Two artists who have decades of experience in both these spheres are Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Toop. The two are, among other things, pioneers of improvised and ambient music, and both have longstanding fascination with Japanese art and culture: Sakamoto of course born and raised in Tokyo, Toop regularly visiting, working and performing in Japan throughout his long artistic career.
Perhaps surprisingly, given their overlapping interests, and the circles in which both have mixed, they had never worked together before this 2018 piece. Originally recorded as an improvised live performance for London’s NTS Radio, it is explicitly inspired by Japanese gardens: something that has been a motif throughout much of Toop’s solo work. And it is a truly magical piece of work.
The broadcast performance was compelling in itself, but this release – initially vinyl only, though digital version is promised for later in the year – is even more so: shorn of crowd and other background noise, its level of detail and intimacy is exquisite, and shows two sound-makers at the height of their powers operating together in perfect sync.
Image credit: Sakamoto–Toop / NTS
Where sometimes conceptualised improv and avant-garde music can need explaining to get into, this doesn’t just express its ideas in an abstract sense: rather, its effect on the mind and senses is immediate in precisely the way that Japanese gardens are.
From the first minuscule metallic tones, through the recurring hiss that hangs like mist around much of the 46 minute performance, to Sakamoto’s electric guitar that rings like temple bells and moans and hoots like some exotic creature in the final quarter, it feels like you have entered a space optimised for contemplation, and then like that space is shifting around you, always with impeccable sense of balance and proportion.
This isn’t architecture, though. It isn’t abstract art, either – and it isn’t really even abstract music. It may be improvised, it may not have bars and beats, it may make ample use of sounds not traditionally musical, but it is unquestionably music as such, not just noise or sound making.
Toop’s flute, bass recorder, and lap steel guitar and Sakamoto’s guitar and piano (both played normally and manipulated internally) merge with the metallic tinkles and misty hisses, to the point where there isn’t a boundary between what we’d normally think of musical and nonmusical: it flows together perfectly as one.
Image credit: Sakamoto–Toop / NTS
In this recording, which homes in on what the duo intended to go through the mixing desk without any distraction, you may very well find yourself compelled to listen, closer and closer. The experience of sitting with it is a perfect example of the kind of close listening that the electronic artist Cristian Vogel recently described to us as “liberating”.
But even without turning it up and giving it your full focus, it can be transformative: like decluttering your space, or like switching off your phone, it makes everything around you just that bit less frustratingly imposing on your consciousness.
Sakamoto and Toop were 66 and 69 respectively at the time they improvised this piece of music with all its perfect proportion and duration: if that’s not an advert for the enduring power of close listening, we’re not sure what is.
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs