Chihei Hatakeyama – Change of Pace

September 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost #23, August/September 2009.


The meandering new album from Tokyo-based ambient composer and musician Chihei Hatakeyama channels the city’s tranquil side.

A decrepit shrine amid the snare of snaking lanes and backstreets of Ikebukuro; a skeletal winter’s garden in Koenji; a decaying public housing block amongst the money and glitz and galleries of Aoyama. It may seem an anomaly, but you can find pockets of quiet, even in Tokyo.

It’s a quality that permeates the shimmering piano, guitar and laptop tropes of Saunter, the latest body of work from Japanese ambient artist Chihei Hatakeyama. Recorded following his relocation to the capital from the Kanagawa prefecture south of Yokohama in late 2007, the album traces a very different side of Tokyo.

“About six months before I started to make Saunter, I moved from Fujisawa City to Zenpukuji, which is in the Suginami area of Tokyo,” explains Hatakeyama via a translator. “Zenpukuji has a park that is rather large for Tokyo and has a lot of natural landscapes; it has a large pond and various birds come to this pond and a river flows from it. I live in an apartment right next to this river’s path and I was visiting the park frequently.”

Such a setting seems a world away from the sprawling image Tokyo invokes. Saunter’s six drifting compositions, too, echo with a sense of space and atmosphere antithetic to notions of the mega-metropolis. But there was more to Hatakeyama’s engagement with his new environs than geography. He speaks of a “mysticism ” that haunts the area. “People have been living near the river since the Neolithic era and there are still some remains from that age in the area,” says the 30-year-old, known as one half of electro-acoustic duo Opitope.

“There is also a large shrine on a hill close by, and there are assumptions that this area was a holy ground. This was definitely a factor in the inspiration of Saunter.”

Hatakeyama’s musical upbringing was a world away from his current output. As a teen, he found himself enamoured by hardcore and thrash metal and went onto play guitar in a high school metal covers band. By the time he had reached university, his interests were beginning to crystallise. Having started exploring minimal and Detroit techno, he followed their lineage back to Kraftwerk, Krautrock and ambient music. It was only at that point that he began his compositional pursuits. “I bought a Macintosh computer when I was 23, so that I could compose in manners of electronic music,” he recalls.

That said, electronica was never a comfortable field for Hatakeyama, who rues his own lack of rhythm. “I don’t have a good sense of rhythm, so it was never going to work,” he says. “I think it’s a big factor in my style today, being without rhythm.” Interestingly, he attributes much of his stylistic inclination to Japanese modern literature from the Meiji (1868–1912) and Showa periods (1926–1989). “I feel influenced by stuff from writers such as Soseki Natsume, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Ango Sakaguchi, Junichiro Tanizaki and Osamu Dazai,” he says.

It was around this point that his musical career began to manifest, forming Opitope with Tomoyoshi Date and developing his own techniques of processing and reprocessing acoustic guitars and pianos through a laptop. Field recordings also proved an early focus. “I first started to do field recordings around 2003,” he explains. “I was basically using a tape recorder to record the sounds of the city and to placing those sounds into my own works.”

But when Hatakeyama began recording the sounds of nature, his understanding started to shift. Rather than merely inserting field recording into his works as markers or signifiers of place, he became more aware of his compositions’ synchronicity with their environments. “I began to think about the relationship the sound that I made had with those environments,” he offers.

He went onto release his tranquil, stunningly elemental debut solo album Minima Moralia in 2006 via Chicago imprint Kranky, before following up with Opitope’s wonderful Hau (Spekk) in 2007 and his own collection of reworked old material Dedication (Magic Book Records) in 2008. Saunter, however, marks a departure.

Where Minima Moralia witnessed Hatakeyama offsetting pure tones with elemental acoustic motifs, Saunter sees the composer merge his instrumental counterpoints. Resonances of piano, guitar and vibraphone are subsumed in sparkling drones and tonal underlays. Field recordings appear as colour rather than illustration. But while the six pieces that comprise Saunter possess a fluid almost osmotic quality, Hatakeyama’s compositional and recording process was remarkably deconstructive. Composing instrumental motifs on the guitar or piano, he then fed the untreated phrases through several processes, droning some passages, adding delays and field recordings.

“I recorded most of the sounds of instruments at my apartment,” he explains. “I didn’t use many types of instruments – just piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and a vibraphone. I didn’t use a synthesiser at all, but just processed the raw sounds from these instruments.”

“I tried not to use so many field recordings,” he continues, “I only used those in the last two songs. They were both recorded at the park I mentioned earlier, and were recorded exactly at the same place. One was recorded on a sunny day, and one was recorded when it was snowing.”

Indeed, while Hatakeyama avoided using as many field recordings in the past, he understands Saunter’s relationship to its environment to be stronger than any of his previous material. The idea of seasonality was central to this. “I prefer winter rather than summer,” he poses. “It’s hard for me to compose during July and August, but that’s simply because it’s hot.”

“However, for Saunter I wanted to have a more superposed inspiration from the environment and I had clear intentions to express the seasonal conditions of autumn and winter, because that was when I was first experience of Zenpukuji.”

“Not all my work is entwined with the environment and seasons, but this very much was.”

That isn’t to suggest that Saunter represents some kind of empirical, purely observational document. Far from it. Over its six compositions, Saunter swoons with emotive resonance. But while Hatakeyama is willing to admit to the record’s emotionality, he doesn’t see it as a motive.

“I don’t disagree with the idea that this album includes my emotions, but that is a result of pursuing an aesthetic form,” he says. “This record comes from a desire of an aesthetic appreciation – of a place and it’s effect on me – and it is about beauty.”

“However, I can’t deny that my emotions are expressed as a result.”

by Dan Rule

Saunter is available via Room40


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