Through The Looking Glass
04. Catastrophe S
Recorded January 27-28, February 3, 1983 at AOYAMA STUDIO 302, Tokyo
Midori Takada: Piano, Cowbell, Marimba, Harmonium [Reed Organ], Marimba, Gong, Cowbell, Recorder, Bells [Wood Bell], Ocarina
In a perfect world, Japanese composer Midori Takada and her works for percussion would be as revered and renowned as that of Steve Reich. Much like that world-renowned American composer, Takada drew influence from a study of African drumming and Asian music, and surmised how these sensibilities dovetailed with that of minimalism, serving as means to break with the Western classical tradition (she originally was a percussionist in the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonic). But with only a handful of works to her name and all of it long out of print—be it with her groundbreaking percussion trio Mkwaju Ensemble, the group Ton-Klami or the three solo albums she released across nearly two decades—her music has been impossible to hear since the early 1990s.
Only last year did two pieces from Takada’s Mkwaju Ensemble appear on last year’s crucial More Better Days compilation, revealing Takada’s singular approach to spartan yet euphoric percussion pieces. Touching on gamelan, kodo, and American minimalism (Takada founded the trio in part to perform the works of Reich, Terry Riley, and other 20th-century percussion pieces), each one built carefully to sublime effect. When Visible Cloaks’ member Spencer Doran released his influential mixes of Japanese music, selections from both Mkwaju and Takada’s solo percussion pieces appeared at crucial junctures.
The rarest of all of Takada’s works though was her 1983 solo effort, Through the Looking Glass, never released on CD and fetching ludicrous sums online for an original vinyl copy. Unable to financially sustain Mkwaju, Takada disbanded the ensemble and entered the studio by herself to realize this music. Over the course of two days, she put to analog tape all four of the extended performances here as well as laying down the overdubs, producing and mixing (with help from an engineer) the album on her own. An astonishing feat in and of itself, Looking Glass is one of the most dazzling works of minimalism, be it from the East or West.
“Mr. Henri Rousseau's Dream” is an assured opening, one that moves at its own slow, hushed pace. Takada astutely layers marimba, gongs, rattles and other ambient bits of chimes, recorder, tam-tam and mimics bird calls with an ocarina. In its understated pulsing of marimba, it brings to mind Gavin Bryars’ work from the same era, most notably Hommages on the Les Disques Du Crépuscule imprint. There appears to be little in the way of linear development as Takada instead crafts and sustains an entire landscape of these small sounds, letting them all levitate in mid-air for twelve heavenly minutes.
With “Crossing,” a bit of momentum builds up from a single struck cowbell. Takada goes back over the original clonk and starts to layer interweaving lines on marimba, each successive line increasing the complexity of the lines. More cowbell comes in and suddenly Takada begins to simulate the ornate polyrhythms of Reich’s Drumming all by herself in the studio. And with the introduction of a crossing marimba pattern and the drone of a harmonium some five-and-a-half minutes into the piece, it moves into its own rarefied space.
“Trompe-L’oeil” moves at a more relaxed pace, with Takada’s harmonium lines swaying like an accordion and her use of a Coke bottle as both reed and percussion giving the piece a playful air about it. It’s a breather before the finale of the album, the fifteen-minute pressure cooker of percussion, “Catastrophe S.” Using the harmonium to create a darker mood, Takada focuses on tom-tom, bongos, cymbal and a bit of piano to ratchet up and sustain tension over the course of the piece. There’s a breathlessness to the piece as it gathers momentum that makes it one of the most thrilling percussion pieces of its kind.
While her American influences always had an exploratory aspect to their most famous works, there’s never a moment on, say, “Music for 18 Musicians” where you feel like Reich lets loose his rein even a millimeter. There’s something about Takada and the joy of creating this album that fully emerges in this last quarter-hour, as she builds energy up with her drums, her harmonium and that ever-present cowbell. In the liner notes to this reissue, Takada explained just what she learned in her studies of African and Asian music that led her to abandoned Western classical music as a pursuit way back when. “As a performer, this music asked you to personally examine your own physical transformation and to confirm and share this transformation with your counterpart, group or tribe,” she said. “The music stops short of imposing sovereignty or nationality.” And even as the finale builds to a glorious climax, it too stops short. Takada pulls it all away at the last possible moment, a thrill that allows her listeners—nearly thirty-five years on—to soar to a space well within themselves. It’s a space well worth rediscovery.