Silence Is Peace: Instrumental Music Just Feels Different

“You have to find a voice in it.”
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Have you ever heard of an album created on a limitless budget? Although uncommon, acclaimed manga artist, screenwriter, and film director Katsuhiro Otomo once approached composer and neuroscientist Tsutomu Ōhashi—also known under the pseudonym Shoji Yamashiro, who founded the immense Japanese music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi—to compose the soundtrack and score for a multi-million dollar film adaptation he was directing of his 1982 manga series, Akira.

“It was quite a luxury not to have any deadlines or budget restraints to worry about on this project,” Yamashiro said during an interview for The Akira Production Report, a 50-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary recorded in 1988 alongside the dystopian film’s creation.

I think of the above quote each time I revisit Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Akira (Symphonic Suite). Reissued as a vinyl released through Milan Records in 2017 to commemorate Akira’s then-forthcoming 30th anniversary, my initial introduction to the one hour and 11-minute soundtrack came in 2019, during a brief, curious period when movie scores fascinated me.

In cinema, the score is to a director what the beat is to a rapper.

Without an instrumental, there’s no such thing as a hit record; no rapper has a voice appealing enough to sell out arena-size venues by performing their rhymes a capella. Music affects a film’s tone, pacing, ambiance, and atmosphere. Without a score and soundtrack, a film creates a louder silence.

It’s striking how explosively tumultuous last year’s Josh and Benny Safdie-directed Uncut Gems is in comparison to the anxiety-inducing quietness of Todd Phillips’ Joker. Applying this perspective through a musical lens, think about Tyler, The Creator’s third studio album, Cherry Bomb, in contrast with Frank Ocean’s sophomore studio album, Blonde. The sonic architecture of these two records is night and day—one aims to rupture eardrums while the other is a subdued caress.

With Tyler, specifically, all five of his full-length studio albums are sequenced as if they are movie scores yet to materialize. IGOR, his crowning achievement, is the best representation of how Tyler’s director’s eye for details and musical sensibilities are interwoven to create a concise, cinematic story that sounds exactly how it makes the listener feel. Through self-production, the Los Angeles-born multi-hyphenate has, with every album, improved his gift for gathering all the necessary pieces to construct a world for the listener to live in.

IGOR heavily reminds me of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Akira (Symphonic Suite).

IGOR overflows with instrumentation sequenced with unconventional but controlled, unpredictability. It’s not structured to be a playlist project. IGOR has a sophisticated backbone. The album’s musical textures are as vibrant as a jar filled with colliding fireflies. The overlapping from chord to chord, sound to sound, voice to voice, sounds like a Pro Tools session for each song thrown into a juicer and blended into a heartbreak smoothie. But Tyler meant for us to experience the work as a whole.

Although Akira (Symphonic Suite) is not about heartbreak, the two albums share an elastic spontaneity that keeps the music in motion. From the opener, “Kaneda,” to the grand finale, “Requiem,” each of the 10 records exalts a fluidity that moves the music from song to song as a collective piece of art. Pitchfork’s Kevin Lozano described this approach in his review of the Akira (Symphonic Suite) reissue:

“As the product of an unlimited budget and six-months of composition and recording, the score for Akira was never meant to be utilitarian or incidental. It aspired to greater heights, to immerse the listener in the world of Neo-Tokyo and stir the emotions without once dropping you out of the film.” –Kevin Lozano

What exceeds even the cinematic standard of most scores is how, sonically, Geinoh Yamashirogumi was able to create a portal to a Tokyo that does not exist, yet, musically, and how it can sound exactly how the film looks: a combination of ancient destruction with dystopian futurism.

This feat is rather impressive when you consider Shoji Yamashiro did not read the script or view any scenes from the movie before composing the music. It’s hard to believe the lack of executive direction or source material when listening to a song like “Tetsuo,” the fourth track, named after the movie’s “antagonist.”

How the first 30 seconds build-up to the spasmodic synthesizer is like the summoning of someone or something unstoppable. It’s a rare nine-minute song that’s a necessary length, adequately representing the galvanic atmosphere of a character who transitioned from biker punk to telekinetic God.

“The inhabitants of Akira are fixated on the past in a desperate attempt to avoid repeating their catastrophic mistakes in the future.” –Jen Monroe

“Tetsuo” has all the quirkiness of a mad genius, how it builds into the blistering booms, how it descends into sinking stillness. How the chords progress with taunting ease, and how the choir adds a simple, yet effective hum. It’s easily four different songs mashed into a single concept, but there’s never a sense of disassociation. Every second of the nine minutes complements a theme and character that’s complex, powerful, and dangerously frightening.

Another song I love, “Shohmyoh,” is nearly 10 minutes of what I believe to be Tibetan Buddhist chanting. The voices sound synchronized as if they’re in collective prayer. Most vocal tracks that appear on the album are meditative, poetic, but never prominent enough to lead the record. Every sound is a part of a collective noise, a unified identity that wouldn’t be possible with just one person.

The songs of Akira (Symphonic Suite) progress unrealistically in sequence, structure, and style. Listening to the radio doesn’t inspire such an album. The music is so far removed from a commercial palette, it should come as no surprise that Geinoh Yamashirogumi never won a GRAMMY. Awards are bestowed upon those who play by certain rules; there are no rules in Neo-Tokyo.

Although he didn’t share a script, Katsuhiro Otomo did provide Shoji Yamashiro and Geinoh Yamashirogumi—said to be a collective of over 100 men and women who don’t consider themselves musicians—with creative control over the soundtrack, only asking for the score to be centered around two central themes: “Requiem” and “Festival.” 

“All I did was go all out and write totally self-complacent music that I wanted to hear, other people be damned,” Yamashiro said in a 1988 interview. “I feel like I’ve been swinging away with a sword with my eyes closed. It feels like I cut clean through something. But I still don’t know if I hit what I was supposed to, or if I just sliced my own leg open.” –“‘Akira’ soundtrack featured music worthy of a visual masterpiece

As of late, I find myself thinking about the Japanese proverb 見ぬが花 (Minu ga Hana), which means, “Not seeing is a flower.” It’s a symbolic reminder that what you imagine can be richer than what you see. Listening to music without a lead vocalist, or in a language that I don’t understand, rewards my imagination more than it does my logic. I can’t think critically of words I’m unable to translate; I can only feel them.

It’s why I find myself playing a lot of Hako Yamasaki, a Japanese singer who released several albums between the 1970s and 1990s. She has a song on YouTube titled “Nostalgia.” I read on a different website that she wrote the record about her hometown. It’s moody and melancholy, but there’s an arresting beauty to it. Her singing will cut through your soul despite the language barrier.

Another Japanese artist I’m fond of is Hiroshima’s composer and producer Meitei and his 2019 album Komachi. It’s an instrumental project I found on Bandcamp after reading a positive review. “Some worlds are rooted in fantasy, while others are more grounded in the annals of history,” wrote Pitchfork staff writer Noah Yoo, a sentence that was followed by a sentiment that made me buy the album blindly:

“Meitei draws heavily from both of these notions, resulting in sonic landscapes that are as indebted to J. Dilla and Steve Reich as they are to East Asian instrumentation and noted Japanese producers like Susumu Yokota.” –Noah Yoo

There’s something about seeing Dilla’s name alongside a new artist that inspires me to press play. Since discovering Komachi, the album has consistently stayed in rotation. There’s a calmness to the 12 tracks that’s like being cleansed by raining holy water. The lack of a vocalist leaves room for your mind to wander. It’s a meditative listen that will have you feeling in touch with the sounds of nature.

“Things fade into obscurity when a populace has no interest,” Meitei wrote, a message that appears on the Bandcamp page for Komachi. With this album, he sought “to revive the soul of Japan that still sleeps in the darkness.” Even without the historical context to judge if he accomplished such a mission, I found the album to be beautifully obscure in a way that’s not popular, but it is transfixing.

During a conversation with a friend this weekend about instrumental music, he said, “You have to find a voice in it.” That search for a voice is where the music and your mind meet. Although I may never step foot in another AMC Theatres again, I learned a valuable lesson from all the movies I attended before COVID-19: No one speaking, is a golden silence. Grab some gold today by listening to music with no lead vocalist; just the sounds of someone’s imagination. It’s not the most fun, but it is rather peaceful.

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