Susumu Yokota

Susumu Yokota: music from a floating world

My encounter with Susumu Yokota occurred during one of the first confinements, in front of The Undoing, a detective series set against a domino-schizo backdrop. Covid had forced me into this immobility - at least, that was my excuse for watching this umpteenth story about a polished Upper East Side, rotting at the core - until the episode ended with Susumu Yokota's "Song of a Sleeping Forest". Immediately, the song gave me a feeling of relief and serene pleasure. Rid of any sense of guilt, all I had to do was follow its light but driving percussion, its careful sequence of romantic passages, its lyrical strings, its dreamy harp and its ethereal vocal loops straight out of a forest. As for the undergrowth, I would later discover that it was a sample of the Nutcracker's "Pas de deux". It was through the great doors of Netflix and classical music that I entered Susumu Yokota's work with my big hooves.

Frankfurt Tokio Connection, "Luminescent Avatar" Vol 1, Harthouse 1993 &.
Yokota, "Tune for a replicant" The Frankfurt-Tokyo Connection, Harthouse 1993

We don't know much about Susumu Yokota's life, except that he was born in 1960 in Tayoma, a town on the Sea of Japan 300 km from Tokyo, and died very young at 55. For context, Japan's reconstruction after the Second World War was accompanied by solid economic growth, leading to the boom of the 1990s. After a period of occupation and a new wave of isolation of the country (ruled for over 200 years by an isolationist policy), trade and exchange with the outside world also resumed. In Europe, meanwhile, the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited East and West Germany, and thousands of East Germans discovered the existence of dance music. As the dictatorship of their musical tastes by the state came to an end, Susumu Yokota began his career, having been spotted by the fathers of Frankfurt's Trance, Sven Väth and Dr Motte.

He released his first records on Harthouse, the label co-founded by Sven Väth in Frankfurt in 1992, from which the Hardtrance scene was born and one of the points of gravity in the development of the Trance movement in Europe, alongside other German labels such as MFS and Space Teddy. In the book Trance by Leonhard Hieronymi, a quote from Sven Väth (taken from a conversation with Rainald Goetz) explains that with the Harthouse label, it was a matter of "reclaiming (...) a comic cult status that could only be reclaimed on the terrain of the music itself; through a radical redefinition of what was, two years ago, a truly sensational and plausible sound: Hardtrance." 

This redefinition of the early Trance sounds as "such as "What time is Love, Pure Trance 1" by KLFemphasized the bass and include more vocals, melodic chords that take on an acid tone, reverb and a bunch of other effects that add a spacy, dreamy effect, as in Arpegiattors, with X-Plain the Un-xPLAIN in 1992.

With tracks like "Luminescent Avatar" and "Tune for a Replicant", Susumu Yokota takes things to another level, with the atmosphere taking over completely. The bass continues to thump hard, but in "Luminescent Avatar" it doesn't enter the track until after a long, religious introduction, or is surpassed by typical Acid House melodic sequences that bring a "Blob" or radioactive monster feel to the whole (the "comic cult" intended by Sven Väth?). 

The boundary between what could be a note and a voice is blurred, and the echoes of the opening bars of "Luminescent Avatar" sound like metallic rales from another galaxy. Oddly enough, I find "Tune for a Replicant" to be a track that's best listened to in a field, eyes closed on a midsummer's day. There are so many hooks and possible paths to follow that you're quickly carried away by your imagination and invited to meditate. With a concrete theme, technology, he lets us hear mouse-like squeaks; it's only a short step from nature to avatar creation. 

Thanks to intergalactic sounds, techno is penetrating more tenuous paths. And it's here, in these interstices, that are beginning to take into consideration the more chill scenes necessary for dancers' respite, that the rave is in full swing, with Susumu Yokota in the vanguard.

Susumu Yokota "Saboten" Acid Mt Fuji, Sublime Records 1994

Leonhard Hieronymi describes Trance (Trance) as "the intermediate realm between wakefulness and sleep". With "Saboten", it's as if Susumu Yokota had come to pick us up at the foot of the bed to draw us into the dance, thanks to melodic loops that undulate, repeat themselves and to which the change of envelope brings an effect of alternating density and rarefaction that creates something like bewitchment. 

One track on the Acid Mt Fuji album sounds particularly rave, "Oponchi", with its scratchy acid bass lines, while the rest is very nature-based, with bird sounds and tracks that borrow their titles from plants such as "Zenmai" and "Saboten", or folk figures associated with legendary myths such as "Tanuki", an animal that can change shape. 

Acid Mount Fuji lends itself more to the psychedelic experience, than to a trip on acid house; what I love about "Saboten" is its little rebellious side, like a clever spirit coming to visit us after too much partying to ask "And now what are you going to do with your life?".

Ebi, "Kai", Zen, Space Teddy Records 1994

In the brochure for the Space Teddy Collection album, from which "Kai" is taken and which reissues in a compilation the tracks released on Space Teddy Records under the pseudonym Ebi, Uwe Reineke, co-founder of the label with Dr Motte, explains that these were the first tracks they had received from a Japanese artist, and that they had listened to them over and over again, stuck on this "new stage in Techno music". 

Several journalists have spoken of a problematic idealization of Japanese music, like Clive Bell in this article on Red Bull Music Academy about improvised music in Japan, or Alan Cummings for The Wire about the same scene

This approach is said to stem in part from a feeling of strangeness for a culture that is far away and therefore "necessarily different", combined with a cultural appropriation that would have the effect of reducing the reading grid of this culture to what Western narratives have recuperated from it (zenitude, calm, sensitivity, better taste). 

I think I, too, had a rather "fan-esque" attitude towards Yokota. I tried to give him pride of place in the mixes I made, never pronouncing his name without following it up with a bewildered shake to signal my inability to verbalize my adoration. I pampered him like that little mirror notebook I hid at the bottom of a drawer when I was 10. Reserving my listening to selected moments, preferring ceremony, almost making it a shamanic experience.

The track "Kai" sees Susumu Yokota adopt the pseudonym Ebi, which means "shrimp" in Japanese. He explained that the animal would be his representation of techno-house music: tail for bass drum, legs for cymbals, tentacles for claps and snare drum.

This pictorial representation encourages the interpretation of the bewitchment or shamanic séance in which spirits are invoked and transmit their perspective through the shaman or not. This is where the boundaries between dream and everyday, distant and near, become blurred. Music serves as a bridge between worlds. The title track opens with a cycle of ethereal voices, elements dear to the artist, followed by a scaffolding of percussion and melodic loops that breathe at several speeds. As if several voices were at the source of the music. 

Ringo, Mitsuba, Plantation, Sublime Records 1995

Stevia, Paint it, Fruits of the room, New Stage Records 1996

In these two tracks, Susumu Yokota integrates new elements that make his soundscape more joyful.

"Mitsuba" begins with a technoid staccato, as if the notes had been hit in flight by an electric shock. The festive claps are supported by marimbas, giving the whole a more soulful feel and reminding us a little of Frankie Knuckles' "The Whistle Song".
"Paint it" also takes an explosive turn, with staccato metallic chords and jungle breakbeats echoing the turn towards Drum'n'Bass and Dubstep that the rave sound is taking in the UK. Slowed down to a light house BPM and sprinkled with melodic droplets, the percussion leads us into a house-funky atmosphere that reminds me of tracks released in the early 2010s, notably on the album "Reality Testing"or with the title " Hotboys"by Stephen Gurley. 

In one of his rare interviews, given in 2002 to the Cyclic Defrost website, Susumu Yokota spoke of his "eternal goal" of "expressing ki-do-ai-raku (the four emotions: joy, anger, sadness and happiness) through music". He added: "Fear, rage and ugliness are always hidden behind beauty (...) I'd like to express even a person's hidden emotions with reality." 

More than the palette of emotions, it's the link between different zones that I think fascinates me: nature and machine, the marvellous and the dark, past and future, humans and animals. Susumu Yokota's music transcribes this ever-changing side of things, like the Japanese prints known as Ukiyo-e, which means "images of the floating world". I have to say that the autumn landscape fits in well with this idea.

Translated into English by DeepL with TranslatePress