[5 June 2003]
Noise keeps us honest. We have this annoying tendency to think that all music springs from the Great Pop Oversoul, full-grown and beautiful, rather than as a manufactured craft by artisans trained in its mysteries—but it ain’t. There has been a whole tradition this century of composers who have tried to remind us that all “music” is just harnessed noise (Varése, Cage, etc.), and the pop artists who have followed them closely have all been working on the same non-groovy thing.
This lineage always begins with Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, but that’s just the way history has been written, and it’s wrong. The real secret of pop music is that it is popular because it sounds like our lives, and the main ingredient of that has always been weird sounds and random snippets. Spike Jones (not Jonez), Raymond Scott, Louis Jordan, and Fats Waller were all excellent pop artists and wild avant-gardists; doo-wop succeeded because it was both slick as hell and sounded like people singing on the streets; “Leader of the Pack” was the first hip-hop song; it all ties together. George Clinton, Sly Stone, and Lee “Scratch” Perry were all more important than Zappa and Eno anyway, because they weren’t trying to separate their freaky musicks from the charts, but rather incorporate the found sounds of the world into their songs, and onto the radio. (Also: the Bomb Squad. I read someone the other day trying to claim that Public Enemy’s early stuff wasn’t all that great, how there were tons of rap records better than It Takes a Nation of Millions , Biggie and Tupac, all that. I thought about it for a while, and then just laughed. The things these kids today come up with!)
So when IDM cats like Aphex James and Booth/Autechre/Brown try to screw with our minds by putting out unlistenable noise and make us realize that it’s actually music after all, and can actually be listened to and enjoyed in the right frame of mind, we give them a break. Because what if the weird crap they’re putting out turns into the coolest new music? Look at Timbaland. He and Missy have managed to turn out some truly strange stuff that just happens to be the greatest thing on the charts for, what, five years running? So, we listen to the bizarre stuff to try to guess what tomorrow’s music will sound like, and hope that it’s not too painful in the meantime.
So now we have Nobukazu Takemura’s “difficult” album, the stuff he’s put together in his Serious Avant-Garde Composer mode where he calls himself “Assembler”. Takemura is one of the best-loved Japanese musician/composers in the world, but he’s just now coming into his own outside geeky critical circles for his work as Child’s Play or his Songbook weirdo-pop album. It would almost be shocking if he didn’t have a musique concrète album—and now he does. So we should listen to it, see what such a cool funky intelligent musician does when he wants to be even cutting edgier than he is already.
And, I’m happy to report, it’s actually quite interesting on a number of levels. (Remember, though, that the word “interesting” is not always a compliment.) Assembler’s take on music turns out to be very different from Takemura’s—when he’s doing the found sound thing, he’s all about putting it together and making us re-assess our world. “Conical Flask” is a Tangerine Dream-scape that drifts and drones quite portentously and pleasantly for nine minutes to start things off, all kinds of repetition and reverb driving the piece, which has a momentum and a pulse to it even if there is no human alive who could understand exactly what logic is behind it. It’s both pretty and pretty weird, exactly what Assembler aims at. A track called “campana” echoes this formula: A steady and subtle throb forms the backbone, with pre-erased chordal structures and ghostly almost-melodies threatening to become the skin and never quite managing to do that; it won’t make you boogie, but it can’t fail to make you think.
But the rest of the tracks here are nothing like those two whatsoever. From “USINE”, which is pretty much just a montage of the kind of sounds you’d expect in a robot emergency room, through the 13-minute how-many-sounds-can-we-slap-together collage of “Kino-ear”, and on to the industrial/Triassic grind of the closer “Sous terret”, this is a Very Difficult Record to love. He’s hardcore, is the Assembler—he doesn’t care if you can’t boogie to his loud ambient ear punishment, because that’s why he was born. (You want pop love? Go see Takemura.) He’s not trying to be cool—he’s trying to be truthful
and sometimes the truth hurts. When “Ligne à haute tension” slouches roughly through your speakers—headphones are better, if you can handle it—you find yourself hoping that it will resolve itself somehow, that you can get something to hang onto. But it always slips away, the proto-wave guitarish noise always disappearing in favor of the bathwater-going-down-the-drainpipe bubble sound, and then coming back all too infrequently. “Mollo” is the other super-long one here, and I can’t imagine listening to it more than just a few times, because Assembler is busy trying to damage my hearing with high spiky bursts of static that are somehow related to the sound of someone sexy spinning an AM radio dial, for eleven minutes. It’s not the most painful thing I’ve ever heard on a disc, but it’s really, really not what you want to have on the old Discman when you’re shopping at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon.
Having said that, let me say that this is about as good as you’re going to get as far as avant-garde electronic music. The afore-bagged-on “Kino-ear” actually has a lot going for it. In between the gurgles and trafficky sounds are some fun chopped-up acoustic guitar moments, and the whole thing just Bustles With Activity, and I’m sure that Takemura knows what he’s doing. I’m just saying, though, that it’s not really very much fun to listen to. That’s the point, but what’s the point of that? To let a talented pop artist get all his avant inclinations out of his system so he can go back to great pop art? Well, maybe so. In which case, it’s important—as I said in my Songbook review, Takemura is one of the best we have when he wants to be, and so I’m willing to cut him a break.
Still doesn’t mean I’m recommending this Assembler record, though. Noise is important, but so is groove, so is fun, so is melody and harmony and all those things that I’m just not cool enough to be able to find here. Maybe if I worked harder at it, but life’s too short for that, as far as I can see.