JU-JIKAN: 10 Hours of Sound from Japan
23F/SFM 901, Double Compact Disc
published in 2002
$17.98, plus shipping

In 2001, the San Francisco sound-arts organization 23five and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art copresented Ju-Jikan — a ten hour ‘listening event’ documenting the past 50 years of Japanese experimental music. The curators of Ju-Jikan Atau Tanaka, Ryoji Ikeda, and Shunichiro Okada did not intend their exhibition to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of Japanese experimentation; rather they sought “to trace the complex web of sonic style that constitutes the current Japenese musical landscape.” Tanaka, whose lucid writings are found within Ju-Jikan’s liner notes, takes great care in describing the contradictions and unspoken connections that linger not just within the niches of Japanese audio experimentation but also throughout all of Japanese culture. Just as technology and electronics are the lone assimilating factors within the broad scope of Ju-Jikan, these same tools also gave the possibility for separation from the West and from each other to create a wealth of new languages.

While the ten hour ‘listening event’ at SFMOMA spanned 5 decades of historical recordings, the double CD centers upon the last decade, as a means to publish previously unreleased work from many of featured arrtists. All of the artists with Ju-Jikan (both the 2CD and the SFMOMA listening event) draw from the recombinant power of electronic synthesis and the juxtaposition of disparate styles; which together have become a standard if elusively-defined musical vocabulary for Japanese music. Tanaka, Ikeda, and Okada offered convenient catagories (computer music, anti-academic movements, noise, anti-pop permutations, ambient fields, after improvised music, etc.) as ports of entry; however, they point out that many Japanese experimental artists refuse to paint themselves into an aesthetic corner. Ju-Jikan’s CD companion features compositions from Tamami Toro, Pain Jerk, Yasunao Tone, Nerve Net Noise, Otomo Yoshihide, Atau Tanaka, i.d., Masonna, Kozo Inada, Ichiro Nodaira, Hanatarash, Yuji Takahashi, Ryoji Ikeda, Merzbow, Kazuo Uehara, Astro, and Testuo Furudate.


This two-disc compilation coincides with last year's SFMOMA exhibit of the same name, a "listening event documenting the past 50 years of Japanese experimental music," though this recording features mostly electronic-oriented material from the past few years. Despite this, its breadth is exceptional and some of the tracks are unreleased, so it's excellent both for collectors or as an introduction. Noise, of course, is a focal point, and each of the several noise pieces are quite distinct—Pain Jerk's track is a rumbling, rhythmic assault in contrast to Masonna's brighter vocal and synth-driven freakout. The Otomo Yoshihide track, consisting only of high frequency guitar feedback, is easily the toughest; he exploits the subtle interaction of two tonally pure sustained notes, holding them for uncomfortable lengths of time. It's interesting and challenging but I prefer his more dynamic work. Other tracks range from minimalist-inspired rhythmic clicks, such as the Nerve Net Noise, Atau Tanaka, and Ryoji Ikeda tracks, which all manage to distinguish themselves with their detailed but disarmingly simple tonal palettes, to more abstract, juxtaposed medleys. Masahiro Miwa's contribution uses plaintive low-fi synths to establish tension; though the sounds are light and playful, the overall feel is heavy and works well with his stated topic of youth violence in Japan. I like I.d.'s supposedly "hacker"-inspired piece. Its discrete bundles of static and waves of digital noise sound almost like information, and it slowly develops into something vaguely repetitive and structured.

The compilation also features a few notable older but forward-looking pieces. Yasunao Tone's track is about contrasts: beauty and ugliness as well as ancient and modern, combining gorgeous flute playing and a noisy synth that sounds like the creaking of a door. The music stops periodically for an NPR-type voice to read some semi-decent poetry; although the track is long and generally simple, it's still engaging and I love the flute playing. The Kazuo Uehara composition, dating back to 1988, has the most impressive sounds on the disc. It begins with some quiet, indeterminate events and some mumbled French with a cavernous echo, and the vocals grow increasingly processed and alien. Stunning woodwind-like drones build towards an organ-like range and later into hauntingly serene howling and whistling. The ground that this compilation covers, as a whole, is amazing, and it definitely reaffirms the brilliance of Japanese musical innovation. - Steve Smith

The Wire

The majority of CD compilations should be banned for multiple crimes including scattershot logic and redundancy. There are exceptions, however. The curated sound art exhibition document (an aural catalogue, if you will) may be one of them, since the package carries not just the music and ancillary information, but also a slice of zeitgeist, a taste of curatorial fashion placed conveniently on the timeline for future reference. In recent years, SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has acknowlegded sound in a number of contemporary media exhibitions. Ju-Jikan: Ten Hours of Sound from Japan and Variable Resistance: Ten Hours of Sound from Australia cull selections from listening room programs at the museum in September 2001. The curators were Atau Tanaka, Ryoji Ikeda, and Shunchiro Okada for Japan and Philip Samartzis for Australi. What I suspect they were required to do was to impose some structure on their choices, which is where both projects become documents of interest and controversy in themselves. Personally I would rather have my eyes bathed in flaming lighter fuel than to see the diversity and complexity of current music making reduced to collection of crazy categories. Is there not enought tribal subdivision and targeted marketing in the world without turning music history into an equivalent of sthe storage and tidiness fetish?

A quick perusal of the map illustrating Ju-Jikan's chronology and categorization of Japanese sonic arts is enough to provoke serious questions: can Takemitsu be simply described as an NHK Studio composer? Is it really correct to describe Joji Yuasa and Yuji Takahashi as academic? Is Ryoji Ikeda just laptop? Is improvised music a broad enough category to describe Hoahio and Otomo Yoshihide? Is Yurihito Watanabe post-pop by any stretch of the imagination? How can Akio Suzuki be omitted from the sound art category? And if we must have genres, what about jazz, free jazz, film and TV soundtracks, performance art, conceptual art, anime music, rock, psychedelia, minimalism, soundscape recording, neo-traditional (Miki Minoru deserves a place somewhere, surely)? This approach creates nothing but trouble. Nevermind: Atau Tanaka and Philip Samartzis make an intelligent job of coping with their respective frameworks without falling into the despondent slough of hype®theory. Some fascinating interconnection emerge, particularly on the Japanese discs, though I find the Australian disc a more satisfying listening experience. Perhaps this is inevitable. The history of Japanese sound art and experimental music is labyrinthine, poorly documented and difficult to encapsulate through the single viewpoint that an audio CD allows. Where the listening room for Japan covered developments from 1956 to the present, the CDs contract the timeline to a 12 year period between 1991 and 2002. All of the tracks (Pain Jerk, Nerve Net Noise, Otomo, Merzbow, Astro, Tetsuo Furudate, Kazuo Uehara, Masahiro Miwa, Hanatarash, Kozo Inada, etc. plus the curators) are interesting enough in their own right, though one minute of Masonna is enough for me, thank you very much. Everything leans toward the electronic, though some pieces -- Tamami Tono's "Dinergy 2," Yasunao Tone's "Trio for a Flute Player," Yuji Takahashi's "Tori Mo Tsukai Ka II," and Ichiro Nodaira's "Neuf Écarts Vers Le Défi" -- either transform acoustic sources electronically or juxtapose them with electronics. Underlying both compilaions is the theoretics of noise which causes me to wonder: is noise music a category error? Tanaka sees noise as being somehow natural to Japanese aesthetics and unnatural to "the West." "The very fact that noise can be considered musical material is tied to the Japanese relationship to sound and nature," he writes in his sleevenotes. "While the West tends to appropriate elements of nature (citing birdsong as an inspiration to create melodies unrelated to birds,) the Japanese instinct observes nature in situ (the sound of cicadas define the sense of the environment of the summer season)." Well, sort of, though these fails to explain why noise, as a musical element, or end in itself, has flourished in so much global music of all kinds during the past 100 years (and earlier) and perhaps underestimates a Japanese tendency to shape nature into a highly refined simulacra. What is closer to nature: a Japanese dry garden of rocks and raked sand or an English rose garden?

I'm convinced more by Csaba Toth's Jacques Attali extrapolations in his contribution to the Australian CD notes, though Toth suggests that the sonic undergrounds of the United States and countries of the Pacific Rim are "especially vibrant." Again, this sounds like the project brief speaking. Frankly, it's hard to think of anywhere that doesn't have some sort of vibrant sonic underground these days. These border crossings that everybody talks about have flattened the idea of national avant gardes. Local scenes (OK, communities, if we must) are far more important to cultural emergence than economic geographies such as the Pacific Rim or the European Union. Toth also writes: "I define noise performance as aesthetic production that challenges social and cultural institutions, collapses genre boundaries, and has broad implications." I suppose that depende on what you mean by noise (sigh), though it's nice to see elsewhere in his essay that there's life yet in the old dogs of Lacanian theory and jouissance. On the other hand, if jouissance "opens up the subject to change," why are so many noise performances and records (category noise, that is) so unchanging, so similar in their procedures and effects? Like I said, the curated sound art exhibition document gives you added value: plenty of ideas about the state of the art, and other deep stuff, plus music. I particularly like Oren Ambarchi's "Stactedit," a fine illustration of the way in which Ambarchi maintains clarity and engagement throughout the full trajectory of his process playing. There's a lot of impressive music here (Pimmon, David Brown, Jim Knox, Robbie Avenaim, Thembi Sodell, Darrin Verhagen, Délire, and Philip Samartzis), though I'd half agree with the latter's curatorial conclusions. "Whether there's a quintessential Australian character articulated within the fabric of these works is difficult to say," he writes, "but somehow it is hard to imagine them coming from anywhere else." Yes, to the first part of that sentence, and a mighty question mark hovers over the second. -- David Toop