Yesterday I thought I’d punch Susumu Yokota’s name into frugal Google to see if there were any new albums I didn’t know about. I found out he died last March. It came as a bit of a shock. I had no idea he wasn’t long for this world.
This guy was one of my favourite living electronic artists. He was always a shadowy presence. Information about his life was tough to unearth. Even now, I’m not sure you can find out what the actual cause of death was beyond “a long battle with illness”. He was only 54.
I do know a bit about the music. If you’re into ambient music and IDM (is that still a thing?), the albums Sakura, Grinning Cat, and Laputa get my highest recommendations. The last of these might be one of the least accessible and most difficult entries to find in a vast discography that touched on many different sounds and aliases, and it isn’t drenched in the same pure beauty something like Sakura is (deservedly held up as a high watermark in his catalogue), but I think it’s some of his best and most compelling work.
While his taste in samples was always fantastic (check out what he does to Joni Mitchell, Harold Budd, and Gary Burton/Chick Corea on Sakura), on Laputa it becomes much more difficult to trace most of his sources. It sounds more like he’s drawing from — and creating — a whole new sonic world. It’s an album you can get lost in. You hear new things each time you listen. It took me years to pick up on a few recurring organic sounds sharing space with all the sounds not so easy to describe — bits of great bluesy Hammond organ and clean electric guitar.
“Laputa” is an imagined place from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a flying rock of an island “where impractical projects [are] pursued and practical projects neglected”. I doubt that association was an accident.
Some of the sound collage ideas he comes up with here don’t make much sense on paper. And yet they work, and in some strange way they get your head.
Take this track. It’s a dense sculpture of a song, shards of melody flitting in and out, most of them coming from string swells and reverb-soaked saxophone runs. The closest thing to percussion, and the sound that pulls everything together so you can hear how all the interlocking parts make sense, is a sampled female voice repeating what sounds like, “The prime minister,” fragmented just past the point of intelligibility by the tremolo circuit of a guitar amplifier.
The song at the top of this post is from Sakura. It’s a great example of the knack Yokota had for creating wordless, often beat-less music full of feeling. These are not ten-minute workouts that lull you into a state of near-hypnosis. They’re vivid little sound dreams that poke you in the heart and then fade away, leaving you equal parts frustrated that they’re gone so soon and grateful you got to experience them at all.