T33.19 – Ken Ikeda “Merge”

CD – 11 tracks

Track list:

1. Merge
2. Lightdark
3. Cityscape
4. No Beginning Nor End
5. Gate
6. Usual Path
7. Yume (Dream)
8. Old Moon In The Arm Of The New Moon
9. Ambiguity
10. Equinoctial Week
11. Merged Into A Circle


Dusted (USA):

Sounds that will ring your ears and jar your mind; audio artist Ken Ikeda sculpts with both harsh primal sonic textures and gracefully delicate compositional tones. Merge is set within gorgeous Digipak packaging, featuring images by Touch photographer Jon Wozencroft, a beautiful photograph of two isolated islands and a park set amidst New York skyscrapers; an island of a different sort. Listening to Merge is like walking into an art gallery and being confronted with delicate sculptures in Spartan surroundings. The long seconds of intermission between tracks are like blank walls that make the works all the more pronounced and stark. Merge actually began as a sound diary Ikeda kept since 1990 that grew to fill over 140 tapes. Ikeda distilled this vast sound library down to a meager 11 tracks. It certainly must have been a difficult process to decide what to discard and what to select. Though Ikeda claims in the liner notes that he wanted to create music in an unconventional way, he never elaborates on the actual process of making his sounds. The majority of Merge is austere with sounds akin to a T.V. test pattern, or when someone whacks a tuning fork. The first few tracks are nothing more than a resonating drone, but a closer listen to subsequent tracks reveals more is going on behind the main sound. While the drones lack any sense of melody after the first track per se, the overtones remain soaked in emotion. Subtle silhouettes and gentle reverb shimmers over the primal sound like shadows until ghostly melodies materialize on tracks like “Gate” and “Usual Path”. The summit track is “Yume (Dream)”, an exemplary ambient piece that is the perfect balance between drone and deliciously eerie melody, an interstellar lullaby that may be too psychedelic for typical relaxation. Subsequent tracks revert to primal drones, but this time with darker overtones. The closing track, “Merged into a circle” ends the way the CD begins – pure television test pattern style noise, devoid of overtone. [I Khider]

Brainwashed (USA):

This music could give a new meaning to the word “accessible.” On one hand, Merge is an album constructed from Ikeda’s 13-year-old “sound diary,” music created to “reflect [his] everyday life,” and, therefore, arguably more approachable than something based, say, around a chapter from Ulysses or the story of a mythical lady buying a stairway to heaven. Music from the diary of a living, breathing human is necessarily less demanding than music involving the imagist pile-ups of fictional or narrative songwriting. True, any piece of music will impose a kind of narrative simply by progressing in real time, and, I will admit that upon first listening to Merge, I found myself unconsciously trying to reconstruct the events which inspired such a cold, often unsettling backdrop. I was soon aware, however, of something beyond simple documentation at work. Any attempt to recover the specific inspirations for Ikeda’s snail-paced sine tone collages would be next to impossible anyway, and luckily this is not the artist’s desire. Instead, Merge attempts a widening of communication lines between musician and audience, an environment in which little stands in the way of my grasping a piece of Ikeda’s day (or night), and making it entirely my own. The sine waves play a big part in this effect. Music produced by pure tone generators avoids the dialogue among sources that occurs with turntable or sample-based music, as well as the idiosyncratic quiver of the guitarist’s hand. While not “accessible” in the traditional sense, pure sound needs no preamble; it carries no baggage and is therefore easier to approach on neutral ground, come what may. Ikeda’s tones ride the surface for most of Merge, guarding against the possibility of giving the music anything less than full attention. They are not forceful, however, and rarely occupy fixed states, oscillating smoothly between the uncomfortable and the inviting at the urge of the personality guiding them. Each song has its own set of droning waveforms blanketing all other activity in a way that is subtle enough to allow the background to filter through, without establishing a set relationship between the two. It’s almost as if the sine tones exist to prime the ear, making it more receptive to the abstract bell patterns and simulated string flourishes behind. The continual flux of tonal relationships, with sine tones becoming at once stage and concealing pocket for the delicate background, creates a listening experience valuable more for its process than for any lasting resonance. The relatively short songs offer concise, inviting trips through atmospheres that feel consistently new, while at the same time very personal. I have listened to Merge dozens of times and still encounter its strange pull in new ways. [Andrew Culler]

Pitchfork Media (USA):

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would spend so much of my time alone in a room listening to sine waves. The sine wave is the cleanest, simplest tone possible– just a pitch, no harmonics, no timbre. It’s the stuff of physics classes and test records, but for most of my life, it was not the stuff of music. All that’s changed. I’ve spent many hours in the last couple years with at least a half-dozen records built primarily from sine waves. Some of these I’ve listened to by choice (Ryoji Ikeda’s +/-) some out of review obligation (So Takahashi’s 30/30); regardless, I’ve put in my time with the pure cycle. I can’t help but notice that most of the sine wave-based music I’ve heard comes from Japan. I’m sure it has something to do with the essentialism of the culture. I’ve seen Zen line drawings and I’ve read haiku, so I’m not surprised that Japanese musicians have an interest in the sine wave. For Merge, his second full-length album, Tokyo’s Ken Ikeda claims to have constructed the record from a “sound diary” he’s kept since 1990. This stockpile of tapes consists of “fragmental pieces of sound reflecting my everyday life over these years.” Only a Japanese musician would have a 12-year sound diary consisting primarily of sine wave tones. “Merge” and “Lightdark”, the first two tracks on the album, are the cleanest; both are essentially simple drones with just a faint hint of pitch and textural movement. They’re nice enough if you go for this sort of thing, but they ultimately serve as a prelude to better material. With “Cityscape”, Ikeda delves into more interesting territory. Like the first two tracks, sine wave drones are the primary focus, but here they serve as what I can only describe as a sheer “curtain” that hangs in front of the primary melody. The pitch-perfect sounds draw your attention, but if you listen more deeply you can hear what is really the guts of the track taking shape in the background. This obscuring effect is even more pronounced on “No Beginning Nor End”. I doubt Ikeda designed this track with my physiology in mind, but “No Beginning Nor End” has a drone somewhere in the 1.5k range, which happens to establish a perfect standing wave in my ear canal. The air in my ear resonates loudly at this pitch no matter what volume I select, which artfully obscures a music-box melody and light drumming happening somewhere in the murky corners of the track. I’m reminded of Luis Buñuel’s observation about film that every object in the frame obscures an object behind it. Arranging material in space is the art of deciding what to obscure and how. Ikeda uses his sine wave tones to arrange sound in a three-dimensional space, so that it lies behind (not just underneath) the primary tone in front. As Merge progresses the character of the album shifts and sound become more complex. The cluster of tones that tumble about randomly in “Gate” have the chime of bells, and “Usual Path” inverts the special relationship of “No Beginning Nor End”, putting the metallic percussion in the foreground and burying the drone. The changes are subtle, but after 11 tracks and 55 minutes, you do feel like you’ve been on a journey, even if you haven’t traveled terribly far. Twenty feet is a long way if you’re a snail. (Who said that? Basho?) In any event, listen to Merge a few times and I’m sure you’ll find a koan in there somewhere. It’s that kind of music. [Mark Richardson]

AllMusicGuide (USA):

Ken Ikeda’s second album builds on the strengths of his first (Tzuki [Moon]) to achieve a superior result. Once more the sound palette consists mostly of backward sine tones, like sounds emanating from a ghostly glass organ. But this time melodies are severely slowed down and fleshed out to allow the mind to focus on the intersecting soundwaves. The music is still prettier (by common understanding) and listener-friendly (all pieces fall within the comfortable four-to-five-minute range) than most of what you can find in experimental electronica, but it takes the listener on a more abstract journey, one that also puts more strain on the ear when experienced at high volume. Some of those tones seem to enter your ear and expand inside your head, filling it up and applying pressure from the inside out. Ikeda experiments with dynamics and depth, pushing some mid-range tones up front in order to free some room in the back for parallel developments that are best described as “contrapuntal.” The vintage German-school feel is still strong, but now brings to mind maverick electronicians like Conrad Schnitzler and Asmus Tietchens (his albums from the early ’80s). “Cityscape,” sweet and quiet, and “Gate,” chiming delicately, are the gems, while the most testing listen comes from the aptly titled “Ambiguity.” In fact, the word suitably describes the whole album since its gentleness can be misleading – for the better. [François Couture]

The Wire (UK):

Ken Ikeda’s first album, Tzuki, was notable for its mesmerising simplicity. If anything, Merge is purer and more bewitching still. Although Ikeda spends most of his time on applied music – for video soundtracks, sound installations and art exhibitions – his stand alone recordings succeed unsupported by any visual elements. The component parts of Merge were sourced from a ‘sound diary’ that Ikeda started to keep in 1990, which he describes as “Over 140 tapes of improvisational, fragmental pieces of sound reflecting my everyday life over these years”. From this forbidding morass, Ikeda has mined the most brilliant resonant tones. Merge is a shimmering, stately cascade of high frequency oscillations whose quiet insistence and rich overtones draw the attentive listener irrevocably onwards. [Chris Sharp]

Stylus Magazine (USA):

There’s something oddly cleansing about pure sound. The sensation of being gently caressed by a single tone is akin to being wrapped nude in a warming blanket for the first time as a very young child. It’s soothing, comforting, welcoming. That’s why Ken Ikeda’s Merge, somewhat improbably, feels like such a human, personal record despite consisting of nothing but high-pitched electronic tones produced by manipulating recordings from Ikeda’s “sound diary.” Though it’s hardly obvious — at least initially — in the surface distance that this music naturally exudes, Ikeda’s choice of sound sources from his own life seems to deeply affect and guide his compositions. The subtle ways in which these minimal sounds interact and overlay each other betray an intimacy and care as touching as a mother’s kiss or a remembered childhood friend. It’s strange, perhaps, that such resolutely abstract music should conjure such concrete and human images, but the fact is that it does, even independently of the CD sleeve’s blue-toned photos and Ikeda’s brief statement of purpose. The artist conjures resonant beauty from the starkest of sounds. The entire album is dominated by a wistful, sad tone that captures nostalgia more effectively than a hundred more conventional songs on the same subject ever could. Ikeda is in clear control over his style, and he knows that within his intentionally limited boundaries he can very effectively paint impressionistic, moody sketches that have a lyrical grace totally separate from their alienating sounds.
By combining sweeping majesty with moments of close-up introspection, the music takes on a filmic grandeur. It’s the soundtrack to a movie of self-discovery that’s entirely aural, the images summoned up subconsciously from the blackness of memory. “Gate,” in particular, is strikingly cinematic, with its slow-paced icy plunkings accented by deeper rumblings and faint melodic fragments; it sounds like wind chimes broken apart and ringing softly as they descend into an abyss. Within each track, Ikeda chooses a set of sounds and sticks with it. Developments inside any particular song occur slowly and organically, though all 11 tracks hover around the four-minute mark so that the songs never extend beyond what’s needed to set the mood. Ikeda’s hand in this always seems surprisingly distant — the music feels natural and flows beautifully despite its very unnatural sound — but his heart is at the center of each piece. And once one gets past the electronic glimmer of Merge’s sounds, this is very traditional music, tied closely to melody and structure. “Yume (dream)” is like a dream symphony, the string section filtered through sleep’s porous mask so that the sounds are cottony and supple, full of melodic depth and complexity. The result, for those willing to accept Ikeda’s tones as simply a different kind of notes, is a rather conventionally beautiful work that summons surprisingly strong emotions with its deceivingly simple artifice. [Ed Howard]

de:bug (Germany):

Merge bringt Ausschnitte aus Ikedas sound-Tagebuch, das er seit 1990 auf unzähligen Tapes festhält. Wir werden aber keineswegs mit den tiefen Leidenschaften und Geheimnissen des Musikers vertraut gemacht, sondern durch nicht darstellbare Ortschaften und über minimale Melodiebögen getragen, denen auf den insgesamt elf Tracks dennoch eine fast unheimliche Intimität anhaftet. Oft ist ein einzelner, hoher Ton Ausgangspunkt. Dieser entwickelt durch seine unüberhörbare Präsenz nicht annähernd eine verständliche, lineare Narrativität und konfrontiert mit mit gehörigem Übermaß an Möglichkeiten, in diese wunderschönen sounds konkrete Bedeutung hineinzuinterpretieren. Das entpuppt sich letztendlich sogar als vielleicht zu große Herausforderung an unsere Vorstellungskraft. www.touch33.net [ed *****]

VITAL (Netherlands):

Since this is Ken Ikeda’s second album for Touch, following ‘Tzuki’ (see Vital Weekly 256), I will once more state that he is not related to Ryoji Ikeda, who happens to be also on Touch. Apperentely this new CD is based on Ikeda’s own library of sound diaries which he has been making since 1990. How he treats the sounds he doesn’t tell, but in some Buddist way he informs us about the absence of hierarchy among the sounds and that they are presented as they are. The CD opens with ‘Meian (Contrast)’ and is a piece of heavy loaded sine waves, which didn’t turn me on really. But as the album unfolds, Ikeda treats more common ambient grounds. In ‘Gate’ for instance has bell like sounds over a nice tapestry of synthesized sounds. Ikeda presents us with eleven tracks, which have a moderate length each. Each time I play this CD, I am wondering if that’s a good or a bad thing. Tracks are not really long means more variation, but it also means that pieces can be too short to develop them in a good way and I think with ambient music pieces should develop in some way and time is needed. Certainly since not every idea on this CD is strong – ‘Usual Path’ for instance is a poor brother here – I have mixed feelings about it. Nice ideas but not overal strongely worked out, this is a nice but very average CD. (FdW)

Phosphor (web):

Three years after the debut album Tzuki (Moon) on Touch, reminding of early Durutti Column and Brian Eno, Ken Ikeda releases the follow-up Merge. This new album is quite different from the debut. Based upon the sound diary Ikeda kept since 1990, he edited and transformed sound sources into a fictional composition independent of any particular time and place. That makes Merge a difficult and abstract listening experience. High-pitched and at the same time fine-tuned sounds move through space like long tin cords. Very minimal sounds, hardly changing pitch, fading into eternity. Only some sad electronic strings take care of the variation. The music drifts by as if the world does not turn and remains unchanged, creating a sort of absolute nothingness. The abstractness of Ken Ikeda’s work is at the same time the purity and clearness of his compositions. How this transfers to everyday life, as the composer writes in the cover of the CD is not clear. One might have to get to know Ken Ikeda to find out.

Urban Mag (Belgium):

De Japanse artiest en muzikant Ken Ikeda heeft niks te zien met die andere bekende Japanner Ryoji Ikeda. Ze dragen dezelfde familienaam en ze brengen allebei muziek uit op het Britse Touch. Muzikaal gezien hebben ze weinig met elkaar gemeen. Ryoji verkent de grenzen van de minimal techno. Ken produceert eveneens een minimalistisch maar rijk en kristalhelder geluid: improvisaties die doen denken aan de vroege ambient van Brian Eno en aan klankschalen in Boeddhistische tempels met hun terugkerende cirkelmotieven en levenscycli. Merge is na Tzuki het tweede album dat Ken Ikeda uitbrengt op Touch. Het album bevat 11 statische nummers met sprekende titels als ëLightdarkí en ëAmbiguityí, waarin nauwelijks iets verandert, tenzij de spreekwoordelijke lichtinval en de afwisseling van fluctuerende hoge en lage sinustonen. Bloedmooie boel hoor maar tevens bloedeloos en vrij saai! [Peter Wullen]

Bad Alchemy (Germany):

Während KEN IKEDAs Touch-Debut “Tzuki [Moon]” (-> BA 37) allein wegen der Namensverwandtschaft Assoziationen zu Ryoji Ikeda auslöste, rücken bei Merge (Touch, T33.19) auch seine klaren, kristallinen Frequenzmodulationen näher an dessen Präzisionsästhetik heran. “Merge” lässt monochrome Klangfarben als stehende Wellen den Raum füllen. Das Geflirr von Obertönen korrespondiert mit Wozencrofts Fotos von Inselkuppen, die im Blau verschwimmen und eines New Yorker Wolkenkratzers, dessen Oberkante im Dunst unscharf wird. Die prägnanten, fast schmerzhaften Dröhnwellen drücken auf die Trommelfelle, umspielt von glockenspielartigem Klingklang. Ikeda lässt die einzelnen Töne blühen, wuchern, sich ineinander entfalten. Das hat was von versonnen-verträumten Orgelmeditationen, von Dreamscapes, die blasig morphen, etwas, wobei man, feinstofflicher gestimmt, unwillkürlich die Augen schließt. Eine Galaxie von Schwebklängen, die langsam umeinander kreisen und sich dabei um die eigene Achse drehen, gleichzeitig hermetisch-spirituell und selbstverständlich.

Indieprog (France):

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Pour certains, cet album de Ken Ikeda ne sera pas plus que cela. Une série de variations autour de larsens électroniques, de modulations de fréquence autour d’une seule note et d’autant plus, si vous êtes un auditeur peu patient ayant besoin d’entrer immédiatement dans le vif du sujet. De longues plages à l’atmosphère de glace sur lesquelles viennent tomber les gouttes trop longtemps en attente sur des stalactites improbables. Tout se joue derrière et demande une attention toute particulière pour en saisir les nuances. Pourtant au fil de ces pièces sonores se dessinent des choses aux contours plus définis voire plus poétiques comme sur Yume (dream), dont les blips d’electronica se laissent apporter par la mer, comme des perles échappées de leur coquille protectrice… Mais la vague de sons statiques reprend possession de son environnement et recouvre tout paysage de glace laissant alors le vent frotté à cet univers de cristal… Avec cet album Ken Ikeda poursuit un travail de recherche commencé au début des années 1990, sorte de journal sonore, tout en sérénité mais qui n’accrochera sans doute pas immédiatement l’oreille du novice, car ardu. Pour ceux qui dépasseront leurs à priori, la rencontre en vaudra la peine. [wqw…]