Susumu Yokota: Symbol

Aaron Leitko

At its best, Symbol seamlessly combines samples drawn from throughout the history of western music into compositions that carry their own distinct identity.

Susumu Yokota


Label: Lo Recordings
US Release Date: 2005-05-30
UK Release Date: 2005-06-06
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.