Perfect Sound Forever

The Infinite Horizons of Stomu Yamash'ta

by Gregor Meyer (Part 3 of 4)



Iroha: Of Sea and Sky

As the year came to a close, Yamash'ta experienced a profound internal change. The years of frenetically alternating between serious concert music, original theater productions, and jazz-fusion milestones had finally taken their toll. Artistically rewarding as they were, Yamash'ta came to a spiritual impasse, and felt the need to stop playing altogether. He returned to his native Kyoto, pursing Buddhist studies at Toji Temple, one of the oldest in Japan. It was in fact the temple he attended as a child, and thus he felt it was almost "fated" that he return there as an adult. The composers with whom he had opened new worlds suddenly felt as if a unique wind had been lifted from their sails. Takemitsu in particular begged Yamash'ta to reconsider, but he felt this new quest was more important than his professional career, and for the next two years he devoted himself to expressing Buddhist concepts through music.

His reemergence was a humble one. In 1979, he scored a little-known documentary film called Budo: The Art of Killing. In spite of what the title may suggest, the film actually explores the philosophical and psychological concepts behind the samurai ethic and martial arts. The largely synth-based score finds Yamash'ta collaborating with the famed Japanese prog band Cosmos Factory, who had approached Yamash'ta earlier in the decade to produce an album for them. The band's keyboardist was Yamash'ta's assistant on the score, and the rest of the band saw the assignment as an occasion to expand their musical horizons, albeit in the waning days of their existence (Yamash'ta also recruited Tsuruta Kinshi on biwa, whose playing graces the classic recording of Takemitsu's "November Steps" from the '60's). The film received scant distribution outside of Japan, eventually landing stateside in 1982 (and released on DVD in 2005). Two tracks, each comprising mini-suites of various themes from the film, appeared on a 7" released in Japan only.

On record, it was the Iroha album cycle that would announce his re-introduction to the music scene. "Iroha" refers to an ancient Japanese Buddhist poem in which all 48 kana letters are used exactly once, hence its use for hundreds of years as an introductory device for Japanese children to learn the alphabet. At its essence, the poem reflects the ever-changing nature of the world and the impermanence of all things material. With the intent of conveying the transition between life and death, Yamash'ta's music appropriately takes a dramatic turn away from his famously propulsive dynamism for a more meditative use of sustained tones and cosmic effects, creating atmospheres of introspection and serenity. It's here that Yamash'ta begins to compose music with the intent of producing a specific heightened state of mind in the listener, and less of a strictly cerebral one as a purveyor of avant garde extremity. The albums grew out of ceremonial performances in 1980 and '81 at Toji Temple and England. Five albums were originally planned; three are branded with the official title, while the remaining two formed the "unofficial" conclusion of the cycle despite the lack of any indication of this on either's sleeve or liner notes.

Iroha – Ten/Chi, the double-album inaugurating the set in 1981, is most befitting of a Buddhist ceremony. Opening with slow temple gongs, ethereal synthesizer tones, and waves of twittering electronics dominate the proceedings, occasionally grazed by the tapping of wood blocks. It becomes instantly clear that Yamash'ta's use of percussion is now very sparing and deliberately chosen, selecting the individual instruments as distinct compositional entities within a larger framework. Wind, water, deep earthshaking rumbles, and meteoric swooshes are all mixed in a rich suite of epic proportions – these could be Shinto forces at work, stirred up from nature's core and delivered right into your room.

Things take a melodic turn with the second installment, 1982's Iroha – Sui. Now relying on the synthesizer more to actively engage than just enhance, Yamash'ta begins the compositional style of sweetness mixed with a touch of sadness, still very traditional in flavor, which will eventually characterize his most famous work, Sea and Sky. Yet Iroha – Sui has plenty of atonal moments, including some chilling passages that could pass for Kluster or Tangerine Dream circa Zeit. Iroha – Ka (1984) wraps up the trilogy by weaving together elements of both previous volumes in a dark and foreboding vein, with the ghostly atmosphere augmented by deep gongs and other-worldly drones, yet ends on a tranquil and even uplifting note. Percussion is almost completely absent here, making only an occasional appearance as needed. If any of the three empirical albums in the cycle suggests the transition from one plane of existence to another, Iroha – Ka is certainly the one.

Also appearing in 1984 were the two concluding albums in the cycle, though neither acknowledged it at the time. Sea & Sky is ambitiously epic in scope compared to the "official" Iroha albums, light years away from anything Yamash'ta produced in the '70's. An enthralling synth-driven album of hauntingly bittersweet melodies, it deftly weaves nature sounds with majestic orchestrations (courtesy of Go's arranger Paul Buckmaster, whose credits include collaborations with the Third Ear Band, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Deviants, and Quatermass to name but a few) with Yamash'ta's symbiosis of synth and percussion. It's a rich work that has been compared to the best of Kitaro and Vangelis, though it commands a distinct power that transcends the immediate associations with both of those artists. It was quickly picked up for release worldwide by the German label Kuckuck, becoming Yamash'ta's best known album apart from Red Buddha, and has remained in print ever since.

Not long afterwards, fans in Japan were treated to the soundtrack album for Sato Junya's biographical film Kukai, portraying the life of the famous monk responsible for introducing Japan to Buddhism in the early 9th century (interestingly, Kukai himself was long credited with writing the actual Iroha poem). Consisting of remixed and expanded material from Sea & Sky and the Iroha albums, the music extracts the best material from these works and weaves the results into a seamless suite. As temple gongs and meditative chants glide into cosmic effects and high-pitched synth tremelos, the album soars through space one minute and returns to earth with textured symphonic odes the next. It serves as a diffuse summation of the albums before it, though it's by no means strictly a compilation. It is somewhat difficult to imagine these synthesizer melodies and cosmic effects behind a period film, yet it was nominated for Best Music Score by the Japanese Academy.

A curious but vital entry in Yamash'ta's discography is the soundtrack album to Paul Mazursky's film Tempest, which appeared on the U.S. label Casablanca in 1982. While still studying at Toji Temple in late '81, old friend Michael Shrieve put Yamash'ta in touch with Mazursky, who wanted Yamash'ta to score his modern day dramedy loosely based on Shakespeare's classic. Yamash'ta originally declined but offered to supervise the use of pre-existing music from his catalog. As he and Mazursky worked together, a friendship developed and Yamash'ta eventually agreed to compose the original music for the film as well. Being at the service of the story's images and emotions, the score remarkably varied: thunderous jazz-rock drumming, fluttering electronics, and lush melodies combine effectively and hold up independently of the film. If anything, the distinctly Japanese melodica would seem thematically out of place for a story set in Manhattan and a remote Greek island, yet the emotional content of the music bridges that conceptual gap quite well. Musically similar to the score for Budo, it serves as an easily attainable missing link between Yamash'ta's late '70's work and Sea & Sky. Backed by a session band called Muse (featuring Shrieve on drums), the soundtrack album offers only 29 minutes of Yamash'ta's music, but contains all the major themes heard in the film.

Since the '80's, Yamash'ta has concentrated on music for specific ceremonies, temple anniversaries, and occasional music festivals. Sea and Sky would be his last widely-distributed commercial release for almost 20 years, for reasons both professional and personal. "Record companies are too demanding – I want to make music when I'm ready." He became more and more convinced that his music was to be experienced in the moment, to be felt as well as heard by its audience, something he no longer found possible with commercial records. While continuing his studies at Toji Temple, a monk introduced him to ancient volcanic stones with unique resonant properties. Yamash'ta's life and music forever changed from this moment on.

The Music of Stones

Sanukit is a particular type of volcanic rock found near Mt. Kanayama in the Sakaide region of Japan. Formed 13.5 million years ago, the sanukit produce an astonishingly clear metallic sound when struck, similar to a chime or glockenspiel. Before bronze was introduced to Japan in the second century B.C., sanukit were used by Buddhist monks in the opening call to ceremonial rites, their resonance believed to induce a spiritual state favorable to meditation. Compared to the Western musical scale, the sanukit spans a wider range than the standard 88 notes, extending a full octave above and below for a total of 110 notes. With the dissonances and harmonies available, the range of potential tonalities is almost infinite compared to conventional instruments.

The impact of the stones' properties and their musical potential on Yamash'ta was profound. "When I was introduced to the sanukit, I felt, 'My God! What can I do with this?' I felt I had to channel back all of my creative instincts." Yamash'ta teamed with stone researcher Maeda Hitoshi to create unique instruments from the sanukit, which the maker labeled "sanukitophone." The stones are fashioned into instruments when cut with thin slits, the distance between which determines the pitch to be produced when the portion between them is struck with a mallet. Their general shapes are determined by the natural element they are meant to represent in Buddhism: square shapes for earth, circular for water, triangular for fire, and diamond for wind. In this sense, the sanukit embody nature in both form and content, as Yamash'ta believes they are the most organic instruments on the planet, communicating pure vibrations from the earth mother. "This material has been living for millions of years, and has an enormous amount of things to offer," he explains.

"With normal [man-made] instruments, you know in advance the sound it will make before you touch it. With the sanukit, you have to be in tune with it or else it will not respond the way you want it to. This presents a unique method of composing because of the enormous kind of magnetic power in the stones themselves. If you are not in good spiritual condition before you play them, it will affect the sound being made." Even when not composing, Yamash'ta's daily ritual is to play the stones first thing in the morning after meditating, grounding himself spiritually with them, and by extension, with the earth. "The stones," he says with a sly wink, "have made me more concrete."

The sanukit would become Yamash'ta's instrument of preference from then on, forming the compositional basis of all his works ever since. He continued to compose primarily for special events and commissions, both in Japan and in Europe, most notably staging a special performance at Stonehenge in 1990. The BBC featured him in a documentary on the sanukit the same year, where Yamash'ta was quoted as saying that they had inspired "the most important music of my life."

The Solar Dream trilogy was released on the small Kosei label between 1993 and 1997. Vol. 1: The Eternal Present was composed in 1992 for an event commemorating the 420th anniversary of the destruction of a Buddhist temple on Mount Hiei and premiered at the site. Although the sanukit stones feature prominently, they are well-integrated among synthesizers and standard percussion instruments (all played by Yamash'ta as well), plus shakuhachi and yokobue (also a type of Japanese flute). Appropriately violent for the event it is observing, it opens with thunderous, galloping drums and menacing waves of Vangelis-like synth chords. The sanukit doesn't make an appearance until the 11-minute mark, at which point their delicate drops sprinkle the air like ripples on a lake. It's a varied and strongly evocative work, full of violence, reflection, agony, outrage, and remorse. The balance between its fiery drama and tranquil refrains is carefully structured, though not given to recognizable themes, which given the spectrum of emotions at work, make it somewhat difficult to fully absorb in one listening.

Vol. 2: Fantasy of Sanukit was recorded two years earlier in 1990. It too features synths and shakuhachi, though there's no mistaking that the sanukit are the stars of the show here. Unlike the other two volumes in the trilogy, the liner notes provide no English translation, leaving Westerners lucky enough to get a hold of this disc but to guess at the motivations behind it– a shame, given the power of the music it contains. Musically, there's a greater tonal range expressed throughout the album, with the synths taking a significantly smaller supporting role here than on The Eternal Present. Yamash'ta seems content here in exploring the full range of the stones' tonality, allowing the mid-range and bass notes much more room to breathe. The album is permeated with jarring, dissonant vibrations as the stones' resonances overlap to form eerie, ghostlike clouds before whisping away into moments of silence. The almost surreally chime-like pleasantries are impregnated with sudden dollops of lower-register discords in a return of the effect so effectively employed in the Images score, yet played less for shock value here. This could be a lost Takemitsu soundtrack, a distant cousin to Kaidan, and is easily the most satisfying of the Solar Dream trilogy.

The sounds produced by the stones are nothing short of truly astonishing– you have to remind yourself that these are essentially rocks. To hear Fantasy of Sanukit, or indeed any of the sanukit albums, on headphones would reduce the remarkable sense of space their sonorities produce. All of these discs are exceptionally well recorded, and very dynamic listening experiences even if musically not as complex or challenging as Yamash'ta's earlier works. The all-sanukit Vol. III: Peace and Love has Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" as its centerpiece, which offers a delicate rendering of the much-loved work. Exceptionally rewarding are the title track and the album's closer, "Dreaming," which almost sounds like an arhythmic companion to Steve Reich's "Music for Mallets."


To the Present

Yamash'ta's 2001 release, Listen to the Future Vol. 1, is a standout presentation of the sanukit, released in Japan only on Sony in both regular and SACD versions (although Yamash'ta is quick to point out that the SACD edition is required to fully experience the desired effect). Both soothing and mysterious, it juxtaposes the delicate serenity of the upper register overtones, no doubt the quality that the ancient monks believed conducive to meditation, along with touches of the dissonant clusters suggestive of the inner and outer universes still to be explored. As on Peace and Love, Yamash'ta pays tribute here to an enduring classic with which he always felt a special connection, in this case Liszt's "Consolations in D Major." It's difficult to imagine not feeling the effect of this music physically in the Surround edition. The album was preceded a year earlier by A Desire of Beauty and Wonder Stone, a privately-pressed EP intended by Yamash'ta and Maeda as a gift for select friends. Three of the pieces on this disc were exemplary enough to warrant reappearance on Listen to the Future.

Yamash'ta's most recent release came in 2006, a collaboration with Icelandic artist Ragnhildur Gísladóttir and lyricist Sjón called Bergmál [Echo] and features delicate pieces scored for sanukit and a children's choir. A work of elegant and utterly unique beauty, the album features mostly vocal works accompanied by sanukit, with instrumental passages sprinkled throughout. The opening piece "Fate," featuring Yamash'ta alone, is perhaps the most startlingly effective evidence of the mystery and aural shadows lurking in the stones' resonances, strikingly reminiscent of some of Takemitsu's more ghostly '60's soundtrack work. The real beauty of Bergmál, however, is in the overlap and interplay between the sanukit vibrations and the delicacies of the children's voices, which seamlessly mesh into a soft sonic carpet. Moments such as "Dawn I," where the sustained voices hover over the gentlest coaxings from the stones, as if they're being gently bowed rather than struck, transcend all expectations. Originally created for Expo 2005, the album remains limited to Iceland only, as contractual matters between the label and the artists currently prevent export.

Yamash'ta continues to investigate the spiritual and psychological possibilities inherent in the sanukit. "Artists must help people discover new senses, and get back in touch with nature– this is the artist's mission." Likening the stones' sonorities to other sounds in nature, such as birds or water or wind, Yamash'ta seeks to maximize their potential for soothing souls in an otherwise spiritually restless and chaotic world, and rekindling the harmony between man and nature– in a word, a truly "universal music" that transcends cultural and religious boundaries. As he writes in his liner notes to Bergmál, "The individual sounds of each stone seem to have crossed a dizzying expanse of thirteen and a half million years of time and space in order to tell us something… sounds that make us feel visionary, mystical, and the endlessly wide Emptiness."

In addition to selectively creating works for special occasions, he is actively involved with the non-profit organization Sacred Bridge, based in Jakarta. In conjunction with UNESCO, Sacred Bridge sponsors programs and events promoting cultural awareness and an appreciation of indigenous art throughout Indonesia and Japan. He's also the subject of a recently-completed French documentary titled On Zen: The Sacred Sound, which illuminates his work with the sanukit and features footage of one of his temple performances.

In spite of the musical gulf between his work today and the music he created over 30 years ago, Yamash'ta has no regrets about the journey his path has taken. "What I did today came out of what I did in the '70's," he says. "But I'm still learning. Every day."

Invaluable help for this article came from Alan Cummings, Hal Cruthirds, Komaki Akira, Eric McMullen, Michael Ranta, Sekiguchi Risa, Heuwell Tircuit, and Michael Udow. Very special thanks are due to Yamash'ta Stomu and Eric Lanzillotta, without whom this long-envisioned endeavor could not have been possible.

See Part 4 of 4 of the Stomu article


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