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Tone Glow 082: Phill Niblock
An interview with Phill Niblock + our Writers Panel on Jyocho's 'Let's Promise to Be Happy' and soft tissue's 'hi leaves'
Phill Niblock (b. 1933) is an Indiana-born, New York-based composer and multi-media artist. Since 1985 he has been the director of Experimental Intermedia, a foundation for avant-garde music located in his Chinatown loft, which has hosted over 1000 concerts throughout its history. Experimental Intermedia also has an accompany record label, XI Records, which Niblock helps run. Niblock’s career also includes photography, a medium he took up in the 1960s that led to him capturing numerous jazz musicians at their height. He also has made films that range from avant-garde shorts and striking documentations of Sun Ra and Arthur Russell. The Movement of People Working (2003) is also noteworthy, as it’s he worked on between 1973 and 1992 that involves a series of 16mm films and videos shot around the world. Focused on people doing manual labor, it largely relates to Niblock’s interest in movement and dance. His drone music, for which he’s largely known, is dense, all-encompassing, and distinct—one can find his recordings on record labels such as Touch and Matière Mémoire. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Niblock on October 25th, 2020 via Zoom to discuss his childhood, his time in the army, his films, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: You were born in 1933, in Indiana—
Phill Niblock: But I escaped!
When you think of Indiana, what comes to mind?
Uh, “escape” is the thing that comes to mind.
Why did you want to escape?
Why? Because there wasn’t so much happening in Indiana. I went to Indiana University as a pre-med student but then I changed that and eventually got a degree in economics. I had to decide very quickly what I was going to have enough credits to major in. Economics allowed me to take a lot of business courses, so I just did that—I had all the science stuff already done. And then I went directly into the army under a voluntary draft ’cause I was going to be drafted anyway—rather than wait around for a year for them to decide, I did. A couple of other friends did that so we went in together.
I was stationed in Southern Alabama in Fort Rucker, Alabama, which was a training school for helicopters and small craft. More observational stuff. Then I was there for a year and a half and traveled a lot in the South during that time. When I got out of the army after two years, I had to decide where to go outside of Indiana.
Were you close with your family growing up?
Hm, I guess so. I wasn’t distant, I lived at home.
What sort of people were your parents?
My father was an engineer, working for General Motors for the Delco Remy operation in Anderson, Indiana. He was a plant layout engineer, probably one of the very first in the country. He started working at that in 1932 and continued all of his life.
And your mother?
She was a housewife. She never really worked.
Are there any memories you have of them that you feel like are emblematic of the sort of people they were?
Well, I have a lot of memories, but I don’t dwell on them a whole lot (laughter).
Do you feel like you’re similar to your parents?
Yes and no. I have some of my father’s characteristics. I act sort of as an engineer, I do a lot of DIY projects, and I’m always trying to figure out how to do things. And that’s what he did—his main thing as a plant layout engineer was to arrange the way parts flowed in their creation. And it was a factory that made all the electrical parts for GM cars. So there were a lot of small lines where a part would start as the housing and then would be assembled by the end of the line. He spent a lot of time thinking about how to engineer things to make them more efficient.
And your mother, do you feel like you’re similar to her in any way?
Probably less so. It wasn’t particularly that there was love lost, It was just that she didn’t do anything in particular in which I was close to or which involved my life. My father was also an amateur musician and my grandfather played in the silent movie theater from 1910 to 1930. And he was a lathe operator. So he was in fact sort of an engineer as well.
Do you know what instruments your grandfather played?
Percussion. He played drums, but he also played xylophone and a bit of piano, stuff like that. Whatever show was on he played, he improvised a track. He worked a lot with another woman who was a pianist and organist, at two of the big theaters.
Did your father and grandfather want you to be musical?
Not particularly, no special demand for that. I took piano lessons for about six weeks when I was 13—already rather late to start. My father didn’t think that I practiced enough so we fired the piano teacher. But I began to collect records, primarily jazz records, in 1948, during the end of the 78 RPM era. I was also around at the very beginning of LPs and I have many LPs from that first couple of years, 1949-50.
I have on my shelf here about six hundred 78 RPM records. In fact, somebody’s coming in an hour to take some 78 RPM records that somebody gave me—I don’t know who it was or where they came from, but I sorted through them and took out some things that I wanted.
Were there any specific artists you remember really liking as a teenager?
It’s probably Duke Ellington as much as anything.
Was there anything about him compared to the other jazz musicians that spoke to you?
That he was a composer. Also he was interested in sound and my music is all about sound. It was also the very beginning of the Hi-Fi era. I became interested in sound reproduction and speaker systems and stuff. Just in the past year I have assembled a whole bunch of subsidiary sound systems besides the house system for Experimental Intermedia, which is already 8 speaker systems, 15-inch woofers, horn tweeters, and mid-ranges arranged around the room itself. I live in a quite big loft, so the concert area is about 35 feet by 35 feet. There are two speakers in each corner of that space and subs as well. But now I’m assembling individual, stereo systems, which are sometimes played together and sometimes played separately. And currently it’s probably 16 or 20 speakers altogether. Four different groups and two different rooms.
Going back a bit, did you have any forays into playing music besides those six weeks of piano lessons?
No, I wasn’t interested in practicing and I actually know surprisingly little about music. I mean, I can’t tell you a C from an A, for instance.
Was it just the idea of having a sit down and hone that craft? Or was it just because the music you were learning didn’t draw you in?
I think it’s simply that I didn’t want to practice (laughter). I mean, I practice other things, for instance doing DIY projects. I didn’t want to sit down with an instrument and practice. I didn’t do it enough to satisfy my father. He didn’t practice either, but he did sit down and play quite often. He was an amateur pianist. So there was a piano in the house and an old pump organ as well.
What was your college experience like?
It was probably quite normal. I had fairly good grades without outstanding grades. I studied some, I didn’t study some. I was smart enough to get along fairly easily without studying too much. I read a lot. I was reading a lot from the time I was 11 years old. I read mysteries, a lot of mysteries. I would read novels. I still read mysteries, always, a lot (laughter). Or maybe even more so now as I’ve regained interest.
What mysteries are you reading currently?
I decided to reread Rex Stout recently. I’ve just collected probably 75% of his books— he wrote about 75. It’s entertainment, you know. I don’t watch TV, I don’t watch films, mostly, unless I have to watch something that someone has done which is relevant to the field. I read a lot for prose style. Probably my favorite prose style is Dashiell Hammett, but there aren’t very many books by Dashiell Hammett. He stopped in the early ’30s and didn’t really write anything of much note after. It’s extremely stripped and very clear and concise. I can show you a few paragraphs of stuff, which are so precisely chiseled that it’s amazing. He wrote the best things for the pulp magazines. There’s only about five books altogether and two of them are actually collections of novellas, which fit together—The Dain Curse and The Glass Key. And when you read them, you can see that the thing starts and stops and then starts again and stops and becomes the book, but it already has episodes, you know, like a chapter in a serial. My other favorite novelist was Nabokov, which is exactly the opposite. So it’s the extreme, other, other end.
The way you’re talking about Dashiell Hammett and his chiseling, I’m wondering if there’s a connection with your music. It’s not short obviously—
It is concise though (laughter).
Are you drawing influence from these other mediums of art?
I don’t know that I have a particular answer for that. I mean, I only make one kind of music. I don’t make anything else. I’m interested in sound—a particular order in it. It all came from a very short moment of about five minutes of thinking about music and how I could make it and what I could make and what I couldn’t make. I defined what I was going to make in the middle of 1968 and the first piece was at the end of 1968, and that piece defined what I was going to do. What I was doing got better and more clear in a few years, but basically I had decided what to do, how I was going to do it, in a few minutes in 1968. And that’s all I did.
Have you ever had a desire to do sort of anything else beyond this one type of music that you’ve been working on for decades?
No (laughter). Definitely not. I do have these sound-collage pieces, and they’re quite different, but there are much fewer of those things than there are of the music. I just counted the number of pieces in my composition list, which is not quite complete, but is very nearly complete. There are115 pieces and there have already been several since then. So it’s a long catalog. It’s about 30 to 40 hours of pieces if they’re played one after the other.
Earlier you mentioned that you voluntarily enlisted in the army because you knew it was going to happen anyway. What was it like? Did you hate it? Did you like it?
It taught me a very valuable lesson: how to tour. I was teaching as a college professor from 1971 to 1997, which is twenty six and a half years. I was continually making work and touring a fair amount, but because of the teaching, I could usually take 10 days off in the middle of every semester and have a tour, but that was a relatively small amount of time to go to Europe, where most of the gigs were and still are. Once I retired at the end of ’97, I began to tour eight months a year, for the last 23 years. So I’m more on the road than I am in New York. And when I was here, it was usually quite busy, too, with things like producing concerts. I was still producing 15 to 20 concerts a year here. So when I would come back and it would be a month, two months out of the year were pretty much taken up by that activity.
Were you close with the people that you were stationed with when you were in the army? Do you have fond memories of that at all beyond it teaching you about touring?
No, there were only a couple of people who I continued to have contact with afterwards. I’ve sort of lost the one guy who remains, a Black man from Mamaroneck, New York, who spoke with a very English accent. His parents were from Jamaica or something, and he was completely lost in Southern Alabama because he couldn’t understand the Black people and he couldn’t go see white people. He couldn’t hang out with white people except on the base itself, so he seldom went off of the base except when he went back to Mamoroneck on leave. He was one of three brothers, one was a doctor, one was a dentist—who was my dentist for years—and [my friend] was a pharmacist, but he went back to school and became a researcher. So he spent all of his life as an academic researcher working on malaria.
Who is the person you’ve had the longest friendship with in your life that you still keep in touch with?
One particular guy who I’m constantly in contact with, and another guy who I’m only very occasionally in contact with. I was born October 2nd, so I’m a Libra and both of these guys are Libras. And many of my very closest friends are Libras. So is Kamala Harris (laughter), and Jimmy Carter was a Libra.
The one guy I met in 1965 in an afternoon of shooting film on Rikers island. The other guy was a photographer and a tenor saxophone player. We actually photographed together and we worked for United Artists for a few years in the early sixties. I got a camera and I soon began to photograph jazz musicians. And so from 1961 to 1964 in particular, I photographed the Ellington band a lot, but I shot other things. At the end of that I met this photographer at the Money Jungle session with Ellington, Mingus and Roach.
He was Black—he’s from Chicago, in fact—and he knew Sun Ra from Chicago. He was talking to Sunny and Sunny wanted to have a film made. And so he asked me if I would be interested. It was right at the beginning of my shooting film in 1965, ’66, or something like that when I started shooting. By ’68 I’d had many different sessions with the Sun Ra Arkestra, shooting and also going to show the films at Slugs’ Saloon. They were playing a lot at Slugs’ on east third street.
What’s interesting to me is that you’ve made films with Sun Ra and Arthur Russell and in both of those films, you use a lot of close-ups. How did you determine how you were going to film the different subjects that you had? How did you determine how you were going to film them?
It’s interesting. In the answer to that question, those two instances are vastly different. The Sun Ra thing was very early. I had been working with [dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and Experimental Intermedia founder] Elaine Summers at the very beginning, doing a lot of stuff at Judson Dance Theater in Judson Memorial Church, with dance people for about five years. I made my first Intermedia event at Judson in 1968 about halfway through that. With Sun Ra, I had this idea that I would shoot, in 20 minutes, by wandering around the orchestra as they were playing. I did that, but then I thought it was stupid. So then I began working on other things and went through two years, roughly, of shooting and discarding material until the last two things that I shot were what’s in that film. It’s pretty much uncut. It’s at least 80% of the material that I shot in that one session, an evening session, where the musicians weren’t playing at all—it was a set-up shot. It was all shot into one light bulb screwed into a large reflector with aluminum foil around it, broken aluminum foil. It’s mostly them silhouetted against that lightbulb. A lot of the shots are just a fingertip. It worked out to be a completely different idea over a long period of time, as I experimented with different ways of doing it.
The Arthur Russell stuff was shot much later, nearly 20 years later. It was 1986. Again, I pretty much had an idea of what I wanted to do, and it was a very interesting collaboration where he came with material that was not the stuff he normally did, and that material largely became what he’s been known for since. The stuff from World of Echo, a part of that material was taken directly from the soundtrack of the film. I wasn’t very interested in the house music at all.
He’d done a concert in here. He was a friend and I suggested we make a collaboration. So we made this weird lighting setup. And then I shot these close-ups. And I did things I normally prescribed myself not to do in that film—constant panning, constant refocusing. I was working by looking at a 25-inch video monitor, which was 45 degrees—no, 90 degrees away from him. So I wasn’t watching him, I wasn’t watching the camera, I was watching the monitor to do all of the work. It was quite the tour de force. There’s this one 11-minute shot in that—completely uncut—which is really, I think, amazing. I’m always astounded when I see it myself.
I know you have films like T H I R, which is more experimental. And then you have films like Morning and Annie, where you’re focusing on specific people.
Those are all films from the ’60s, actually. So by the end of the ’60s, I was through with that. And then I began The Movement of People Working project, which is about 30 hours of film all together.
Was there a reason you were drawn to filming people?
Well, it was all dance material. So I was interested in them as dancers and not doing very natural movements. I got so tired of the artificiality of dance. So by 1970, I was finished looking at dance as dance.
With The Movement of People Working you went across different countries recording people just doing work, manual labor. When I watched it, it reminded me of Studs Terkel’s Working. Something I keep thinking about, and which I was reflecting on with The Movement of People Working, is what Terkel says at the beginning of the book, that work is “by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” I’m curious if that resonates with you, seeing so many people perform all this labor from all the footage you had. Was there a takeaway you had from recording all this footage?
What do you mean by takeaway?
You’re witnessing people taking part in a capitalist structure, toiling and doing this task that may or may not be providing them some sort of fulfillment. I regularly think about a hierarchy that’s created in terms of jobs that are considered more valuable than others. I’m regularly thinking about people and the desire they have to do things other than the work that they currently have themselves.
Oh, spoken like a true intellectual. But these people didn’t have your purview of the world. And so I don’t think that they felt they were toiling unnecessarily. I don’t think there were any socialistic urges in me, in filming them. I don’t think that they were concerned about the work because they didn’t have anything else to be concerned about except the work they were doing—they didn’t have an outside life in particular.
I mean, some of them obviously did, but one of the major things about that project… it was that I couldn’t talk to the people. There was no conversation whatsoever because I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak mine. So whatever happened between us was somehow intuitive and I did something to disarm them, because no one looked at me with a fierce glance or was upset that I was filming. It’s amazing how few people actually looked at me, and yet I was this incredibly foreign person. The way I set up the camera—I had to get a tripod out and set it up and put the camera on it— all that stuff made me so concentrated on my work that they tended, I think, to just disregard what I was doing.
I worked with very simple equipment. Essentially it looked like a Super 8 camera. I was working with an Arriflex, but it was an old, very small Arriflex and a very simple set of lenses. And I didn’t take sound, so I didn’t have any other peripherals to deal with. It’s an amazing thing that I could do something that was not at all surreptitious, or clandestine, at all. They took it so naturally that it didn’t affect the way they were operating. They simply did their work without observing me in any particular way. I thought that was really the most amazing thing about that, and the range of the activities they were doing—all of them very manual and nothing very intellectual, or intellectualized, at all.
The work that they were doing, the way they’re moving their bodies, you view that as dance?
I saw it as dance. That’s what I was interested in when they were moving, not what they were doing. It is very seldom that a task is completed in the films. Usually it’s just some section of a task and it just goes onto something else completely different and often in a very different location.
How did you move from photography into film?
I had certainly not finished doing photography but I was interested in moving images at the same time. Photography was extremely easy for me, both the visualization and the technical part of it. All of it seemed to fit very well within this DIY aspect, so I was most pleased with how I was seeing and capturing that seeing. It was all quite easy—the camera, the processing of everything, and the editing just fit very naturally in the way that I like to work. (pauses). That was actually a very good statement. If you round that off and send it back to me that would be nice. There was a book of articles and interviews about me, which is quite thick. About 15 articles or something like that. You know of that?
I know of the book but I don’t have it, no.
Okay, I can send you a PDF of that book.
I would appreciate that.
Yeah. There was a biographer but he died, so another friend of his and a very close friend of mine decided to do the biography, but he hasn’t done shit for about five years. And so what I’m thinking is to suggest to him that we change it and do something like that book with a series of essays by different people. The biography will be tied together with that.
That’d be nice.
But I haven’t proposed it to him yet. So we’ll see how it goes. By the way you’re asking the questions, maybe you should write a little essay. That particular statement which just went by might be an important part of that.
Last week we had to postpone the interview. I told you my grandmother had passed away, and now you have someone coming up to pick up your 78s. In the email you mentioned how you were “getting up there.” I’m wondering, do you think about death often?
Are you afraid of it at all?
No, it’s been a long time. And I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly in the last year, getting my archives together. We just spent a very intense month pulling stuff off of shelves and into boxes. So we have a huge set of boxes, which are the basic archive of material other than film or music. There are actually two archives. There’s the archive of Experimental Intermedia—the concerts and other activities—which is going to the Lincoln Center Public Library in New York, which has quite a number of people’s archives. And then my archive. So we’re now slowly getting my stuff more segregated. And, in fact, I’m having dinner on Tuesday with the guy from the library who was the chief of that kind of stuff. I’ve just been going very slowly. I have all these boxes of audio tapes that I want to get out of here. And because of the pandemic, it’s just slowed everything down. They’re not actually even doing a contract, which would start the whole process moving, until January. So that’s really a ship, ’cause I can’t move now, there’s just so many boxes around. There’s about 15 boxes of reel-to-reel audio tapes.
I wanted to ask about your loft. You’ve had it for several decades.
Have there been struggles with maintaining it, with New York constantly gentrifying?
There were some problems with the current landlord, who’s been around for about a dozen years now, who would like me out of course because I’m paying incredibly low rent under the Loft Law, which was started because of the artists living in SoHo and TriBeCa. It makes it possible for them to have a more reasonable residence place. The idea was that the landlords would bring the buildings and spaces up to code as a residential code rather than a commercial one, but the landlords didn’t particularly want to do that. And mine doesn’t, and has avoided it all these years. But it froze my rent at the 1981 level. I’m paying about 1/15th of the rent of other people in the building. He tried to sue me to get me out. And uh, my lawyer left.
Are you close with your neighbors at all?
I was a little bit close with the people who were just next door, but they moved out at the beginning of this month because of the pandemic. There was an office of about 30 people working, but nobody works there now, so they finally just gave up the space. The building is virtually empty. It’s that kind of building where there are architects and photographers and stuff like that. All people doing that kind of job, sitting in front of a computer, but now they simply don’t work here. They work at home and they communicate by email or whatever.
Does it ever get lonely?
No. I still have a lot of friends. I see not so many people, but I see a few and I have hundreds of emails. So I spent quite a few hours just sitting and going through emails every day.
What does your typical day look like beyond the emails?
I usually get up pretty late. I stay up until, on the average, 3 a.m. and I’m frequently reading at the end. But yesterday, actually, I just got a new computer and there were some problems with the system. So I went to a previous system and now a lot of software works. Catalina was a big change from Mojave, for instance. At about 2 a.m., I started working on the computer and worked until 4:45, I think.
Depending on my insomnia, I usually get up between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., and then I sit and do emails and drink coffee, and then other things happen. Either I do some DIY project or I go listen to music or play around with sound systems. I just put in a new amplifier and it didn’t work, so part of last night’s activity was to make it work, which it did, finally. Then I’m constantly listening to music. I play a lot of jazz, but I’m also playing a lot of classical music.
Are there any particular music releases that you felt like were important breakthroughs or felt like were great successes for you?
Nothing that comes to mind. It’s mostly that I don’t want to answer the question (laughter).
Let me ask the inverse, then. Are there any records that you’ve released that you don’t like that you don’t want to listen to ever again?
Oh sure. But there’s a lot of music that I don’t listen to. I don’t like pop music at all. In fact, I started listening to jazz and to record jazz because there was a guy who ran a record store in Anderson, which was in a boarded-up alleyway. So it was a very narrow store. And he influenced me and what I was going to buy and listen to a lot. He was essentially building his own collection and he was selling records. He was looking at all that stuff as part of what would be in his collection. Joe Pike. His picture’s on my refrigerator.
Did you keep in touch with him?
Until the ’80s. He died quite recently, I think in the last few years. He was older than me, so he lived a long time.
You’re still making work, you’re still doing stuff, obviously. I think some people sometimes forget that you’re still doing video work, like six years ago you had Agosto.
I made a new one a couple of weeks ago.
Or two new ones actually.
When I was watching Agosto, I was reminded of the filmmaker James Benning.
I met him fairly recently, in the last few years. I think we were at some sort of festival together. I don’t have much to do with the filmmaking world. I don’t go to film events for the most part. Most of what I go to and get invited to are music events. Today, I just had an incredible disappointment because there was a big event in Bern, Switzerland on November 18th. And it was canceled because there are a lot of new [COVID] cases in Switzerland. I thought it would be over by this time, but you know, it’s gotten worse in Europe over the last month.
Do you wish you were going to film events more?
No, because I don’t in think that I make films that much, so I’m not so concerned about that. I see most of the material as sort of performance material.
You worked on a book for [B. F.] Skinner, the famous psychologist. What kind of guy was he?
Pretty stiff and weird, I would say (laughter). I never read that much Skinner. I was working at a publishing house and it was a publishing project. So I was around working on that for about four years, but I didn’t spend very much time researching Skinner myself or spend a lot of time with him. So I would see him every so often and I photographed him and gave the photographs to his estate, recently.
What made you feel like he was weird?
He was very stiff and stuffy, very self-satisfied, and extremely serious about himself. Without much humor showing through. He was also a lech.
In what way?
Oh, he would propose to any woman who came on site.
Oh my goodness (laughter). Are there any other people that come to mind in terms of people you photographed who weren’t musicians?
I took some photographs of [James] Baldwin once and I’m not even sure where they are. I want to do another book. I did a short book on jazz people, which was more of a teaser to try to get a longer book done. And I want to do that book in combination with another book about a boatyard in Brazil. We’ve been trying for years to do it, but it’s never quite come around.
Did you meet and talk with Balding outside of that one occasion?
Just that one occasion. I have no memory of it whatsoever so I can’t answer any questions. I have no idea where I did it. I think it was in New York, but I simply don’t know anything except the photographs are there, so I must have done it.
[Phill is informed that the person is coming soon to pick up the 78s]
So shall we quit?
Yes. We’ll talk again. Thank you so much,
Thank you so much.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share thoughts on albums and assign them a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Jyocho - Let’s Promise to Be Happy (No Big Deal, 2022)
Press Release info: “The new album is our most direct and intuitive work to date. The music on this release was influenced and revolved around the question, ‘Do we really want to be happy?’ For this new project, we started with our first album in mind, from a macroscopic perspective, and ended up with this album, which is a microscopic piece. As we seek happiness, things that are not happy are born within us. It is difficult to keep happiness in the same place for a long time. In order to keep it circulating, we have to bear and face the happiness and sorrow of others. I wonder if humanity is happy now.”
Listen to and purchase Let’s Promise to Be Happy at these links.
Ryo Miyuachi: Jyocho’s rock music seems too precious for these current times when irony has seeped into everyday language and folks reflexively extinguish heaviness with levity. In a world where people seem allergic to emotional frankness, they come off extremely sincere. Not one gloomy cloud can be spotted in the open skies of their new album’s clear-as-day production. Daijiro Nakagawa humbly lets his intricate math-rock riffs unspool, drawing us closer through awe and color rather than complexity. Yuuki Hayashi’s soaring flutes accentuate pastoral beauty as well as the project’s sparkling purity.
But for all the heart-on-sleeve earnestness that they display on the aptly titled Let’s Promise to Be Happy, it’d be a misnomer to call the band innocent or naive. “I want to transcend sadness,” Netako Nekota sings in “Gather the Lights” before the restless riff begins its skyward journey. “If there exists a goal at the end of this sadness, I’ll make sure not to die,” she assures near the final third of “The End of Sorrow.” Jyocho call as much attention to the darkness we suppress as the light that surrounds us, and they strive to protect their listeners from that misery: “If you stay in the circle, I’ll take care of you,” Nekota sings in “Stay in the Circle,” her words echoing like a spell. If the intentions behind Let’s Promise to Be Happy are too idyllic on paper, Jyocho prove their commitment to the task through a dedication to craft. Jyocho play with deep conviction, sincerely holding on to their faith in the power of music, and their ambitions to dream of a better world is as infectious as it is inspirational.
Jude Noel: Kicking your album off with a song as strong as “All The Same” simply isn’t fair. I’ve been trying to review Let’s Promise to Be Happy for the past few weeks, and my chances to actually listen to the whole record have been few and far between. Every time I’ve reached the track’s coda, with its tendrils of fingerpicked guitar and twee little glockenspiel tones, I feel powerless to do anything but rewind to the start again.
So much happens within its four-and-a-half minute runtime: Just look at the tablature for the guitar part alone. Even for a math-rock tune it’s knotty and intricate, shifting time signatures multiple times mid-verse while packing each measure with guitarist Daijiro Nakagawa’s rich vocabulary of open chords, hammered-on riffs and twinkly harmonics. I’d normally associate this level of technical prowess with a more dissonant, heady act like Tera Melos or progressive metal, but Jyocho’s songwriting here is cute and catchy enough to have landed the track a spot in the end credits of a slice-of-life-anime. It drips with sentimentality, almost to the point that it resembles new-age music with its cozy flute melodies and crystalline production, but ultimately lands on Midwest emo in its transitions from finger-tapping to anthemic choruses. There’s no way the song should flow this well.
But enough about what has become my most-played track of 2022. The rest of Let’s Promise to Be Happy, which is graciously short enough for me to have revisited a few times in full, is also great—especially when it engages in off-kilter rhythmic experimentation. I’m particularly fond of “The End of Sorrow,” which opens with a deceptively clumsy guitar riff, only to seamlessly back it with nimble percussion and fluttering piano, reimagining the wonky grooves of Joan of Arc’s later work. The keyboard-driven “Stay In the Circle,” with its hefty breakdowns that plod like acoustic footwork, is another highlight.
Teeming with lush, folky timbres and enough twists to keep seasoned math rock fans on their toes, Jyocho’s latest record isn’t just their best yet—it’s also in the running for my favorite release of the year.
Marshall Gu: The spastic, overly-busy guitars of math rock just aren’t usually my thing, but Jyocho guitarist Daijiro Nakagawa manages to create a jangly pop out of them. I don’t mean ‘pop’ as in the genre, I mean it in the other, non-music definition that his guitar literally has this light, explosive sound to it, like he’s chaining together tiny little supernovas. And I was hooked from the get-go: 35-second opener “New Reminiscences” sounds like the beautiful acoustic intro that Dave Longstreth made for “Temecula Sunrise,” which means it’s the best Dirty Projectors song in about a decade.
Likewise, when Nekota Netako takes lead halfway through “Turn Into the Blue” with her piano, she deploys this gorgeous little half-trill that does a similar little firework to some of Nakagawa’s guitar playing. Elsewhere, on songs like “The End of Sorrow,” Hachi’s flute really changes the dynamic of the sound, doing what the chamber instrument did for a lot of ’70s progressive rock/folk albums, adding a whimsical, quasi-pastoral element to the mix of twinkly emo guitars and Nekota Netako’s highly melodic singing. I can foresee a lot of complaints that the album is too short: only 6 proper songs, the album runs 24 minutes and doesn’t have the chance to sustain the bright-if-anxious atmosphere. But with songs as highly melodic and precise as these ones, well, let’s just say I’m happy, promise.
Eli Schoop: I thought it might be cliched to say that JYOCHO sounded like anime opening music, but to my amazement, “All the Same” is the ending song to Shin no Nakama ja Nai to Yūsha. Imagine that. To be fair, I have no ill will against anime opening/endings, as a lot of them can be bangers (see: Teppan’s “Shissou Ginga,” Last Alliance’s “Shissou,” and of course, The Pillows’s “Ride On Shooting Star”), but I’ve always felt they can sound very formulaic. Not sure if it’s specific to mainstream Japanese rock, but there’s usually soaring instrumentals and wistful female vocals and it can get a bit grating. Jyocho’s math rock tendencies distinguish them from this phenomenon. However, I am not sure if I want Japan’s answer to This Town Needs Guns too badly. Regardless, they can fucking play their asses off and arrange well, and Let’s Promise to Be Happy succeeds effortlessly within those parameters.
Samuel McLemore: One of the classic cases of the underground serving as an incubator for innovation and seeping into the cultural mainstream is the distinctive twinkling and spiraling guitar style which was born from the crossing over of Tokyo’s punk-rock and post-rock scenes in the early 2000s. Clearly borrowed from Midwest emo, the sentimental, flashy, and technically demanding style went through a few evolutionary changes until, two decades hence, it has become a major facet of Japanese music.
Daijiro Nakagawa, the leader and guitarist for Jyocho, is a prime example of how far into the Japanese mainstream this particular style of guitar theatrics has wedged itself. Judging from his social media friendly online presence and the history of his previous band, Uchu Conbini, Nakagawa is clearly an ambitious musician who views his finger tapping skills as being his ticket to fame, riches, etc. To that end the band has aggressively pursued international tours and anime theme songs in support of their music. Because of this mainstream ambition, and in spite of the obvious and entrancing level of technical skill and polish each member of the band possesses, or the incredible use of the flute in the band's arrangements, we are left with a collection of music that more or less… sounds like any other collection of soft-rock J-pop meant for use as anime theme music. A bitter disappointment.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Emo was already around in Japan by the turn of the millennium, but bands who played in the style—from bloodthirsty butchers to Cowpers, Envy to Eastern Youth—were largely following in its hardcore roots. Japanese artists would continue to expand the genre’s bounds throughout the 2000s, and one of the most important was toe, whose Midwest emo-flavored math rock was more about wistfulness than extravagant flamboyance. Of course, as emo bands like American Football have been retroactively labeled math rock by a younger generation of music fans, there’s been a parallel shifting of emo’s own meaning, now more indicative of twinkly guitars and pop-punk melodies than the traditional hardcore-punk signifiers. (Post-rock is a fitting descriptor for toe as well, though it too has went through a “softening” in expected sound, shifting from songs that were jazzy, rigorous, or queasy to soundtrack-befitting ambience that’s palatable to a wider audience.)
In a time when emo-influenced riffs now abound in Japanese rock music, including those from idols, Jyocho stand out for their expressive arrangements, doubling down on softness by having a dedicated flautist fill the cracks with bucolic serenity. They’re a considerably different band from guitarist Daijiro Nakagawa’s former three-piece Uchu Conbini, largely because Jyocho have an additional keyboard and flute to play with. Uchi Conbini’s strengths were their ability to wring constant tension from emotive spaciousness and ostentatious playing, evident in career highlight “8films.” With Let’s Promise to Be Happy, Jyocho have finally surpassed that group by writing songs that allow every member to shine, all without stepping on each other’s toes. The result is a music that can be identified as “math rock” or “Midwest emo” or “post-rock” but transcends easy descriptions with a beautiful, overarching paradox: their music is simultaneously rigid and free-flowing, understated and flashy.
“All the Same,” the album’s first full-length track, showcases this at every moment. With fingerstyle picking, Nakagawa’s guitar melodies constantly buoy the song as rolling drums and a harmonizing flute accent its circuitous path. Nekota Netako sings of dropping faith in the past and looking to the future, and her diaphanous vocals are so light that they could be swept up by the instrumentation. The mix’s focus on the high-end is crucial; so much of these sounds are on the precipice of being cheesy, of feeling optimistic to a fault, but everything—from Netako’s patient singing to the guitar interlude that suffuses the song with forward-looking hope—wants you to keep your head up. Jyocho’s strength is in this ability to blindside you in their hopefulness, and it works because it doesn’t feel solipsistic—consider all the NAMM-ish fingerstyle guitarists or Steve Vai types whose music feels ungrounded in reality. The fact these songs are centered around vocals helps (no instrument more immediately conjures up personality and depth of feeling), but it’s also in the way these tracks unfold—the clanging keys on “Stay in the Circle” feels like someone in constant search of breakthrough, while the melancholy bridge of “Turn into the Blue” is brought to life by a resplendent coo and twinkly, child-like piano melodies.
Jyocho understand the anxieties of contemporary life, and want Let’s Promise to Be Happy to serve as a timely PSA: the only way to survive is through leaning on others. “I feel reassured that I can trust the members to handle even the most difficult songs,” Nakagawa recently said of his band members. For a band whose name comes from a Japanese word involving “emotion, memory, and life,” it’s not surprising that these tracks bridge music and life, allowing the two to mirror each other. “The End of Sorrow” is especially moving, with its dotted guitar rhythms gradually becoming more locked-in and cogent as other members arrive. The accompanying piano is like a close friend comforting you, its similar melodies like them repeating your forlorn stories back, providing acknowledgement and acting as a sounding board. The drums, far more fast-paced, are a sudden jolt of energy to keep you going. Across four minutes, Jyocho let the track’s title come to life. And they let the album’s title feel real, too, constantly. It’s only 24-minutes, but Let’s Promise to Be Happy is so complete and all-encompassing that it’s like a quick heart-to-heart conversation that’ll leave you full. As the title suggests, they know happiness isn’t guaranteed, but they want you to come into this agreement with them. And this is why their music is so beautiful: it doesn’t feel like they’re imposing anything as much as letting you receive their warmth. If the history of emo is of bands spouting their grievances and wanting to be understood, then Jyocho are the rare band that flips roles and wants you to know they’re listening.
soft tissue - hi leaves (Students of Decay, 2022)
Press Release info: “hi leaves” is the new full-length record from soft tissue, the duo of Glasgow-based artists Feronia Wennborg and Simon Weins. Following their self-titled debut for Penultimate Press in 2019, this collection examines microsound by way of extended amplification technique, bone conduction, domestic recordings, and digital feedback. Tracks like “plant pot” and “kettle” appear to disclose their source material, presenting wonderfully tactile environments of highly articulate sound. Wennborg and Weins prove themselves to be masterful arrangers of discrete, organic material, weaving together knotty and immersive compositions from these sharp, prickly sounds. Ultimately, soft tissue inhabits an intoxicating soundworld somewhere in between the patient abstractions of composerly EAI music, the haptic indulgences of ASMR, and the diffuse digital pastorals of the 90’s a-musik/Cologne scene.
Purchase hi leaves at Bandcamp.
Dominic Coles: soft tissue’s newest release attunes the listener to their interior. Like a medical device scanning & calibrating our ears, this delicate record brings the listener through muscle, sinew, and cartilage into a nebulous and heady interiority. hi leaves works with a reduced palette of synthetic digital materials, field recordings, and processed percussive sounds. These materials, largely focused on the high frequency range, affect the ears in such a way as to cause the listener to turn in on themselves, attuning us to the physical and psychological sensations occurring within. While many of these sounds were produced using the performers’ bodies (the press release brings our attention to the use of bone conduction), it instead feels like we are listening to the inner workings of a mind. hi leaves could be heard as a series of synaptic firings and neural transmissions all sonified as chaotic clusters of digital sound.
The track “do” opens with sputtering arhythmic clicks and high frequency tones. These sounds rest on a bed of droning, mid-range frequencies before giving way to silence. With each iteration of drone and gestural material, “do” accumulates more energy and intensity. The music rapidly moves from one material to the next, testing, pushing, and teasing our ears as it develops. Formally, hi leaves has an organic quality that freely develops through association. At times, though, one material will lurch into the next in an almost inconceivable cycle of cuts and breaks—this occurs between tracks too, creating a kind of formal self-similarity between the structure of each track and the larger record. soft tissue manages to create forms that simultaneously feel entirely natural yet completely impossible. In this sense, their music develops in the way that dreams do: they associate from one material to the next, progressing in ways that seem natural but are in fact inconceivable.
Vanessa Ague: On hi leaves, soft tissue pieces together miniature sounds—rhythmic blips, distant static fuzz, alien beeps, ASMR crunches. It’s well-traveled territory for the duo, who have established themselves as explorers of small vignettes made with amplified everyday objects. Their music has an air of simplicity, even down to the plain titles they choose, yet it’s clear each track on hi leaves is a carefully woven lattice, made of clashing timbres and slowly layering grooves.
The album’s most striking moments come when patterns take shape, like on “silver tubes,” which finds a delicate interplay between taps and plinks, and “table,” which finds rhythm in repeating metallic scrapes that grow and fade away. Other tracks are less structured, made of tones that don’t fit together, like “friendly” and “hum mun.” Here, the duo loses their footing, exploring a seemingly mismatched set of sounds rather than finding the common space between every timbre they choose. But soft tissue’s ability to make intricacy feel simple is compelling throughout. They move through each moment with ease, letting sound rise and fall in motion as commonplace as a breath.
Sunik Kim: There is a remarkable tension between structure and free-flow in these tingly, bite-sized constructions that maps somewhat unevenly onto a parallel tension between the “digital” and the “acoustic.” On the one hand, there is a scientific precision to these scrapes, taps and whistles reminiscent of the most “austere” computer music, like John Wall’s SC series or Sam Ridout’s Aspect Spur Disjecta. On the other hand, the wispy human presence on hi leaves—we are not fully in the realm of abstraction here—gives the proceedings a playful, improvisational quality, making me wonder whether the music was the raw straight-to-tape output of an ephemeral experiment or a meticulously stitched-together DAW collage (likely a mix of both). This ambiguity disperses into the natural cadence of the music, which breathes—almost quite literally, between phrases—like a living being, with certain passages almost sounding like blood rushing through the veins of an organic-mechanical automaton. This music conveys the essence of electroacoustic music as viscerally as its more buttoned-up counterparts: free, structured play of sound on sound; seemingly infinite possibilities on the horizon.
Maxie Younger: hi leaves glistens like wet clay, molded loosely to form: dripping, pliant shapes that resist identifiable structure. The album’s occasional trick of disclosing the source of its noise in its track titling (“plant pot”—a heavier number that evokes a rattling train car—“kettle,” “string,” “table,” “can”) offers little in the way of mystique; these sounds, emergent, twinkling, translucent, are so mired in abstraction that they hold very few tactile links to their origins. This is work that offers equivalent reward to both the engaged and the preoccupied listener. I found greater pleasure in exploring the latter of these relationships, streaming the album while I did chores: the dishes, laundry, dusting, the dishes again: each time my ears singled out new sounds to unmoor me, briefly, from the gentle forward motion of domesticity.
The album is more limited in its charms than soft tissue’s self-titled debut of 3 years prior; where that read as a measured exhalation, hi leaves draws in gulping breaths, holding them to the point of fatigue. It is louder and less subtle, amplifying the tactics of its predecessor—long pauses, organic, architectural timbres, small-scale compositions—into a package that, while ostensibly more refined, holds less appeal. It might seem a bit extreme to say all this about an album whose runtime barely cracks thirty minutes, but the balance soft tissue seeks to strike in their work has proven impossibly fragile here. hi leaves is too much of a good thing by little more than a hair.
Gil Sansón: I’ll start by saying that I’m a sucker for this type of sound—it’s much more likely you’ll find Microstoria than Mouse on Mars in my musical diet on any given day. hi leaves just wants to inhabit its small plateau and delight in sound, the full weight of its artistic statement present in a few gestures: electronically treated contact-mic operations, sounds played backwards, digital processing that can resemble a sedate and calm Autechre, filtered feedback, oscillators. In short, the type of stuff that’s easily available to electronic artists today but impeccably curated, and then presented as a series of short vignettes that are about nothing more than being in this time and space.
I used to think this particular brand of microsound was the real “house music,” that is, electronic music to be played at home, free from the grand gestures of a lot of ambient music and their lofty ideals, happy to fade into silence and befitting the sort of utilitarian aspects that ambient music originally aimed at. hi leaves doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or revolutionize experimental electronic music; everything here is lingua franca, but it’s done beautifully, like a fine dish presented in many small plates. There’s not a sound that doesn’t feel right or perfectly timed, and you never see the cut or edit: it all seems effortless.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: soft tissue’s self-titled debut is the sort of album that’s so unique that any follow-up could only pale in comparison. The Glasgow-based duo’s microsound was emotive to the point of being romantic (!), and the record’s 17-minute runtime made it a phenomenal curio that seemed to come out of nowhere. hi leaves finds them expanding in every dimension—there are six more tracks, 12 more minutes, and a sonic palette that refuses to box them in artistically—and the listening experience is considerably different. This is evident right from the second track “silver tubes,” which is an extended bibelot in the Rie Nakajima mold of found sound. “misc 1” then opts for reversed electronics, pools of silence, and highly melodic blips. As the album progresses, each track feels like a separate entity, making every piece an isolated experiment in a way that’s far off from the debut’s understated coherence. Such an atmosphere isn’t bad: the vignette-like nature of this project bolsters the sci-fi aura inherent to such electroacoustic timbres. There are standouts—the squelching madness of “do,” the sweeping Taku Unami-like sonics of “plant pot”—but this is an album that doesn’t really want any piece to tower over the rest. It also doesn’t have as smooth a flow as Plux Quba, an album I kept thinking about while replaying hi leaves. It’s something closer to an old sound effects LPs, updating its sonics but maintaining the playfulness inherent to such records.
Jinhyung Kim: For me, writing about microsound easily spirals into a mad chase for analogies and referents: grasping for (onomato)poetic language that can mirror a soundscape, or doing detective work to suss out the objects/methods responsible. hi leaves all but dares me to approach it this way, whether with suggestive track titles or the playful recursion that structures its miniatures. Sounds drift along orbital paths, inviting the listener to parse each iteration both in sequence and anew. “friendly” is what I imagine happens if you vocode rain; “string” placidly renders the high-velocity warp of the soundtrack to Tscherkassky’s Outer Space.
But I’m not in the mood to dance much about architecture. It feels superfluous when my enjoyment of the music has so much to do with its physical presence and immediacy; I don’t want to bother translating sensory data from one medium to another. This isn’t to say that I perceive “abstract” art free of all figurative associations, or as pure sound qua sound—I don't believe that's possible (or desirable). I may not like a Tanguy because it seems to depict bacteria on an alien seafloor, but making that connection draws me into the painting. Same with cloud gazing: rarely a serious analytic exercise; mostly an excuse to watch the sky. Pareidolia opens portals to other worlds, and there's wonder to be found in the veiled space between text and paratext. Try playing hi leaves with an oscilloscope visualizer (both WMP and VLC have one as a preset)—now tell me that doesn't sound as pretty as it looks.
Zachariah Cook: The only time I’ve ever felt ASMR “tingles” was while listening to someone on YouTube repair an old GameBoy. It felt like an electric slug was crawling down my neck. The sensation was so foreign to me that I hastily shut off the video, not knowing that I might ever feel that strange pulse again.
Until now? While it’s true I haven’t sought to recreate that moment, I listen to a lot of music one would think capable of producing such effects. In fact, I adore the world of minimally processed, EAI recordings showcasing the tactile beauty of household objects. So to my surprise, the haptic radiance of “friendly” made my scalp feel as if it was rapidly melting down the top of my head.
hi leaves is brighter and cooler to the touch than soft tissue’s debut, though it’s no less gratifyingly oblique. The duo tailors to a certain music nerd sensibility, straddling the line between cutesy representation (think “can” or “table”) and daring abstraction. I’d be content with an album’s worth of the former. But it’s more inscrutable vignettes that challenge me to engage on a deeper level. Unshackled by signifiers of day-to-day life and cozy domesticity, tracks like “feedback” and “misc 2” are a sonic wilderness whose discrete parts ring familiar, even if the sum total is wholly alien. Their awkward, yet dexterous grooves recall the uncanny work of stop-motion masters Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, known for bringing vegetables and slabs of meat to life.
Music that stands proudly outside an everyday frame of reference demands new ways of listening. I shouldn’t be surprised that it gives rise to new ways of feeling. hi leaves is not an outwardly emotional album. More often than not, it bristles and chills rather than soothes. The emotion lies somewhere in the tension between these sounds’ default obscurity and their chaotic insistence on being heard. The more I listen, the more I’m won over.
Shy Thompson: a couple of weeks ago, while out for a walk, i witnessed a gruesome scene: an explosion of k’nex on the sidewalk. as a kid into building and problem solving toys i had a passing curiosity in k’nex, but not enough to chance my limited toy allowance by asking for a set. their byzantine form made their function difficult to grasp at a glance, and the possibilities of k’nex remained a mystery to me. i didn’t fret over it, though; i had lego to tide me over. as this violent aftermath of a once-assembled structure lay at my feet, i realized this was the first time i had ever seen these silly little things in person. i crouched down and took a moment to try and deduce how they fit together, almost certainly looking very strange to any passers-by. i would have tried to build something simple with them if i wasn’t so paranoid about them being covered in covid, but it was nevertheless an enriching exercise—not only because i was able to put a decades long mystery to rest, but also because it helped me to understand why i was initially not clicking with soft tissue’s sophomore album hi leaves.
the self-titled debut has become a personal favorite, one of my aural stim toys that i can use to excite the same areas of my brain as when i would dump a tub of lego onto the floor. every piece has a simple form that can be passively appreciated, like the satisfying click of two blocks fitting together without any resistance. hi leaves, with its expanded toolbox of techniques to tease sound out of ordinary objects, is more like k’nex. the appeal of the self-titled lies in its brevity and elegant simplicity, but hi leaves takes some probing at step one; you find yourself questioning the structure of the basic units before even giving a cursory thought to how they fit together. due to this added layer of intricacy, i wasn’t feeling the same immediacy the self-titled gave me, and having to queue the album up a second and third time was reading to me like a failing. it’s a bit like having to read a block of text more closely than you’d like because none of the letters are capitalized; your eyes become tired because you can’t find your starting point.
eventually, though, you begin to find your way around what once felt unnavigable after you’ve spent enough time surrendering yourself to its design language. k’nex are capable of things you could never conceive of with lego. similarly, hi leaves requires a little reverse-engineering from the jump—you get out of it exactly as much as the effort you’re willing to spend.
Thank you for reading the eighty-second issue of Tone Glow. Don’t be a lech.
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