Soon after the pleasant review of two recent solo albums, “Sinkai” released by Arctic Tone and “Semi-Lattice” on Baskaru, we had a chat with Critical Path founder Yui Onodera. If you are a lover of experimental and minimalist ambient/drone sonorities, I strongly recommend listening to the above-mentioned releases, as well as some of Yui’s past output.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Yui! How are you?
Yui Onodera: I’m good, but I broke my shoulder last month after drinking too much. I am ashamed of myself.
Chain D.L.K.: You are not a newcomer on the scene of electronics…before speaking of your older tracks, can you tell us something about the birth of this passion for sound?
Yui Onodera: Maybe you’re expecting an answer like I started by playing a toy guitar that my father bought me when I was three years old, but that’s not the case. My parents were indifferent to the cultural arts such as music, film, and literature, so I grew up without that influence in my home environment. Instead, I would go out exploring and observing insects, or I would draw a lot. At that time, I wanted to be a painter or an entomologist. The first sound that caught my attention was the chirp of a grasshopper, which more precisely comes from the grasshopper’s wings. I didn’t enjoy studying, but would get excellent grades in science during elementary school.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you remember the very first sound you made by means of machines, or the first one you grabbed through microphones?
Yui Onodera: The first instrument I ever picked up was the guitar, at around 13 years old. At that time, I was infatuated with Japanese rock music and wanted to perform myself. After that I entered a music school, majoring in guitar, that Masayuki Takayanagi, one of the leading figures of Japanese free-jazz guitar, had previously taught at. However, I was not interested in the role music where entertainment takes the lead, just interested in personal compositions that used computers, especially as it was a period when computers had become able to handle audio files freely, so I was able to explore the possibilities of the guitar whilst using the computer I had become so passionate about. At the same time, I was migrating to an interest in Derek Bailey, Otomo Yoshihide, John Cage, Stockhausen, etc., and that expanded the new possibilities of music.
Chain D.L.K.: You are Japanese! Nihongo wo hanaso!
Yui Onodera: OK, sure. Sushi, Samurai, etc..
Chain D.L.K.: I’m joking…I don’t really understand Japanese…what Japanese word has a meaning that would never be understood by someone outside of Japan, in spite of he/she knowing some Japanese words?
Yui Onodera: When I work with non-Japanese people on collaborations or work, there are Japanese concepts that I can’t explain well, like Zen. I can grasp that John Cage was influenced by Zen philosophy but, whilst there are many people that can understand the music of John Cage, very few understand the idea of Zen.
Chain D.L.K.: According to an old cliche, Japanese musicians used to be good emulators of Western musicians… do you think that such a cliche was realistic or not?
Yui Onodera: Yes. Even now, it’s prominent in pop music and independent music scenes. Many Japanese musicians are desperate to chase the American and European trends. It was imitated so well that it became the criteria for evaluation, but I have no interest in those things. Around 2004, when I thought about composing my first works, I worked with self-awareness about that problem; it was about myself. Born and raised in Japan, I grew up listening to more European and American music than the music of Japan, so instead of imitating in Japan, I searched for the thing I could do by being Japanese. So I thought that if I did not include Japanese lyrics, I could transmit that not only within Japan, but internationally. As a result of this, the first people interested in my music were not Japanese, but the people of Europe and America.
Chain D.L.K.: Thanks for letting me hear your release “Sinkai”, but the very first time my ears heard your sound was on the occasion of a collaboration you made with Celer in 2010, and lately a collaborative track for Norwegian duo Pjusk… it’s quite funny that the circumstance I always met you in where in the middle of duets, as Celer is a duo as well! 🙂
Yui Onodera: You’re welcome. That’s true, I did not notice that. It is not just by chance. I just finished a collaboration with solo artists Scanner (aka. Robin Rimbaud) and Chihei Hatakeyama.
Chain D.L.K.: First of all, would you say there are some releases which could help listeners to have a better idea of the main aspects of your sound?
Yui Onodera: Yes. The album “Suisei”, a single track of environmental sound and organ, was released by an American label, and by OAR in 2007. “Suisei” means “aqueous” in Japanese. Then, there were a number of works announced by labels in Europe and the United States. My first album on CRITICAL PATH, 2005’s “ENTROPY”, was reissued in 2009. They are already sold out, but recently can be purchased from my Bandcamp, https://yuionodera.bandcamp.com. Also, I worked on the production of an electronic music and sound art themed 2-disc compilation album, “VERNACULAR”, a few years ago, http://vernacular.whereabouts-records.com. You may want to refer to the Discogs for others.
Chain D.L.K.: In spite of having been on the stage for 10 years or so, maybe, “Suisei” was your first solo album, wasn’t it? Do you prefer solo-playing or collaborations?
Yui Onodera: I’m always trying to grow by having the correct balance between solo work and collaboration. Becoming too biased either way will narrow my perspective. I find both methods to be involved with each other. For example, ideas and production techniques that were experimented with in collaborations can be applied to my solo work, and vice versa. Collaborators always give me many new perspectives and challenge me. I am also actively in cooperation with architects and other specialist areas, such as dancers, as well as those in the music field. This is because other areas such as architecture, literature and art always provide the inspiration for my music.
Chain D.L.K.: …and do you prefer focusing on yourself, on sound or on the way a listener could perceive your sound and/or yourself while making music?
Yui Onodera: Maybe. My music would demand naturally active listening as it is composed of a set of the fine detail of swells and small sound. On the other hand, it can function as an ambiance as well.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you introduce “Sinkai” in your own words?
Yui Onodera: In 2013, I visited Europe for the Storung Festival, an audio/visual festival held in Barcelona, and met PJUSK. Through participating in their albums and deeply understanding their music, I found many parts of their music to be empathetic to the musical characteristics and aesthetics of Northern Europe. My hometown is a place called Iwate, located in the north of Japan. It’s extremely cold in the winter and gets a lot of snow. Perhaps it was the earliest source of evoking something within me; a snowy, cold sound in the silence. By the way, “sinkai” stands for “deep sea” in Japanese.
Chain D.L.K.: There are many moments I really enjoyed in this record, but speaking in general, I like the way you balanced seemingly organic and mechanical sounds… a feature that brings me back to another cliche related to Japanese as the culture that, more than others, seems to look for a perfect balance – I’d call it a harmonic symbiosis – of nature and technology… would you say the sound of “Sinkai” was somehow influenced by this aspect of Japanese culture?
Yui Onodera: My favourite Japanese anime director is Hayao Miyazaki. Do you know his work, “Princess MONONOKE”? It is a human drama that depicts the conflict between nature and technology (civilization). Yes, it’s true that there is a traditional concept that we have the idea that there is a soul in all things and we all coexist, but now it can no longer be said to be the typical mindset of the Japanese. As with many young people around the world, more of the laptop and the online world, the presence of forests and rivers have become more and more accessible and are an environment for calm. Certainly, I feel that was a perceived representation of the Japanese, as many European and American critics, who reviewed my past work, remarked on it. I also might have been influenced by it as a Japanese person. But now, rather than that kind of oriental image, I’m more interested in the reality of Orientalism. For example, with the joint work “Generic City”, with Celer, I contributed field recordings of the miscellaneous urban environments of Tokyo to resemble an artificial jungle, rather than the beautiful sound of nature (river trickles and rain). To me, the varied speculation of confined spaces of Tokyo city is more expressive of the modern Japanese mind.
Chain D.L.K.: The intro of “Sigure” seems to anticipate the entrance into a dream-like world…is there a recording of someone sleeping in the very first seconds, or did you trick my ears? 🙂
Yui Onodera: Thank you! It’s the sound of a guitar!
Chain D.L.K.: Many musicians say that the inspiration for some tracks or some tunes can only come once…are there any circumstances or sounds for inspiration which fed some moments in “Sinkai” that could never come again?
Yui Onodera: “Mon” from “Sinkai” was the first track completed for the album when it was finished; we were able to imagine the whole image for the release. “Mon” means “gate” in Japanese. It is a doorway that separates the external and internal. Literally, it became the introduction to this album.
Chain D.L.K.: The cover artwork of “Sinkai” is amazing as well… what’s the connection to Sinkai’s sound in your own words?
Yui Onodera: Thank you. The artwork is by photographer and musician Nozom Yoneda, and he has worked on all of my most recent albums, including “SEMI LATTICE”. In most cases, we would select the photo that matches the album image from his work collection. At the time, the overall picture of the album had been almost completed. In many of his works, they are close-ups shot from close range. They appear to be very mysterious in spite of the use of familiar material, such as a wall or the ground.
Chain D.L.K.: I recently received “Semi Lattice”, another very good output by Baskaru as well as your second solo album…can you tell us something about that as well?
Yui Onodera: At that time, I was working as an architectural acoustic designer. It was not only the physical handling of sound through the architectural acoustics design; I developed a deep interest in introducing thought and design process, outside of the musical field, to my sound, such as how architects know theory and aesthetics.
Chain D.L.K.: It draws inspiration from an abstract structure by Christopher Alexander… how did you render that structure?
Yui Onodera: “Semi Lattice” was inspired by an architectural theory advocated by urban planner Christopher Alexander where, rather than developing the perspective of a bird’s-eye view, or an image from one point of view, there is an overlap from the myriad of assembly that feature duplication and change that develop in accordance with the changes of time. As much as possible, I tried to make the “situation” that resembled the abstract individual elements similar to the process in which biological functions and cities are generated, with sound.
Chain D.L.K.: An obvious question… you made two solo-albums in a relatively short period… when are you going to give birth to the third one?
Yui Onodera: The most recent release is ‘SEMI LATTICE’, but it was written before ’Sinkai’, so it may confuse some listeners. I’ve just started working on ideas for a new album that will possibly become more of a chaotic release, so it will probably alienate more listeners, but it feels insincere to repeat techniques. For me, more than a success, or a failure, I feel like an album should be an attempt at something new. Honesty and individuality is equally important for all albums.
Chain D.L.K.: You are the founder of the Critical Path label… any anticipation of further steps for the label?
Yui Onodera: For some time already, CRITICAL PATH hasn’t been functioning as a label, but currently working on a production. I’m taking advantage of this platform to explore various fields of sound, such as sound design within architectural or public spaces. Since the very beginning, I’ve always been interested in the capabilities and new possibilities of sound.
Chain D.L.K.: Any other work in progress?
Yui Onodera: I will be involved with several compilation albums that are soon to be announced, featuring the collaborative work with Scanner and Chihei Hatakeyama that I mentioned before. In April, there is Japan tour scheduled for my friends PJUSK and CHRA, so I’ll be busy preparing for that. Additionally, I’ve just started a collaboration with the American sound artist, Stephen Vitiello.
visit Critical Path on the web at: www.critical-path.info