usumu Yokota is most well known for 2000’s Sakura, one of those minimalist ambient albums where each element seems so precisely chosen that while it plays you can’t imagine how music could possibly be created any other way. My first introduction to him was with 2001’s very different but equally magnificent Grinning Cat, however, and it is much closer to this new album.
Neither album was ambient in the same way Sakura was, both being far too vibrant to meekly await listener attention. Yokota continued to flesh out his palette of organic and acoustic seeming sounds and although the result is still miles away from his house music albums, Grinning Cat and its successor The Boy And The Tree from 2002 are almost a genre wholly unto themselves. They reveal even more clearly Yokota’s obsession with the quality of sound.
Symbol takes this set-up, short tracks that exist seemingly only for the purposes of their own beauty, and applies classical music to it. Yokota has sampled extensively for this album, with John Cage’s “Four Walls” and the vocals of Meredith Monk getting the most consistent attention but with quite a list of other “contributors”: Saint Saëns, Addinsell, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Mahler, Offenbach, Beethoven, Mussorgsky (“A Night On The Bare Mountain,” of course), Chopin, Bizet, Brahms, Prokofiev, Bach, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff. Some of these have been reconfigured enough to blend in with the rest of the music as something new, but some are just dropped whole as signifiers, melodies and sounds even those of us who aren’t terribly familiar with classical music will recognize and respond to.
The result sounds very much like a spliced hybrid of Yokota’s own music (see for example the loop on “Blue Sky And Yellow Sunflower,” which I could swear occurs verbatim on one of his other albums) and the whole range of classical music; or at least one conception of classical music. Yokota leans rather heavily on the sweet side of things, occasionally darkening the mood a bit but mostly allowing these 45 minutes to pass effortlessly. Yokota is using a musical language we all know, even if we don’t think about it very often, and his talent for placing things in a way that is beautiful and subtly powerful is in full force here.
There is a short but crucial difference between the truly sublime and the shallowly pretty, and given the subjectivities involved I’m sure Symbol lands on the wrong side of the easy-listening gap for some. I can only imagine what this must sound like to a dedicated follower of classical music—imagine if coffee table smoothie St. Germain had made Tourist by raiding Kind Of Blue, A Love Supreme and a number of other classics instead of just getting a bunch of guys together to jam. That’s not an issue for most, but the fact remains that the music Yokota has chosen to use as his building blocks is music that is used often enough in various generic ways that Symbol becomes far easier to ignore than Yokota’s best work. As with many other things that go down easy, this is both a blessing and occasionally a frustration.
Whether the beauty and emotional force of the music on Symbol comes from Yokota, his mostly-unknowing collaborators or (most likely) a combination of the two is interesting to contemplate, and can easily lead into a discussion of most of the interesting issues surrounding music if you want it to. But that’s merely a bonus next to the actual vital existence of this music. It’s not that the issues raised by the way Yokota made this album aren’t real ones, worthy of discussion – but isn’t it much better for everyone if we enjoy and then discuss, have our cake and eat it too? Symbol ultimately temporarily transcends the questions of its creation the only way it was ever going to: By sounding near-perfect, by creating a reverie the willing listener can fall into again and again, and by sounding not like an academic exercise in recontextualization but like effervescent, enthralling, vital art.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JULY 18 – 24, 2005