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Silent Running

Koji Asano, a prolific Japanese electro-acoustician at home in Barcelona, talks about the life of an itinerant self-publisher.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Koji Asano is a prolific minimalist, a Japanese native (born April 26, 1974) who now makes his home in Barcelona, Spain, and performs concerts regularly, primarily throughout Europe.

His recorded work ranges from jarring sonic overlays, like the mix of guitar and ping-pong sounds that comprise his inaugural release for his Solstice Records label, aptly titled Solstice (1995), to the “pure sound” of his more recent music, such as the experiments with speakers and feedback that yielded Momentum, released in early 2000.

The introspection inherent in much of Asano’s music belies the intensive nature of his creative activity: a lot of CDs produced in a short amount of time, and all on this small record label — which he runs by himself.

During the course of the following interview, Asano was preparing the release of an album titled Crevasses. It is the 25th CD of his music that Solstice has released since he founded the label in 1995. And that number doesn’t include the handful of CDRs (CDs burned on a personal computer, rather than pressed professionally) the label has also released, all of his music.

Throughout 2001, Asano produced recordings that delved into slight alterations in high-pitched tones (on A Second Dam) and into deep, seemingly bottomless quietness (on Autumn Meadow).

Listeners who first encounter Asano through his more recent work might not guess that this accomplished electronic experimentalist is also a well-schooled instrumentalist who plays piano and guitar and who composes for orchestra as well as for electro-acoustic hybrids. In fact, many of the unidentifiable sounds on his recordings are mutated transfers of his own chamber compositions, like the four-CD series titled Last Shade of Evening Falls, which developed from an attempt to salvage an acoustic-instrument recording session with which he was disapppointed (the unedited acoustic session is available as a separate CDR).

Asano took time off from his busy schedule to discuss his work ethic, compositional techniques and itinerancy.

Marc Weidenbaum: When you moved from Japan to Spain, did you bring all of your equipment with you, or did you use the opportunity to start anew?

Koji Asano: It was spring of 1999. I couldn’t bring my nearly brand-new Yamaha Grand piano — which I had used only once, for my 10th album, Monsoon. Otherwise, I brought almost everything with me, although I didn’t have much equipment to begin with. I don’t have many things in my life, as I move often. I had a Macintosh computer and some samplers and synthesizers. But soon enough, I have noticed, I won’t need any samplers or synthesizers at all anymore, because I can do it all on Mac. I wanted to sell my equipment in Spain, but they were all Japanese-voltage versions, so later I brought them back to Japan to sell. I chose to live in Barcelona because the sky is so beautiful and it gives me a nice, relaxing atmosphere and inspirations to create things. Basically, I like moving. After graduating from high school, I moved to London with a big synthesizer — then later in Tokyo, where I lived for six years, I moved three times inside the city.

Weidenbaum: Is there a specific album of yours that you suggest to newcomers to your music, and why?

Asano: If you have to choose only one album to start, I want you to listen to the newest one at the time, because it means the work is the most close thing to what I have been doing now, expressing my current work. I always try to release the best work at any time. Some CDs published a year ago seem so far away for me. The other proper way is just listening from the first album until now, to see how they have developed and progressed. The order is important for me.

Weidenbaum: I am fascinated by the two things that come to mind about your work: On the one hand, your music is often quiet and understated (of course, you have some noisy music, too); on the other, you have produced a lot of albums in a short period of time, which suggests a lot of creative energy on your part, a lot of enthusiasm and activity. Is there a tension between these two aspects of your work?

Asano: Well, maybe I am prolific type but not so much yet. It’s only beginning now. I started my label in 1995, and I would like to be more active in releasing CDs in the future. Of course, I require energy to do it all, but creating new pieces is just really a fantastic experience for me, so I never feel that it is hard to do or stressful at all. I always have some ideas or a kind of story in my mind, and just wait until the ideas are falling to me like apples.

Weidenbaum: You release your own music on your own label. Is the administrative aspect of releasing your music a burden? Have you found that the duties are a fair price for creative freedom?

Asano: I think my music is special, so I thought I need a special label to put out my music in the right order, with the right timing of releases, and the right cover art. So, it was very natural for me to start by own company. For me the order of releasing albums is as important as track order on a single album. Also, to continue to make music, I need to put the release out to “complete” the piece; if not, I can’t go on to the next step. I can’t leave the last piece on a master tape or leave it waiting to be released by some other record company. That’s also the reason that I’m running my label on my own, but that does mean that I have to do everything. To be prolific is not difficult; I just have many ideas. But on the other hand, control and the administrative aspect of the work is another thing. Swimming has become the most important thing for me, because I always think about label design work and that aspect of the label when I’m in the pool (so, there is a tension between prolific activity and swimming). However, I’m selling something material and therefore the duties are unavoidable.

Weidenbaum: You have released several albums as CDRs, rather than as traditional CDs. What distinguishes, for you, whether a release appears as a CD or a CDR?

Asano: As I mentioned before, I care about the order of releases, and if I compose by chance or accident something that doesn’t fit in my releasing line, or if I get good live recording in one of my concerts, the CDR release became the solution. But recently I don’t feel like doing it any more.

Weidenbaum: Following up from the previous question, are you concerned that CDRs have a shorter shelf-life than regular CDs, that those recordings are more fragile.

Asano: Yes, somehow the CDR doesn’t have as long a life as a CD, technically, just like the difference between home-use printing and professional print.

Weidenbaum: If it’s OK with you, I’d like to ask a specific questions about a specific recordings. Would you classify the music on the “1/4” edition of The Last Shade of Evening Falls as composition that arose during the recording process, or as sounds that were firmly in your head and that you then strove to reproduce?

Asano: Normally I have some kind of map when I start — a part or whole idea of the work. Then, when the right moment has arrived, I come to the studio and work. I don’t have many ideas in “pure sound” in my mind, just ideas of composing or just one second of a “sound image” that gives me a map of the composition for a whole album-length piece. For this particular album, the original sound sources were taken from a string ensemble piece of mine, which was intended to be a totally acoustic instrumental album. I didn’t like the results of the acoustic recording and decided not to release them. But I still had this idea to edit and process those sounds in a computer. So in this case, of course, the original string composition wasn’t intended to be like the final album sounds. Only later did I get this idea to process the recording tape, which was of poor quality, in the studio. I can say that this final process, the work in the studio, is most important and I prefer to call it composition, as much as I would call the writing of the string piece composition. I mean, the first ideas or sounds in my head — those things can be happen to anyone. Yes, that is where I can start the composition, but the whole process until the project is complete is, ultimately, all part of the act of composition.

Weidenbaum: Your album-cover photos are very beautiful, still and evocative. Have you displayed them in a gallery setting?

Asano: Thank you. I haven’t had a chance to do it yet, but I would like to realize it someday. I took the photos in different countries where I go for the concerts, mostly in Europe.

Weidenbaum: These album-cover images are both mundane and lovely, which are words that one might apply to the sources for your music, and the end result — do you intend the images as a non-verbal explanation of your musical interests?

Asano: When I design a CD cover, I choose those photos because I feel some kind of “link” with image and music. It is nearly the same process when I think about the CD title. I recognize that the album cover and title are very important. Music allows itself to be titled by words and to be covered by images, allowing them to represent themselves as a part of the work. But it’s nothing more than that, because basically the title and cover can be replaced.

Weidenbaum: You have recorded several albums that consist of a single extended track, often longer than an hour. You don’t even subdivide these pieces into, say, movements, like a symphony might be. Is that decision an attempt to direct the manner in which your listeners hear your music, to enforce a specific listening habit?

Asano: Yes, these past few years it seems to be happening like that — which means, I think, the albums just need such a long time to be expressed. So, I cannot subdivide them like a thick novel would have chapters. If the piece contains over one hour, I can’t really do anything about it. I can just compose the music. So, I think I don’t actively enforce anything with listeners. Well, there’s just no single correct habit to listening to music.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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