Jimmy Behan: The Echo Garden

Chihei Hatakeyama: Saunter

In a rare instance of serendipity, Chihei Hatakeyama's Saunter and Jimmy Behan's The Echo Garden arrived on the same day—certainly the first time two recordings intent on transcribing the placid outdoors into sonic form have appeared at my door simultaneously.

The title of Chihei Hatakeyama's release refers to activity, specifically the act of strolling at a leisurely pace, but what the recording's six pieces actually focus on are the pastoral and transporting landscapes that the listener imagines him/herself strolling through. How apropos, then, that the Tokyo-based electronic composer conceived Saunter as an auditory interpretation of the monochromatic Chinese painting style known as “Sansui-Ga,” given the style's focus on landscape themes and formal considerations of form and shape. In a number of tracks, the unidentified sound sources constituting Hatakeyama's instrumental palette lose their individuating character when blended into his hazy set-pieces, and consequently the precise locales he might have in mind resist easy identification too, though they're obviously luscious and soothing in nature. We are informed, however, that the seasonal transition from fall to winter is one of the album's thematic threads, and certainly titles such as “Treads Echoing Far Away From Sea Coast” and “Landscape on a Hill” point the listener in clear associative directions. Even in the absence of such detail, it's easy to hear Hatakeyama's flowing masses of tonal streams and shimmering textures as suggestive of peaceful forest and pond settings. It should be mentioned too that the material isn't always so abstract: acoustic and electric guitars inhabit the foreground of “A Stone Inside the Box,” while tiny flickers of guitar echo across a sustained backdrop of rain sounds and footsteps during “Small Pond.”

In like manner, Behan presents ten micro-detailed sound paintings on The Echo Garden. Eschewing sampling and excluding from his sound palette guitars, drums, vocals, and synth pads, the Irish sound sculptor uses piano, sine tones, found sounds, and field recordings to generate intimate evocations of pastoral tranquility. Fragments of early morning light shine through the trees in Behan's sonic environment, warming the isolated pond that's at the setting's center. Tiny speckles of processed sounds glimmer throughout the peaceful settings, sometimes accompanied by a more “natural” sound (such as an electric piano in “Leaving Here”) or a field recording (outdoor sounds in “Across the Rooftops”). While the bell tones in “Rust” invite a gamelan characterization and a central melancholy melody lends “Clock for No Time” a song-like structure, the album's material generally resists genre or stylistic labeling but rather inhabits an abstract space midway between electronic and acoustic sounds, and sound design and compositional form. There's a focus on the detail of a given sound as well as on how the individual elements cohere into a larger whole. Behan's clearly more focused on treating the material as explorations of texture and sound that invite associations without dictating them; interestingly, though, the programmatic dimension established via track titling—a trajectory that finds the hypothetical hiker visiting the site in early morning, communing with it, and eventually departing from it as evening approaches—indicates that the composer isn't interested in wholly severing the ties to referentiality.

July 2009