based accoutrements. At times, the material is again very minimal, which makes a couple of the tracks rather uninteresting; but on the whole, the developing rhythms display real imagination, particularly in the use of noise; it’s as though Ikeda has sculpted a drum kit entirely out of sine waves and white noise.
Unique in Ryoji Ikeda’s output is 2002’s Op., which contains a number of pieces composed for strings, with no overt electronic content or manipulation whatsoever. Where the Cyclo. project explored nothing but rhythmic loops and their consequences, the compositions assembled here articulate a music almost entirely bereft of rhythm, but not in the sense of Ikeda’s more nebulous, cloud-like soundscapes. In practical terms, that isn’t possible, due to the inherent limitations, such as being reduced from the entire frequency domain (including its sub- and supersonic realms) to the range of pitches available to these instruments and their performers. Op. 1 is for a string nonet, lasts a quarter of an hour, and is divided into four movements, that are a helpful aid to the unfolding of the material. The opening movement is all high, clustered harmonics, the hollow, breathy sound of the bows against the strings beautifully audible, adding a quality that will be developed in the following movements. From the outset, this is not ‘ethereal’ music; it is an austere, restrained, solemn music, and these opening harmonics have more solidity and substance than they may appear at first. Through the second movement, the palette is gradually expanded downwards, until all instruments are involved, their chords ebbing and sighing mournfully. One senses there may be a process at work, beneath the surface: occasionally, some quasi-tonal quirks occur that, far from sounding like a “resolution”, detract from the texture and pull at it. Without damage though; a palpably distressed atmosphere is established, continuing seamlessly into the third movement. Here, after an introduction with some urgency, a plucked bass picks out a solemn, shuffling pace, the first sense of something ‘certain’ in the piece; the chords, now moving a touch more swiftly, become appropriately warmer. Abruptly, a very deep pedal note beneath undermines all of this, however, and everything immediately retreats to shades of grey and uncertainty once again – it’s a powerful moment, the upper strings suddenly plangent and pleading. Fragile consonance pervades the final movement, like a smile through grief, bestowing on the piece a hint (or, at least, a hope) of something brighter in a bleak place.
Of comparable length but in a single movement, Op. 2 aspires to the same kind of austerity. For the reduced forces of a string quartet, it is a tableau depicting an anæmic soundscape of drawn out durations, cold and unforgiving. The hints at consonance provide no real comfort; their sporadic occurrences are very much more telling than in the second movement of Op. 1, almost shockingly wan, wafer-thin in substance. It’s a superb piece and, i feel, the high point of the disc, displaying strong conviction and real emotive power. Alas, Op. 3, also for string quartet, is not good, hedging its bets in a harmonic no man’s land between diatonic, chromatic and free atonal. Deliberately or otherwise, it therefore lacks the austerity displayed elsewhere, sounding merely confused and half-hearted. It is, however, mercifully short. Including Ikeda’s ‘prototype’ for Op.1 is a strange decision – one, i hope, not made to fill up the disc. This version credits only three players, but has clearly been considerably expanded in the studio; this is backed up by the fact that the version is not subtitled “for string trio”, and also by noting that it was “edited and mixed” over a period of seven months. In that sense, while no doubt a part of Ikeda’s compositional process, it deviates from the other works. Not surprisingly, it bears strong resemblances to the final version of Op.1, although tends to sound merely bare rather than ascetic, more attention drawn to the number of instruments (or lack of them) than to the sparse material those instruments are playing. The last two movements, in particular, bear poor comparison: the plucked bass sounds uncomfortably hurried, the overall tone less mournful, and the conclusion lacks the fragility and sense of finality, an unconvincing end.
Ikeda’s most recent work, from 2005, is dataplex, the first release in the Datamatics project, which is “an art project that explores the potential to perceive the invisible multi-substance of data that permeates our world. It is a series of experiments in various forms – audiovisual concerts, installations, publications and CD/DVD releases – that seek to materialise pure data” (Ikeda’s words again). This “materialisation” is clearly intended to be stylised (as the sound of raw data is nothing other than random noise), but the result is his most frenetic work, the material borne up and driven along at breakneck speed by a series of extremely rapid microscopic blips that flit from left to right with all the manic fury of Venetian Snares. This occupies the first 8 or 9 tracks, before the noise increases, the pace breaks down and things start to mutate in a short series of spasms, ultimately leading to new, slower rhythmic patterns, each of which is only briefly developed, before hitting a hiatus and spinning off in a new direction. From “data.flex” onwards, harmonic fragments begin to jitter their way into the textures; combined with gentle bass accents, this injects the music with an almost funky quality. Eventually, things break down again, only to start once more, incredibly high-pitched, leading to “data.vertex”, where the interplay between low and high is at its most marked. Until now, the album has exhibited nothing of Ikeda’s characteristic slow, wind-like soundscapes; “data.vortex” does just this, jettisoning all sense of rhythm and pulse completely, exploring a slowly growing dense body of noise, occasionally garnished with some ultra high accents; as the harmonic content builds considerably, it leads into “data.matrix”, the longest track on the album, which brings together all of the previous ideas. The rapid blips return, underpinned with heavy bass pulsations and radar-like pings; combined with the noise and glitching, at times it’s somewhat redolent of some of Nine Inch Nails’ more experimental tracks. This subsides into the coda, “data.adaplex”, where loud (and incredibly low) bass notes are sprinkled liberally with noise before being overrun with glitches and, finally, fading away in a surreal buzzing ground bass.
It’s a remarkable, truly unique series of releases, exploring sound in a way that is both raw and processed, primitive and sleek. i know of no other composer who has the ability to sculpt sound in this way, uncovering the blinding (and certainly deafening) beauty present in these vivid types of sound. In the couple of years since dataplex, Ikeda has focused on concerts and installations; it will be fascinating to see what comes next. The last word should go to Ikeda again, speaking specifically of +/-, but comments that apply, i think, to all his music:
[It] has a sonority whose quality is determined by one’s listening point in relation to the loudspeakers. Furthermore, the listener can experience a particular difference between speaker playback and headphone listening. The sound signals can be thought of in the same way as light is made spotlight.