In honor of the upcoming reissue of her classic albums, Through The Looking Glass and Lunar Cruise by We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want Records and Palto Flats, as well her European Tour in support of the reissues, this week’s “Artist From Japan” is Midori Takada.
Midori Takada, who currently resides as a professor of Kunitachi College of Music, started her professional career in the illustrious Berlin Philharmonic in the late 70s. Over the long and winding career that followed, she contributed significantly to the music of live theater, film soundtracks, and conventional classical music, while simultaneously becoming one of the most beloved, and prolific percussionists in Japan’s experimental/ambient scene. She has worked on some massively popular anime and games which have significant followings in the west like Final Fantasy, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, Haibane Renmei, as well as working with the famous Yoko Kanno herself.
But even with all that, the true gift of Midori Takada, was the work released under her own name through the 80s and early 90s, where she crafted a very singular, percussive focused take on ambient and minimalist music. Blending Eastern and African percussion styles with a kind of ambient world-building that allowed her to stand out, even among the incredibly boundary pushing western contemporary ambient artists like Brain Eno/Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, and Virginia Astley.
The Essential Album: Through The Looking Glass
1. Mkwaju Ensemble (1981)
Though not released under Midori Takada’s name, the Mkwaju Ensemble (which was led by Midori and fellow percussionist Yoji Sandanari) represents the birth of her sound, and the start of recording career in earnest. The name, based on a tree native to the sub-Saharan region used to craft instruments, represents the music well, a fusion of jazz, minimalism, synth-pop, and experimental percussion, all directed towards a fascination with music from around the world, though Africa in particular. Featuring dense, playfully rhythms that often find their way into polyphony.
The group released two albums in an incredibly short one year span, first Ki-Motion, and then the self titled Mkwaju. Both of which heavily focus on the drumming/percussion of Midori as well as Yoji Sadanari, but start with more synth-pop-ish dance tracks that fuse eerie ambient, and minimalist tendencies with almost 4-on-the-floor synthetic bass. These synthpop ambient fusion were interesting, but more forgettable compared to the latter sections of both albums which really predicted the path Midori Takada would end up pursuing.
Tracks like ‘Hot Air’ and ‘Pulse In My Mind’ are pieces of perfectly crafted tone, featuring droning ambient tones layered under strange percussion performed by a multitude of instruments, crafting sounds that sound like nothing I’ve heard before. The pinging metallic sounds of marimba, and vibraphone played under traditional African instruments makes for a wave of soothing percussion, and calming sound. Much like like Brain Eno and Laraaji’s Ambient 3: Days Of Radiance, which used the strange sound of the zither to create that unique musical landscape.
These albums are not as highly recommend as her two genuine solo ones, but as an insight into the mind and work of Midori, they are fascinating.
2. Through The Looking Glass (1983)
Like many oddball artists who, despite releasing music WAY before the internet, have started to gain a fan base online, there is an album or song that can be shared, and immediately enjoyed that drives the interest for the artist. The opening track for TTLG, “Mr. Henri Rousseau’s Dream”, is that and so much more for Midori.
Based on the paintings of post-impressionist artist Henri Rousseau, who was known for his odd, almost childlike renderings of jungle scenes, despite having never visited a jungle himself. The track is an incredible twelve-minute journey that, like the paintings, draws a vibrant, almost uncanny musical scene. Strange flute-like sounds are used to imitate the sounds of birds, and wooden claps float in and out of the mix, like the gentle chirping of insects, and the croaking of frogs. Chimes imitate strains of light poking through the dense foliage overhead, which is itself painted by the droning tone of god-knows-what which surrounds the entire track, like a jungle heat.
It’s an incredible example of Brian Eno’s original goal for ambient music, “to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. There’s an incredible level of depth and musicality to the track that rewards patient, focused listening, but it can also be left in the background to apply a tone to whatever it is you’re doing, allowing you to travel to this jungle world, or to simply have it play outside your window.
While “Mr. Henri Rousseau’s Dream” is definitely the looming masterwork of the album, all 4 tracks are really quite incredible. “Crossing” is a very Steve Reich inspired piece of minimalism that feels almost primal, and evil. This is followed by “Trompe-l’oeil” a more sinister interpretation of Mr Henri’s jungle-y ambient, feeling more like a dire, lost in the jungle type situation.
Then the finale, “Catastrophe”, where you can imagine coming into the clearing in the forest, staring into a native ritual filled with drums and unnatural energy, as wave after wave of interlocked drums pummel you It journey’s through progressively stranger and stranger sounds, like some sort of musical interpretation of Kubrick’s 2001, as we it heads to the limit of sanity.
A truly singular and mesmerizing album. A genuine bona-fide classic of ambient, new age, tribal ambient, and minimalism, one that was in desperate need of reissue, so hats off to WRWTFWW Records and Palto Flats.
3. Lunar Cruise (as Midori Takada & Masahiko Satoh) (1990)
Lunar Cruise is an album that fully lives up to it’s title. Teaming up with jazz pianist Masahiko Satoh, Lunar Cruise truly feels like exploring new worlds, and looking out at the vastness of space. It evokes a lot of the same feelings, and tone of early Miyazaki films like Nausicaa, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It’s that feeling of exploring powerful, ancient ruins that evoke fear and wonder in equal measure. Or sometimes, that feeling of seeing what the world beyond your little town looks like, as you look out into the vastness of space. These are captured amazingly on opening tracks like “Ancient Palace” and “Nahm”. “Ancient Palace” in particular, as loose gong hits, and descending marimba lines float over a disembodied choir that hovers at the bottom of the mix, like the dust kicked up in the titular palace, a reminder of things ancient, and forgotten.
The odder tracks on the album even feel like traditional dance music from a long dead alien culture, uncovered in those ruins. “A Vanished Illusion” sounds like some sort of alternate reality arabic dancing song played by Martians, with this strange tinny instrument played alongside chaotic trumpet spurts and this kind of swing-y groove that just keeps chugging, even as the instruments above become more and more unhinged.
The bulk of the songs featured a newer, jazzier progression of the sounds of her previous album, and more significantly, the more organic ambient effects are traded out for a more spacious, synthetic sounding variety. A change which pulls the album towards a whole new tone, and a whole new scene to paint.
4. Other Stuff
Instead allow me this moment to plead with WRWTFWW and Palto Flats. Please reissue Midori’s 1998 album Tree of Life, for the kids, please.