Susumu Yokota: Symbol

[13 September 2005]

By Aaron Leitko

The combination of electronic dance beats and “classical” music has never been cool. Electronic music, much like the technology that creates it, is notorious for the haste with which it goes stale. Most records in the genre have an exceedingly short shelf life, and splicing in a few bars of something that seems eternally resonant such as “Moonlight Sonata” aids this problem not at all.

An example?

You need look no further than Enigma’s 1990 surprise hit “Principles of Lust”, which made strange bedfellows of slinky trip-hop beats and Gregorian chants (with a whispering French lady thrown into the mix for added erotic value). Although it probably made a great soundtrack for the most intimate experiences of about a million yuppies ten years ago, these days you would stand a good chance of finding a copy of the CD under somebody’s glass of milk.

So what to make of Susumu Yokota’s new CD Symbol? Yokota at least feels that he has crafted his masterpiece. Weaving together samples of classical and contemporary concert music to create a tapestry of seemingly disparate sounds wedded at times to electronic backbeats and ambient textures, the record is nothing if not intricate. However, despite Yokota’s feelings the question remains: is it cheese?

Having made a name for himself working in the Japanese dance scene throughout the 1990s, Yokota finally came to greater international attention through the ambient albums he began to release on the Leaf label near the end of that decade. His 2001 release Grinning Cat was an absorbing record of delicate piano cut-ups, gently programmed rhythms and quietly shifting moods.

Despite any of its faults, Symbol is without a doubt a huge step forward for Yokota. At its best the record seamlessly combines samples drawn from throughout the history of western music into compositions that carry their own distinct identity. “The Dying Black Swan”, which finds its roots in the haunting melodies of Meredith Monk only to slowly introduce a lilting piano and string accompaniment, stands out as some of the best, most engrossing work on the record. Other tracks like “Capriccio And The Innovative Composer” find a way to side-step plugging in obvious backbeats, and instead form rhythms based on the give and take of different interwoven samples.

At its worst, Symbol loses balance while straddling the delicate line between innovation and schmaltz. “Symbol of love, life and aesthetics” suffers not only from its own overbearing title but also an obvious and dry programmed beat that waxes near Enigma territory. The larger problem, however, occurs when Yokota samples themes that are too obvious in their origin. “Flaming Love and Destiny” lifts unmistakable passages from works by both Beethoven and Wagner to almost hilariously overdramatic effect, not to mention an intense sense of deja-vu. It is tracks like this that seem to have the least independent identity, sounding like mash-up remixes of the original material.

In the end, no matter how much time passes, Enigma’s “Principles of Lust” will forevermore be one step away from being an ironic soundtrack for a scene in a summer teen sex comedy. Its time has come and gone. Yokota’s Symbol, though it may never prove that matching beats to themes cribbed from Bach can be “cool”, will never be ripe for such parody. Despite any faults, the record is well crafted enough to be appreciated merely for its technical aspects, and the moments that do shine will stand up for a long time to come.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/yokotasusumu-symbol/