serenitatem, the fifteenth instalment of FRKWYS, RVNG Intl.’s collaboration series pairing inter-generational artists in creative conversation, joins Visible Cloaks with Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano, two trailblazers of the Japanese avant-garde music and visual arts scenes of the 1980s and 90s.
Yoshio Ojima began his career as a composer of environmental and ambient music, with a particular interest, and optimism, in the possibilities of generative software. His compositional pursuit of human synthesis with computerised forms was realised in its fullest potential alongside Satsuki Shibano, a pianist renowned for her interpretations of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Together, they were among a handful of influential Japanese artists whose innovations still resonate, if not more vibrantly than ever, well beyond the tightly-knit scene’s original core.
In the early 90s, Ojima was among the programmers of the influential satellite radio experiment St. Giga, a constantly-evolving sonic landscape that combined field recordings and sound collage with occasional readings of Japanese poetry. Satsuki was a regular reader for the station. This musical terrarium bloomed out of sight in a small Tokyo studio, a greenhouse of sound with no set start or finish time that audiences could tune into, absorb, and immerse. The perpetual flow state of St. Giga — recordings of which Ojima shared with Visible Cloaks — would be highly influential to serenitatem’s constitution.
As Visible Cloaks, the Portland, Oregon duo of Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile have developed their own set of creative strategies that form an aesthetic fuse point between human intention, aleatoric composition, and improvisation. These are notions most recently reflected in 2017’s Reassemblage and Lex, a respective album and EP in which the duo combined generative software and virtual representations of global instruments into lacy, interlocking patterns.
Long time admirers of Ojima’s work on albums like 1988’s Une Collection Des Chainons, Doran and Carlile discovered after an online introduction that they shared with Yoshio and Satsuki an abiding interest in pre-classical composers, the Lovely Music, Ltd. label, and the British avant-garde, as well as a mutual respect for one another’s techniques and processes.
The four musicians met in Tokyo, Japan at Sounduno Studios in December 2017, at the tail end of Visible Cloaks’ first Japanese tour, to commence work on serenitatem. Leading up to the studio sessions, Doran and Carlile sent Ojima processed sound sketches recorded while on a European tour, which Yoshio would add to and return. Visible Cloaks would then fold Yoshio’s edits back into the original compositions, which Doran and Carlile brought to the exploratory recording session. During that week together in Tokyo, the quartet made use of a number of creative strategies — “echoing sound together,” as Yoshio puts it.
Among the strategies, MIDI randomisation gave the quartet melodic lines and what Doran calls “randomised clouds,” or “tightly grouped notes that become smeared tonal clusters functioning more like chords in themselves.” Carlile would also feed Ojima and Satsuki’s text into Wotja, a generative music software which produced a MIDI language around which the quartet expanded their compositions.
“The aim,” Doran says of serenitatem, “was to make a work that was not specifically ambient (or environmental), but something more multi-hued, weaving these deconstructive concepts into an album that has a deeper architecture underpinning it.”
Accordingly, serenitatem is a marvellously sharp record, its sutures between human and machine virtually impossible to find but suggested everywhere you turn. The collaboration among Ojima, Satsuki, and Visible Cloaks is both musically and conceptually inseparable from the technology that made it possible.
Throughout the album, Shibano’s playing resonates like Satie’s, her rhythms cascading like drops from leaves an hour after the rain. Overtones are stretched and warped like modeling clay, then spun around and shown off from multiple angles. A single soaring note might seem to be suddenly plunged underwater, its richness of sound made shallow and its sharp edges blunted. Pittering chimes and rapidly warping vocal samples hang in the luxuriously glossy space, water trickles from ear-to-ear, familiar melodies rise from nothing and dissolve before they can be traced.
With the depth of its emotional charge, serenitatem burns away the easy cynicism of the day, presenting itself as the kind of delocalised work of art the internet promised us decades ago — a synthesis of artistic visions, technological sophistication, futurist ambition, and, occasionally, ancient polyphony. Listening to it can feel a bit like tuning in to a 21st Century version of St. Giga: It’s a place where the future still grows.