Yoshio Machida: The Spirit of Beauty (Van Cleef & Arpels Exhibition Soundtracks)

Though the steelpan is prominently heard throughout The Spirit of Beauty, a mini-orchestra of other instruments—piano, sax, cello, mallet percussion, gong, electronics—fleshes out the sound, lending the material a richness that recommends it as something more than a showcase for Yoshio Machida's signature steelpan playing. The project itself is a rather unusual one, as the recording constitutes, in fact, a commissioned soundtrack Machida composed for French jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels to accompany a retrospective exhibition that was presented at the Mori Art Center in Tokyo from October 2009 to January 2010. Hearing the music in the gallery space (where three rooms, used to display “nature,” “elegance/adventure,” and “incarnation” themes, were used), must have been quite something, as the material was presented in the “elegance/adventure” room, for example, using an eight-channel surround sound set-up.

The recording itself, however, has much to recommend it, especially when The Spirit of Beauty can be heard as something akin to Machida's personalized version of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Drums and conventional by-the-bar rhythms are largely absent (“Alhambra” is a rare case where drums establish a fixed tempo), so the settings unfold in a kind of stop-start manner, with tiny, staccato phrases from each of the instruments appearing in polyrhythmic succession and in turn establishing a typically slow tempo for each of the nine pieces; at times, a single instrument, such as organ, sitar, or mallet instrument, will extend itself alongside those accents to establish a more dominant presence. The bright shimmer of mallet instruments resonates through the ample spaces of “The Spirit of Elegance 2,” their reverberations intermittently punctuated by the contrasting timbre of the steelpans, while “The Spirit of Nature” couples bird songs (recorded in Nepal in 1998) with sitar and gamelan gongs. A few solo spots are included: Machida's steelpan playing is featured in “The Spirit of Adventure 2,” and “Incarnation” assumes a rather mournful character when Seigen Tokuzawa's cello playing turns it into a lamentation of sorts. That track's mood is countered by the closing “Farewell” in its presentation of a blues-jazz combo of steelpan, drums, accordion, and acoustic bass. Despite such contrasts in instrumental approach, particular themes repeat from one piece to the next, a compositional move that brings a feeling of unity to Machida's wide-ranging recording.

January 2011