Album review: Masayoshi Fujita – ‘Bird Ambience’: a marimba and electronica masterclass for meditative thought


The Breakdown

The ideal summating word for Bird Ambience is unhurried; it takes time to build spaces filled with gorgeous reverberation. Sometimes the marimba or vibraphone is at its most naked, often multitracked and conversational, sometimes shifting into a more laptop-cracked and sharded electronica; always intelligent, economical, transporting. Complex and dazzling, it's an album to seek refuge in. Music for dusk, music for sex, music for the cosmos. Buy.
ERASED TAPES 9.4

IF YOU like your music deliciously abstract, abstractedly delicious; arranged beautifully, an absolute world of evocative sound; fell hard, for instance, for the albums Ryuichi Sakamoto made with Alva Noto, Revep, Summvs, Vrioon, et al; or have adored the lusciousness of Chihei Hatakeyama’s new album, Late Spring, then sit down, sit up – Japanese vibraphonist, percussionist and composer Masayoshi Fujita is to release a new album, Bird Ambience, for Erased Tapes on May 28th.

On this, his fourth album flying solo, fourth for Erased Tapes and eighth collaboratively – there’s been a brace of beauties with Jan Jelinek, the microhouse/glitchtronica venturer whose Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records should so be in your collection, should this kind of nuanced soundscaping be your bag – sees an admittedly subtle change of direction for Fujita, best known for his explorations of the place where vibraphone gets it on with Berlin electronica and modern composition, makes some very beautiful babies; he’s moved one instrumental step sideways to the marimba, a similar percussive instrument with wooden instead of metal bars; introducing a beautiful woodiness to his palette.

He’s also, for the first time, blurred the boundaries between the more analogue ambient warmth which he released under his own name, and the deeper dub he records as El Fog.

Fujita says of the marimba, which takes centre stage on his new album alongside drums, percussion, synths, effects and tape recorder: The way of playing the marimba is similar to the vibraphone, so it was kind of a natural development for me and easier to start with, yet it sounds very different.

“The marimba bars are made with wood and it has a wider range than the vibraphone, which gives me a bigger sound palette, with more possibilities. I play the instrument with bows and mallets, and sometimes manipulate it with effects.” 

He’s also happier to let chance and happenstance take its place in his compositions: “I prioritised trying to capture the wonder which happens during those occasional magic improv moments.

“Sometimes the miking and placement of instruments was pretty rough; things weren’t perfect and everything was done quickly, but it turned out as the final recording. Overall when I couldn’t decide between two takes, I told myself to go with the first.”

After more than a decade resident in that experimental music salon of a city, Berlin, Fujita has recently moved back to Japan and now has his bucolic dream studio in Kami-chō, in the Hyōgo Prefecture, framed by wooded mountains and coast, following his lifelong dream of creating music in nature.

Though the album was wrapped and in the can in Germany before his return home, Bird Ambience, as the title suggests, is about epiphany and reverie in the natural world – a delicious companion may be found in the recent work of Ben Seretan, for piano and environment recordings. Onwards, upwards and deeper, then; let’s listen in.

Masayoshi Fujita, photographed by Özge Cöne

It’s only right and proper that we begin with the title track, and “Bird Ambience” immediately seduces; it’s also the longest track on the album, Fujita making sure he pulls his deep into his ricocheting, spacious soundworld, fully baptised and immersed. Based around an improvised marimba take, Fujita elegantly weaves in celestial choral samples, the operatic voice of fellow Erased Tapes artist Hatis Noit and slow-motion, skeletal, glitch percussion. And yet it’s so much more, while simultaneously drawing on so much less, than the inadequacy of those words can convey; every note, every beat, every melody is placed with the kind of enthralling consideration you get from Talk Talk. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted. It rings, it echoes, it glories in itself.

“When I was working on Bird Ambience, I had this very strong but blurred image in my mind that I wanted to capture, but had to find the right sounds,” Fujita reveals. “It was like when you try to remember a dream you just had, but it falls away and disappears.

“Thunder” rolled out across our skies as the first revelation from the album in March, and it’s the world of a storm captured in a kind of post-post-classical ambient consideration. Claps of marimba echo out across a texture of staccato, chattering microtronica, of the kind very much identified with the city of the album’s recording, Berlin; an embracing and an evocation of the natural world and weather phenomena in expansive sound. Warm mid-tones swirl and swathe you, soften the attack of the other sonics, pull you deep.

Logically, it comes accompanied by a video celebrating the wonders of the natural world, shot by Ryo Noda in the mountains that form a backdrop to Fujita’s new life in Kami-chō. We’re told the track was inspired by the poem “You Will Hear Thunder”, by Anna Akhmatova.

“Anakreon” was inspired by an illustration for a textile design of that name by the architect and designer Josef Frank, which in turn was inspired by a 3,500-year-old Greek fresco of a bluebird; an incredible chain of creative iteration ringing down the years. Fujita makes of it a contemplative and spacious fragility, sparse, near-monochrome; like the light on a stormy day, it’s all about the tones rather than the colours. It slowly builds into longer chains of melody and fragments once more into the beauty of the deftly-placed single or double note, each referring to its neighbours but standing alone. Music for dusk, music for meditative thought.

“Cumulonimbus Dream” stays in a similar contemplative zone, dreaming of thunderheads, and develops layers of melody, pregnant with rain, twin marimba lines weaving with a mournful synth line and more eerie, watery resonances that ring off and out with a dub nuance. It’s woody and warming, earthy; the music of the elements or rather, elemental music. It sounds like it’s grown from the earth and is so beautiful for that. Think shimmer and petrichor and fine mizzle.

“Gaia” is more musclebound, starker, sounds like it might be something Seefeel would’ve dropped during their tenure at Warp; each proudly ringing note comes hazed with crackle, just tipping into distortion. It’s a deep electronic dub that’s grown out of recherché, analogue instrumentation and preserves a core of the organic mimeographed and transmuted into an entirely differently creature. Eerie and deft.

“Noise Marimba Tape” has a muted, lo-fi quality, sounds like it was recorded live to four-track or somesuch; it certainly exists in a narrower sonic space than previous tracks, and the mecanoid (à la Pierre Bastien) skeleton of the track thrums and pulses and allows Fujita’s marimba an abstract and jazzy conversational flight above – and playful too, with a twittering, wheezing cartoonish sound coming into play and adding further abstraction. “Morocco” takes that jazziness and runs with it, Satie meets Bobby Hutcherson, a study of the beauty of resonance and twin interplay, a grounding, cyclical melody delineating a zone of shimmer and softly pitter-pattering drums. As it builds and swells it has the feel of a magical film soundtrack, something classic ringing through from childhood. A melody the world has always known but which Fujita has finally tuned into.

There’s this softer core at the heart of the album, the passage to whose absolute centre steps us lightly through the filigree of “Miyama No Kitsune”, eschewing the marimba for Fujita’s previous mainstay, the vibraphone. Hush is the byword here; it’s the gleam of dawn rather than the bright shafts of a fully risen sun, a fleeting fragment, 121 seconds; and gives way to “Nord Ambient”, amniotic, subterranean, slowly droning in soothing, bell-clear drift, rent by threatening bass undercurrent to wrest you back as you slowly submerge. Aptly titled, it feels like a tipping of the hat to some of Fujita’s contemporaries.

“Stellar” moves back towards a beguiling Berlin thing, the clear ring refracted and cracked in the prism of post-processing, tiny threads of sound, radio static, whistlings and swoops buried deep in the delicious shimmer and all gaining the unlikely propulsion of a cracked triphop rhythm, maybe as if played by John Bonham deep in a hard drive, clacking and cymbal-heavy, always just addled enough to never settle as an actual groove. Think Alva Noto; think, again, a future jazz aesthetic, you’ll find you’ve vanished in delicate layers of sound, whisked within.

Bird Ambience closes with two more deep meditations, “Pons” and “Fabric”. The former is clear like spring water, taking a pretty rising and falling motif for its grounding and aiming skyward in counter-melody. Ideally, you’d listen to this in post-coital afterglow or maybe zero gravity; it has absolutely no edges, just spaciousness and the gleam of the heavens. The latter keeps you swaddled and spinning softly, while warming you with sustained drone of a Kranky Records stripe, scattered and pretty marimba interjections like lazy dewdrops.

The ideal summating word for Bird Ambience is unhurried; it takes time to build spaces filled with gorgeous reverberation, sometimes the marimba or vibraphone at its most naked, often multitracked and conversational, sometimes shifting into a more laptop-cracked and sharded electronica; always intelligent, economical, transporting.

I have a friend called Sam who used to talk in hushed tones of what he called ‘listening music’, which seems an oxymoron on the surface until you consider the role muzak plays in our world; unpack his phraseology and you know he’s conceiving of albums like this (and others alluded to in the text above); music for deep appreciation, music for full submersion, with so many little nuances and sparkles waiting to grab you and whirl you off in other directions.

Complex and dazzling, it’s an album to seek refuge in. Music for dusk, music for sex, music for the cosmos. Buy.

Masayoshi Fujita’s Bird Ambience will be released by Erased Tapes on May 28th digitally, on CD and on 2xLP; you can pre-order your copy here.

Follow Fujita at his website, on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram.

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