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Illustration by Bill Smith

In the 27 years prior to his death in 1925, the composer Erik Satie allowed no one to enter his apartment. He had friendships with other members of the French avant-garde. A group of young composers, Les Six, even formed a minimovement around him. But he lived alone in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, where his only household companion was his own “furniture” music, music written so you could blissfully ignore it, as you might a nice sofa or an elegant end table. You could follow his melodies like an autumn leaf outside your window — rising, falling, floating. Or you could fall asleep on that sofa, rest your feet upon the table, whichever you preferred.

But Satie was also playful. He gave his pieces names like Embryons Desséchés (desiccated embryos) and Véritables Préludes Flasquers — Pour un Chien (true flabby preludes — for a dog). In directions to interpreters, he requested that his work be played “with much illness” or “light as an egg.” In the poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s program notes to Parade, a collaboration among Satie, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev, the word surrealism was used for the first time. The piece was scored for airplane propellers, ticker tape, sirens and typewriters.

But Aki Tsuyuko knows no one writes songs on typewriters.

“I took lessons in electronic organ for 10 years when I was child,” she writes in an e-mail from her home in Kyoto, Japan. “Once I wanted to play pieces for piano like an Erik Satie. Because I did not like the piece’s arrangement for electronic organ very much, I tried to play a piano piece looking at the score. But I could not play piano fluently. So I played disregarding half the score and I did as I liked. And then my music with loose feeling, such as Ongakushitsu, was born.”

Beyond the older music I’ve been digging into recently — Bob Dylan’s back catalog, The Band’s recent reissues, reams of old soul — Ongakushitsu, which translates into English as “Music Room,” is perhaps my favorite recording of the past year. I worry you won’t like it very much.

Why? Because it’s a simple record, essentially just keyboards. Tsuyuko plays an old electronic organ, a Fender Rhodes piano and a portable Yamaha tone generator and sequencer. On most songs — the album’s an hour, 12 tracks ranging in length from two to 10 minutes — there are no more than two distinct melodic lines, and rarely, if ever, are there more than three.

The deal breaker for most people (and the reason I like it so much) is that Ongakushitsu can also be a frustratingly complex record. It’s not because it shares the obvious traits often used to classify music as difficult (dissonance, noise, loudness), but because hearing Tsuyuko’s songs can feel like listening to the dense spew of a brilliant logorrheic — you’re awash in the clutter of overlapping ideas.

“I play impromptu and I record it fragmentarily, then I think of the structure,” she writes. I can believe it. Try re-creating the album in your own home. This is music to sketch ideas to. In fact, the last time I listened to it I did just that. I made little marks to represent the sound. I drew dashes pierced by straight slopes (“Umi No Hanashi”); pigtails under the profile of a mountain (“Flutter”); a serrated line through sine waves (“Flower on the Ground”); blunt objects climbing over tidal shapes washing in to shore — like walking through sand as the water licks at your toes (“Wafting”). There are up-and-down sounds, melodies caught in revolving doors, firefly notes flaring and fading on a musical staff (no key, no clef, no time signature); this is synesthesia: synchronized music boxes heard through kaleidoscope eyes.

Ongakushitsu is whimsical and melancholic. Low lines of torpor are disrupted by high-pitched sprites. Tsuyuko is a musician and an interior designer. Her sounds rearrange the room and alter its charge. But it’s like the architecture’s been ambushed in the process: You never quite get accustomed to your new arrangement.

Tsuyuko occupies a minor position amid an international pop avant-garde, one that’s been foraging a musical “fourth way” since the end of the ’80s. Among that number I should name-check detritus shapers such as Germany’s Pole, Oval and Microstoria; England’s click-and-cut masters Autechre and Aphex Twin; the cinematic droners that record for Chicago’s Kranky label such as Labraford and Stars of the Lid; and New Yorker Loren MazzaCane Connors’ dissipated electric blues. I’d also mention Nobukazu Takemura, another Kyoto-based musician, whose work has ranged from acid jazz to pop minimalist takes on composer Steve Reich. (Tsuyuko has an obvious weakness for Reich’s work as well.) A producer, peer and mentor to Tsuyuko, Takemura was the first to issue her work, on the Japan-only Childisc imprint.

This fourth way has no name, but it’s here, and it’s interesting. You could call these musicians texturalists. All have little regard for the formal endeavor of crafting pop, only a begrudging concern with earning their way into the pantheon of establishment music (i.e., classical composition, academia, etc.), and a mere technological alliance with the cut-and-paste of dance, hip-hop and electronic pop. At the same time, they respect classical music’s progressive impulses, the techniques of musical collage, and — by selling their works through hip channels — the marketing savvy of rock or pop or punk.

To the contemporary listener, textural music has fewer familiar elements than, say, Satie’s piano pieces, but it also might seem less insistently “other” than its more immediate precursors. Does textural music seem as strange today as it did in the mid-1970s? We’ve come a long way since 1975, when Brian Eno released Discreet Music (an excellent influence) and Lou Reed made Metal Machine Music (recently reissued, it’s a far less distinguished antecedent). Back then, artists interested in ambience had few precedents to point to. You might name-drop early Minimalists like La Monte Young or Terry Riley and say you’d been influenced by the Balinese gamelan or the Master Musicians of Jajouka. You’d then watch your record sales dip precipitously, and cross your fingers that your fan base was loyal enough that they’d be there for you when you came back to your senses, knocked out a few pop tunes and became a viable artist again.

Today, it’s harder to sound revolutionary spouting on about atmosphere. This is the inevitable result of having peers. Having your market segment given the stamp of approval by a chart-topping alt-rock brand name also helps. Yes, with some reluctance, I think you could throw Radiohead’s damn good, pop-inflected piss-take on ambient music, Kid A, into this mix. So all of Reed’s and Eno’s whining, buzzing, ahhing, chirping and rhetoric did lead to something.

As yet, Tsuyuko’s music has lasted me longer than that of her more popular contemporaries, because 1) I’ve yet to untie her tangle of thoughts, and 2) her music makes it impossible to figure out if there is, in fact, anything there to figure out. Like Satie’s, her music pulls the neat trick of embracing both mentation and stasis. (No, she doesn’t quite have his melodies.) Ongakushitsu is enlivened by a rococo economy that, in my experience, is unique. And, like Satie’s, her work is able to achieve so much because it deflates ambitious claims and puts on no airs. It just is. Like a rug in a room.

I ask Tsuyuko who listens to her music. Has she sold many records in the States? Does she have a sizable following at home? (It’s not outside the realm of possibility; her friend Takemura is signed to a major label in Japan.)

“I do not know how well,” she writes. “But I am glad that such a private music is accepted.”

AKI TSUYUKO | Ongakushitsu | (Childisc)


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