Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima & Satsuki Shibano FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem

[RVNG Intl. ; 2019 ]

Styles: ambient, environmental, collaboration
Others: Hiroshi Yoshimura, Toshifumi Hinata, Midori Takada, Brian Eno, Bill Nelson

Wherein the gauntlet is taken up:

It would be a chore to spend this review talking about globalization, or about cross-cultural musical collaboration. The former rings boring in a piece about music, the latter covered so entirely, and is so intrinsically to the FRKWYS series, that even this preliminary note of exclusion feels redundant. So, let’s just do it and get it over with: a shout out to Visible Cloaks (Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile), not only for this gorgeous album, but for being so instrumental, along with projects such as Root Strata (RIP) and Listen to This!, in bringing artists like Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano into the torrent clubs and blogosphere of the novelty-ravenous 2010s internet. These acts of import and ambassadorship, much like Brian Eno’s or Bill Nelson’s in the 1980s, have profoundly influenced the ambient music scene worldwide. With Light in The Attic’s (and others’!) recent, expansive reissues and compilations of Japanese ambient, experimental, and city pop music, what was once underground has taken its rightful place in music history as a notable movement. That history is important and has been covered quite thoroughly in many other forums. I want to hear the music and look closely at what exactly is happening on this collaboration, serenitatem.

If you’ve heard Ojima’s two Une Collection Des Chainons albums or his collaborations with Shibano on piano, you’ll be prepared for the variety and temperature of the music on serenitatem. Shibano’s piano playing is as soothing and as subtle as ever, with Satie and Debussy looming like kindly ghosts. serenitatem, somewhere at the crossroads of contemporary classical, environmental, and ambient musics, succeeds in the difficult art of collaboration. What’s remarkable about this album is that it never really feels like distinct voices playing off of one another — it is a unified vision, and if only one name appeared on the cover, no one would question it. It moves at its own pace and, unlike some roughly “ambient” works, neither fades into the background nor attempts to shock with bursts of noise. One is struck on each of these eight tracks by how right this collaboration is, how kindred these spirits are when in the studio together.

Like a stew, this album takes energies and flavors from its components, each contribution blending and acquiring the vibrations of everything around it. The songs reverberate, flow into one another, sooth and intrigue. “Toi,” the album’s first track, begins with the sound of a bubble bursting, or a drip dropping, before moving into a slowly mutating realm of chiming electronics, sweetly manipulated piano, and breathy hums. Later, “Lapis Lazuli” exemplifies its name with nine minutes of philosophical, glimmering peace. “You,” another highlight, features polyphony that rewards the ear that attempts to follow the weaving and winding of its paths, and remakes the spoken bits from the preceding “Anata” into a new, melodic form, providing just one example of the dazzling things done with Satsuki Shibano’s voice on this album. Elsewhere, “S’Amours ne fait par sa grace adoucir (Ballade 1)” introduces a huge organ-led sound that pairs early music with digital reverberations and layers of echoing clicks.

serenitatem manages to do so many interesting things simultaneously while taking up little space, especially compared to other albums with similar ambitions. It rewards not only repeated listening, but varied interaction: it will sound different surrounded by the utter silence of night than it would on headphones in public under the summer sun. Perhaps this is true of most pieces of such detailed music, but the melodic and atonal deposits buried under the first impression are often where the most complex and satisfying moments hide, or sleep.


Wherein the writer gently lets fall the gauntlet:

In this late year of the second decade of the new millennium, the notions of musical, biomechanical futurity and cooperative art are, if not quite unrecognizable when compared to the idealist prototypes of the 1980s, only similar in the way rhyming words are similar. Much of this album was written in cooperation with randomization technology (not that this is a new practice: Ojima and others have been working with such software for decades) or sketched before the artists ever met one another in the flesh, through internet back-and-forths. Here, software-assisted composition and long-distance collaboration were the great fascinations of the once-hopeful newborn internet. The notions of openness and innovation, hinted at in the ambient movements of the 1980s and 90s, are not only possible now, but also in some cases a reality — so why are albums like this one so rare? That question may not even be valid; perhaps they aren’t rare at all. Still, music is coming to understand its digital environment slowly, often simultaneously invigorated and limited by its relationship to the expansion of corporate capitalism into the noöspheric realms of this entirely infiltrated internet. This isn’t so different from the music-for-retail-space experiments of Ojima or Hiroshi Yoshimura in the 1980s — it’s simply less conscious now, literally embedded into the media themselves (down with Spotify, etc.). I guess one just can’t help writing about capitalism when describing the history or future of this genre.

Which makes this record even more fascinating; it’s not really trying to sell anything or open you up to a wider consumer affect. This album is — as the old, commissioned ones were, with hindsight — about making art from and about the landscape. That landscape, in 1980s Japan as in 2010s America, is largely a consumer landscape. Art, and the artist’s compulsion to adopt, adapt, and create, flourishes despite and sometimes because of what one can safely call unfeeling, unthinking composites of corporate entities.


Wherein the gauntlet is retrieved:

Still, in the end, as always, there is just the music and the experience of hearing it. I’ve probably said something to this effect in half of my reviews. “Still the music, just sitting there in potential.” Does understanding its roots (and its roots’ roots) make for a better life for it or you, or a better 46 minutes of listening? Maybe. Vaporwave and its precursors and descendants pretty thoroughly covered all of this, and then some. It is, after all, fascinating material. Verbose and intelligent people of all kinds will tell you that the history of a thing is its meaning. I won’t argue. I’d like you to listen to “Stratum” though, one of this album’s most mesmerizing pieces, and think deeply about whatever you want. Where does this album take you? What, beyond the cliché accusation of neoliberal self-improvement, is promised in the world of the New Age, the ambient? What floats there?


Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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