Midori Takada’s debut album Through the Looking Glass, originally released by RCA Japan in 1983, could fairly be categorized as ambient and minimalist, more directly resembling the work of Brian Eno and Steve Reich. But those broad strokes can only begin to paint a fuller picture of what Takada’s music really sounds like.
At first listen, “Mr. Henri Rousseau’s Dream” resembles early, ambient Eno. It also owes a debt to its namesake, whose jungle scenes obviously inspired the album’s cover painting. Rousseau once said of the botanic garden in Paris, “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” Takada’s aural representation of that dreamscape depicts an exotic natural world, populated by simulated bird calls, tinged melodically by the primitive sounds of the ocarina and suffused with a constant, tremulous marimba drone. Bells, chimes, gongs and other percussion instruments fill out the rest of the stereophonic ambiance. All of it adds up to a soothing and otherworldly experience, one that resembles Eno’s On Land but is distinctly in a world of its own.
“Crossing” is undeniably Reich-like, from the percussively sensual sound of the marimba to its interlocking rhythms and pleasing but pensive tonal accessibility. But whereas Reich’s music, most typically his “phase” pieces, create a heightened sense of clarity and precision by passing through moments of apparent rhythmic chaos, Takada’s version of that familiar texture seems to revel more in friction than it does in resolution. It allows the various parts to pass each other by and collide in interesting ways without unduly emphasizing the moments when their grooves align. The piece is grounded by the unceasing pulse of a bell, not unlike the pulse that grounds Terry Riley’s In C. But this static element too is used less as a means of unification than as a point of contrast and collision.
What distinguishes Takada’s music from its predecessors? It has a warmth that’s often lacking in Reich. And while Eno’s ambient music is frequently cinematic, Takada’s works here are too explicit to merely accompany another narrative; they depict their own reality in sound. Principally, Takada is informed by her experience as a percussionist, and her music reflects a trait typical of the best percussionists: a deep and unrivaled appreciation for sound itself. In a recent interview with Geeta Dayal for The Guardian, Takada says, “Everything that exists on this earth has a sound… Even if humans don’t call it an instrument, on this earth, there exists a significant vibrancy.” That reverence is apparent throughout Looking Glass, but it shines with particular intensity on the album’s later tracks, “Trompe-l’oeil” and “Catastrophe Sigma.”
On the former, Takada delves into the very particular sonority of a reed organ, playing simple, repetitive, almost folk-like phrases that she joins with the imprecise low-whistling sound of herself blowing on a drunken chorus of glass bottles. As on “Crossing,” the bottles sound in interlocking rhythmic phrases, here serving as a sort of “left-hand” accompaniment to the “right-hand” melodies she plays on the organ.
The reed organ returns in the album’s final track, but this time it enters as a low drone that returns from time to time but mostly lurks in the background. Next to “Crossing,” this is the most propulsive piece on Looking Glass, animated as much by the constant drum beat (sounding like cowbell and tom-toms, though maybe something more exotic) as it is by more melodic but constantly moving phrases on piano and vibraphone. This is the album’s longest track, and it takes its time to slowly build in speed and intensity before unleashing its full force about halfway through and maintaining that urgency up until its final moments. You could easily compare it to Reich’s Drumming, but where that piece is precise and polished (and somewhat cold), “Catastrophe Sigma” is propelled by an emotional and rhythmic intensity that feels like it’s constantly on the edge of coming gloriously apart. As with the rest of Takada’s album, here the conceits of ambient and minimalist music, which can be hallmarks of detached or dispassionate soundscapes, instead belie a unique and deeply personal sonic realm.