Shuta Hiraki – Voicing In Oblivion – Escaping Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a dangerous source for art. Too much contact with the past can provoke an overload of material, much of it deceptively comforting. By further wallowing in it, by straining to recoup what’s been lost to time, the true nature of what’s longed for can be replaced with a sentimental facsimile, or worse, it can result in a self-portrait of creeping despair.

Shuta Hiraki (who also goes by the name Obalto) explores the complex experiences of nostalgia, loss, and the erasure of time with his latest album, Voicing In Oblivion, released on Rottenman Editions out of Spain.

According to the website, the album was “created mainly with old LP records left by his mother in the warehouse, mixing her own recordings of old upright detuned piano from the Nagasaki Sound Bath Museum with field recordings recorded on cassette.” In reaching back into the past, Hiraki has come up with something that pays homage to the meaning and power of personal and cultural history while reframing it in evocative new contexts.

A delicate tension runs throughout Voicing In Oblivion, starting with the first of its four unnamed tracks. Over reverb-laden organ music that sounds very much like a cicada, we hear the sounds of a young child speaking – a classic nostalgic trope. Hiraki quickly moves on, opening up a somber ceremonial atmosphere filled with a mournful shakuhachi flute, portentous atmospherics, irregular crackling, and washes of organ. As a deep rumbling rises up, a spare yet stentorian drum announces itself – but any further suggestions of ritual soon fades into the solitary sounds of someone or something sifting through dried leaves, accompanied by crickets and a distant chiming bell. A broken chord is suddenly played on a piano announcing a change of scenery, followed by individual prodding notes that sound as random and absent-minded as they sound intentional. Someone feels palpably present in the moment of the recording. Is this the child we first heard, now grown? Is it a random sample? Should we even try to create a narrative from these fragments? There’s a secret at the heart of this track that makes for a compelling encounter.

The second track is a bit more stable in comparison but only just. After a brief sound like something heavy and solid being placed on a flat surface, a lush, swirling, orchestral loop sets up – rendered almost campy in effect by being decontextualized – casting a haze over everything. Just as quickly, the glamorous aura is encroached on by a gentle, recurring atonal piano stab, which is soon followed by the appearance of a dogged, hollow, rattling sound. Eventually the piano and the rattle are all that remain until they’re joined by a distant vocal loop. The track continues to unfold and mutate, following an intuitive logic before cycling back to the scrapes and rasps of unseen objects from the material world.

Nothing is fixed or static on Voicing In Oblivion. Every track is suspended in flux, evoking a changing set of circumstances and emotions while suggesting that the past is not finished or even definable, but something that continues to evolve as much as any given present moment. By extension, our relationship to that past changes accordingly.

Hiraki builds up and subverts the many moods he so meticulously creates, yet instead of reveling in chaos, he reveals unexpected spaces and fresh perspectives. He’s attuned to the value of contrast and context, and the third track provides the starkest example. Field recordings, orchestral and operatic samples, forlorn, detuned piano, and the sudden appearance of a whispering human voice stating, “I see nothing… I hear nothing…” all fuse and pull against each other over its nine minutes before resolving in what sounds like a locked groove of an LP. The past and the present are at odds on this track, with neither side establishing primacy.

The final track opens with the crackle of an old LP before settling into a glowing serenity of sorts, complete with bright, chiming notes from a piano’s upper register. Soon enough, a somber pulse takes over, bringing with it the brief, plaintive tones of the shakuhachi. That pulse is sustained through the rest of the track, flaring up at times into ringing voids, pulling back at times to near silence. Hiraki introduces and soon retracts pipe organ, pinched vocals, and muffled fumbling sounds suggesting something being built or dismantled, maybe both, before the track stumbles and crumbles into dead silence.

While the album is dedicated to what is lost to oblivion, the atmosphere is anything but morbid. Surprising and full of emotion, Voicing In Oblivion is also a homage to everything that leads up the moment of loss as well as everything that comes after. Life, in other words.

Touch – Isolation – Natural Selection

In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, Touch launched their Isolation project. In exchange for a nominal subscription fee, Touch began offering bi-weekly emails containing two previously unreleased tracks (and one back-catalogue track) from their line-up of artists.

To anyone familiar with the Touch label, this was something to be excited about.

Now that they’ve reached the end – twenty-eight tracks, totaling three and half hours of music and sound – I can tell you straight: if you can afford to, buy it. Touch is offering the entire collection as a one-off album. To call it a worthwhile investment is to grossly understate its actual value. What they’ve assembled is a both a perfect distillation of their ethos and output as well as an essential compilation for anyone interested in the ways that music and sound engage and hybridize while creating something new in the process.

By purchasing this, you’d also be helping out a lot of artists whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19.

Starting in the natural world, Isolation opens with “Surge,” a head-clearingly windswept track from Jana Winderen (whom I’ve written about elsewhere), recorded at a family-owned farm in Sweden where she’s been staying with relatives since the start of the lockdown. (I should mention that it’s worth your time to look up the stories that go along with many of these recordings, all of which can be found on the musicians’ individual Bandcamp pages, and are accompanied by gorgeous photos taken by Touch co-founder Jon Wozencroft.) Chris Watson follows Winderen with the brooding “Gobabeb,” which uses field recordings captured in the Namib Desert in Southwest Africa. Bana Haffar, a new addition to the Touch line-up, is next with “Conference of the Birds,” offering a tense standoff between seething, pulsing static and the simple calls of an array of birds before settling them into an ethereal rapprochement.

And then we’re off, expanding the parameters of approaches to the project. With “Rewilding,” Mark Van Hoen (one half of drøne, a band he shares with Touch co-founder Mike Harding), combines a sub-vocal radio broadcast (intoning such phrases as “Your fundamental nature is beyond your choice…”) with some simple chords on his piano and the wildlife sounds recorded around his house, which had become more pronounced thanks to the lockdown’s reduction of traffic. Next, “Away,” from Richard Chartier seems to eschew any notions of “natural” field recordings altogether by creating, as he’s done in so much of his work, an enveloping, granulated sound that suggests something both empty and teeming. In the process he subtly calls into question ideas about what nature actually is: A swamp? A tended garden? A concept?

Zachary Paul’s “Aeolus” is the epic, heart-rending sound of forty-seven layered violin tracks, and is matched in beauty by the comparatively austere guitar/piano follow-up,  “Kizuna,” from Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And at that point we’re only seven tracks in.

To be honest, this compilation is overwhelming. And I haven’t said a word yet about ELEH or Geneva Skeen or Simon Scott or Oren Ambarchi or UnicaZürn or Bethan Kellough or Strafe F.R. or Philip Jeck or Rosy Parlane or Claire M Singer or Heitor Alvelos or Charlie Campagna – all of whom contribute many more highlights.

To reduce these tracks to bytes or blurbs would be a disservice. They really need to be experienced firsthand. The trouble is – and this is the best sort of trouble – most everything on the compilation is fantastic.

Isolation is a bounteous, polyphonic gift to Touch fans, newcomers to the label, lovers of field recordings, lovers of music, or anyone feeling starved for contact with the world outside. Listen to it straight through. Listen to it in reverse order. Play it loud or dial it down. Anywhere you dive in, you’ll be met with work that’s gritty, smooth, jarring, soothing, warm, cool. I can’t stress enough the rewarding impact of it. I urge you simply to get it. It’s something I know I’ll be returning to long after this lockdown is over.