As much of the world continues to balance a life spent indoors with sporadic outings, finding ways to make your living space more audibly habitable is a priority. And while music with lyrics may be the go-to choice for an impromptu session of lockdown karaoke, vocals can often feel message-driven: simply a case of adding somebody else’s thoughts — worries, even — to your own. Ambient music, on the other hand, can feel soothing and, at times, cathartic.
While Kumi Takahara’s music isn’t strictly ambient, her debut album, “See-Through,” hints at it through a collection of 10 soundscapes painted with a varied palette of influences.
Takahara is a classically trained violinist who started playing the instrument at age 3, a fact that’s not necessarily evident on much of her album. Rather than showing off her virtuosic talents, she experiments: On “Roll,” the strings scratch and needle through the air with stuttering harmonics, mechanical vibrato adding to the scene. The following track, “Chime,” features a violin solo that’s almost childlike, as well as a shadowy piano rendition of the Westminster Quarters, a common melody for clock chimes.
|Rating||out of 5|
But as ambient-adjacent as her music is, Takahara also uses her voice. Present on a smattering of tracks, it’s most prominent on “Ditty,” which feels brighter and lighter than much of the album. It ends with a gradual increase in tempo, a flurry of piano and rapid violins sounding much like a pre-concert warmup.
Now based in Tokyo, Takahara’s career spans a stint in Europe touring with orchestras, performing solo at various concert halls, and lending her talents to Japanese artists such as Shione Yukawa and World’s End Girlfriend. It’s this connection to the contemporary that finds its way onto “See-Through” — not least in terms of some of the producer credits.
Both halves of U.K. duo The Boats contribute, while Andrew Hargreaves (aka Tape Loop Orchestra) brings his production talents to “Chant,” which begins as liquid gleaming ambience and ends dramatic and doomful with string arpeggios and a tense column of sub-bass — the soundtrack to being thrown from a spaceship airlock in a circa-23rd-century setting. The final track, “Log,” is produced by Craig Tattersall (aka The Humble Bee) and is thick with expansive sound. It’s also the only track to feature purpose-made percussion, a simple lo-fi beat that turns it into something of a procession.
The second to last track “Tide” was produced and mixed by Japan’s own aus (Yasuhiko Fukuzono). It’s cinematic, with stormy fugues and rising crescendos, creating the impression of a huge orchestral arrangement where there is none. “Tide” contrasts greatly with other tracks like “Nostalgia,” a more microcosmic voyage collaged with a mosaic of vital, analog found sounds and a Baroque piano melody, and the emotive “Kai-kou” (meaning “encounter”), which is heavy with breathy cello and warm chords. Both “Nostalgia” and “Kai-kou” also feature classical pianist Tomomichi Watanabe.
Though much of “See-Through” could be mistaken as postclassical, that’s not the case. Takahara’s album may be rooted in classical music but it blooms with contemporary influences, ambient music, sounds of the natural world and with bold experimentation. These are sonic snapshots for your living room or your socially distanced stroll in the park. Modernity, in the form of her indie approach to making classical music, brilliantly shines through.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.