Midori Takada-Through The Looking Glass (1983, RCA//2017 reissue, WRWTFWW and Palto Flats)
I first found Through The Looking Glass, a cult favorite release by criminally underrated Japanese experimental composer Midori Takada, while (surprise, surprise) looking at a Pitchfork list. I feel like a consistent, slightly embarrassing theme has arisen when talking about how I find older music, but I’ll gladly own the hipster douchebag identity in this case.
Another theme of my music fandom is my reliance on album art to find new stuff, and this case was, again, no different. The cover of Through The Looking Glass (painted by Yoko Ochida) features the surreal image of a nude woman astride a massive bunny/squirrel/sheep/horse creature, situated under a tropical, pink fruit-bearing tree in a forest clearing. One can’t simply see a picture like this and not listen to the associated album. I’m a casual fan of ambient music, and Takada’s album was a nice, slightly more organic change from my usual dose of Brian Eno. It’s a disservice to classify the album solely as ambient, as it also draws from traditional Japanese and African music. Takada herself has said that she wanted to break from the outwardly-focused, aggressive energy of the Western classical music that she played earlier in her career with the Berlin RIAS Symphonie Orchestra and create something more meditative and inward looking. Whatever you call Takada’s style, this is a singular album, and it’s become something I can dive into at work to soothe the spiritual pain of mindless data entry.
The concept of the trompe l’oeil is central to Through The Looking Glass. For one thing, it’s the title of the album’s third and shortest song, which, interestingly, was the most forgettable to me the first time I heard it. More importantly, the term highlights the recording process for and the effect of the album as a whole. A trompe l’oeil is an illusion used in the visual arts that is designed to create the impression of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane. For example: when you see a viral post online about some crazy sidewalk drawing that makes it look like passersby are about to fall into a shark pit, that’s a trompe l’oeil. It’s a good descriptor for the way this album sounds, as it truly is an immersive listening experience, even when being conveyed via my crappy earbuds.
The way Takada pulled this sonic wizardry off was by precisely measuring out the distance between each instrument and microphone, mimicking the three dimensional space of the recording space so that the structure was embedded in the audio itself. The two-day session was apparently a painstaking and sometimes frustrating process, with Takada later admitting that even the engineer working with her didn’t understand the effect she was going for. Luckily, she herself knew what she was doing, and her efforts resulted in an album that lends itself to deep, contemplative listening.
“Mr. Henri Rousseau’s Dream” is the best example of the album’s ability to transport you to distant realms outside of your own body. Aptly named in honor of the 19th century French post-impressionist painter, a man who painted naïve, slightly surreal rainforest scenes, the twelve-minute epic submerges the listener in a deep pool of drifting recorder and marimba, punctuated by mystical chimes and ocarina trills that mimic the sound of tropical birds flitting overhead.
While listening, you legitimately feel like you’re gliding through or above the forest pictured on the cover of the album, and the twelve minutes seem to pass in a heartbeat. This is my personal favorite on the record; it’s completely unlike anything I’ve heard before in its ability to conjure rich atmosphere almost out of thin air.
The two other epics on Through The Looking Glass more closely resemble some of the prominent minimalist and avant-classical artists operating at the time. The utterly hypnotic “Crossing,” with a runtime of nearly 9 minutes, consists of endless layers of percolating marimba, subtly shifting both rhythmically and melodically as the song progresses, creating a kind of magic eye for the ears. Picture Terry Reilly’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” gone acoustic. There’s a powerful moment about 5:30 into the song in which a more defined riff emerges from the rest like a riptide beneath the surface of a gentle river; it never fails to induce chills. “Catastrophe Σ,” the fifteen minute album closer, rides menacing reed organ swells and clanging bells to a thunderous, drawn-out, panic-inducing crescendo of African-inspired polyrhythmic percussion. It sounds like a train crash happening in slow motion, but in the best way possible, like Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” if one of the trains were to derail midway through.
Although comparable to Reich and Reilly in some ways, Through The Looking Glass is ultimately hard to place. I must admit that I had a difficult time writing about this one, mostly because I find the songs on this album so elusive and meditative. Takada says in the liner notes included along with the reissue that the music is “system-based” and that she tried to “disengage it from any self-expression.” To go even deeper, she gave the album its title because she wanted the music to reflect not the self that she saw when she looked in the mirror, but her “true self that was beyond the reflection.” Thus, in her mind, the music essentially formed itself in some deep, unconscious space, and she was simply its conduit into the world.
I can see what Takada means, but I believe that there is a small wink to the listener buried within the aforementioned “Trompe L’oeil,” which initially seems like a throw-in when compared to the three leviathans surrounding it. The song’s breathy whistles actually result from Takada blowing into a series of glass Coke bottles, and to hear that familiar sound (which I’m sure almost everyone has generated on his/her own at some point, just for a laugh) on such a refined and mysterious album may be its most surreal moment of all. In my opinion, this detail represents Takada’s invitation to the listener, a slight, but playful, beckoning from beyond the surface of the mirror.
I recommend that anyone interested in a unique musical experience join her on the other side.