Chihei Hatakeyama is an extremely prolific and remarkably consistent purveyor of ambient soundscapes, to the point that it’s difficult to pin down exactly how many albums he’s released since his 2006 debut, Minima Moralia. A safe estimate would be over 40 records for labels like Darla, Kranky, Hibernate, Home Normal and his own White Paddy Mountain. And that impressive number doesn’t include the music he’s recorded for Opitope, a duo with Tomoyoshi Date, or other collaborations like the rhythmically transfixing Moss with Ken Ikeda. Hatakeyama produced nearly ten records just last year, and he’s released four so far in 2017. One of those is this disc, Mirage, his fourth album for Room40, an Australian label run by Lawrence English, who is himself a producer of high quality ambient soundscapes, known in his case for regularly incorporating field recordings into his works.
That emphasis on sound and space is appropriate, given that Mirage finds Hatakeyama meditating deeply on the interrelationships between music and architecture. Due to the portability afforded by streaming services and other digital formats, much of our listening these days is headphone- or earbud-assisted. Ambient music, in particular, is frequently piped in directly to our auditory canals, often while we travel or work or perform other tasks. However, the music on Mirage is not just aboutspaces but for spaces. It deserves speakers—good speakers—because it needs air to move, to stretch out, to breathe. And while each one of its tracks creates its own compelling sense of space, they also feel as if they’re meant to expand and fill whatever space you put them in.
The only thing that’s not expansive about the music on Mirage is the lengths of its individual tracks. Of the nine short pieces on the album, the longest doesn’t quite reach seven minutes, and it’s an outlier; most tracks are closer to four minutes long. Unlike much ambient music, in which a few well-chosen tones and textures are left indefinitely to simmer, Hatakeyama has crafted very specific sonic pictures, aural vignettes that lay out whatever it is they intend to do and then make way for what comes next.
Third track, “Bus Terminal in Konya,” is the first to incorporate field recordings, beginning with the sound of a crowd, indoors and at a distance. There is a cavernous quality that suggests a large room and hard surfaces but may also be augmented by digital reverb. Moments later, we hear a metallic clicking sound, perhaps a turnstile if the title is any indication. An official-sounding voice floats into and out of the ambience, followed by footsteps, more clicking, and finally the soft chiming wash of an electric guitar accompanied by an ethereal synth that sounds almost like human voices. As the track progresses, the musical and non-musical sounds bleed together in a way that suggests the notes are more mood than music, as if articulating a natural quality of the time and space in which the field recording was made.
“Distant Steam Train Whistle” also uses found sounds, opening with what sounds like dulcimer or prepared piano, like the chime of a city clock or the tones that might preface an announcement over a public address system. A low, distorted drone and a cacophonous swarm of unintelligible voices soon well up underneath the chimes, until they too are overtaken by new textures. The voices remain but now sound more distinct and more spread out, as if they’ve moved to the outdoors. There is the vague impression—the sounds of children playing, occasionally overcome by an adult voice over a loudspeaker—that there is a sporting event going on. This B section also features electric guitar, strummed lazily, an electric piano some distance away, and more droning synths. Lurking in the mix is the faint buzzing of what sounds a lot like a snare drum in the next room, the snares left on to vibrate in sympathy with the piano and other instruments.
This sort of noise or colored silence is a frequent feature on Mirage. Almost always present but barely audible, it sounds at times like ocean surf, running water, wind in trees, analog tape hiss, a distorted signal. These sounds, both natural and artificial, evoke nostalgia, a sense of the music’s being tied to memory, whether or not that memory belongs to you, the listener, or to someone you will never meet.
Even the tracks without field recordings manage to suggest a sense of space and evoke the specificity of a moment. There are the album’s opening and closing tracks—“Sad Ocean” and “In the Quiet River,” respectively—but even more effective is “Voices on the Corner.” The harmonic content suggests something late romantic, chords full of tension that from time to time dissolve into billowing blissful clouds of sound, coming from church organ and a disembodied angelic choir. It is, if not the vibration of the spheres, the vibration of the sanctuary itself, made to echo with the plaintive voices of parishioners long since passed. Like much of Mirage, it invokes the spirit of a time and place both foreign and familiar, like a memory of something you imagined or a moment that felt dreamlike even though you were wide awake.