Japanese ambient producer Kazuya Nagaya focuses on what dreams are telling us on his new album, Dream Interpretation.
7 February 2020
The unknown gap between our physiological and psychological responses to music has been an area of research for decades. For example, what connection does our heart rate have to feelings of euphoria when listening to high-energy dance music? Maybe the heart of making music is to manipulate listeners into a physiological response without any associative action or change in reality. Meditative music takes this intent more transparently by promising listeners a potential calm and rest – that the goal of this music is for your state of mind to respond appropriately. The problem is you can't properly judge music in this manner; if meditative ambient music cannot relax you because you're having a bad day, is that really on the artist? Of course not, so it's more reliable to revert to examining the technical properties of the music and connecting it back to your broad, subjective response.
That sounds tedious, but engaging with Kazuya Nagaya's work and his Zen Buddhist philosophical inspirations inevitably leads to considering the merits of meditative healing brought on through music. Nagaya is a Japanese percussionist and ambient producer who has been releasing albums for over 20 years now. He's also an award-winning writer and teaches courses at the University of Tokyo.
The inspiration for his newest album is clear from the title: Dream Interpretations. Nagaya focuses on the dreams that never leave us, even if we no longer have them; the images will always have something to say as long as we have the corresponding emotions tied to them. The nine tracks on Dream Interpretation seek to cleanse the frenetic energy that keeps you from being still and looking within yourself to discover what your dreams have been telling you. An immersive listen proves to be successful on this front, but to the extent that it's unique is another matter.
Nagaya's approach is of an affinity for elongation. Every note and bell chime in songs like "Tibetan Philosopher" can last up to 30 seconds and forces you to hone in on that echo. You start to accept the stillness of every track rather than long for the dynamism of more revered ambient artists. In the right headspace, your thoughts can be as stretched out and still as each track. The bells are used as frequent placeholders, and their presence in each track acts as a guiding, stabilizing force. They are both alarms to stir you back into consciousness and soothers to ease you back into the stillness.
The tonal shifts are more drastic and tend to distract from Nagaya's trance-like stillness, and they boil down to instrumentation choice. The soft digital spectral structures of songs like "Heathen" and "The Book of Sunken Memory" tap into the more sinister side of dreams that haunt you, but the multiple long title tracks include a heavy string section that verges on melodrama. The former relies on subtlety and the space between the echoes to connect with you, while the latter confines you into a forced melancholy without much room for "interpretation."
Dream Interpretation works best as an artist/listener companionship of shared memories and dreams. Maybe all music works best through that lens, but the explicit nature of that goal is where Nagaya's music-making soul resides. It's a goal that goes deeper than "meditation music" or "healing music"; it seeks to transform how we listen, react, and translate the mumblings we so often cast aside. At his best, Nagaya makes that refreshingly clear.