Although Marihiko Hara had a childhood filled with music of one sort or another, he says early memories of it are foggy. One that stands out clearly, however, is the face of singer-songwriter Scott Walker.
Hara, 36, remembers his mother listening to Walker every day, but it’s only his face on the front of the album cover that sticks with him. Still, something must have sunk into his subconscious as this Osaka-born and Kyoto-based composer seems to draw on a lot of varied influences for his new album, “Passion” — particularly the rousing eponymous track that opens it.
“My maternal grandparents were Christians,” Hara says. “They were a host family for seminarians, mainly from Spain and Italy. I often spent vacations, such as summer, Christmas and Easter with them. I got familiar with sacred songs, I guess.”
In the middle of “Passion,” during the track “Nocturne” specifically, this familiarity with the sacred comes to the fore. There is a resemblance in the ostinato to 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis’ Canon, aka the hymn “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night.” Intentional or not, the simplicity with which the track marches on with impassioned piano echoes, even if faintly, cloistered choral music.
While religion appears to rear its head on “Passion,” it may be the case that those visiting seminarians, or rather where in the world they’d come from, had a stronger influence on the artist. The first piece Hara ever composed was inspired by, or at least named after, the distant land of Mongolia.
“When I was 5 years old, I remember composing a short piece using only the black keys on my aunt’s electric organ,” he recalls. “She was also a piano teacher. I think I named the piece ‘Song of Mongolia.’”
Hara brings his interest in faraway places to “Passion” by way of instruments from a broad range of cultures. He says he was keen not to integrate these elements but instead tried to create a sense of coexistence. The track “Fontana,” for example, slow burns with the weighty, sharp resonance of shō, a Japanese aerophone consisting of 17 bamboo pipes, mingled with delicate strains of piano; “Confession” gleams with waves of thick electronic haze, and features sparkling, sultry tracts of santur, an Iranian zither struck with specially shaped hammers. Both tracks are pockmarked with sounds from the natural environment, recorded by Hara himself.
“Field recording gives me time to focus on listening carefully while the recorder is on,” he says. “So the flow and transition of sounds end up being a very good teacher for composition and mixing for me.”
Electronic and experimental sounds have long been a part of Hara’s sound as much as the piano, which often serves as Hara’s base note — deep and solid. In fact, his 2009 debut, “Nostalghia” is ambient, scratchy, intricate and practically pianoless. “Credo,” released in 2011, with its stripped back electronic noises, is ultraminimal, a tale of fragmented, scurrying beats.
“Since I was a teenager, I’ve made beat-based music with synthesizers and sequencers in parallel with the piano,” he says. “Once I started university, though, I got a Mac, and since then I’ve been writing music with a (more) electronic approach.”
It wasn’t until “Flora” (2013) that the piano really began to take center stage. Hara made it intentionally “badly recorded” for an experiment, not just in composition, but in texture, too. His increased focus on the piano was potentially sparked by collaborating with post-classical composer and guitarist Polar M on the album “Beyond” (2013). After working alongside musician Simon Fisher Turner to provide the music for Shiro Takatani’s 2012 stage show “Chroma,” Hara rejoined Takatani in 2015 for another stage show, “Still.” This would prove to be an influential experience as Ryuichi Sakamoto — Hara’s inspiration to become a musician — also provided music for the show.
“I decided to be a professional musician after I went to a Ryuichi Sakamoto concert. I was 13 at the time,” Hara recalls. “It is difficult to find musicians who are not influenced by him now.
“(With ‘Still’) I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Sakamoto, get close to his music and learn more,” he adds.
Naturally, more stage shows followed — some by playwright Hideki Noda — interwoven with the eventual release of another piano-heavy album: “Landscape in Portrait” (2017). At the end of last year, Hara took his first step into film soundtracks — “a long-held desire” — with “Eki Made no Michi o Oshiete” (“Show Me the Way to the Station”), a movie adaptation of the short story collection of the same name by Shizuka Ijuin.
It’s interesting, then, that “Passion” seems to veer so far from pure piano-led tracks. Though its title track is certainly a statement piece for the piano — a real key-thumping crash of rich, warm sounds — and many tracks, such as the graceful “After Rain” (you can almost see leaves dewed with fresh precipitation and smell the earth), are solely piano numbers, there are many that aren’t.
The track “Vibe” feels vaporwave in flavor, featuring timeworn sounds and a timeless atmosphere that summons this commercial-sampling style of music; the preceding track, “65290,” with its looping fuzzed-out beat and decayed synths, perhaps even more so. What vaporwave and these elements of “Passion” have in common is their transportive effect: their ability to whisk the listener elsewhere.
His soundtrack for “Mood Hall” — a late-2019 collection of surreal animations by Kyoto-based outfit Kawai+Okamura, aka Takumi Kawai and Hiroki Okamura — feels similar. Experimental and electronic, Hara’s music here tumbles with jazz freedom, hypnotic loops, a fever dream of texture and otherworldly spaces.
“I believe music changes a space. I got that from working in theater and doing sound installations at art spaces,” Hara explains. “With ‘Passion,’ I aimed for this sense of transition, beginning with a solo piano song, then moving on to an abstract electronic soundscape, and ending with the solo piano again.
“Music is not only a temporal but a spatial art.”
Given the circumstances, it’s not unsurprising that instrumental music, particularly of the ambient variety, has seen something of a resurgence recently.
“It tends to be background music, and I think listeners are free to find something in their textures,” Hara says. “A listener can find a melody without a melody. It may be something like an inner voice.”
Having become a father for the first time in spring, for safety he and his family are staying at home. Understandably, he admits, “Music really saves me.”
For more information on Marihiko Hara and “Passion,” visit https://song.link/marihikohara.