INTERVIEW: MINAMO: TOKAFI (2010)
Typing the word "Minamo“ into any search engine of your choice will yield review listings from sites dealing with genres as diverse as Jazz, Post Rock, Improvisation, Electroacoustics, Ambient and Contemporary Composition. Intriguingly, all of them are related to the same band: For over a decade, the Tokyo-based quartet of Keiichi Sugimoto, Yuichiro Iwashita, Namiko Sasamoto and Tetsuro Yasunaga has not just explored, but somehow managed to reconcile seemingly incompatible corners of the musical spectrum by following a personal and intimate vision of sound. Despite a variety of references and allusions, their approach has desperately little in common with the more demonstrative cross-over tactics of some of their peers: "From my point of view, it's not important for Minamo to refer to any kind of fixed musical techniques“, explains Yasunaga, who signs responsible for the band's dulcet electronics and discrete object treatments, "What matters to us is finding musical relationships in different contexts of the when, where, what and how we make sounds.“ The result is more often than not of a sweet fleetingness, evading both conventional categories and the inattentive mind.
Unclassifiable as they may seem, Minamo have quickly become one of the most popular players on the experimental scene. Their most recent collaboration with Australian Room40-labelhead and tireless sound collector Lawrence English, an album both brimming with ambition and atmospherics, is an obvious highlight in their catalogue and follows in the footsteps of a warmly received full-length (Durée
) for 12k. What's more, A Path Less Travelled also continues to blur the borders between various influences, this time tapping into Drones, Microtonality and Folk as well as searching for points of contact between undiluted harmony and disturbing tonal frictions, between the life-giving energy of the sun and the pitch black void of the night. This quest for elements outside of the traditional realms of the immediately tangible is palpable on all of the five tracks contained on the album - be it on "Gummer“'s concise study of acoustic guitar against a backdrop of cloud-casting ambiances or the 17-minutes of enigmatic epic "Springhead“.
Evolution coming to fruition
In several ways, A Path Less Travelled
is a direct continuation of an evolutionary process which the band initiated on their last record and which is now fully coming to fruition. Durée
's title referred to a philosophical concept introduced by French thinker Henri-Louis Bergson about the real nature of time and duration as opposed to our perception of it, which he judged to be fundamentally different. As much as the seamless transitions of the album suggested a close relationship between Bergson's ideas and the music, the story was rather a case of serendipity: "To tell you the truth, I only found out about the idea after we already recorded the tracks. We've been thinking intently about words to sum up our current process of dealing with music and sound very carefully this time, because we intentionally tried to keep a distance from our past styles of playing – without actually denying them“, Yasunaga elucidates, "At the same time, I was inspired by Jakob von Uexkull's conception of "Umwelt", which says that each creature recognizes its environment differently. It led me to the idea that each person consequently also recognizes music differently according to the listening situation at hand. So I've been looking for suitable conceptions about time and space. If you take this as our point of departure, then it's not so hard to see the link with Bergson's philosophy.“ Although the band had already left the studio, when he pitched the idea to them, they all agreed that it suited their own perception of their creative process perfectly.
still played with notions of development, the music on A Path Less Travelled
, while still containing dynamic peaks and troughs and following a palpable narrative logic, is of a seamless quality, flowing from the moment with complete ease. A case in point is the quietly majestic opener to the album, "The Path“: A serene melody composed of warm drone breaths resembling the timbre of an alp horn is gradually complemented by dreamy piano drops, glitchy clicks and scratchings, brittle guitar strummings and harmonium sonorities, resulting in a fluent stream of harmony, seemingly static and yet constantly moving. About halfway into the piece, the music fades away for a short moment, as though entering the silence in between two breaths of air, before commencing anew, Yuichiro Iwashita's guitar this time adding tenderly propulsive pickings while English's bass sustains the action from the lower end of the frequential spectrum. Despite this shift of gear, the music never aspires to a fully-fledged climax, but makes use of the sudden impetus like a hot air balloon sailing along on a lucky breeze, its bamboo car happily rocking from the left to the right, as its passengers hold on the railing with smiles on their faces, waving their caps to the incredulous crowds below.
Aspects of imagination
To English, this fantastical aspect of the music is down to its obsession with color and flow rather than melody and rhythm: "There’s an aspect of imagination that I like to think plays into the work I do – I want people to immerse themselves in the sounds and find meaning for themselves“, he mentioned in an interview with us last year, „In some ways I guess the music and sound works I create tend to invite people not only to listen deeply, but also to seek a personal understanding – they create their own reality from their past experiences housed within the sounds I present – that can be literal or imagined I suppose.“ At the same time, this fascination with sound almost by default implied a deep and meticulous production process, as part of which Minamo's initial suggestions and instrumental sketches were subjected to a plethora of transformations, the studio turning into an improvisatory tool in its own right. The two years it took for English to finish this process might seem excessive to anyone used to the bewilderingly short production cycles of many contemporary sound artists, but they are very much standard for his approach: "I usually find that the time allowed also gives me a chance to find a sound world that I think will fit well and lend the record its own feel and sensibility“, English reflects on the various stages many of his albums go through, „I kind of relish having the chance to work with different sound ideas and textures.“ As such, A Path Less Travelled is not just a meeting between different artists, but contrasting concepts as well. English's strategy of planting the materials in the soil of time and carefully nurturing them until they grow inspirational fruits is countered by the skillful spontaneity of Minamo.
As such, it decidedly represents a new stage in their discography: On Durée
, what you heard on the album was very much what the musicians played in the studio, with only the individual tracks being adjusted to each other, a few effects being added and a voice being implanted into "helical scenery" to award it a charming 60s touch. All of this was part of a deliberate strategy of culling from the flow what they needed to prosper: "To me, it feels as though we don't take decisions by ourselves, but respond to a particular situation in every moment“, according to Yasunaga, "I think it's impossible to divide such factors when making our music. It is the continuous flow itself which forms our music. We don't talk so much about our music and normally regard it with extreme objectivity. We don't think of ourselves as players but more as "materials with a unique will“. I hope this makes sense... Actually, we are influenced by the momentness but this doesn't mean that each action we take is a reflective one.“ To Minamo, playing together is like conducting a conversation without words and consciousness, like a flow of time, space and both conscious and subconscious factors: "Even though we don't take part in and play, it keeps changing. So our improvisation is like throwing pebbles into a river.“
In the case of A Path Less Travelled
, the pebbles may have been small, but the waves have been all the bigger. For the entire 42 minutes of its duration, the album manages to not just hold listeners' attention, but to take them on one of the most wondrous journeys of this year. It may take a spin or two to get there, but then the easy way has never been the path for a formation who have managed to excel at various genres at once.
By Tobias Fischer