Tone Glow 012: Patrick Shiroishi
An interview with Patrick Shiroishi + an accompanying mix, album downloads, and our writers panel on four new releases from Longform Editions
|Apr 20, 2020||7|
Patrick Shiroishi is a saxophonist from Los Angeles who’s performed and released music for more than a decade. While he’s been part of numerous groups and bands, his solo music features some of his most exciting work to date. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Shiroishi via phone on March 25th, discussing his latest albums, his family, and learning from collaboration.
Photo by Itako Shinshu
Joshua Minsoo Kim: You have two new albums out—Descension and Eye for an Eye. Descension is obviously a very personal work, can you speak about your experience with creating the album, and what that process was like?
Patrick Shiroishi: I originally recorded it back in 2016. That was a time when I was doing a lot of diving into my family ancestry. I went on a tour up the West Coast, and I was able to visit where my grandparents were incarcerated. It was a strange experience. I just opened the door and stepped out to the land—there’s nothing there now, just flags and a memorial—and I immediately felt like I needed to cry. We spent around fifteen or twenty minutes there before we left. I don’t know if I would ever go back. Maybe if I have children I would take them when they’re older, but it was such a strange experience.
In 2016 I was feeling a lot of anger and weird emotions when Trump was elected. There were more hate crimes and a lot more people of color were suffering. That played a part of it. Originally, when I set up the mics and everything, I thought I was just going to record a noise record, or a saxophone version of a black metal record—I wanted it super lo-fi. But after we set up the mics, I didn’t have any plans: I just wanted to record and go. I don’t know if it’s because I love melodies, but the music on that record was recorded in the order of the track listing. Those two melodies came out, luckily I was able to loop them and not make any errors. They were all done in one take (laughs) and they all went into the second half—the really long noise, the angry section, and finally came out to the voice, little outro thing. I felt it was strange, I didn’t pack up immediately after I finished recording. I sat there for a little bit, and then started packing up. I felt good, I really got everything off my chest that I needed to say at that moment.
Were these your grandparents on both sides of your family?
On my Father’s side. My mom is from Japan.
Did your father ever talk about how your parents were in the internment camps? Did your grandparents ever speak about it?
My grandfather passed away before I was born. I brought it up to my grandmother when I was in high school. We were in history class, and there was one paragraph about it in our history book, and I asked, “Grandma, what's this about?” She was a really bright, happy person, and she totally shut down in that moment and didn’t answer my question. I thought that I made her feel that way, you know? So I never brought it up again. She passed away a couple of years ago, and I kind of regret not bringing it up one more time to see if I could get her to talk about it. But just from that response you could tell that it was just a horrible experience. The very thought of it really diminished her entire affect. But she did meet my grandfather in the camp, they got married there.
Did you know your grandmother well growing up?
Yeah! We would go over to her place after school all the time. She would give me and my brother allowance. We were taking piano lessons at the time so we would play for her, practice for her. It was so funny, she would always be in the living room listening to me, like, really Grandma? We fucking suck (laughter)! We were making a lot of mistakes, Gram—I don’t know! But she was always super sweet, you could tell she really loved us a lot.
I think she had it so rough growing up that she didn’t want us to struggle in that way at all, to go through anything like that. When we were ten years old she would give us $10 in allowance. When you’re ten, $10 is a lot of money! I’m pretty sure my parents would just take it and put it somewhere, but she was an extremely sweet woman.
Did you ever show her the music you made as an adult?
No, I never got the chance. She passed away before that. My first solo record came out in 2013, and I believe that one was dedicated to her. That was the first work that I did, it was a weird time.
Oh yeah—Black Sun Sutra is dedicated to Sayoko Dorothy Shiroishi.
Yeah. I don’t know if it was the kind of music she would have liked to hear (laughter). Growing up, it’s been a struggle wanting to play music for a living, this whole making music thing. But I think she would have been able to take something positive out of it.
Can you reflect on one particular memory that you cherish of you and your grandmother?
I remember whenever we would drive home after school, she would always be gardening. Always. We would help her when we were older, when we could actually do things. We didn’t ever like, destroy a plant, but we would always fear it, and she would always be so peaceful. When I was ten years old and gardening with her, I thought, “Man, this fucking sucks! I’m sweating a lot! I don’t want to be doing this!” (laughter). But she loved it, she would talk to the plants. That’s something I always think of. She truly loved doing that, it was her thing. I truly love playing music, I think she felt the same way about gardening that I feel about playing music.
That always happens. Three of my grandparents have died, and I wish that I cherished the moments I had with them more. When you say that you should have asked your grandmother more about her time in the internment camp, I felt similarly about my maternal grandfather. He had a rough life growing up too, and I just wish I took the time to ask about those sort of things.
Its hard. When we’re younger—we’re adults now—but when we’re younger, we think time is on our side. I thought my grandma would be around forever—“I’ll just ask next year!”—but then life happens. Like with this whole Coronavirus thing, who would have thought this would happen last year. I’d made plans to record this, to get that fixed, but nope! Not anymore! (laughter).
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
I am turning 33 in April.
Nice, I’m 27.
Oh, you’re young, man (laughs)! You’re doing well for 27!
I suppose! (laughs). You were saying that it was a struggle pursuing music as a career. It’s an interesting thing to deal with because it goes along with what your grandmother wanted for you. Our parents don’t want us to struggle financially, and they don’t see being a musician as something as financially stable. I’m a high school teacher but I was initially going to be a dentist, and when I decided to switch careers, there was a whole thing there.
They must have been pretty displeased, huh?
There were moments when I felt like they didn’t want me to do anything beyond the stereotypical, financially secure jobs that Asian-Americans have, but I was clearly getting more and more depressed, so they eased into the idea of me changing careers—they realized they just wanted me to be happy.
That’s great man, that’s better than a lot of other stories I’ve heard. That’s great to hear, fuck yeah!
Photo by Praveen Collins
Was it a difficult thing to talk about with your parents?
This is the first year that they haven’t given me any shit, or asked me when I was going to quit or stop. I guess after 32 years they finally got it. It was hard growing up! I wanted to major in saxophone in college, but they were not down. I did music therapy instead, which was great. I always played, when I got a full time job I would play at night, play at rehearsal. Even when I had a full time job they would always say, “Relax! Why are you doing this?” Some of my music is on the louder side, and my dad would always say, “Why is it so loud? Why don’t you play something prettier?” And I would say, “I don’t know dad, it’s just what comes out of me!”
But I think over the past several years I’ve been really lucky. Me and my close musical colleagues, Dylan Fujioka and Paco Casanova, got to play at the Monument series at MOCA. I invited my parents to come, because it was an environment they could understand—it wasn’t some shitty bar or smelly DIY venue. Last year I opened for Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Ace Theatre, and they came to that. It was a huge venue, and I think they saw that I wasn’t doing that bad, or that I wasn’t that big of a fuck up or something, so that was nice. It was nice for them to be there and to be a little more supportive than in the past.
That’s usually what it takes. They need to see something established for them to start committing.
Yeah, I understand that they gave me the shit that did because they didn’t want me to struggle and all of that. But it was a struggle. I definitely felt like stopping sometimes, but that would have turned me into a different person.
You said you did music therapy, did I hear that right?
Yes, that’s correct.
Do you have a job as a music therapist? Is that what you currently do?
Not right now, I did right out of college. I worked at a non-profit in Santa Ana, primarily with children with autism. I moved back to L.A. and after a couple of years but the commute was just too brutal so I changed jobs. I’m working in San Marino now. I don’t think the population there is into extracurricular therapies, so I’m not doing that anymore, unfortunately. I’m still working with children with special needs, but not in therapy. I’m teaching them piano now.
You give lessons on the side?
What was it like working in music therapy?
We did six month internships at different sites to complete our degree in college. They were all completely different populations—there were hospices, children with special care, psychiatric care. They would place you in them so you could figure out what you wanted to do. I connected with the children with special needs because they just have that energy. I worked primarily in group settings, divided into age groups. There would be groups of six kids from ages six to nine, a smaller group of teens, groups of older adults. They would all be on the same level as far as functioning, so you could hit the same goals with all the clients.
I was recently in a workshop for teachers—there were 30 of us—and we went around in a circle doing what I’m going to ask you to do in a second. It was nice to do this because it’s so easy to get jaded and frustrated in the profession, and I’m sure it would’ve been the same for you in those environments. Can you share one person that you really liked working with during your time in music therapy?
When I was doing my internship, my supervisor really taught me a lot. At the beginning I shadowed her, and I eventually took over the sessions, and became their therapeutic arts coordinator. Actually, where I work now, she’s still my boss. I dedicated the last track of Descension to two people, and one of them is Sisilia’s daughter. The other person is the son of my bandmate Paul Lai. That whole record is—you know, I was definitely sad and angry, but that last track is hopeful. I wanted to dedicate it to those two because I think that there’s a future, and even though things are really shitty right now, I really believe that the next generation is going to pick us up and help things get better. Those two are just super bright.
That's exactly how I feel when I’m with my students, I’m really hopeful about the next generation—they’re really doing shit, they’re really passionate. Can you talk about Eye for an Eye? What was the goal you had for that album?
That was recorded on a sopranino saxophone, which I just got maybe a year before recording it. I wanted to get one for a long time, and I finally did before the recording session for Borasisi, an album I did with Alex Cline, Dylan Fujioka and Vinny Golia. Vinny is a huge hero of mine, he has like a thousand different woodwind instruments. Before I bought it I went over and played a couple of his. Before that I said to myself “You know, if I don’t get one I’ll be fine,” but after I played his I was just like, “Fuck! This is awesome!” And then I discovered Jon Irabagon, who did a solo record on the sopranino saxophone, really heavy on the techniques. It’s crazy that between the alto and the tenor there are completely different things you can achieve and develop. So Eye for an Eye was me trying to expand and develop a language on that instrument that’s different than on the other horns I play.
How do you decide on what horn you want to use, or is it more of an instinctual thing? Like, do those different types of saxophones mean something different to you? Do you feel you can achieve different things with them?
The one I feel most connected to would definitely be the alto. I feel like I can express myself 100 percent on that instrument. There is something about the timbre and the way it reacts to or with me—it’s just the one. The tenor I play the least. I waited a long time to play the tenor on any solo record, Descension is the first one I played on tenor. I feel like a lot of heavyweights play tenor, and I felt intimidated, so I finally got the courage to do that—the title is a play on John Coltrane’s Ascension. I’ve grown to like the tenor a lot more: I’ve been taking it to a lot of different improv settings, and can get some cool things out of it that I can’t get out of the alto. I’ve been exploring it more, am less intimidated by it, and am able to move around with it like I’ve never been able to before.
You have several collaborative works, what do you enjoy about being in a group setting and doing an improvisational session?
First I want to say that I’m super lucky to be able to play with different people not only in L.A., but also in different states, and even globally. Playing with everyone is different. It makes it exciting, I get to listen to what they’re doing and react. A lot of times when reacting to other musicians, I’ll play something that I’ve never done before that will lead to something I can develop further on my own. Playing with Noel Meek, who uses electronics, is a completely different experience than playing with Tashi Dorji, who’s on guitar. Tashi plays really physically, while Noel plays physically but in a completely different way. They’re accenting completely different frequencies, which influences how I’ll play with them in the moment. It’s great playing in larger settings, too. I’m in a tentet now called Danketsu 10 and being able to choose when to dive in, when to not and just enjoy what everyone is doing. Sometimes I don’t even play for ten minutes, just feeling like, “Damn, this is dope.”
Photo by Olivia Hemaratanatorn
Is there any particular skill or technique that you learned from collaborating with others?
The collaborative element has caused me to to branch out more than I ever would have on my own. I started in a progressive rock setting before moving onto an improvisational setting. I went from playing as many notes as possible and filling all the space to what I’m doing now. I got the chance to play a piece by Radu Malfatti, which is the complete opposite of what I was doing before. It’s completely different. It took me a little while to grasp it when I got the piece, and it was great being able to perform it for him and get his notes and everything.
Did you specifically ask him for notes or did he give them to you?
I didn’t ask him. I have a really good friend, Andrew Choate, who produces the Unwrinkled Ear concert series in L.A., along with Peter Kolovos’s Black Editions. For Andrew’s book release, I believe he was in Europe with Radu. He said he wanted to have a book release party over here in L.A., and he told Radu he wanted him to compose something and for me to perform. It was a huge honor.
What notes did he write?
I only got the score, so before I performed it I sent a recording of it and sent it back to him with a bunch of questions. At the very end I recorded the piece in full and sent it to him, and he was very kind. He definitely gave me his thoughts. At first I wanted to see if I could do multiphonics and things within the piece, and he responded saying, “No, I just want one sound.” (laughter).
The title of the piece is Benkyou, which in Japanese means homework. He wanted it to be more like a study on sound than an exploration of extended techniques. Even when I performed it in front of it he (chuckles) there were some traces of air before the note spoke and he would say, “Yeah, I wasn’t down with that. I liked the space, and it was a good performance, but some of those notes I did not enjoy.” At first when he was telling me, I was kind of heartbroken, thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I did a shitty performance of your piece in front of you!” But I’m really glad that he told me. I’m going to try to record a version of it to send to him to release on his label. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m going to try to get a softer reed and get different fingerings out so the note immediately speaks and that he’s happy with it.
That’s funny, I can totally imagine him saying that. He’s also very kind, yeah—he contacted me a few years ago. We conversed via email and he was super nice. But I can see why he would be averse to anything that isn’t, like, simple notes left to ring out.
And that’s part of his charm, too (laughter).
For the cover of Benkyou, you have a picture of your mom and brothers. What was the reasoning behind using that as the cover?
Growing up she was the one that definitely made me and my brother do our homework. She wanted to make sure we had good grades and everything. She’s been super supportive in my development as a human and as a musician. I know she doesn’t like the music that I make per se, but she definitely does give it the time and she’ll listen and say, “Oh yeah, that’s pretty good!” I try and give her a copy of all my releases, and whenever she gets them she doesn’t just say, “That’s great” and throw them into a pile and ask when I’m going to quit. So I just wanted to show my appreciation, in a way. I definitely hope to have her— actually, she recited some poetry on my solo record Sparrow’s Tongue, I was nervous about that but I think it turned out beautifully.
Does she write poetry?
She doesn’t, but my grandfather would write tankas all the time. He actually published five books. His name is Inoue Seiji—he’s not huge or anything, that’s just what he loved to do. He was a doctor and in his spare time he would write poetry. I asked my mom if she could recite his tankas for these pieces I was going to do, and she wasn’t really down at first (laughter) but she did. I recorded her and spliced them into the recordings of that record.
That’s sweet. I'm happy she did it.
Me too, me too.
Can you talk to me about Long Day and what it was like recording with Daniel Wyche and Ted Byrnes? What did y’all want to do with that particular record?
It was a super organic experience! It was actually the first time recording with both Daniel and Ted, as well as actually meeting Daniel in person. I’ve of course heard and seen Ted perform around L.A. several times but I’ve only heard Daniel’s music via cassettes since he’s based in Chicago. Daniel was actually coming to visit family who lives in L.A. and he hit us up about playing a show and recording some material. We only had a few days to work with but we thankfully figured everything out.
The incredible Jared Rodriguez was down to engineer the session last minute and we were able to set up a show with our good friend and amazing curator Stephen Buono, with Doctor9 and Brandon Seabrook, who was also in town. But in order for both things to happen, they ended up being on the same day, hence the title. I had work from 8-5, then drove to Jared’s studio where we set up and recorded, then drove to the show and played our set. Even though we had limited time at the studio, it didn’t feel rushed at all and it was wonderful how quickly we clicked and settled into a vibe right from the get-go. We’re super lucky to have Nate and Astral Spirits support this record too as the three of us have had records—from other projects—released by them.
I know you play a lot of instruments. You played drums on the Doctor9 album, you played guitar on the tape that American Damage released. What other instruments do you play besides saxophones, and what leads you to play them when you do?
I play a bit of drums, I have a degree in classical guitar performance, but I rarely play it. I feel there are so many other guitarists that play better than me and have their own voice, you know? So I definitely don’t play it that much. I do play a Rhodes, a bit of piano, that I play in Upsilon Acrux. That’s about it, there are some toys and sound makers also. I’m trying to learn flute and clarinet right now, it's very difficult (laughter).
So you’re not playing classical guitar because there are so many accomplished guitarists with distinct styles. That goes along with what you were saying about why you didn’t want to play the tenor. If you were to describe your own style, the voice that you have in your own playing, how would you describe it?
Man, I think I’m still trying to achieve that. That is my goal, to be able to have something, a style or a voice on saxophone where someone could hear it and say, “That’s Patrick.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to achieve that, but it’s something I want to get close to.
Are there specific ideas that you try to pursue in order to obtain that, or is that something you don’t really think about?
That’s a good question. I try not to think about it, I try to have it be as organic as possible. I think at the beginning, playing was a lot of trying to mimic and copy, trying to figure things out. I’m sure that leaks into my playing now. I’m sure there are some Evan Parker-like things that I try to do on soprano—things that are unintentionally there. I hope to one day have a set vocabulary and a voice unique to myself.
You’ll do it man, you’re good. It’s a constantly developing thing of course, even if you “get there,” it’s always evolving. What are some of your personal favorite albums? And these can be albums that influenced you, or albums in general that broadened your understanding of experimental music, or anything you’re into right now.
(pauses). I’m not going to think about it too much, but here are five albums I’ve been listening to heavily—these are recent favorites rather than all-time:
Kaoru Abe - Partitas
John Coltrane - Ascension
Kan Mikami - Live at Cafe Oto
Harry Pussy - Untitled (Tour)
Ruins - Mandala 2000
From bottom left, moving clockwise: Patrick Shiroishi’s brother, his mom, and Shiroishi himself; Shiroishi, his paternal grandmother, and his brother; Shiroishi’s parents, himself, and his brother; Shiroishi’s mom, auntie, brother, and himself. Photos courtesy of Shiroishi.
Earlier you said your mom has been supportive and has helped you grow as a person. Can you name a particular way in which she’s done that?
My mom, my dad, my aunt—they’ve always been very nurturing and sweet to me. Even though there are times when they’re super strict, they’ve always been compassionate. I’ve seen all three of them do that. They were never cruel to anyone. My aunt would always put other people before her. My dad consistently busted his ass to make sure that our family had food to eat. He would drive over an hour to Irvine just to work. My mom would help us with everything, whether it be school work… just always showing that she loved us. I’m very lucky that they brought us up the way they did—my brother and myself. It allows me to be able to express other things in music that I feel like I wouldn’t be able to express otherwise.
What do you mean by that?
Well, let’s say, if they didn’t treat me well, and I had a lot of anger or hate towards them, I would be making music that would be filled with, like, “Fuck you mom, fuck you dad!” (laughter). Instead I can talk about inequalities Japanese-American people went through, or that children are going through, or about these concentration camps that are still popping up—that’s fucked up!
I feel you. They provided you a life where you could go from receiving their love and go forward, expressing it outwards.
Yes, you said that much more eloquently than me (laughter). But that’s it, that’s exactly what I wanted to say. If you could edit my answer and slide that in, that’d be great.
Dude, I’m going to include this entire thing! (laughter). I like the rawness of your answer.
OK, word. (laughs).
Tone Glow Mix
Every now and then, artists will provide a mix personally made for Tone Glow. Mixes will always be available for streaming and download.
Cover art by Henry Barajas
This mix was inspired by my hometown, Los Angeles, and the incredible musicians in the scene here. I’ve known each of these humans for many years and have been lucky enough to collaborate/work with them all… in many ways they’ve helped shape me to become the musician I am today. I’ve never publicly shared a mix before, but I hope you enjoy and discover some new music from our experimental scene.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
Abe Kaoru - Partitas (Nadja, 1981)
Everything about saxophonist Abe Kaoru’s short life would lead you to believe that his music is all blistering noise and nothing else. In Soejima Teruto’s Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History, Abe is detailed as being ego-driven and hostile, combative with both audience members and the musicians he performed alongside on stage. Jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita invited Abe to perform with him multiple times but stopped after a while. A reason was provided by his manager: “The trio’s members all want to play with [Abe], but he ignores them and goes off on his own tear.” Even more interesting is a brief anecdote in which Abe called Soejima on the phone, wondering if “it was possible to kill a person with sound.”
While Abe’s music is certainly fiery, one’s listening experience isn’t going to be akin to that of blistering European free jazz. There’s a scene in Endless Waltz, the Abe biopic starring punk legend Machida Kou and directed by pink-film extraordinaire Wakamatsu Koji, in which Haino Keiji talks about Abe. “My father is Eric Dolphy, my mother is Billie Holiday,” Abe would say all the time, at least according to Haino. And truly, you can sense Dolphy’s lyrical tendencies in Abe’s playing. You can hear it in Partitas, a solo album recorded in 1973. Across four long tracks, Abe improvises on his alto sax, oscillating between the strikingly beautiful and thoughtfully acerbic. It almost feels as if he’s hesitant to allow the listener to get too comfortable, ensuring that any passage with pretty melodies is soon met with atonal skronks.
I keep thinking about a quote that appears early on in Endless Waltz: “It’s in ugliness that one can find truth. I only believe in ugly things.” In listening to Partitas, it’s this contrast of “ugly” and “pretty” that allows for a better appreciation of the music as a whole: both styles of playing reveal themselves to be elegant and unpleasant, broadening our understanding of what music can hold such descriptors. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Download links have been removed upon request.
Mikami Kan - Jo-You (P.S.F. Records, 1992)
In Mikami Kan’s autobiography, A Life in Folk (and other bitter songs…), the longstanding Japanese singer-songwriter writes, “When I turned forty I felt like I was twenty again.” Mikami hadn’t written much music during the ’80s, and he finally felt like he “wanted to try something new” at this point. You can consequently hear a change happening throughout his early ’90s records, though it should be noted that Mikami’s discography is sonically more diverse than it lets on. Jo-You is short and to the point: nine songs of bluesy electric guitar playing and impassioned vocals. Most pleasure—as is the case with his best work—is derived from the simplicity and rawness of presentation; it’s like we’re watching him performing in a small dark room, a small ray of light shining on him alone.
Mikami says that his career was largely “an attempt to catch up to and surpass [his] real master, Terayama Shuji.” Terayama had apparently once told him, “You may have been successful as a singer, but as a poet, you have left a lot of things undone.” Frankly, I don’t understand Japanese and can’t speak to the lyrics, but I can attest that the primary reason Mikami’s music has always appealed to me was his evocative vocalizing: He wails, he howls, he sounds like he’s experienced all that life has to offer—sometimes, that’s enough. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Download links have been removed upon request.
Patrick Shiroishi - Sparrow’s Tongue (Fort Evil Fruit, 2018)
Perhaps it’s expected given the title and inclusion of tankas, but Sparrow’s Tongue is one of Patrick Shiroishi’s most poetic records. It feels that way because of his tasteful use of restraint across these five tracks. The opener begins with his mother reciting a tanka amidst the sound of insects, the serenity with which she speaks coloring one’s impression of Shiroishi’s wistful sax melodies. “Grasshopper Tactics” is even prettier: it begins with some chimes and airy blowing before bubbling into fuller notes. Soon, the sound of chanting and percussion is heard to grant the piece a homey ambience. Even “The Crocodile’s Dilemma,” the most tumultuous track here, has a surprising meditative quality to it. It’s a short album, but it feels perfect for the stillness of early mornings—Lord knows I need something to keep me from going back to bed. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Longform Editions 13 (2020)
For this week’s issue of Tone Glow, our writer panel tackles all four of Longform Edition’s recent albums. You can stream every album on Longform Editions’s Bandcamp.
Press release info: Longform Editions 13 presents four new immersive listening experiences. Featuring Atlanta’s Shy Layers first foray into ambience, Penelope Trappes’ enveloping atmospherics, environmental music from Japan’s Inoyama Land and guitar and percussion as dreamstate collage by Ruven Nunez. Through these artists’ diverse approaches within the infinite possibilities of sound, we hope Longform Editions can create positivity, connection and inspiration within our digital space. Take time.
Shy Layers - Composition for Loud Magic (Longform Editions, 2020)
Matthew Blackwell: JD Walsh’s previous work as Shy Layers was a sort of hangover from the neo-Balearic music that peaked in 2015 and now sounds utterly naïve and vacuous (through no fault of the producers; it’s just that we’re living in a hellscape). His first two albums got approving nods from Pitchfork and the like, but could never hold my attention—sturdy, catchy pop tunes just can’t compete these days (again, the hellscape). So when I saw that Shy Layers was invited to contribute to Longform Editions’s series of extended pieces, I expected a sunny mix in the vein of CFCF, perhaps with some of Walsh’s vocodered vocals lazily stretching out over top.
Luckily, this is not the case. Walsh submitted a piece designed as a sound installation accompanying Sonja Yong James’s sculpture show Loud Magic. Just as James crafts incongruous materials together into fanciful shapes, so does Walsh pair elements that would seemingly be at odds but miraculously mesh. Gritty found sounds coexist with lovely modular synth improvisations to create a shifting piece that has distinct movements but no identifiable trajectory. And it doesn’t need much trajectory, as you can wander in and out of the music as if you were exploring different spaces in a gallery. At one moment, piercingly clear synth tones inhabit the entire field; in the next, manipulated field recordings thrum and judder, and how we got from one to the other is irretrievable and ultimately unimportant. Walsh is an incredibly gifted producer, as is obvious from the quality of sound on his pop-oriented output. Here, freed from the constraints of the 4-minute tune, he is given full rein to explore sound design to other ends. More work of this quality in this direction and I suspect fans will soon identify Walsh as a producer who sometimes writes pop songs, rather than a songwriter with unusually good production.
Raphael Helfand: JD Walsh’s newest project as Shy Layers is far removed from anything we’ve heard the Atlanta-based artist try before. His first two albums are adventures in pop collage, fusing sounds from Ghanaian highlife, Ethiopian jazz, krautrock and ‘80s R&B. But on Composition for Loud Magic, he abandons all that and goes ambient. The single 27-minute track, initially written to accompany an exhibition of work by sculptor Sonya Young James, is a study in subtle scene-painting. Though Walsh claims the piece was meant to be “looped and happened upon in a non-linear fashion,” its elegant structure is one of its best assets. It’s beautifully paced, methodically making its way across four seamless movements.
Walsh starts out with bleak found percussion that dissolves into a chorus of plucked strings and synths, rising and falling in dynamics and density, from slow single notes to racing arpeggios. The found sounds slowly reenter and soon become central. The textured, consonant harmonies persist, creating the sort of intangible sonder that an Atticus Ross score does, but with a much lighter hand. Gently, they guide our interpretations of what we hear above them—rainfall, birds departing from trees en masse, hydraulic breaks, horse hooves on pavement. Or maybe none of these. The beauty of Walsh’s technique is the disparate associations it can produce.
The moments of emotional resonance created by these convergences of harmony and recorded tape are the project’s finest points. When one disappears, the other falls flat. In a long middle section of purely percussive elements, the piece meanders. And near the end, when the field recordings fade and a 4/4 pulse emerges and lingers, some of the mystique disappears. But these false notes are few. Walsh’s hand is strong but non-invasive throughout, letting Composition for Loud Magic proceed organically without straying too far from meaning.
Eli Schoop: I’ve listened to Composition for Loud Magic three times and cannot make sense of it. There’s clearly an air of differentiation and restlessness, buoyed by JD Walsh’s abstract interests, but the personality is not there. Elements of electroacoustics, field recordings, and percussive timbres all participate in the record with a spattering of synthesizer to balance out the meditation. It is music to get lost in, not music to make sense of. Yet, it feels impersonal, almost split into a triad of concepts unbecoming of each other, maybe befitting a tai chi instructional video, but not for repeated listening in the spirit of entertainment. Ambient music is often designed to be function over form, but by the end of Composition For Loud Magic, I felt functionally the same.
Tara Wrist: There is a sense of pleasantly unearned surprise that greets my ears each time I take a stroll through Composition for Loud Magic and take in its gentle orchestrations. I feel like some strange vegetal mischief is unfurling up from the cool ground beneath my wandering stride. Loud Magic is, aptly, a fairly loud collection of sensory details that echo within the walls of any room they might carry an audience into: hesitant, sampled string-plucks and scraped-together bird squall that skate across insistent, intermittent drumbeats, bolstered by shimmery electronic pulses that wink in the background of the mix like distant sirens before manifesting in a thrumming, throbbing simplicity that harmonizes with synthetic strings towards the track’s climactic movement. The best kinds of magic are less rituals for creating, and more a way to embolden the world into unexpected forms of remembering. No one walks out of a fairy ring unchanged, but they don’t change themselves without walking through one, first; Shy Layers says he made this for a space meant to be walked through, and I did enjoy the changing perspective I walked my way into through it.
Gil Sansón: Composition for Loud Magic makes its intentions clear from the onset: The notion of ambient here takes on an aspect of ritual, in which elemental yet nondescript folk signifiers are filtered through vintage analogue synthesizers and the sensibilities associated with them. The music has an element of storytelling, connecting the mystical to both sounds and places. The melodic weight is carried by what sounds like a koto, briefly rising to the surface of water before going under again. At times, there's someone whistling a few tones, almost casually so. Eventually, these sort of reveries give way to the ritual exploration of plucked sounds and metallic bangs heard from afar, so carefully placed, in fact, that the ambient tag starts to stretch enough that we get close to contemporary and avant-garde composition. When the synthesizer returns, it feels so different from what came before it that, again, the genre is stretched; this suite of distinct yet conceptually connected sounds is the bread and butter of prog rock and spacy krautrock. The similarities end there, though. We get a series of moments in time, of memories of previous events. It's quirky and engaging: The outdoors are a place in which magic happens naturally, and JD Walsh contrasts these moments with those in which magic needs to be conjured by ritual.
Purchase Composition for Loud Magic on Bandcamp.
Penelope Trappes - Gnostic State (Longform Editions, 2020)
Samuel McLemore: Longform editions continues its honorable practice of asking the artists on its roster to challenge not only the prospective listener, but also themselves, cultivating the audience’s ability to deeply and contemplatively listen while simultaneously stoking new methodologies and practices in the musicians. It’s one of the more outwardly ambitious music labels around, and any release they put out is more than worthy of a second glance. We see this handily at work in Penelope Trappes’s newest solo release Gnostic State, a cadaverous wisp of an album in the best tradition of the dark side of ambient such as Lustmord or Zoviet France, but with a sound design that deftly utilizes the advances made in production technology and field recordings since the heyday of industrial ambient in the 1980s.
Gnostic State presents a welcome departure from any pop influence Trappes has previously shown as a member of synthpop also-rans The Golden Filter and her own considerably more fractured solo releases. Trappes creates a beautifully textured collage of reverbed-out synths, loops of delicately placed field recordings, and all sorts of other perfectly timed instrumental flourishes. Made over a single day, Gnostic State manages to avoid the sense of poured over fiddling almost inherent in a studio-bound genre by structuring the piece as a casual suite, moving from section to section with enough grace and subtlety that its true nature doesn’t appear unless you sit quietly with the volume on high. In this way, Trappes is almost entirely successful in her project: deep listening is not only encouraged, but almost a prerequisite to enjoyment. Listened to in a less attentive manner, it becomes a grey mush, a puddle of unappealing tone colors that lack clarity and definition. But if you take the time to listen, the surf hitting the shore can become your rhythm, a raven cawing in the sky can form a bass note, and a simple well-timed whoosh can make your hair stand up.
Ashley Bardhan: A “gnostic state” is achieved by entering another realm of consciousness, one where the clamor of your thoughts are exchanged for a deep focus on one single goal. Or maybe a single desire. Whatever you want. You can reach gnosis through drugs, yoga, sex, or anything else, really, as long as it pushes you out of your body and into your head and the things that exist beyond that. Penelope Trappes’s 25-minute “Gnostic State” has all the ineffable, strange confidence of gnosis except it’s made of sounds, not feelings.
It does some expected things for an ambient song of this length, like sprawl rather than build, preventing the listener from completely zoning out by making small changes here and there—was that a baby’s voice? Someone else’s breath? It kind of sounds like a white noise machine or a television left on while it’s static. Things move, but not really. You often hear someone exhaling, the song’s method of displaying a small sign of life. Between the flatness of the occasional drone and the dustiness of the song’s constant crackling, the exhale is less of a grounding force and more of a reminder that you are here and might be for a long time. It’s like a pressed flower, suspended by a moment. It does what it needs to do.
Jonathan Williger: The first time I listened to Gnostic State I fell asleep within the first five minutes. The waves of pink noise were somehow both remarkably heavy and barely there, and it felt like I was being submerged in pure warmth. While I was under, I could hear the surges of bass barely enter my conscious mind. It was more a physical sensation than a mental one, and I felt everything swirl and fall away as I fell deeper into oblivion. When I woke up I was stunned at the relative silence of the buzz of my refrigerator, the sound of my cat’s paws as she moved across the floor. My sleeping mind had become accustomed to the dense, distant sounds that underpin the piece, and their absence was jarring. I listened to it while I was awake a few times too, but none of those experiences had the same overwhelming effect as that blissful, narcotic first encounter.
Jesse Locke: Gnostic State is a successful stress test for the music of Penelope Trappes. While the Australian artist has long worked in experimental idioms, earning comparisons to Leyland Kirby, Grouper, and Julee Cruise for her atmospheric, abstracted pop songs, this is the first time I’ve heard her stretch out for a continual duration as long as 25 minutes, and the results are enjoyably enveloping. Recorded in a single day, her Longform Editions release begins with a misty layer of breath—reminiscent of the works of Ian William Craig—cross-fading into sparse, humming synths, and the repeated shaken sound of what may be a rainstick or spray paint nozzle. The cooing cries and burbles of a child return midway through, before Trappes integrates a softly tapped metallophone that unconsciously brought my mind to the terror-inducing teacup and spoon hypnosis techniques of Catherine Keener in Get Out. In the final moments of her mesmerism, Trappes’s voice re-emerges with an intensity that’s both sinister and familiar, beckoning us into the sunken place.
Purchase Gnostic State on Bandcamp.
Inoyama Land - Fuku-Ura (Longform Editions, 2020)
Sunik Kim: I have to make the inevitable comparison: why is this so much less arresting than Hiroshi Yoshimura’s best work? Initially I wanted to give up and say Yoshimura’s work is better ‘just because’—on a surface level, lots of this stuff is indistinguishable, so it’s definitely tempting to assign ‘quality’ to something intangible or inexplicable. But when so little separates the best ambient from Spotify Relaxation schlock, subtle details are key.
After a few listens to Fuku-Ura and some of my favorite Yoshimura, I think I’ve figured it out: Fuku-Ura plods forward one steady note at a time, rarely breaking from a strict tempo—it sounds mechanical, like a music box cranked at half speed. Yoshimura admittedly sometimes works with straight-ahead rhythms (“Creek”), but when he does, his notes move more rapidly, creating a vibrant, shimmering effect rather than a lethargic one. And Yoshimura’s very best work unfurls in tempo-less pockets of melody that flicker here and there (“Time after Time”)—his music reflects the constantly shifting ebbs and flows of time (probably something many of us are feeling right now), whereas Fuku-Ura just sounds like an immaculately-constructed clock ticking the seconds away. More importantly, Yoshimura’s work brings me to tears; Fuku-Ura doesn’t come close.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I get pissed off during the first few minutes of Fuku-Ura. Those quarter-note synth tones, incessantly loping around with such knowing insouciance—they’re too sure of themselves. The rigid melodies prove maddening; more a cruel taunt than anything soothing. The eventual evolution to free-flowing ambience is necessary: it provides a bridge between the more inflexible passages, slowly leading me to succumb to the cutesy bliss. Given its length and charming sound, Fuku-Ura most recalls Inoyama Land’s Medi Music Series Self Control Music releases. But this piece does something that none of their works has ever done: it justifies and transforms my hatred for it into bitter appreciation—without fail, with every listen.
Marshall Gu: The museums are closed today. They were closed yesterday, and they’ll be closed for the foreseeable future. The music for the slime mold exhibit stops playing, and the pathologist comes in once a week to care for them in uneasy quiet. Inoyama Land’s Makoto Inoue and Yasushi Yamashita head to the island, recording the small wind breezing through the chimes by the botanic gardens’ welcome centre, the birds flying overhead, the calm of the water.
Though Fuku-Ura is a single track spanning close to 30 minutes, it’s easily broken down into smaller sections as the music ebbs and flows; the back-and-forth of the opening keyboard line giving way to the rise-and-fall of the waves and the morning birds, and a more playful keyboard section in the middle. Near the end of the track, the original melody is reintroduced, a suggestion that maybe we can go back to the city. Back to our jobs, back to museums, back to normal. Until then, quiet mornings out here are nourishment enough.
Jordan Reyes: The best Inoyama Land compositions have a graceful, melodic simplicity that begs the listener to get lost inside. Fuku-Ura does this. I should preface this critique by saying that I love this project—the Japanese duo makes the kind of music that legitimately puts me at rest, and that functional listening experience is something I value highly.
Inoyama Land draw from the sonic palette of Japanese environmental music, but melody has clear precedence in their material. Fuku-Ura begins with two melodic sequences played in tandem. One meanders up and down a scale as the other produces five lithe notes that shape into a peaceful cascade in notes two through five. These two motifs largely defines the twenty-nine minute composition, even as they comes and go between sections of the song—at times they are affected, and at others fade away. Different melodies and percussion enter into the composition, but even when those two motifs can’t be heard, they’re rarely far from thought.
Like other practitioners of environmental music, Inoyama Land include natural sounds like the cawing of gulls, the chirping of songbirds, a lulling ocean wave, wind-induced percussion. Inoyama Land excel at connecting their music to the natural world, instilling patience and calm. Fuku-Ura shows that the Earth’s recurring phenomena—its tides, light, birth, maturation—are wonderful to experience even at their most cyclical.
Shy Thompson: Brian Eno said of ambient music that it "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." I consume ambient music voraciously and in every imaginable context, and I've considered this Eno quote a core tenet for a long time. I've lived with Inoyama Land for years, and I can remember what I was doing when I heard most of their music. I remember lying down on my bed with my eyes closed on my first listen of Danzindan-Pojidon, trying not to think about an overdue rent payment; I remember discussing their self-titled album in a group chat with friends, exclaiming in capital letters about every phrase and flourish; and I remember tuning out the first few tracks of the Collecting Net compilation while playing a video game because I heard most of the tracks on it already, before the dervishes of "The Great Raven" fully grabbed my attention. These aren't particularly dear memories, but they do persist in my mind, and that's because the music has given me an anchor point to remember them. I not only remember the music, but the way I engaged with it.
In the week or so I've lived with Fuku-Ura, I've let it become the soundtrack to a range of experiences. I've listened to it while filing my taxes, while sleeping, while writing, and while doing nothing at all. I've given it my full attention at times, and virtually none of it at others. I've had it on in a moment where I was proud of something that I accomplished, and at a miserable point right after a huge argument with a close friend. Each time, the music gave me the room to take as much or as little as I felt like I needed. The open and airy melodies feel accomodating to my moods, rather than suggestive of one. The interspersed field recordings of birds and flowing water and the textural sounds of rattling bells and chimes are there if I want to listen more deeply, but don't nag me for my attention. What I appreciate most about Inoyama Land is that what sticks in my mind is how I choose to experience their music. I don't mind if ambient music is moody or wants my attention on occasion, but I sometimes just want it to be friendly. Fuku-Ura has been my considerate roommate. A comforting presence in the room, even if we don't always have anything to talk about.
Purchase Fuku-Ura on Bandcamp.
Ruven Nunez - Within Dreams, Without Dreams (Longform Editions, 2020)
Vanessa Ague: “Deep listening” is the buzzword by which Longform Editions operates—a phrase too often corporatized by the continual search for monetizable wellness. But its origins stem from composer Pauline Oliveros, who sought musical experiences that ask us to hear the depth that exists around us, to think more profoundly about the music we consume. Through Within Dreams, Without Dreams, guitarist Ruven Nunez abides by these tenets: his placid music provides moments where listening intensely illuminates a more extensive transcendence.
Nunez is in pursuit of the sublime in music-making, shrouding us in dreamy licks and hazy atmospheres that embrace the ethereal potential of simplicity. On Within Dreams, Without Dreams, he ebbs and flows between gentle, melodic repetition and mysterious, dissonant sound, creating a freeform track that wanders through a seamless series of melodic landscapes. A simultaneous feeling of warmth and isolation clouds the music; small, sometimes unsettling details pierce the undulating themes to evade complacency. Perhaps the most compelling moments are these discordant melodies that eschew passive listening for deeper understanding, appearing most prominently at the beginning and end. It’s all too easy to hear the piece’s overtly melodic sections, made of repeating, descending rolled chords that call to mind algorithmic “calm listening” playlists, as uninspiring. But Nunez overcomes this monotony by infusing dissonant textures, creating an uncertainty within the tranquility. The result is a consistently surprising journey into a realm of hypnotic sound.
Mark Cutler: Nunez describes his album as a collage assembled over several years. Accordingly, Within Dreams, Without Dreams shifts decisively from mood to mood repeatedly over its relatively brief runtime. The album’s sense of aimless procession reminds me of many of the spaced out cassettes that proliferated on labels like Night People and Not Not Fun in the ’00s. The first two passages are quite lovely: we open on what sound like gently rattling wind chimes, which yield to a beautiful and vaguely mournful melody played on a zither. From here, the music progresses through a string of new-agey and world-musicy riffs. These, unfortunately, can tend toward cliché. There’s everything from harp and bells to etherial synth and echoey, pedalled-out guitar. Yet the overall effect is pleasant and occasionally shiver-inducing, in an ASMRy kind of way.
The album really comes into its own when it enters what we might call its ‘deep sleep.’ The instruments give way to low, rumbling drones, scraping wires, and digital chirps reminiscent of a forest full of insects. The mood is ominous, even sinister, as sheets of metallic noise seem to sweep across our mental landscape. It is effective both as a counterpoint and denouement to everything which comes before, giving the whole composition perhaps a greater sense of momentum than it deserves.
Jeff Brown: Within Dreams, Without Dreams begins with percussion, drifting slowly to create a bobbing ebb and flow. Gentle metallic chimes ring, the minimal haze they conjure like mist hanging above water. It feels as if you’re traveling in a small boat and the plucks of harp are clearing the air, opening your view. Instruments soon fade as an acoustic guitar lays a meditative passage that’s soon joined by sonorous singing bowls. Cymbals eventually usher in the sound of rolling thunder thunder; it’s like being pulled from a trance, moving from dream into reality.
Ryo Miyauchi: There’s something suspicious about the stillness of Within Dreams, Without Dreams. Initially, the track seems to brush off any sense of unease that lingers from the dead air; repetitious guitar melodies slowly give way to a flowery pasture of chimes and drones. That stillness was only a prelude to tranquility, it wants to suggest, yet the piece starts to grow more unsettling once those bright sounds fade and the void creeps back to fill the in-between spaces with invisible noise. My suspicions are proven right when the familiar sounds grow more dissonant—the haunting void overwhelms the final moments as it’s given a physical shape, like that of an icy gust of wind. The comfort preceding it now seems like a mirage, any remnants of it chipped away by the dense noise. It was almost better to just play along and bask in its prettiness a little longer.
Purchase Within Dreams, Without Dreams on Bandcamp.
Our writers do more than just write for this newsletter! Occasionally, we’ll highlight things we’ve done that we’d love for you to check out.
Still from Macunaíma (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1969)
For Mariana Timony’s newsletter, The Weird Girls Post, a dozen Tone Glow writers reflected on how quarantining has impacted their listening habits.
For her blog, The Road to Sound, Vanessa Ague wrote a review of Nick Storring’s My Magic Dreams Have Lost their Spell. She says the album “never loses its compelling sense of wonder.”
Ashley Bardhan wrote a review for Pitchfork on Ambar Lucid’s Garden of Lucid, an album that “tells everyone that immigrant kids are complicated and idiosyncratic, never conforming to the image that others (our parents, our neighbors) want to project on us.”
Matthew Blackwell interviewed Jon Abbey regarding the AMPLIFY 2020: Quarantine festival for his newsletter, Tusk is Better than Rumours.
Jeff Brown released a new recording titled A Warm Rewind on his Bandcamp.
Jesse Dorris wrote an essay about virtual gallery spaces & more for Aperture. “Lately, [the internet] just feels like peepholes,” he says.
For Bandcamp Daily, Sam Goldner wrote about the late Colin Ward and a new posthumous compilation of his works. As Goldner writes, Ward was “considered by many to be the embodiment of [Denver’s tight-knit and eccentric DIY scene’s] spirit.
Joshua Minsoo Kim wrote a review of 1997 3D platformer Croc: Legend of the Gobbos for Super Chart Island, a blog covering every video game to hit #1 in the UK. According to him, the game is an “endlessly tedious affair.”
Sunik Kim wrote a longform essay about Korean shamanism, the struggle for revolution, and Korean reunification for Soap Ear, a quarterly review co-edited by fellow Tone Glow writer Leah B. Levinson.
Can I Wear This Jacket Out? is the newest album from Leah B. Levinson. It features unconventional covers of songs originally by Paris Hilton, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Grace Jones, Charli XCX, and more.
For Musicworks, Jesse Locke interviewed Buffy Sainte-Marie about her 1969 album Illuminations. “My philosophy was to bring something that nobody else was bringing,” she says. “No sense in trying to be a second-rate Joan Baez or Judy Collins.”
Ryo Miyauchi’s latest issue of This Side of Japan features write-ups on Iri’s Sparkle (2020), Wink’s “Sexy Music” (1990), and more. Miyauchi writes that the “sobering perspective” of Sparkle’s songs “adds depth and reliability to [Iri’s] wholesomeness.”
Jordan Reyes interviewed Meredith Monk for Bandcamp Daily about her newest album, Memory Game. “I want to leave people with a sense of affirmation in life,” says Monk about her music. He also wrote a feature on UK punk label Static Shock Records for Bandcamp Daily.
Eli Schoop has a sick highlight reel of him playing Super Smash Bros. Melee.
For Bandcamp Daily, Mariana Timony wrote a review of Jacqueline, the new album from Circuit Des Yeux’s work as Jackie Lynn. She calls it a “grand expression of American music perfectly suited for our meta-post-modern era.”
Still from The Island Closest to Heaven (Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1984). R.I.P.
Thank you for reading the twelfth issue of Tone Glow. If you can, check in with your loved ones to see if they’re doing well.
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