One of a growing number of Japanese artists dealing in electro-acoustic flights of fancy (some others being Takagi Masakatsu, Shugo Tokumaru, Sawako and Lullatone), Osaka’s Takeo Toyama may paradoxically be the most traditional and the least conventional. What is initially so striking about Etudes—a record that’s almost always filed under electronica—is how heavy it is on instrumentation normally considered classical. But if Toyama’s toys seem a little stuffy and antiquated, what he does with them is not. Reveling in near-Gershwinian stylistic fluidity, he presents to us a piece of music that suggests minimalism, modern jazz, post-rock, French new age and 20th century ballet, while sounding more delightfully simple than any of them. Though Etudes was originally released in 2003 on the Japan Overseas label, it doesn’t feel the least bit passé; to the contrary, Toyama’s wholly unique vision should poise it to sound timeless years later.
There’s a richness in Etudes that belies its spartan construction; you can usually count a song’s components on one hand. Buttressed by crisp, clear fidelity, Toyama’s instruments are free to follow their own peculiar logic. Chords change unexpectedly. Melodies stack atop one another while retaining their individual shapes; others are smushed next to each other in a way that highlights the songs’ childlike progression. Not only does Etudes possess a kind of “storybook simplicity” (my made-up term for whimsical, one-layered narratives), it bears more than a passing resemblance to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and the fairy tale music created in its image. I find it difficult not to envisage pieces of a children’s yarn in many of these tracks. “Gauche” could accompany the scene in which a pack of frightened yet awestruck tots discovers a gingerbread village in a forest clearing. In “Bobbin,” they learn a thing or two from the town’s jolly sage. In “Odd,” they hide behind some brush as the goblins commence their nighttime parade. Etudes wants you to think like a kid and use your imagination.
For the majority of the record, Toyama manages to find beauty in discordance. When that approach starts to wear itself out around “Hectopascal”, he finds beauty in beauty. Toyama closes the door on Etudes with a suite of compositions that are among the best things his career has ever produced. “Drops”, my favorite, restructures the pianos, oboes, violins and glockenspiels that once made such weird music together as a candied waltz—harmonically complex yet soft as sweet rain. The Steve Reich-meets-Shogun Kunitoki-in-a-nice-place “Tuner” gives his previous album’s “Hello Tuner” a light but significant shot in the arm. I wish Vince Guaraldi could have lived to hear “Stitch”, whose two pianos effortlessly glide and twirl on a frozen pond. The final “Ugly Girl” turns a corner with a programmed beat and a melody lifted out of a middle school musical, which I find drab but which others may appreciate for its distinctiveness. Indeed, Etudes is such strong, different music that I predict much of its success will hinge on nothing more than personal preference. And maybe I would have preferred to hear Toyama’s aural interpretation of that Tahiti/New Mexico/Dreamland spot on the album cover (one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen), but I got Etudes instead. Still pretty wonderful.
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