Zen and the Art of Experimental Electronica
While listening to Moco, the debut album from reclusive Japanese musician Chib, I recalled a hazy anecdote about a Buddhist master who obtained enlightenment during meditation when his tea kettle began to pop and hum. There was some hidden strange element in Chib’s spare soundscapes that immediately brought to mind the seemingly irrational, yet intuitively sensible, world of Zen Buddhism.
What connects this album to my horribly Westernized conception of Zen may be the relative spareness of the eight tracks on Moco. Relying on relatively old-school samplers and sequencers, Chib (real name Yukiko Chiba) collects only a mere handful of found sounds and rudimentary instrumental pieces and arranges them into short, simple collages. Instead of overwhelming the listeners by packing a lot of noises and parts into each track, Chib isolates sounds in relative silence, forcing one’s attention on every little detail. She isolates and then repeats favored sounds, such as snatches of conversation, or the flapping of birds in a pond, without any sense of context. Most of the time, the origins of these samples are impossible to guess, and oftentimes masquerade as sounds made by the “real” instruments on the record: the toy piano that opens the record, the carefully picked acoustic guitar, and the blipping keyboard.
The songs themselves, given such non-names as “((0))” and “5”, do not seem to have any logical structure, yet they still manage to make some type of intuitive sense. Like the musical equivalent of Zen koans, the goal of these songs is to break the listener from preconceived, “rational” views of the world around them. Chib dispenses with typical “musical” concepts like structure, rhythm and melody, yet the tracks manage to sound like fully formed songs anyway. “Kimuchi”, perhaps the album’s standout track, consists of a minute and a half of Tokyo conversation, percussive crackles and pops, and just a short burst of harmonica. Although a pure sound collage, composed without any connecting theme or purpose beyond the mere joy of hearing certain sounds placed next to each other, “Kimuchi” works as a piece of music without even following the minimal amount of rules that tend to govern sound collages.
While the first six songs celebrate the everyday, seemingly random music that occurs all around us, from monotonous television chatter to the morning alarm, the last two tracks, “Soo” and “Long”, replicate the exact moment when rhythm and melody evolved from the primordial ooze of pure noise. Essentially duets between the plucked guitar and gleefully strange keyboard spurts that bubble underneath the entire album, these tracks show that Chib is willing and able to produce music that sounds like “music”. However, these two tracks work best in the context of the previous sound collages. Chib tries to show how all traditional music, with its basis in math and order, draws from a world of sound not bound by human ideas of logic. This might be the “enlightenment” that Chib is attempting to pass on to the listener: a dream-like glimpse into the underlying reality of music.
Enlightenment, however, does not come easy. At first glance Moco might sound like an exercise in pure ambience, like that “Sounds of the Rain Forest” CD that you use to fall asleep or any Brian Eno album after Before and After Science. The album, however, does not work as background music. After all, meditation is not simply drifting off into unconsciousness; it requires work and concentration. The kettle popping doesn’t lead to enlightenment if the Zen master is half asleep. Moco requires that the listener pays close attention to each subtle change in sound and mood, which means that listening to it can be something of a chore. There is nothing addictive about it. One has to force oneself to listen to it. Luckily, Chib has kept her debut short enough; the album is a little less than a half-hour long, to make it digestible to those of us with MTV attention spans, but, still, this is not pop music in any sense of the term. For those willing to give it their entire concentration, Chib provides a musical experience that few other musicians, even in the increasingly experimental world of electronic music, attempt to produce.