There’s something to this—the genre tab on iTunes. You know it sometimes gets it wrong, but in such a way as to cause you to completely re-evaluate the way you’re listening to music. When you slip Aki Tsuyuko’s new album, Hokane, into your computer, it comes up classified as ‘children’s music’ by iTunes. The first thing to point out is: this is no children’s music. From a musical standpoint, the pieces on Hokane contain a complexity far beyond a child’s ability to apprehend. And yet there is certainly something childlike in Tsuyuko’s elegant songs—a communication of innocence and wonder as if through a child’s eyes. It’s that celebration of the basic building blocks, melody and harmony, that characterizes Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but turned all digital and, in some sense, synthetic.
Hokane, Tsuyuko’s second solo release, is the first in a series of limited edition CD-and-book pairings from Thrill Jockey. The idea is to combine musical with visual “short stories”, though in this case the collectible book serves more as a score than as any great insight into the meaning or inspiration behind the music. To tell the truth, I’ve always had a hard time with music that’s meant to “tell a story”. Apart perhaps from Smetana’s Vltava, narrative music has seemed to me a minimization of music’s essential ability to conjure different meanings to different people. For the pieces on this disc, it’s certainly enough to let each small-scale composition stand on its own.
Though often pretty and occasionally sublime, Hokane suffers from one insurmountable limitation—the problem of electronics. The opening song, “Como Suite”, illustrates this well. The piece opens strongly, with the sound of open fifths accompanied by a baroque harp flourish—a wide, atmospheric sound. But a minute or so into the first movement, this becomes clear: the electronic organ sounds (the album’s primary instrument) have little character; they don’t decay organically like the notes of traditional instruments, but persist unaltered until the key is released (the sound is almost bland). So Tsuyuko is forced to resort to rhythm to create character, a technique that wears a little thin by the disc’s end.
Well, it’s no fatal flaw: though there are times when I wish for an oboe or bassoon to breathe some life into slower sections, most often Tsuyuko’s compositions stand on their own. She claims to be heavily influenced by Satie, and there is certainly an element of that drawing-room restraint, but these songs have their own distinct character. On “Bud of a Song”, Tsuyuko uses staccato glockenspiel sounds with a cut-off melody to create a joyful springtime sound. The impressionistic “Aquilo” uses the organ to imitate chirruping bird-sounds over a wash of wet sound—simple, but charming.
The singing on the record is very distinctive, too—drained of almost all character, melodies become the vocal equivalent of the electronic organ. But here the effect communicated isn’t blandness, but innocence. Together with the simple, repetitive melodies, a wonderful, childlike quality is created. On “Zou and Chou”, the pastoral melody recalls Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel. The children’s choir on “Owlet Hymn” is more traditional folk song; the Japanese way of pronouncing the letter ‘r’ makes the frequent glissandi extremely effective.
Overall, Hokane feels like a well-preserved curio. With its obvious sophistication turned towards communicating childlike innocence, there’s nothing transient about these compositions. If you think of music as having value as a collector’s item, Hokane could be a wise investment.