ARTS

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July 19, 2002

ANTA BAKA

What was sentiment before Hallmark? What was emotion before fluffy pastel bunnies cradled pink bubble letters that read "Get Well Soon"? Nobody knows. We're in the grips of collective amnesia. "Sentimentality" has become all but synonymous with "sappiness" for a culture precariously balanced on the razor-thin line between disgust and outright apathy. Most people don't care to pursue that line. Rather than strenuously following that tightrope to its terminus, most would rather spare themselves the effort and sit down for an ironic film and an unironic bag of Fritos. Nonetheless, there are a handful of artists and people who seem to lack the ironizing tendencies of the rest of us, without surrendering to the kind of gooey sentimentality of Touched by an Angel or Party of Five. All my references are undoubtedly out of date, but bear with me.

Countless bands try to shatter the serenity (whether it be ironic or sentimental in nature) of the mainstream with searing blasts of noise—name virtually any thrash band and you've named a culprit—but others, such as the Kings of Convenience, suggest that Quiet is the New Loud, that subtlety and being understated are actually more valid reactions against the stifling mainstream. Takagi Masakatsu sides with the latter.

His music is of the world, incorporating countless field recordings from around the globe, yet it is peculiarly other-worldly. In fact, rather than providing a stark alternative to the world at large, as, say, Simon and Garfunkel and Angelcorpse do, his extensive use of recordings of it rather seems to work in the opposite, to find beauty in the squalor of everyday life.

Despite the abundance of aural references to contemporary culture and technology—buses roaring, street musicians, outdoor markets—the fact that they comprise the very fabric of "Harmony," the 20+ minute track on Masakatsu's recent Opus Pia CD, implies neither an acceptance of those occurrences "as they are," nor a rejection. Instead, it implies and enforces a "delving deeper," compelling the listener to extract the sonic beauty from events we would normally consider prosaic—mothers scolding their tots, peddlers shouting their wares, and so on. If I may, for a moment, be permitted to politicize the fundamentally apolitical "Harmony," then this approach is, of course, quite optimistic.

But Masakatsu makes no such claim. The liner notes are comprised of a scant few sentences, which basically amount to, "In making Opus Pia, I was trying to find small, beautiful things in daily life." OK, so I may have blown the whole issue out of proportion, but one can at least infer that he was trying to reveal the beauty of the diurnal to ears that would otherwise pass over it. I haven't heard the traffic outside my window the same since.

If another thing strikes me about "Harmony," it's the unity of sound. So many different sounds, such a vast array of utterances and languages are heard that it transcends the category of "pastiche" and rather seems like a unified whole—not just a document of the way people live all over the world, but instead a patchwork quilt of noises. What you're left with, ultimately, aren't the contrasts between French and Turkish, or between Japanese schoolboys and a New York pedestrian, but a singular, amorphous impression of the human race bustling across the Earth.

If less grand in their scope, the other tracks on Opus Pia are no less beautiful for it. Like Nobukazu Takemura, who easily ranks among my favorite electronic musicians, Masakatsu utilizes glitchiness in service of emotion. The warm beauty of his beatless programming belies the high-tech software used to create it. Not all purveyors of glitch use their Pro Tools/Max/MSP to create something as otherwordly and high-tech sounding as the tools by which they make it.

To accompany the CD's release, Carpark Records has released a DVD of some of Masakatsu's recent video work, which is meant as a companion piece for the CD (or perhaps it's the other way around). I urge the prospective buyer to pick up both simultaneously, for the two pieces, equally brilliant in their own unique rights, interact in a fascinating way. After hearing the title track off the CD, it's fascinating to see how Masakatsu integrates his music with a pixilated video of rain falling. Miraculously, the watery pulses of melody in "Opus Pia" "work" as well as accompaniment as in a void (as part of an object-in-itself). While no longer strictly autotelic, "Opus Pia" is not degraded by its partnership with pia #1, the brief video clip.

Perhaps the reason they complement each other so well is that Masakatsu's video clips are as focused on the texture of vision and the world when visually oriented as his music is with the texture of sound. Although in most cases the depicted object is deducible, Masakatsu grinds his images through so much blurring and soft-focus that one is left with merely an impression of reflections and refractions. In one particular video clip, Masakatsu whirls his camera around at such speed that the moving image on the screen seems more of a fabric woven of light, color, and shadow, than a place, a collection of things.

Takagi Masakatsu is, to my mind, one of the most exciting cultural imports from contemporary Japan. As young as he is, his talent and vision are simultaneously of a simplicity and of a complexity that boggles and engages the senses and the intellect. With this dual release, Masakatsu, originally a video artist, has secured his position at the forefront of electronic music as well.