Music

Aoki Takamasa & Tujiko Noriko: Twenty-Eight

The album appears like a beam of sunshine on a warm spring day: pleasant and warm, but of extremely brief duration.


Aoki Takamasa & Tujiko Noriko

Twenty-Eight

Label: Fatcat
US Release Date: 2005-11-15
UK Release Date: 2005-08-22
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The guiding principle of progressive electronic music these past few years has been an increasing emphasis on the soft and delicate. Turning away from the harder breakbeats and more aggressive basslines of the fin de siecle, electronic musicians across the spectrum have explored increasingly less substantial sounds, creating melodic and ever more intricate templates that have influenced the fashions in house, techno, trip-hop (such that it is at this late date) and especially IDM. It's instructive to use, for an example of this transformation, the career of electronic polymath Björk. Always one step ahead of current trends, she was well positioned to exploit the changing style. 1997's Homogenic was filled with hard, clattering beats and broad, melodic themes similar in nature to what was then popular, the harder-edged big-beat and occasionally violent techno of artists such as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, as well as the harder drum & bass temperament of Aphex Twin and other Warp stablemates ("All Is Full of Love" notwithstanding). By 2001, she had completely switched courses, and Vespertine was similarly a bellwether for the electronic movement: out was the power and aggression; in was the delicacy and restraint. The sound of programmers like Matmos and Matthew Herbert dictated the music's new direction.

In the same way that Björk's later material often buries the lead within deceptively fragile arrangements, Aoki Takamasa and Tujiko Noriko have a habit of hiding their melodies within fragmented, almost crystalline structures that appear too brittle to touch, as if they would break apart at the slightest change in atmospheric pressure. With Twenty-Eight, Takamasa and Noriko have created an interesting album of petite electronic compositions, almost pathologically subdued and entranced by the idea of transient beauty. The album appears like a beam of sunshine on a warm spring day: pleasant and warm, but extremely brief in duration. The duo weave precious melodies -- almost reminiscent of vintage Cocteau Twins -- around the type of scattered electronic backing that would not seem out of place on an album by Herbert, or even up-and-coming glitch-poppers Some Water and Sun. Also, the fact that most of the tracks are sung in Japanese -- a language of which I am pitifully ignorant -- brings to mind another Icelandic import, Sigur Rós, and their hypnotically bizarre (and occasionally frustrating) concoctions of poetically inspired gibberish.

Takamasa and Noriko are both Japanese, expatriates who reside in Paris and perform across the European continent. After having met at a Cartier Foundation event in Paris, they struck up a friendship and commenced a working relationship that proceeded apace despite the fact that, until just over a year ago, Takamasa was still living in Osaka. But the creative synergy experienced in their long-distance collaborations was enough to inspire them to continue, and when Takamasa moved to Paris work on a full-length album became considerably easier.

The fruit of their first formal collaboration, "Fly", is available in slightly amended form as "Fly2", which opens the album on a characteristic note. The diffuse movements and shifting rhythms bring to mind Autechre collaborating with a vocalist -- a willowy Japanese vocalist who has no qualms about allowing her vocal to be warped and stretched to suit the occasion. The rest of the album follows this template: Tracks usually build slowly on the back of a minimally invasive rhythm, unfolding the melody gradually, almost methodically. Even when the rhythm is more assertive, as on "When the Night Comes" or the extremely Autechre-esque "Doki Doki Last Night", the duo seem almost chronically modest, hiding the motion of their track behind a wall of gauze-like reticence.

Ultimately, this is both the album's greatest strength and its most telling weakness. It is a very deftly crafted example of the nouvelle vague in electronic music, bringing to mind the work of peers such as Four Tet and Matmos without falling prey to overt slavishness. But, as with even the best of those artists, the results, while uniformly pretty, can all the same be damningly insubstantial. This is not an album for casual listening, despite its casual exterior. A modicum of effort is required on the part of the listener to appreciate the multiple layers of subtle interaction at the heart of Twenty-Eight. Whether or not this exertion pays off in the end for the listener is perhaps a question of individual temperament.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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